Structure, Re-structure, Anti-structure, Missionary Society? Re-imagining the Episcopal Church

Quite simply, the Episcopal Church is floundering (I know the conservatives have been saying that for years). First we had the dust-up over the UTO. Then, earlier this week, we learned that the Episcopal Church will from now on be known as “The Missionary Society” (and the snark was unleashed in the twitter-verse). Most recently, the Task Force on Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church issued an interim report.

It’s pretty clear from all this that “The Leadership” hasn’t a clue what it’s doing. To mishandle the UTO situation so badly suggests a fundamental misreading of the Church (it’s recently aborted advertising campaign and new name are additional examples). The problem is structural, of course–the relationship among the various entities in the Church aren’t clear (Presiding Bishop, General Convention, Executive Council, churchwide staff). Tobias Haller has some helpful background on this. He also asks an important question:

one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn’t the best idea.

In fact, that seems to be what the task force seems to be proposing:

They also begin to suggest the specific roles that the Episcopal churchwide organization might play in cultivating and supporting the life of the church of the 21st century. Its role might shift from a primarily corporate or regulatory structure as we have had in the past, to a network, fostering collaboration and shared identity across Episcopalians and across different entities in the church. Imagine a churchwide structure that “crowd sources” various mission initiatives among the membership rather than legislating and funding them through a centralized budget and bureaucracy.

But isn’t the UTO basically a late-nineteenth century version of crowd sourcing?

If this re-structuring is to succeed, it has to deal with the contradictions and confusion at the very heart of the beast. Identity is important, of course, but clarifying and streamlining the maze of structure described by Haller and Mark Harris is the central issue. Harris has done a good job of explaining the underlying issues in the UTO controversy,  the “branding” silliness, and and the leadership crisis at the top.

Meanwhile, the House of Bishops is meeting in Nashville and yesterday they, too, talked about re-structuring, with conversations around the questions raised by the TREC interim report, and a “draft primer” on Episcopal ecclesiology.  There’s an update here.

As I reflect on all this, I think the bishops are pointing a way forward out of this mess. We need to begin with the church–ecclesiology. Let’s get clear on what we understand the Church in our particular context as Episcopalians to be; then create bodies that reflect this understanding and can carry forward our mission. And if that means abandoning structures like the Presiding Bishop, a churchwide staff, even General Convention, that may have served us well in the past, so be it.

It’s not just that we’re beholden to past structures. We’re beholden to past conceptions of what the church is and how it should incarnate itself in the world. We’re also too dependent on governmental, corporate, and legal frameworks that try to shoehorn the church into structures they can understand, regulate, and co-opt.

The title of this blog post alludes to work by Victor Turner, the twentieth century anthropologist and theorist of ritual. As a historian of Christianity, one of my interests was the interplay between central or institutional authority and local and individual expression of faith. There has always been a tension between forces of institutionalization and centralization on the one hand, and the local and individual, between the letter and the spirit, or between office and charism.

Pope Francis alluded to this very tension in his interview this week when he recast the notion of “thinking with the church” away from the hierarchy toward the whole people of God. What he had to say addresses our particular context as well. Although Episcopalians don’t use that image at all, or accept the notion of the magisterium, we are struggling with something similar: the institutional church’s natural tendencies to centralize, bureaucratize, and dominate over against the diversity of local experience.

Who speaks for the church? Is it the structures, or is it the whole people of God? As we move forward, I hope all of us continue to ask this question



Update on the Episcopal Church in South Carolina

I had some trouble figuring out what to title this post, since everything, including what to call the various parties involved in the dispute, is being contested.


At least I’m not being as tendentious as the the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs, which entitled its press release today “Presiding Bishop accepts Lawrence’s renunciation.” It’s not at all clear to me that what Bishop Lawrence did or said in his convention address of November 17 constitutes renunciation of his ordination vows. The Episcopal Cafe story is here.

The article goes on to say that the PB’s actions were fully supported by members of her Council of Advice.

I grant that this is a difficult situation but I fail to see what is being accomplished in these actions or in earlier ones, such as the PB’s “pastoral letter” that read more like a legal document than attempt to listen, mend fences, or pray for reconciliation.

Tobias Haller wonders whether the PB is jumping the gun. He points out that the canons require a written declaration of renunciation:

While I believe that Mark Lawrence has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, I do not think he has renounced his ministry, at least in the manner laid out by Canon III.12.7, which requires a written declaration to the Presiding Bishop expressing a “desire to be removed.”

If there is a way forward, or a Christ-like presence in this controversy, it seems to me the statements of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina are bearing witness to Christ’s reconciling love. Here’s a resolution passed by that Diocese’s Standing Committee on the situation: SC Ltr Res

Bishop Waldo wrote a pastoral letter. In it he writes:

Looking to the future, we do not know how things will unfold across the state. We do not know what individuals and congregations within the Diocese of South Carolina will do. We do not know how the leadership of The Episcopal Church will proceed.

We do know that friendships and relationships across the state will persist. I do know that I will stay in contact with my brother, Mark Lawrence, and those within this diocese who have appreciated and agreed with his theological perspective. I will also stay in contact and dialogue with those who have felt that The Episcopal Church has moved courageously in its theological developments. And, I offer my support to those within the Diocese of South Carolina who wish remain within The Episcopal Church. Both Bishop Mark Lawrence and Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori are aware of my offer.

My deepest hope is that in the long-term we, in our brokenness, will steadfastly hold on to the possibility of reconciliation and restoration, even if it takes us a generation. This is precisely the kind of dialogue to which our diocesan strategic visioning process calls us. I will continue to foster such dialogue and to be the bishop of all in this diocese, regardless of where members are on the theological or political continuum.

Therefore we must continue to pray for those whom we love and for those whom we struggle to love, whether they live within or beyond this diocese.

The complete text is here: Advent 2012 – for posting


Communion without (or before) Baptism–Oh, No! Not Again!

News came out this week that the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon will present the following resolution to General Convention:

The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Oregon is forwarding an Open Table resolution to General Convention that would change the rubrics and practice of The Book of Common Prayer to invite all to Holy Communion, “regardless of age, denomination or baptism.”

The Lead has a story, and 208 comments (as of today).

Obviously it’s something that arouses passion on all sides.

For newcomers to the issue, some parishes (including Grace in past years) practiced some form of “open communion,” allowing anyone to partake in communion, whether or not they were baptized. The arguments in favor of such practice usually focus on concepts like “radical hospitality,” and the example of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners.

It’s an issue that’s been around the church for some time. I remember eight or ten years ago when  student in one of my classes of people preparing for the diaconate asked me about it. She was conservative theologically and outspoken in her disapproval of the ordination of LGBT persons or same-sex blessings. She posed the question as if implying that “see what happens when you admit progressive theology?” Just as the sexuality debate had pushed all of her buttons, so too did this issue.

I was taken aback by the question at the time. I am a historian after all, and I know well the historical practice. In the early church, unbaptized people were not allowed to witness the Eucharist, let alone partake in it, and it’s obvious from I Corinthians 11 and other NT passages that early Christian practice of the Eucharist was exclusive.

But it wasn’t just the Early Church. Throughout the history of Christianity, there has been a practice of excluding people from the Eucharist–notorious sinners, for example. The exhortation to communion in the BCP reads:

Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food.

The concern here is not just about sins we have committed against God, but ways in which we have harmed our neighbors, and also, whether or not we have been reconciled to them. And the advice is, don’t take communion if you haven’t been reconciled.

Communion is not a right. It’s not even a privilege. It’s a gift we are given and in which we are invited to share. Many of us like to say something like “It is not our table; it is the Lord’s, when inviting visitors to share in our Eucharistic fellowship. And so it is. But if it’s the Lord’s table we should approach it in humility and awe and recognize that the body that shares the bread and wine is a body made up of people who have died with Christ in baptism and have been raised to newness of life.

Tobias Haller has this to say:

The church is radically inclusive and baptism is the means by which people are included. Communion is the celebration of that inclusion, not its means.

Crusty Old Dean also weighs in:

One is that while something may be lawful, does it build up? Yeah, theoretically, we could change the canons and permit this. But will it really build up the church? Without broader commitment to formation, mission, and ministry, I don’t see how it would. If we give someone communion and then never talk to them at coffee hour and don’t empower them in their baptismal ministry, we will have accomplished nothing.

I’d like to make two observations, both of them made by others more eloquently. First, this is an example of “we haven’t done the theology yet.” That has been the cry of those opposed to full inclusion of LGBTs and same-sex blessings, and whether or not it’s true in that case, it’s certainly true in this one. The desire for offering communion to the unbaptized comes from a desire to be open and welcoming and hospitable, but at what cost? What is the underlying theology of the Eucharist or ecclesiology that would admit such a practice, especially when it contradicts 2000 years of doctrine and practice? There have to be sound and convincing arguments in order to make the case, not just to the Episcopal Church, but to the wider Anglican Communion and to our ecumenical partners.

Second, it always seems to me when something like this comes up that it reflects certain underlying attitudes in those proposing it. Is there something like progressive “oneupmanship” at work–an attempt to demonstrate one’s progressive theological bona fides to other Episcopalians and to other religious groups? And coming as it does in the midst of conflict within the Anglican Communion, and a promised debate over liturgies for same sex blessings, I’m tempted to think that the sponsors and supporters of the resolution are looking for one more battle to separate the sheep from the goats, the “real” progressives from the rest of us.

Whither Communion?

In the wake of a majority of dioceses of the Church of England voting against the proposed Anglican Covenant, it’s appropriate to ask what this portends for the future of the Anglican Communion. In fact, it’s not clear what the fallout from diocesan voting will be. At the very least, it means that the Anglican Covenant cannot come before this particular General Synod. In other words, a best-case scenario would put enactment of the Covenant down the road at least five years. In the meantime, how would an approved Covenant work if the Archbishop of Canterbury were head of a national church in which it isn’t valid?

But these matters are for others to ponder. There’s a bigger question on the table, one the Anglican Covenant was meant to answer: “What sort of thing is the Anglican Communion?” Or to put it in slightly stronger theological terms: “What is the nature of our communion or unity?” The AC’s answer was to strengthen the centralizing tendencies in communion and to create institutions and means for creating boundaries and discipline. It is in the nature of human communities that there is a strong tendency toward centralization. There is also an almost impossible to avoid temptation to strengthen community by defining the limits of that community (both in terms of drawing clear boundaries and excluding dissidents or nonconformists). The Anglican Covenant, no matter how much some might argue the contrary, was an attempt to draw such boundaries and exclude dissent.

Are there other models for unity available? Tobias Haller cites one such possibility, located in the High Priestly prayer of John 17 “so that they may be one as we are one.”

As Haller points out, unity here is posited not in terms of some sort of agreement or covenant, but in the nature of God: the Church is one because God the Father and God the Son are one. Haller sees this as an ontological reality. God is by nature communal and relational–that’s what the Trinity is all about.

The fact of the matter, however, is that relationships of this sort are relatively easy to support theologically; they are rather more difficult to incarnate. Christianity has struggled from the very beginning with unity and difference. Indeed, the Gospel of John itself bears eloquent witness to early Christian difference and conflict.

Many of those rejoicing over the Covenant’s apparent defeat produce slogans like: “Communion, yes; covenant, no,” or express sentiments like “Now, let’s get back to deepening Anglican unity through bonds of affection and missional zeal” (as Bishop Chris Epting tweeted this morning). It’s not clear to me what the Anglican Communion will look like in the future, if the centralizing structures lose power and influence. How will such lateral relationships be created and nurtured? I suppose the companion diocese program is one such possibility, but one wonders whether dioceses divided by culture, language, and geography, can truly build strong bonds of affection, especially given the economic realities facing the church here and worldwide.
One other comment–perhaps it’s time to get rid of the notion of instruments (symbols?) of communion as well. Such things often lead to lazy thinking and help to avoid the hard work of building relationships. When people appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, I’m reminded of lessons I learned studying North African Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. We appeal to universal notions of unity when the reality we experience is far from unified and when we need outside assistance to press our point. Perhaps we would do well to focus our attention on the local, strengthening those relationships and bonds of affection, and let the global take care of itself, at least for a time.

This week in Anglican Covenant news

Last week, three Church of England dioceses voted down the covenant; one narrowly approved it. Details here. Complete results of the voting so far is here.

Overall, it looks like it may be heading for defeat. If it passes, it will be a very close thing, proving that it lacks widespread support (the bishops are fairly united in favor, but clergy and laity are less enthused). This turn of events has given rise to considerable comment

From Tobias Haller, here and here.

The letter from Diarmaid MacColluch to the Church Times is priceless.

As momentum against builds, the forces in support continue to marshal lame arguments in support.

  • From the Bishops of Bristol and Oxford. Tobias Haller’s response.
  • the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a video in support (surely a sign of growing desperation)
  • other essays in support linked from Thinking Anglicans

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s video response to the ABC:

Mark Harris on the “scramble for votes

All this suggests increasing desperation on the side of the covenant’s supporters. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the effects to the Anglican Communion’s leadership if it isn’t approved by the Church of England General Synod–and for it to be debated there it needs a majority of yes votes from the dioceses. It’s clear that its primary constituency in the CoE is the bishops. They support it overwhelmingly, while both the laity and clergy are split narrowly between supporters and opponents. Hopefully, the close votes in CoE diocesan synods will allow many who are somewhat swayed by the lame arguments of the ABC et al, to resist whatever “bonds of affection” they may feel, to resist the temptation to submit to the leadership’s requests.


As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a huge fan of Martin Scorsese. I saw Hugo this afternoon and I’m still processing it. The difficulty is not so much the movie itself; it’s beautiful, well-made, and a delightful paean to the power of imagination, dreams, and film. The puzzle for me is fitting it into Scorsese’s oeuvre.

First, if you’ve not seen it, some other reviews:

There’s a moment in the film when Hugo, the young orphan who lives in the train station and is trying to repair the automaton because he believes his dead father will deliver a message from beyond the grave, and because as a boy on his own he is seeking to end his loneliness in the company of this magical creation, talks about his place in the universe. He imagines it as a giant machine. Just as machines have no unnecessary or superfluous parts, so too the universe. He must have a place in it.

The film, on one level, offers praise of technology. But it is technology that has the power to bring our dreams to life. There is Georges Mulies himself who begins as a magician, creates an automaton that can write, and when he encounters the movies of the Lumieres brothers, imagines the power of film.

On another level, the film is a hymn to technology, to the power of technology to transport us from the lives we live into an imagined world, limited only by our imaginations. Scorsese plays off the power of film, using the story of the first viewers of the Lumieres brothers movie of a train entering a station, an experience so powerful that the first audience flinched and ducked as they feared the train hitting them. We see the train again, entering the station in Hugo’s dreams, then again, when Hugo tries to rescue the automaton from the tracks.

We see the power of imagined worlds–Scorsese’s, Hugo’s, the world of the first film-makers, and the world of books. The latter comes to life as Hugo and his friend Isabelle look at a history of movies and see pictures in a book come to life.

We see the possibility of a different world, a possibility opened up by the power of art, and love. But we also see technology. The mechanisms of clockworks dominate the film, mechanisms that make a toy wind-up mouse run across a store counter, the mechanisms that make clocks tick, automata do their magic, and movie cameras create the new worlds. Scorsese seems to be saying that this technology can create dreams, bring our dreams to life, and help us find our place in the universe. But as he looks back at the history of film, he also is calling for the importance of the preservation of its past, and the power of that old technology, and old dreams, to transport us as well. He seems to be saying, even as he makes superb use of the most modern of technology, that the vision of the first film-makers is as powerful as his own. It’s a beguiling vision.

But I’m still thinking about what he is saying about technology, even as he makes use of it. Reviewers like Roger Ebert have made a great deal of his use of 3D. I’m going to confess that this is the first 3D film I’ve ever seen. I found it curious. As a neophyte, my first exposure was not to Hugo but to the trailers that were shown first, a series of animated movies that were advertised and visually, in 3D seemed over the top and over-stimulating. Hugo was quite different. The 3D seemed to add a dimension (duh), to add depth, rather than force itself on the viewer. But I wonder what it added, other than another level of special effect to a technological marvel.

In the end, I suppose Hugo is another example of Scorsese’s love of film. He has been a leader in the preservation of of film history. In addition, it reminds of the care he takes in creating a vision of a different world for his audience. Whether it was The Age of Innocence or Casino, Scorsese draws us into the world he creates and invites us to imagine that world.

It’s also a remarkable confession of faith–to assert, as Hugo does, that everyone has a place in this universe is a remarkable statement of faith.

Rethinking and Restructuring the Anglican Communion

Various dioceses (Eastern Oregon, California, and the executive council of the Episcopal Church have weighed in, urging rejection of the Anglican Covenant at General Convention next summer.

In New Zealand, the Maori have rejected it as well. Because of the complicated structure of the Anglican Church in New Zealand and Polynesia, that decision means that the province as a whole rejects it as well.

In the Church of England, dioceses are also rejecting it (St. Edmondsbury and Ipswich, Birmingham).

In fact, there is considerable discussion about the Covenant both here and abroad.

Michael Poon, in Rebooting the Anglican Communication, asks three important questions:

1. To Church leaders in sub-Saharan Africa: Do strong protests against Western decadence in fact reveal a deep anxiety about ecclesial identity?


2. Is GAFCON the only valid expression of Anglican evangelicalism?


3. Are North American Christians in fact using the churches worldwide as theaters for their domestic religious wars?

For Poon, the heart of the problem is communication: “Sound bites mask private ambitions and secular undercurrents that in fact shape our disputes.” His analysis of the situation among Anglicans suggests that we mirror the political discourse in secular culture. Of course, he is correct that “communion” points to a deeper relationship, a deeper reality, and whatever Anglican Communion ought to be, it ought to embrace and incarnate the mystery of God’s love.

Tobias Haller spoke at a meeting of the Diocese of Albany on Anglican Disunion: The Issues behind “the Issue.” He outlines there what he calls the “Anglican Triad:” humility, provinciality, and variety, distinguishing these three characteristics from the “Instruments of Communion” stressed in the Anglican Covenant and elsewhere as providing the unity of the Communion.

Savi Hensman points to an earlier attempt to define what unites us as Anglican. The 2005 Anglican Consultative Council said this:

Nourished by Scripture and Sacrament, we pledge ourselves to:

1. Recognise Jesus in each other’s contexts and lives
2. Support one another in our participation in God’s mission
3. Encourage expressions of our new life in Christ
4. Meet to share common purpose and explore differences and disagreements.
5. Be willing to change in response to critique and challenge from others
6. Celebrate our strengths and mourn over our failures.
7. Share equitably our God-given resources.
8. Work together for the sustainability of God’s creation.
9. Live into the promise of God’s reconciliation for ourselves and for the world.

We make this covenant in the promise of our mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.

All of this discussion has to do with our relationships with Anglicans world-wide. Meanwhile, here at home, there are lively and creative conversations taking place around restructuring the church. Most of the latter have to do with de-emphasizing the centralizing structures in order to focus on ministry and mission at the local level, and create ways of communicating and relating horizontally. The impetus for this discussion is partly financial, partly in response to changing demographics, and partly a function of a rapidly changing culture.

It seems to me that what is taking place locally and horizontally is also, in some ways, occurring globally. The Anglican Covenant was an attempt to respond to one set of elements in our rapidly changing world–globalization and the communications revolution–but did so without reference to some of the other elements in the changing context even though those elements were also driving much of the conflict (non-official relationships among like-minded people throughout the world, for example).

I would be curious to see how all of those folk currently ruminating on re-structuring in the Episcopal Church would imagine re-structuring of the Anglican Communion.