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.

Change coming to the structures of the Episcopal Church?

Bishop Stacy Sauls made a presentation to the recent meeting of the House of Bishops meeting proposing a radical restructuring of the Episcopal Church, beginning with the calling of a Special Convention. The ENS article is here.

Mark Harris has comments here and here. Much of Sauls’ proposal has to do with General Convention, but there are large points, as well. For example, he observes that the Episcopal Church spends about 47% of its budget on administration and governance; 53% on mission. The Better Business Bureau suggests a non-profit should spend no more than 35% on overhead expenses.

Elizabeth Kaeton welcomes the conversation but worries that it is beginning in the wrong place. We should start with clarity about mission, and then talk about funding priorities.

Conversations like these are of crucial importance, but they can’t be driven solely by concerns about cost-cutting. The structures of the Episcopal Church that were built up in the twentieth century were an attempt to live out a vision of the church and that they did. They also reflected the cultural values of the time. On this, Derek Penwell is correct. But what should the church look like in the twenty-first century? What should it be? These are questions that need careful, thoughtful discussion, and not just by those who are invested in the church as it is (Bishops, national church and diocesan staff, and General Convention deputies). That is a self-selected (occasionally appointed or elected) group. Centering the conversations among this group leaves important voices out, especially those whose experience of church is primarily, perhaps only, in the parish or a local ministry.

Most of us working in the trenches have little time or energy to waste on conversations at the national level, or even the diocesan, for that matter. We are too busy doing ministry and often too busy even to think about how we need to change and adapt in the twenty-first century. We know the old models and structures don’t work, but can’t think our way into a future.

But it’s not just us. It’s also all those who come to us for spiritual renewal, for hope and strength, for ways to reach out to those in need, and could care less about the larger church. They ought to be in the conversation as well, for it is they who will shape the twenty-first century church. If they are not part of the conversation, perhaps guiding it, we will just be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.