Strike up “Nearer my God, to Thee:” The Titanic (aka Episcopal Church) is sinking

We’re done rearranging deckchairs; it’s all hands overboard. TREC (the Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church, or maybe commission, I can’t remember) has issued its final report, available here.

I skimmed some of it but my eyes soon glazed over, I have four sermons to write in the next week or so, plus a vestry meeting tonight, so I waited for Crusty Old Dean to weigh in. And weigh in he did. I’m grateful to him because he knows the Constitutions and Canons, Episcopal history, and has extensive experience in the wider church as a long-time staff member and now as a Seminary dean. If you feel you must read the TREC report, be sure to have Crusty’s commentary open in another window.

Well, I’ll admit, I started reading the thing, but then I got to page 2 and to this paragraph:

The movement always precedes the institution, and practice always precedes structure. For this reason, we believe the most important thing we can do together in this moment is
return to three basic practices that helped to animate the early Christian movement. We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on the basic practices of the movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future. As in the past, the new future of The Episcopal Church will emerge from a focus on adapting and renewing the movement’s basic practices in our own various local contexts while adapting the current structures to enable and even encourage this movement to catch on.
I don’t know where this distinction between “movement” and “institution” comes from but I remember the former President of the House of Deputies use it in a talk and finding it remarkable that someone as deeply connected to the institutional church would find it a useful way of explaining the process of reform in the church. (I guess it derives ultimately from Troeltsch and or Weber, but I’m eager to be educated).
What bothers me about this distinction is that it’s artificial and utopian. We can posit the existence of a “Jesus movement” but the only sources we have for it were sanctioned by the institution (The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife notwithstanding). Jesus and his followers existed within and alongside an institutional Judaism which they were trying to reform and we know about Jesus only because of the institution that emerged from his death and resurrection.  Movement and institution are inseparable.
Something Crusty wrote in his closing paragraphs got me thinking, however. As he bemoaned the failure of TREC to capture the historical moment, he began to prognosticate:
and in the 2020s and 2030s our churchwide structures will collapse on their own.   There’s going to be lots of collapse in the church, after all.  A number of seminaries, about half our congregations, and maybe 40% of our dioceses will eventually no longer be viable.  Our churchwide organization will do the same.  Those surviving Episcopalians doing the mission of the Gospel will come together and create something.  Like the Popes declaring themselves infallible as their temporal power ended in 1870, like Episcopalians creating a new church only when their old one was destroyed in the Revolution, we can only create a new order when the old one has passed away.
I’m not sure why he mentioned those two particular historical moments but I began to think about other historical crises to which the church had to respond. The first that came to mind was the Protestant Reformation. It took decades (almost thirty years) for the Roman Catholic Church to respond institutionally to the challenge of Luther and the other Protestants. And the response itself took considerable time (the Council of Trent met sporadically from 1545 to 1563). But in the long run, Roman Catholicism was stronger and more vibrant, more stable too, than it had been in the preceding centuries.
An example closer to home (at least for Anglicans) is the Evangelical Revival of the late 17th and 18th centuries. A “movement” attempted reform; some elements of it remained within the institutional church; others left to form their own institutions. There are many other historical examples–the Franciscans (and Dominicans) in the 12th century; Vatican II; even Pope Francis, although it’s far too soon, decades too soon, to render any judgment there.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that if one looks at the History of Christianity, the impetus for reform almost never comes from the institutional center. In fact, the center almost always resists the reform. Occasionally, it will attempt to coopt it (as Innocent IV did with Francis), but usually even that fails.
Like Crusty, I had some hopes for TREC. I should have known better. Like Crusty, I have no doubt that the institutional structures that we have known, loved, profited from, and railed against, will not survive the next half-century. But I’m also quite confident that in the absence of planetary death or the parousia, in fifty years there will be new structures and institutions that will be the Body of Christ and participate in the Missio Dei, and that in less than a century, there will be new cries for reform in saecula saeculorum.

2 thoughts on “Strike up “Nearer my God, to Thee:” The Titanic (aka Episcopal Church) is sinking

  1. Pingback: Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church: my take | Covenant

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