Curioser and Curioser (about that fishy smell in the Episcopal Church)

I’ve got no particular insight or perspective into this story, except as a loyal Episcopal priest who has overseen UTO ingatherings in two parishes, and has been proud to be able to say that almost every penny goes to mission. But when my wife read my post, she pointed out the historical perspective. The UTO is one of those institutions that developed because women were locked out of power and mission in American Protestant Christianity in the 19th century and that its independence was fiercely guarded in part because of that history. She also pointed out that one of the first targets when the fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s was the Women’s Missionary Union, which like the UTO was largely independent of other Baptist structures.

The Presiding Bishop is attempting to calm the waters. 

But some folks are not having any of it. Elizabeth Kaeton and Ann Fontaine have both provided personal stories related to the UTO and their concerns about these recent events.

From Ann Fontaine:

Overall it moves total control to the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church with a small advisory role for the “Board,” where is the participation by UTO in the granting process? in communications? in any oversight of monies given to UTO?

It removes references to the main goal of heightening awareness of gratitude in our lives, it no longer has any relationship to the Episcopal Church Women (primary supporters of this ministry),

It removes the UTO role in development of materials and training local UTO coordinators, though the report to General Convention encouraged a continuing autonomy for UTO with interdependence – this removes all autonomy.


From Elizabeth Kaeton:

Many questions remain, these two among them:

1. How does the Memorandum of Understanding between DFMS and EWC/UTO embody the “creative tension” between the “increasing regulatory” function of DFMS and the “visionary, autonomous grassroots” function of UTO/ECW and be both/and: “autonomous but interdependent”? (INC-055 Ad-Hoc Committee on the Study of the United Thank Offering, GC 2012. If you haven’t read it, please do.)

2. What is contained in that Memorandum which caused 4 women – intelligent, educated women who are passionate about and dedicated to the mission of the Gospel – to resign because they believed that they needed to follow the high calling of being “whistle blowers”?

I agree that speculation holds with it the potential to be non-productive and dangerous. The primary danger, of course, is to those who benefit by not providing evidence.

I am still chilled by the knowledge that the conversations concerning the historic, autonomous, missionary leadership of women (UTO/ECW) becoming more a part of the “increasingly regulatory” body of DFMS had to be had with a group of 4 representatives from DFMS (3 of whom were men) under a signed agreement of confidentiality. And yet, the words “accountability” and “transparency” are being bandied about as somehow meaningful.

I understand. That may be “business as usual,” but when you are talking about the historic autonomy of women (which came about because women were excluded from leadership in existing church structures), and removing direct decision making and control over the money they raise, well, it just doesn’t bode well – especially in the church.

On this one, I’m with Ann and Elizabeth.

Something very fishy going on in the Episcopal Church

This one is primarily for Episcopal insiders, that very small, and declining number of people who care about what happens in the Episcopal Church.

This week, Mark Harris broke the news that four boardmembers of the UTO (United Thank Offering) had resigned in protest of what seemed to them to be an attempt by The Episcopal Church to take over their assets, their good name, and their mission. The UTO is a longstanding tradition in the Episcopal Church. Begun by women at a time when women were shut out of the organization, leadership, and structure of the church, it collects money from individuals and parishes and gives a crazy high percentage of that money away in grants. It has almost no administrative costs. What costs that do exist are largely assumed by the Episcopal Church.

But apparently, in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, a committee consisting of UTO board members and Church Center staff have created new bylaws for the organization that, in the judgment of the resigning board members:

The revised bylaws document eviscerates the United Thank Offering. It is monstrous and the worst set of revisions ever seen by one longtime bylaws expert.   Several Board members described initial reactions to the document as “Horror.”  The Board President said the word “eviscerate” occurred to her as well.

Mark, a former member of the Executive Council, and also a former member of the committee that was charged with studying the relationship of the UTO to TEC, is following this story very closely and has offered comment on the new bylaws. His questions and concerns are very helpful.

In the course of the day yesterday, the President of the House of Deputies, and “the Leadership” (whatever that may mean) also offered their takes on the matter. You can read their pieces here.

Part of what seems to be at stake here is that the proposed bylaws remake the nature of the UTO board (it was previously elected from various Episcopal Church Women bodies) and put the power of final approval of UTO grants in the hands of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.

Quite apart from another public relations disaster for the Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop, and its Chief Operating Officer, all of this seems to me to be quite contrary to the push for restructuring, and allowing grassroots organizations to thrive. To add another level to the grantmaking process is to make the process more cumbersome, more time-consuming, and more expensive. To take power away from the periphery and concentrate it on the center is to exacerbate problems.

The PR is awful; it’s embarrassing. To issue press releases under the aegis of “The Leadership” is laughable. They might as well call it the Politburo. It looks like all either the Presiding Bishop or the COO care about is money, property (a charge thrown out repeatedly by those involved in property litigation), and power. And because the UTO was largely independent, it had all of those things.

There is so little trust in the periphery for TEC; so little trust from ordinary members, from parishes and congregations. The UTO is one of those things that we could all agree on. We knew its origins; we knew that the money collected would go to amazing mission projects across the US and across the world.

Once again, instead of focusing on what we need to do, and what UTO has done in the past, we are focused on process, on power, on hurt. I’m really not sure we’ll have a UTO ingathering at Grace this fall. I certainly won’t be able to say with any certainty where the money will go.

How can you mess something up so completely?

But my prayer remains:

GRACIOUS GOD, source of all creation, all love, all true joy: accept, we pray, these outward signs of our profound and continuing thankfulness for all of life. Keep each of us ever thankful for all the blessings of joy and challenge that come our way. Bless those who will benefit from these gifts through the outreach of the United Thank Offering. This we ask through Him who is the greatest gift and blessing of all, Jesus Christ. Amen