Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real

Something about this tweet captures my ambivalent feelings about the work of the Episcopal Church General Convention.

Screenshot 2015-06-25 07.28.47


Perhaps the Episcopal Church has made statements against the death penalty since 1956, but in those 59 years, how many Episcopalian judges, governors, legislators, prosecutors, and jurors have colluded in death penalty sentences?

(Episcopal Church General Convention: The Surreal and the Real may become a regular feature of this blog over the next week).

The Book of Common Prayer

The Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer is observed on “a weekday after Pentecost.” In our calendar this year, that means it is observed today (Monday was the Venerable Bede, yesterday, Augustine of Canterbury. The collect for this day reads:

Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)


I said this while reflecting on Jaobs’ book a couple of years ago:

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

I’m struck by the last couple of sentences considering the rumblings going through the church right now about Prayer Book revision as well as the various resolutions the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music have submitted to General Convention (You can read incisive commentary on those revisions from Scott Gunn here). It seems to me that before undertaking such changes, whether tinkering around the edges or full-scale revision, we need to think carefully and creatively about the role of the Book of Common Prayer in our common life in the twenty-first century.

On the one hand, there’s a tendency to fetishize the BCP (whether the 1662, the 1928, or I suppose, even the 1979), to regard a particular version as normative for all time. On the other hand, there’s another tendency to want to revise it regularly. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that as the institutional church collapses, the things that bind it together may lose their power as well. That is true of the Book of Common Prayer. Can its language, disciplines, and rituals continue to shape people when they no longer experience it as a “book?” And what might its demise mean for Anglicanism as a living tradition within Christianity?


Religious Identity, Religious Community: More Thoughts on the Pew Study and the Memorial to the Church

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my post last week and the conversations around both the Memorial to the Church and the Pew Survey. We’re in uncharted territory as the Episcopal Church (and Mainline Protestantism) collapse. All sorts of people from all over the theological spectrum will offer analyses of the reasons for this collapse but it will require historical distance to gain the necessary perspective from which to judge what happened and why. At the same time, with the rise of the percentage of people who no longer identify with particular denominations or traditions, one of the things the Pew Survey has made clear is that Americans are creating new ways of being religious. A number of commentators have made this case, among them Kaya Oakes and Peter Manseau. Something Oakes wrote is especially pertinent:

The new Pew Survey should not be giving people who are creating their own religions and communities something to think about. They’ve already thought about the role religions should play in their lives.

Manseau puts it like this:

Religion, however, is not a zero sum game. Just as any individual’s life might include periods of greater and lesser religious interest, every tradition is home to remarkable diversity of belief and practice. Church pews may hold nonbelievers; a chanter of mantras may still recall the bat mitzvah prayers of her youth. To claim one religious identity is not necessarily to forsake all others, no matter what a pollster’s multiple choice options might imply.

It is this development, individual creativity in response to America’s religious marketplace, that I consider the greatest challenge to those who want to create (or restructure) Christian community on the other side of Christianity’s collapse. With multiple commitments and engagements, people’s attention, interests, and desires have multiple claims on them—and each of those claims may be important and life-giving. I doubt very much that a Christian perspective that remains open to culture (in the Niebuhrian sense) can hope to claim the sole allegiance of many people in today’s world.

The problem is that we have few models on which to draw as we think about what Christian community (either local or national) might look like on the other side. Obviously, fundamentalism is a no-go and even the Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist models seem to draw too sharp a line between the community and “the world.” Over on the Catholic/Orthodox conservative side, there’s been considerable talk of adapting monasticism for the present moment. Rod Dreher calls it The Benedict Option:

This is the gist of the Benedict Option: creating the conditions and habits necessary for our faith to live on in an anti-Christian society in which the dominant culture is so overpowering. Going along to get along is not going to suffice. How do we do this? I don’t think there is one set way.

While such alternatives may be attractive to some, there must be other options. In essence, I’m asking what open and inclusive Christian community might look like in a post-Christian culture. I suspect we’re already seeing it coming into existence in congregations across America, with a core of significantly committed members and wider circles of people with lower levels of commitment and engagement. The congregational development gurus are all about increasing the engagement and commitment level of the people in those wider circles. But what would happen if we were to see this pattern as evidence of people fashioning their own religious identities rather than their lack of commitment to our community (congregation) and their resistance to accepting the identity we wish to impose on them? We would have to engage them on their terms, listen to their questions and needs, and respond to them where they are, rather than set preconditions on their involvement.

I suspect this is why I had such a negative response to the Memorial. While its calls to prayer, bible study, and evangelism are all laudable, the language it uses often sounds more like a manifesto for a nineteenth century missionary movement than a strategy for engaging the world in which we live. The movement in the document, for all the talk of decentralization, networks, and local initiative, is from center to periphery: “laborers into the harvest,” “learn to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.” Do people in those neighborhoods understand themselves as fields readied to be harvested—commodities to be exploited, if not as pledging units, then as data points?

How do we proclaim a gospel that demands ultimate allegiance to people who cannot give their ultimate allegiance, who may not even be able to spare an hour a week? How do we share the Good News with people who want it, but on their terms, not ours? Do we abandon them and form our little communities, whether neo-Anabaptist or neo-Monastic, or do we continue to engage them and risk that in our encounters and life with them, we are transformed as they are?

Well, that’s all right then

Apparently, the GTS faculty will return to work.

We accept your offer of reinstatement to our positions, and the salaries and benefits outlined in our contracts in effect prior to September 25, 2014. We look forward to being able to do this as soon as possible. Like any member of the Seminary’s faculty we agree to abide by the terms of the Seminary Constitution, Bylaws and policies. Given some of the confusion that has arisen about these texts in recent weeks, we will need you to provide us with copies of them: this would help us as we seek together to work within them. We are pleased to see that during the “cooling off period” all of the parties’ respective legal arguments and positions will be reserved.

A letter from the Rt. Rev’d Clifford Daniel 3d, a member of the Board of Trustees, may shed additional light

. I am hopeful that the Executive Committee and Board’s invitation to the Faculty to a return to the prior status through the remainder of this academic year will be received in a positive way and that the faculty assume their prior positions. I am encouraged by the decision of the Executive Committee to engage a skilled, qualified Christian mediator who will call the Dean, the Board, the Faculty, Students (and perhaps representatives of the Alumni/ae Association) together to engage in a prayerful, structured and disciplined process of mediation and reconciliation. Following graduation in May 2015, we as a community can come together to determine where we are and where we need to go. Part of the process must be mutual conversation, confession and repentance as necessary steps toward reconciliation.

The Presiding Bishop will stand down

Katharine Jefforts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has announced she will not seek reelection in 2015. Elected in 2006, PB Jefforts Schori is eligible for reelection according to the rather complicated rules laid out in the canons, and there had been considerable speculation that she might do so.

She writes:

I believe I can best serve this Church by opening the door for other bishops to more freely discern their own vocation to this ministry.  I also believe that I can offer this Church stronger and clearer leadership in the coming year as we move toward that election and a whole-hearted engagement with necessary structural reforms.  I will continue to engage us in becoming a more fully diverse Church, spreading the gospel among all sorts and conditions of people, and wholeheartedly devoted to God’s vision of a healed and restored Creation.

Previously, the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop had issued three essays laying out the nominating and election process, the current roles and responsibilities of the office, and how the office has changed over the centuries. Those essays are worth reading and available here:

Meanwhile, the Task Force on Reimagining the Church (TREC) has issued its own vision for changing the structure and governance of the Church. It envisions a vastly expanded set of powers for the Presiding Bishop while streamlining various governing bodies. That document has received criticism for reducing the participation of laity and democratic process.

Conversations about Marriage: It’s not just about couples (gay or straight); It’s about community!

On July 31, in response to the request by the Task Force on Marriage, a group of 22 clergy and laity from Madison’s Episcopal parishes gathered to work through the discussion materials prepared by the Task Force. We talked for approximately two hours. We didn’t reach any conclusions but our conversation did raise up several interesting issues. What follows is my summary of the main topics that we discussed, based on notes taken by Andy Jones.

One of the issues we discussed at length was the role of clergy and church in the state sanctioning of marriage. There were clergy present who expressed considerable displeasure at serving as “agents of the state” in the signing of marriage licenses. Other clergy and some laypeople reminded us of the emotional attachment many have to precisely that activity. In some parishes the license signing takes place on the altar.

We talked about our complicity in the “marriage-industrial complex.” In Dane County where Madison is located, the average cost of a wedding is $27000 (according to one of those present at our discussion). To the extent that we host weddings for people who are only nominally involved in the lives of our parishes, our churches and clergy participate in and enable such economic excess. Attempting to teach a spiritual meaning within marriage through pre-marital counseling or in the ceremony itself is rendered more difficult because of the alternative message being sent by everything else associated with weddings in twenty-first century America.

There are competing claims around the legal, sacramental, and cultural significance of marriage and we need help negotiating these claims. The conflicts around the ceremony itself are one thing; the role the ceremony plays in the relationship of the two people who are united in matrimony, the long-term success of that relationship, and the role the community of faith plays in couples’ lives also need further clarification. In spite of the fact that many weddings take place in churches and many more are officiated by clergy, congregations tend not to play important roles in the lives of many of the couples that are married in their churches. Strengthening that bond is important because the ultimate success of the marriage depends on the prayers and support of a religious community.

We also spent a lot of time talking about other relationships and other ways of being in community. We agreed that any discussion of marriage has to take place in the context of a larger discussion about the nature of Christian community itself and how to strengthen ties within such communities. A few quotations from that portion of the conversation:

“This is too narrow a conversation. If the church is going to have a role in marriage it should also have a role in other kinds of relationships and community building.”


“For the church to remain relevant in our lives it has to continue to build community – that is what makes us holy, different from the state”


“The church’s role in marriage lies in the exclusivity of the relationship. I will commit to loving ‘you’ for the rest of my life. It derives from Jesus’ words, ‘where love is, I am…’ This is what the church is recognizing when it witnesses and blesses a marriage.”


“The church has a big role or part in ‘community.’”


Just a couple of notes about the process itself and the materials provided by the task force. People who attended wanted to talk about marriage and want the church’s help in building life-giving and sustaining relationships. They appreciated hearing from others about their experiences.

I found some of the materials unhelpful as I thought about facilitating a conversation. We used the materials prepared for the ninety-minute session and reading through the handouts I couldn’t always figure out how someone coming to the session with no background or context could use them to generate their own thoughts. In fact, I found the handout on the historical background so unhelpful that I prepared my own for the group.

Some other essays on marriage:

Emma Green reflects on the precipitous decline in the number of Roman Catholic weddings (and it’s wider significance):

So while it’s simplistic to say that American Millennials are totally abandoning their churches, at least in Catholicism, the trend away church weddings might be an indication of how young people tend to see their religious institutions. As Gray said, it’s entirely possible that today’s young non-church-goers might return to the pews in a few years, just as their hippy parents did before them. But it’s also possible that beach weddings are an early sign of a generational shift among religious Americans, with more and more people finding meaning beyond the walls and words of a church.


Nathan Chase writes in response to Green:

. For this reason, the answer to the question “Are Church weddings a thing of the past?” is much deeper than it might appear at first glance. It cuts to the heart of modern humanity, and it should force us to reflect on ourselves, the Church, and the modern world. If we begin down that road we might not like what we see; however, we must have faith that no matter our brokenness God, who can do all things, can heal the wounds of the world.

Conversations about marriage

Marriage is highly contested in our culture in the twenty-first century. We fight about marriage equality and worry about changing marriage patterns. With a divorce rate around 45%, increasing rates of couples living together, and close connections between poverty and children born to unwed mothers, the challenges presented by changing marriage patterns have important social consequences. Some of the dramatic changes in marriage practice in the last half century include:

  • In 1960, 2/3 of all adults in their twenties were married; in 2008, only 26% were
  • 65% of all couples live together before getting married
  • marriage is much more common among college-educated and economically stable people than among the less-educated and less-affluent
  • 90% of young adults think they need to be completely financially independent before marriage

All data from material provided by the Task Force on Marriage. More info here.

In the Episcopal Church, our General Convention 2012 called for a Task Force to study the theology of marriage. As part of its work, it has invited dioceses, parishes, and interested individuals to engage in conversations about marriage. We will be holding such a conversation on July 31 at St. Luke’s here in Madison.

The impetus for the task force came in part from the discussion about same-sex blessings and the trial rite that uses language of blessing, stops short of calling it marriage, yet is being used in many places where gay marriage is legal.

The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the product of its age and shows some signs of its historical context. With the use of two different rites in the church, and the oft-repeated statement made that the trial rite would be appropriate for use with heterosexual couples, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding marriage in the church.

For myself, one of the most important issues around marriage is my role as officiant. I am increasingly uncomfortable serving as an agent of the state and as an enabler of the marriage-industrial complex. What might an Episcopal rite, theology, and practice of marriage look like if neither of those factors were involved? It seems to me that the marriage rite is increasingly “divorced” from the practice of marriage. As a church we’re not very successful at doing “all in our power to uphold these two persons in their marriage” as we promise during the rite, and we’re even less successful in help couples who are struggling with their relationships.

A recent study explores the relationship between religious involvement and marriage among young adults:

Nominally religious young adults are in a vulnerable position: they are religious enough to be pushed into early marriage, for instance, but, lacking the social support mediated by an in-the-flesh religious congregation, they don’t reap the benefits of involvement in a religious community. Instead, religion may become a source of conflict.

More here