General Convention Update: What’s happening with the Budget

A committee hearing is taking place with PB&F (I’m assuming Program, Budget, and Finance, but I’m not going to check). Apparently, after all the back and forth, sturm and drang, anguish across the Church, PB&F is using the Presiding Bishop’s proposed budget as its template. Earlier discussions of it on this blog are here and here. Background here.

Jim Naughton had this to say today before the hearing began. He makes several interesting suggestions:

  1. to reduce the diocesan “asking” from  19% to 15% this triennium
  2. to base the budget on the PB’s proposal
  3. to view it as “transitional” and therefore to remove some of the spending on new programs (up to $5 million) that she proposes.

If you’re interested in the Twitter play by play, follow #GC77

The Church is flat–no, the church is a hierarchy

Two pieces published on Patheos on January 3 illustrate the struggle over ecclesiology within Christianity. The first is a report on and excerpt from Tony Jones’ new book: The Earth is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church. Jones is one of the leaders of the emerging church movement and in this book he looks closely at eight of the most important congregations in the movement and relates those congregations to the theology of Juergen Moltmann. In an excerpt published on Patheos, Jones explores how the image of “friendship” takes on Christological significance for these congregations as well as helping them to rethink the role of clergy leadership and develop egalitarian structures. Jones is not Episcopalian; the Emerging Church movement grew out of Evangelicalism but it has a strong interest in liturgy and has made inroads within the Episcopal Church as well.

The same day, Frederick Schmidt published an essay entitled, “Jesus is not our elected representative.” Money quote:

The church is a hierarchy—in composition, character, and mission. Jesus is not our elected representative. He is King of King and Lord of Lords.

I read these two pieces while reflecting on the debate at Episcopal Cafe on renewing the Episcopal Church. An earlier post by Jim Naughton led to debate over the centrality of the Eucharist to our worship, whether clergy were needed, and so on. You can follow that discussion here. There’s comment at the Friends of Jake blog as well

I’m coming to the position that all of the discussion about structural reform in the Episcopal Church may need to begin with a thoughtful discussion about ecclesiology and mission in the context of a post-Christian world. In a situation with scarce resources, it’s easy for important debates to devolve into competition over one’s share of the pie. That’s what I often sense is taking place in the Episcopal Church–whether it’s the debate over restructuring General Convention,  the thread on the Cafe about the roles of clergy and laity, or debates within congregations over budget shortfalls.

Naughton’s question, “What is up for grabs?” is the important question. Can we do ministry and mission on the local level with our diocesan and national structure siphoning off significant financial resources? Can we maintain buildings that were constructed fifty or a hundred years ago, are not energy efficient, poorly-suited for twenty-first century ministry, and require expensive maintenance? What might an Episcopal Church look like that was freed up from its structures (historical, institutional, and bricks and mortar) to offer beautiful worship, thoughtful formation, and hospitality to a world full of people seeking meaning in life?

It certainly is an interesting time to be an Episcopal priest. Thanks be to God!

The Episcopal Cafe’s top ten list

… and Jim Naughton’s commentary.

The tenth most popular story on The Lead was a brief item I popped up late one Monday evening a couple of months ago, noting that there aren’t nearly as many Episcopalians as there used to be and wondering if we ought to try to do something about that. It was also among the items that drew that most comment.

Naughton gets the significance of that development right, and points out that the Cafe, and probably most other Episcopal blogs, are focused internally, on issues of interest primarily to insiders (“Episco-geeks” maybe?). But the important stories, the developments that will have a long-lasting impact on local congregations, on the health and vitality of the Episcopal Church, and Christianity as a whole, are taking place outside the doors of our churches.

At the end of his piece, Naughton says:

The greatest danger facing our church has less to do with its stand on LGBT issues than with its quickly diminishing capacity to witness effectively on behalf of the Gospel.

I am hoping we can pay some attention to the simple issue of survival in the year ahead.

Unfortunately, he ended on a negative note. To put the issue in front of us in terms of “survival” is to see the problem in terms of the institution, and not the gospel. I don’t think the problem is that we “have a diminishing capacity to witness effectively on behalf of the gospel.” The problem is, we are too focused on institutional questions, on structural questions. We spend too much of our time and energy debating the Anglican Covenant, and have nothing left over for witness.

It’s not a problem of our “capacity.” After all, the gospel was spread by a small, ragtag group of disciples who were uneducated and ill-equipped for the commission they were given. That didn’t matter. They were on fire for the gospel. We need to be as well, or we might as well close up shop now and not waste further effort.


Occupy Trinity Church, Part III

The debate goes on and on. Apparently the actions by #OWS over the weekend, the interventions by Bishop Sisk and Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori, and the arrest of Bishop Packard have aroused passions. One only need read the comments thread on Jim Naughton’s Episcopal Cafe article to see that things have gotten interesting.

Naughton referred to “An extremely insightful essay” written by Tom Beaudoin at America in which he ponders the theological meaning of private property when it comes to churches:

I think we have a very important theological matter before us when Occupy, through its religious-leader allies, is saying to Trinity Wall Street: We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place, with negligible negative financial impact (Trinity is a verywealthy community), and with a rare and time-sensitive influence, by using this particular private property to host the next stage of Occupy Wall Street, and let’s meet to talk about the liability issues and any other concerns you have, let’s have that dialogue starting immediately, but in principle we have a substantial theological point worthy of your consideration.

The presumption in this theological claim, which I think is correct, is that no Christian church is – on the very terms of its theological existence – permitted to fall back on the mere invocation of “private property” without also a theological conversation about the spiritual significance of what that concept means and how it is being used.

There are several interesting issues in this statement. The first has to do with how “private property” relates to the property of an Episcopal parish, which as we all know to well by now, is held in trust by the parish for the diocese, and by the diocese for the national church. It may be different in Trinity’s case because of its unique history with an immense land grant coming from Queen Anne in 1715. Nonetheless, even here there is a question of “who owns the property.”

But aside from that question, there is the question of “private property” itself and that is probably what Beaudoin is getting at. I used to enjoy telling my students that “God is not a capitalist.” No matter how hard conservative Christians try to spin scripture, to derive capitalism, or even the notion of private property from Hebrew or Christian scriptures takes considerable finesse and exegetical hijinks. In Hebrew Scripture, in fact, there is no sense of private property at all. The land is owned by Yahweh, distributed to the people, given a sabbatical every seventh year, and in the fiftieth year, the Jubilee, whatever land was alienated from its original inhabitants, for debt or sale, or whatever, is returned to its original occupants.

But the question is not what private property may or may not have meant in scripture. Beaudoin is challenging the use of “private property” as Trinity’s defense against the use of its property by #OWS. And here I think he is doing some theological legerdemain. For in fact, what he is arguing is not that #OWS is challenging Trinity’s claim to private property, but rather their mission. Read this carefully:

We in Occupy — as a multifaith, interreligious, spiritually pluralistic movement that is also and equally a nonreligious, secular movement — can better meet your mission as a Christian church in this particular time, and this particular place,

In other words #OWS, or Beaudoin’s articulation of it, is not challenging Trinity’s defense of its private property, but of its mission. And this is a different thing. I haven’t read Trinity’s mission statement, and I don’t think that matters much. Trinity has enormous wealth and has done enormous good across the world with that wealth. My guess is that all of those in #OWS would be supportive of Trinity’s work in Africa and elsewhere. But it also has a mission to its particular context and that is Wall Street. Among its members and among its lay leadership are people from all walks of life, including investment bankers and CEOs of banks and financial firms, yes, the 1%.

There is a great deal of discussion about how Jesus would respond to #OWS. Well, in fact, the gospels are quite clear. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, and tax collectors were probably the first-century equivalent of the 1%.

My hackles are raised whenever anyone, someone on the outside, whether lay or clergy, attempts to define the mission of a congregation, church, or even denomination. It is the height of arrogance to do so. Mission should be contextual and reflect the life of the congregation. It may be appropriate to ask questions about that mission, to invite an expansion of that mission, but to say that an outside group “can better meet your mission” is nothing more than hubris.

Numerical Decline and the local congregation

The dramatic numbers reported last week continue to reverberate across the Episcopal Church.

From Jim Naughton’s lede on Mariann Bude:

I’d ask you to read Michelle Boorstein’s story about the situation that confronts the bishop and the church, and then look at the Q and As in The Post and the Examiner. Several things struck me as I listened to her give these interviews. She is unabashed about the need to rebuild the church. Unlike some of our leaders, she does not theologize our decline. She is also clear in her opinion that the church does not lack a heart for mission. Rather, it lacks capacity because so many of its congregations are weak and struggling simply to keep their doors open. It makes no sense (this is my opinion, not hers) to tell these people that if they look inward they will flounder, but if they look outward they will thrive, because they may be in no position to look effectively in either direction.

It’s hard to focus on mission and outreach when all of a congregation’s energy is going into survival. Or to put it another way, given how thinly stretched resources are in a typical congregation, resources in terms of staff, clergy, and volunteers, it’s almost impossible to do things well, let alone innovate, when so much effort is expended on making sure the doors are open.

Donald Romanik says much the same thing, challenging us to focus on the local, not the national or international:

for the overwhelming majority of members of our congregations, the Episcopal Church is equivalent to their local faith community and the mission and ministry of that local congregation is measured by the impact it makes on the people it touches both on Sunday, and, more importantly, throughout the week.

As leaders of our local faith communities, our primary responsibility is to bring the message of Jesus and his healing presence to our immediate surroundings and engage our neighbors and friends in the work of God’s reconciliation in the world. And we do this through a constant cycle of prayer, worship, education, fellowship, outreach, and evangelism – that awful “e-word.” The Episcopal Church has a powerful message of hope to a broken world. Likewise, our local faith communities also share this important message.

I suppose I began my annual report to the parish with those same statistics because I wanted to provide some larger context for our struggles at Grace, but also, at least implicitly, to remind people of the great resources we have at Grace to reach out into the world, and that we are already doing many of those very things, including evangelism.