Grief? No, Hope! The Executive Council, the Budget, and the future of the Episcopal Church

Executive Council is meeting in Salt Lake City. Here’s the ENS report on today’s session. This meeting is taking place against the backdrop of the outrage over the proposed budget–both as proposed and as we are learning about it. As usual, Crusty Old Dean responds eloquently and passionately to today’s developments in that controversy.

The remarks by the leading pooh-bah’s of the EC are available from ENS as well. Bonnie Anderson reprises much of what she said at the CEEP conference I attended in March. I wasn’t impressed then. Her efforts to distinguish institutions from movements and argue that the latter is the future of the church seems to fly in the face of a long history in which every “movement” eventually institutionalizes itself. Just ask Max Weber.

The Presiding Bishop also offered remarks in which she focused on the grief we feel as a result of our loss of place in the establishment and numerical decline:

We are living in post-establishment times, and as a church, we are beginning to recognize that reality. It has brought an enormous amount of grief. The struggles over inclusion are a symptom, but only part of the response to losing a position and way of being that to many people has seemed intrinsic to being an Episcopalian. The post-establishment reality brings grief in abundance as former ways of living, governing, and privilege disappear. Like all kinds of grief, it can elicit anger, denial, and attempts to go back to some remembered golden age. None of those responses heals the grief. Nor can we fix the grief by tinkering with details. Only by living through the grief and loss, and beginning to embrace the possibilities and opportunities for new life will we ultimately find healing. We are a people who believe in resurrection, and we live in a season when acting out of that belief is absolutely essential.

I’m just not sure who she’s talking about: members of the Executive Council, staff at headquarters, bishops and deputies? Certainly not me. I have no grief for a past when the Episcopal Church was the de facto civil religion of the USA. I have no grief for a national denominational structure heavy on bureaucracy (and probably sinecures) with preference for insiders, WASPs, and those to the manor born.

I suppose because I grew up in another tradition, and drank deeply from the theology and spirituality of Anabaptism, I think a church rid of its associations with establishment and dominant culture is finally free to do what God has called the church to be. We are in a moment of extraordinary freedom, possibility and hope.

I came to the Episcopal Church because I encountered Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, in the proclamation of the word, in the liturgy, and in fellowship. I have no commitment to the Episcopal shield, or flag, the blue book, or the red book. I have no emotional attachment to General Convention, to 815 (wherever or whatever that might be). I am a priest of the church because I was called by God, and in spite of efforts by some to dismiss it, in the end the church, in a particular bishop and Commission on Ministry, heard and affirmed that call. I am a priest of the church because I believe that through my ministry in the church I can share the good news of Jesus Christ and offer new life, hope and faith in the Risen Lord in a broken and hurting world.

To do those things, I do not need a national bureaucracy or General Convention. In fact, both of those detract from my ministry because it means that money raised in my local congregation is used to support administration, bureaucracy, and a process that produces a budget with unimaginable errors.It means that energy that might be extended on thinking about reaching people with the good news in an increasingly secular society is deflected toward blog posts like this one.

To share the good news of Jesus Christ, I do need help and support: from the ministry of the laity in my parish, from my local and diocesan clergy colleagues, from my bishop–my pastor–and above all from those networks everyone is talking about, but few seem to be facilitating–networks of people in similar contexts, struggling with similar issues and imagining creative possibilities for the future.

Of the three presentations, I only found Bishop Sauls helpful in pointing a way forward. I’m ready to join that conversation he is hoping will take place, but don’t invite me to a funeral for the Episcopal Church of the twentieth century.

Bishop Stacy Sauls’ opening remarks to today’s meeting of the Executive Council:

The conversation I long to have with you is about putting everything on the table about our common life and looking at it in light of what Jesus said about survival, about how we live our lives to take up our cross and follow him, not just to Calvary but beyond Calvary to Resurrection. I want us to talk about putting everything on the table and rebuilding the Church for a new time that has no precise historical precedent. I think we should put dioceses on the table and ask how the ministry of a bishop relates to a particular people rather than to a particular geography. I think we should put episcopal ministry on the table and ask how bishops should work with each other collegially and how often they should meet together. I think we should put the exercise of primacy in our unique context on the table. I think we have to put how other clergy and laypeople participate in the councils of the church, and more importantly, are encouraged to live out their baptisms by proclaiming the good news of what God has done in Christ by word and example on the table. I think, and this is my particular concern, we have to put how we use the resource a churchwide staff to serve local mission and ministry on the table. Budgets may help us do that, or at least they may give us the occasion to do these things, but budgets themselves should never be the point of any of them. That is the conversation the staff as a whole longs to have with you.

Churches that turn inward will die. At every level, churches that turn inward will die. Those that turn outward, even at the risk of surviving, will thrive. Mission is how we do that. What serves mission will ultimately thrive. Because this is the Gospel. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” The conversation I long to have with you is about how are we, all of us, using the tasks before us to embrace, and not to avoid, the Gospel.