There’s been considerable debate in the Episcopal Church over the past few months about restructuring the church. The problems are clear. We can’t financially sustain the current structure of national church offices, provinces, dioceses, and parishes as they are currently conceived, and it’s not clear that the current structure, even if it were well-grounded financially, serves the current mission needs of the church.
So what to do? Bishop Sauls has offered his proposal, about which I’ve already made comment. Others have also weighed in. Currently, my friend Crusty Old Dean is putting forth a very thoughtful and provocative set of proposals: part I, part II, part III, part IV (I knew him before he ascended the heights of academe). I urge everyone interested in the future direction of the church to read carefully what he is proposing.
At the same time, in the Diocese of South Carolina, a certain restructuring is already taking place. Bishop Mark Lawrence recently issued quit-claim deeds to the parishes in the diocese, essentially granting them property rights to parish property (which canonically is owned by or held in trust by, the diocese). This move has aroused considerable anxiety and outrage among “institutional” (most of whom are progressive) Episcopalians. Mark Harris comments on developments here and here.
I find this response quite interesting. Given that the diocese as an institution is a relic of an earlier age, that the ownership of property is one of the most contentious (and expensive) issues in the conflicts within the church, I wonder what the harm is with making this change? It may go against the constitution and canons, but perhaps they ought to be changed, and indeed, Bishop Lawrence may be right that the current understanding is something of an innovation. Why use the heavy cudgel of authority and constitution to force compliance or membership, when we might all be better served going our separate ways.
One of the chief arguments in favor of restructuring is to allow more horizontal relationships across diocesan and provincial boundaries. Might there be a way that people who share theological perspectives might found solace, strength, and comfort, by creating bonds with like-minded people across the church, at the same time remaining under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church? In a sense, that’s what earlier efforts at providing alternative episcopal oversight to parishes that struggled with their bishop’s perspective were meant to do. No, it’s not a perfect solution. But the question may finally come down to whether the only things that unite us as a denomination are property and the Church Pension Fund.