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



8 thoughts on “Structure, Re-structure, Anti-structure, Missionary Society? Re-imagining the Episcopal Church

  1. A Catch 22?

    There honestly seems to be a disconnect from what was understood to be the polity of the Episcopal Church – that is, the Episcopal Church are the dioceses in General Convention (with intentionally no archbishop as in other Anglican Communion provinces, including the Church of England) – with a distinctive “hierarchical” Episcopal Church defined now as DFMS (i.e., 815 in New York – see now rebranded the Missionary Society.

    Could it be possible that litigation strategy is driving this reorganizational process? Is it not true that if this reorganization is abandoned, other dioceses may be free to leave General Convention? If not, won’t there need to be an emergency session of General Convention to deal with the loss of so far perhaps four or more dioceses (and those are just the conservative ones)?

    At what point, do we acknowledge publicly that we are dealing with a court-recognized schism? The Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Virginia acknowledged in their ruling supporting the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia retention of local parish properties that voted to separate from The Episcopal Church that the Episcopal Church is indeed in schism (but that the Anglican Communion has not yet legally divided). I would say that, though the diocese had a victory, it still very serious for the Episcopal Church as we’ve seen in recent rulings in the Dioceses of South Carolina, Ft. Worth, and Quincy). Is the staff at 815 trying to solve this problem? How do they do that while maintaining a mission-focused agenda? They do seem to be in a great rush and making mistakes that come from being in a rush – they do not seem to be able to wait for General Convention 2015 and recent actions seem to be solidifying the extraordinary need to present a hierarchical organization to the courts.

    At the same time, many if not most of the dioceses are struggling financially. The Episcopal House of Bishops is not designed to downsize or to rule. That is General Convention’s work and General Convention means re-engaging the energy of the local dioceses back into their governing national role. But to do that would undermine the legal strategy. It this not a Catch 22?

    • I’m no lawyer, so I have no idea what is driving all of this and what role, if any, litigation plays in it. I also posted this before reading Bishop Dan Edwards’ commentary on yesterday’s proceedings at the House of Bishops meeting. Apparently, the “draft primer” on Episcopal ecclesiology asserts that General Convention has “metropolitan” authority. I’m quite troubled by that claim but will hold comment until I’ve learned more.

  2. I had understood that the Episcopal Church did not have a metropolitan authority – that it was born in the aftermath of the War of Independence in those years leading up to 1789, and so took on the revolutionary aspects of the new nation with ecclesiastical power entrusted to the local dioceses (like the new United States) to weigh and to mitigate as they see fit. In the Diocese of Virginia, the hotbed for revolution and well as 18th-19th century evangelicalism, this meant a lot more financial and governing authority to the local congregations and their lay leadership. Even now, attempts by the Diocese of Virginia to have canonical assessments have been struck down by an unusual coalition of progressives and conservatives.

    It seemed intentional that General Convention was a convening of dioceses together and by practice did not carry a metropolitan authority. The Presiding Bishop was meant to preside over the House of Bishops and was not in practice even a primate in Anglican Communion terms until the present Presiding Bishop began to sign her letters with the title. Hard to imagine the 18th century founders embracing such a thing!

    But that polity is a problem in the national litigation strategy to retain dioceses that vote in their councils to separate. The lack of a metropolitan authority gave rise to the practices of “local option” for same sex blessings and ordinations or for dioceses to choose not to support the budget at 815.

    This issue of metropolitan authority seems to be bringing together an unexpected coalition of those still in the Episcopal Church who continue to experience deep dividing differences into common cause because though they greatly differ theologically, they may embrace the understanding that there is no metropolitan authority in the Episcopal Church that overrules the local diocese.

    What a quandary, another Catch 22.

  3. If you look at what the authorities and responsibilities of a Metropolitan are, you will find that GC does possess or delegate most of them. The difference for PECUSA is that it didn’t invest most of this authority in an individual — an archbishop — but matters that concern the whole church fall under the authority of GC. (A few metropolitical powers, among them visitation, release from vows, and enforcement of discipline, do reside “personally” in the office of the PB.)

  4. I’m really uncomfortable with the language of “metropolitan authority,” though not perhaps with the function of such authority. I think it tends too far in the direction of centralization and hierarchy. I think the historical development of increasingly seeing the Presiding Bishop as a primate points out the dangers here.

    There ought to be other historical models to which we look instead of the centralized Post-Tridentine papacy (or even Eastern Orthodoxy), or imaginative models we might conceive in which authority is exercised in a less-hierarchical way. Now, I’m not talking about authority within dioceses, but rather the relationships among dioceses that are geographically related.

    It seems to me that to speak of General Convention having “metropolitan authority” adds confusion, not clarity.

    • I’m less uncomfortable with a diffused metropolitical authority, vested in the GC, than I am with either the myth of TEC as a loose confederation (it was always more than that) or the frankly, to my mind, more disastrous decision to make the PB a full time job, without a see.

      I supported the effort at the last GC to amend the constitution to allow (not require) the PB to remain a diocesan — by removing the present requirement of resignation. It failed in part because people couldn’t it seems wrap their heads around the difference between permission and requirement — which means any such change is now at least 8 years away (because constitutional change takes two GCs). Hands are now tied in a system that I think is broken.

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