Thinking clearly about the budget: What questions should we be asking?

Crusty Old Dean has offered his careful analysis of the Episcopal Church budget, pointing out those areas where funding is being slashed, like youth and young adult ministries, and those areas where, in spite of the deep decline in anticipated revenues, spending will increase. The Curate’s Desk is even more succinct in pointing out these areas.

Crusty Old Dean has also observed that this is a budget that restructures the church in some fundamental ways, whether or not there has been a conversation about that restructuring. Power is being focused more totally in the central offices (should we begin to call it the Politburo?). He also points out a deeply flawed process.

But where do we go? The budget narrative claims that certain fundamental questions have been asked including, “what ministries and programs are done more effectively on the provincial, diocesan or local level, rather than on the national level?” As I tried to point out with my example of the General Ordination Exams, the idea that assessment of ordinands is done more effectively on the diocesan rather than the national level is patently absurd. I could imagine a very different way of administering GOES making better use of technology, but that each diocese should come up with its own process is ludicrous.

So what questions should we be asking? First and foremost should be, what is the purpose of a national denominational structure? Does it exist to create a central bureaucratic repository for certain administrative functions? Should it exist to provide, develop, and express a coherent denominational strategy for mission and ministry and provide resources for carrying out that ministry and mission? Does it exist for itself, or does it exist for the dioceses, congregations, and people who make up the church, and those people whom we are trying to reach with the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Perhaps the answers to these questions are clear. There are certain canonical requirements that seem to demand a central office–can we imagine an Episcopal Church without a Book of Common Prayer or parochial reports? Certain functions might best be done on a national level: Episcopal News Service and other communications efforts come to mind. But what about the rest? Apparently some people can imagine an Episcopal Church without youth, young adult or campus ministries.

I think we’ve got to tackle the central problem head-on. We are a hierarchical church in a culture and world that is rapidly flattening out. Precious resources are bled from local congregations to dioceses and ultimately to the national church. There’s a tacit assumption that this is the way things ought to work–largely because they’ve worked that way for much of the last century. But in a culture in which people are relating very differently to one another and to institutions than they did fifty or a hundred years ago, and a culture where the importance of religion in general continues to decline, we need to change radically.

Our national church structures are based on a hierarchical model, no matter how much we protest that they are democratic. The problem is not just that we have bishops. We are a church based in a particular model of how a church relates to society. Unfortunately, that society has changed almost beyond recognition in the last half-century. We need to reconceive ourselves and our church to adapt to a post-Christian, post-Constantinian era. We need to give up our power and privilege at the center of the nation (including, symbolically perhaps, 815), give up the power and wealth that accrues from periphery to center, and embrace a different model of being God’s people in the world.

In the end, the problem with the budget is that it pays lip-service to restructuring and to this new world in which we live, but in fact it is fundamentally shaped by that old model and worldview and seems to assume that doing things in pretty much the same way (in fact, throwing proportionally more money than before toward the centers of power in New York and Washington) will serve us well for the next three years). If this is the budget that is passed at GC this summer, I may well get on the bandwagon of those who propose motions at diocesan convention not to fund the 19% asking by the national church.

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