Why I despair of the future of the Episcopal Church

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church met over the weekend and received this dire report about decline in the church. One word description: catastrophic! But that’s not what sends me into despair or wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s the dust-up between the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies (You’ll recall that there was a similar controversy at last fall’s meeting over a presentation by Bishop Stacy Sauls).

Over the last decade, pretty much every measure of health of the church has declined by between 10% and 20% and our leadership is arguing over whether it’s appropriate for the Presiding Bishop to communicate directly with General Convention deputies. You can read about it here, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

We’re in the midst of an existential crisis, and our leadership argues over its rights and prerogatives. I don’t care about the merits of either position and above all, I dread what’s going to happen at General Convention 2012, what actions it will take that will divert our energies, attention, and passion away from ministry and mission. I cite two examples

1) The denominational health plan. However praiseworthy its intent, however just and equitable its origin, it is instilling fear in this neck of the church. Those of us with excellent healthcare at reasonable prices fear being forced into less generous plans at higher premiums. Clergy fear the loss of full benefits because of the requirement that laity and clergy receive the same benefit. All of the parishes in our area are facing budget shortfalls as it is, and are contemplating laying off staff. The requirement to offer same coverage for full-time lay employees will probably mean that many parishes will simply reduce the hours of their lay employees. There is deep concern about the way the Denominational Health Plan is being implemented? What is GC doing to listen to and respond to these very significant concerns? I, for one, have heard nary a peep out of those who in their wisdom passed the legislation.

2) Same Sex Blessings liturgies. In 2009, General Convention mandated that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music gather resources for such liturgies. Rather belatedly, the SCLM began publishing such resources (this past fall). Belatedly, because among the documents is one entitled “educational material for diocesan conventions” that appeared on December 13, 2011. That’s two months after we held our convention in the diocese of Milwaukee.

In 2003, we were completely unprepared for the impact of General Convention, understandably so, because of the date of Bishop Robinson’s election. In 2012, we know what is coming. We know that there will be media scrutiny and intense discussion in the Anglican blogosphere,  From what I can tell of the materials produced by the SCLM, and from what I can tell of what I’ve read, they seem both somewhat superficial and often incomprehensible.

For me, the important question is this: How is General Convention preparing us in local parishes deal with the controversy? And I don’t primarily mean the conversations over the shape liturgies might take.  What materials are they providing local clergy to deal with the phone call from the local newspaper reporter who is writing an article on the topic and interviewing conservative Christian leaders as well?

Once again, my guess is that General Convention is going to leave us to our own devices, ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the local consequences of its actions and increasingly curious why so many of us in the church want to have nothing to do with it.

That’s why I despair of the future of the Episcopal Church. I’ve been active in the Episcopal Church for two decades, I’ve been involved in parish leadership for a decade, and every General Convention in that time has contributed to conflict in the parish and led to diversion of precious resources of time, energy, and passion. I’m looking forward to GC 2012 with fear and trembling.



10 thoughts on “Why I despair of the future of the Episcopal Church

  1. Thanks for writing this – I tend to be more traditional on most of the “issues” but the leadership problems you cite are not ideological. They impact all of our churches, especially here in “fly over country.” Bishop Tarrant here in South Dakota has related the health insurance problem to the HOB – not sure he’s getting much traction but it is important that voices like his and yours be heard on this. We really seem stuck in a place where “ministry” = “everything institutional except the local church.”

  2. Your article is precisely to the point. Like Fr. Funston, I can’t really disagree with you. The sad plight of our church points up not only the continuous and pernicious decline inTEC since the late sixties, it also reminds us that our leadership is literally “fiddling while Rome burned.” First, we don’t need the debate on same sex blessings…a simple majority vote in both houses will provide just one more opportunity for angry people to leave the church, and it will provide amunition for the fundamentalists. Second, please think through the whole issue of health insurance. Let’s get a plan that both supports church employees and is affordable. Third, will the church please start strategic planning? Why do we need all the dioceses now? Why do we need as many bishops as we have? My bishop serves only congregations with less that 50% with full time priests. There are so many issues out there that my small contriution cannot include them here. But please, House of Bishops, start thinking about some strategies to reverse the trend. And, please, General Convention, stop voting on socially controversial issues. And I am speaking as a priest who, as a deputy to General Convention in the sixties and seventies, voted for every social change brought before the House. I am a liberal priest, but now is the time to stop beating the social action drum.. .

    Bob Terrill
    Retired Provost
    Grace Cathedral, Topeka, KS

  3. +Robert,

    It seems the chickens have come home to roost. And you still build camps. HMOs and See consolidation when the man laments parish destruction because of the very policies you placed in your verve for social justice. Revolution has consequences, far more traumatic than evolution, nature’s way. TEC has learned little from church history, that old third leg, and you of the 60s and 70s inflcted on our “beautiful” faith and tradition a fatal blow that you are not even able to see or take for which you could take responsibility. God bless you.

    • Actually Richard, there are no chickens and there is no roost. And, there are lots of other reasons why parishes declined as well as arguments over social justice And, there was no revolution Richard, as the kingdom of God on earth has not yet arrived. However, if not for progressive Christians, there would be
      no racial equality, women’s equality or the end of Viet Nam. And I wonder if nature’s way is just something that does simply evolve? If this is true, perhaps the perverse demon of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” serves a useful “Christian” and social purpose. But please dear Richard, don’t talk about us 60s and 70s kids inflicting a fatal blow. Tain’t true. A blow for Jesus perhaps, not hadly thanatonic. By the way, what is our beautiful faith? Ok, I love the idea of a nostalgia that never was. And what makes you think that our generation doesn’t take responsibility. I take full responsibility for my behavior and I have no regrets over my Christian witness. Last, I really don’t need your blessing. It is most hollow after your chastisement.

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  5. To answer some of the queries about the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, the Church’s process in developing materials for the Blessing of Same-Gender Relationships as mandated by General Convention Resolution 2009-C056, and a recent complaint that the process has not been inclusive enough, let me give a little history:

    Early on it was clear that Commission funding would not cover the full cost of obtaining input from the breadth of our Episcopal Church, USA, as well as our Anglican Communion and Ecumenical partners, and so we sought funding beyond our denomination that would have ‘no strings attached’ as far as influencing the outcome. Foundation grant assistance was obtained, administered by CDSP. At that point the Commission recruited a variety of people, lay and ordained, academics, experts in Canon Law, Biblical scholars and liturgists, as well as people in a variety of congregational and geographic settings. A set of 4 task groups (theology, pastoral and educational resources, canonical issues, and liturgical materials) was formed and went to work.

    Theological principles were developed as an early step. A large volume of liturgical and pastoral materials in current use from across the country (and Canada) were collected and reviewed. The Commission developed an online vehicle for collecting responses from Anglican Communion partners, wrote to all Episcopal dioceses to invite participation of their General Convention deputation representatives in a March 2011 churchwide consultation, and made a presentation to the House of Bishops, who gave their input.

    A day-long meeting in Province I in October 2010 gathered moving testimony from lay and ordained stakeholders in each diocese there. The Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons provided a liaison person at this meeting, and is in continuing consultation about canonical issues.

    The liturgical task group first developed a set of liturgical principles for evaluating texts of any kind, and received input from the bishops and others. They collected a large body of material from across the Episcopal Church and reviewed and critiqued it, selected and refined the best of it, and created some new materials to form a cohesive basic rite of blessing, augmented with some materials for blessing civil marriage and civil unions in places where those are available. Drafts of these rites were reviewed by the Commission in March 2011.

    During 2010 diocesan bishops were encouraged to share policies and rites with the Commission, and to talk about needs and experiences in their varied jurisdictions. The Commission developed a blog (http://liturgyandmusic.wordpress.com/) to invite conversation from the breadth of the Church in mid-2010. The Commission Chair specifically also invited response from across Anglican Communion and Consulted House of Bishops on the outline of resources to be developed.

    In March 2011 the Commission met with representatives of 98 dioceses (all were invited) to present the work in progress, and to offer a model of conversation across lines of difference that attendees could take home to enable conversations with their deputations and others in their dioceses. Ecumenical partners from ELCA, the PCUSA, and the Moravians attended this consultation. Also in 2011 the Commission Chair & member Bishop Tom Ely traveled to England for a meeting with Anglican liturgists at the August International Anglican Liturgical Consultation.

    During the summer of 2011 a first draft of the resources was reviewed by some 133 people from around The Episcopal Church. With their feedback, a final draft was prepared. The Blue Book Report was finalized by the Commission in late fall 2011.

    During spring 2012 representatives of the Commission will present the proposed material to every Provincial synod meeting, so that as many people as possible will be well-informed before General Convention.

    So as you may see, literally hundreds of people have had input and participated in this work already, and more will do so before General Convention. Information and resources have been and will continue to be posted on the GCO ExtraNet (http://generalconvention.org/ccab/files/2) and on a special area of the online Church archives (http://episcopalarchives.org/SCLM/).

    As you may see, this work has had a larger and longer scope than your blog comment might lead people to believe!
    May God bless all who took part, and the work as it moves forward.

    The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Phillips
    Vice-Chair, Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music

    • Perhaps it has been “literally hundreds” of people, but unless I’m very much mistaken, the meeting a year ago was for GC deputies, the presentations to provincial synods will also be to elected representatives from dioceses, and the 133 people from “around the Episcopal Church,” I suspect, included overwhelmingly people who are already hooked into the national church networks. I belong to none of those groups.

      My larger point is that there is a huge disconnect between what happens on the national level, whether it be in 815 or at GC, and what I’m doing in my parish and community and I don’t see any of the restructuring conversations addressing that particular issue.

      • I agree with you. Those who are imbedded in the culture of TEC seem to believe that what they do is critically important, while the rest of the church really doesn’t care. In my experience, people come to church because they want to experience God, feel better about their lives and connect with other Christians. I realize this is simplistic, but whether or not this is the case, the people in the pews could care less about General Convention, the Executive Council, even their own Bishops. Because they are generally nice folks, they accept the fact that there is a bishop and he does something besides coming once a year for a visitation, even though they know not what. As the church continues to decline, the imbedded leadership of the church is rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. For further reading on these issues, please check out my blog at episcoaljourneyofhope.blogspot.com

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