Structure, Re-structure, Anti-structure, Missionary Society? Re-imagining the Episcopal Church

Quite simply, the Episcopal Church is floundering (I know the conservatives have been saying that for years). First we had the dust-up over the UTO. Then, earlier this week, we learned that the Episcopal Church will from now on be known as “The Missionary Society” (and the snark was unleashed in the twitter-verse). Most recently, the Task Force on Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church issued an interim report.

It’s pretty clear from all this that “The Leadership” hasn’t a clue what it’s doing. To mishandle the UTO situation so badly suggests a fundamental misreading of the Church (it’s recently aborted advertising campaign and new name are additional examples). The problem is structural, of course–the relationship among the various entities in the Church aren’t clear (Presiding Bishop, General Convention, Executive Council, churchwide staff). Tobias Haller has some helpful background on this. He also asks an important question:

one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn’t the best idea.

In fact, that seems to be what the task force seems to be proposing:

They also begin to suggest the specific roles that the Episcopal churchwide organization might play in cultivating and supporting the life of the church of the 21st century. Its role might shift from a primarily corporate or regulatory structure as we have had in the past, to a network, fostering collaboration and shared identity across Episcopalians and across different entities in the church. Imagine a churchwide structure that “crowd sources” various mission initiatives among the membership rather than legislating and funding them through a centralized budget and bureaucracy.

But isn’t the UTO basically a late-nineteenth century version of crowd sourcing?

If this re-structuring is to succeed, it has to deal with the contradictions and confusion at the very heart of the beast. Identity is important, of course, but clarifying and streamlining the maze of structure described by Haller and Mark Harris is the central issue. Harris has done a good job of explaining the underlying issues in the UTO controversy,  the “branding” silliness, and and the leadership crisis at the top.

Meanwhile, the House of Bishops is meeting in Nashville and yesterday they, too, talked about re-structuring, with conversations around the questions raised by the TREC interim report, and a “draft primer” on Episcopal ecclesiology.  There’s an update here.

As I reflect on all this, I think the bishops are pointing a way forward out of this mess. We need to begin with the church–ecclesiology. Let’s get clear on what we understand the Church in our particular context as Episcopalians to be; then create bodies that reflect this understanding and can carry forward our mission. And if that means abandoning structures like the Presiding Bishop, a churchwide staff, even General Convention, that may have served us well in the past, so be it.

It’s not just that we’re beholden to past structures. We’re beholden to past conceptions of what the church is and how it should incarnate itself in the world. We’re also too dependent on governmental, corporate, and legal frameworks that try to shoehorn the church into structures they can understand, regulate, and co-opt.

The title of this blog post alludes to work by Victor Turner, the twentieth century anthropologist and theorist of ritual. As a historian of Christianity, one of my interests was the interplay between central or institutional authority and local and individual expression of faith. There has always been a tension between forces of institutionalization and centralization on the one hand, and the local and individual, between the letter and the spirit, or between office and charism.

Pope Francis alluded to this very tension in his interview this week when he recast the notion of “thinking with the church” away from the hierarchy toward the whole people of God. What he had to say addresses our particular context as well. Although Episcopalians don’t use that image at all, or accept the notion of the magisterium, we are struggling with something similar: the institutional church’s natural tendencies to centralize, bureaucratize, and dominate over against the diversity of local experience.

Who speaks for the church? Is it the structures, or is it the whole people of God? As we move forward, I hope all of us continue to ask this question



Reforming the Curia (of the Episcopal Church)

I know we don’t really have one but I’ve been interested by the ways in which our own debate about restructuring has its parallels in the Roman Catholic Church. In my previous post, I linked to various commentators inside and outside of the church who are calling for reform of the papal bureaucracy. The Vatileaks scandal exposed the deep resistance to change on the part of much of the Vatican bureaucracy.

History makes clear that reform is difficult. In the Roman Catholic church, true reform has rarely occurred before the crises grew so profound that the future of the Church itself was in jeopardy (the great reform councils of Lateran IV, Constance, and Trent come to mind). In some respects, we may be at a similar place. Certainly American Christianity would seem to be facing an existential crisis. But it’s not clear to me that ecclesial bureacracies perceive us to be at such a point.

In the Episcopal Church, calls for restructuring have gotten louder. At General Convention 2013, a task force was empowered to look at restructuring. It had its first meeting a couple of weeks ago. Here’s the press release. George Clifford, who has written insightfully on the matter of restructuring in the past has a two-part examination of the issue as well (Part I, Part II). He lists ten principles that he thinks should guide the restructuring process:


1. Preserve the four historic orders of ministry
2. TEC’s structure should emphasize both community and mission
3. Preserve governance premised on discerning God’s leading through representative democratic processes
4. Practice subsidiarity
5. Adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses
6. Aim for simplicity of structure
7. Form should follow function
8. Incorporate a structural system of checks and balances
9. TEC’s structure should exhibit transparency and accountability
10. Take advantage of the opportunities for new forms of community and structure that technology has made possible, while seeking to avoid or minimize any adverse consequences

General Convention also passed a resolution that the Episcopal Church move its headquarters from 815 2nd Avenue. During the meeting of the Executive Council last week, representatives of the staff who work there presented arguments against that move. More about that here. Again, George Clifford addresses the issue. And in his inimitable way, Crusty Old Dean has this to say:

It really doesn’t matter where our denominational headquarters is unless we are committed to a holistic rethinking of the kind of denominational structure we need.  Moving it for the sake of moving it, without concurrent discussion about the nature, scope, and purpose of a denominational structure, is pointless.  Likewise, keeping it in place without a holistic appraisal is likewise pointless. …  So who the hell cares where a denominational HQ is if we can’t rethink how we need to do mission in radically changed contexts and think through how this relates to dioceses, congregations, ecumenical partners, and other networks and organizations?

Once created, bureaucracies tend to fight for survival. I had to read Robert Michels Political Parties back in college. That’s the book in which he articulates “the iron law of oligarchy” which is this: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.” I was reminded of this as I noted the hubris of church staff refusing to submit to the will of General Convention. This points to one of the central problems facing any restructuring, on every level of the church–the intransigence of those involved.

We can say all we want about the need to restructure, the necessity of change, everything that I and others have written about over the last several years, including the statistics cited by Diana Butler Bass that I refer to in an earlier post. The reality is that there will be profound and absolute resistance to restructuring, that it will come from all sectors and corners of the church, including the top, and that the battles will be long, bloody, and destructive. Too many people have too much invested, at every level of the church, to expect that change will come easily. All we can hope is that whatever change comes doesn’t require total war to achieve it.

On the other hand, it may be that some new form of shared ministry across what is now the Episcopal Church can only emerge and thrive when the old structures have been completely eradicated. Who knows? We shall see–and it behooves us to pay close attention to the fate of restructuring in other denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.





“dreaming a new church into being” –and the Diocese of South Carolina

The official word is that the Title IV Disciplinary Board has certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina has “abandoned” the Episcopal Church. The news article is here. Crusty Old Dean provides background on the notion of abandonment. He also points out that we’ve all seen it coming but no one seemed able to prevent it.

And now the war of words escalates.  Mark Harris asks Bishop Lawrence to admit he lied during the process that led to his consecration as bishop. The Episcopal Lead assembles the evidence pro and contra. The Diocese of South Carolina cries foul and criticizes the “assault” on their bishop.

I find it interesting that these events are taking place this week against a backdrop of the first meeting of TEC’s Executive Council after General Convention 2012. There were also stories about the work that took place this week: conversations about budget, mission, and restructuring. All of that talk about “putting everything on the table,” the end of Christendom, imagining a new way way of being church for the twenty-first century.

Ah, that word–restructuring. It seems to me that here is a prime opportunity to think creatively about structure, the way we do business, and imagining what a twenty-first century Episcopal Church might look like.

Here’s my question. Why not let the Diocese of South Carolina go? It’s been clear for at least a decade that they don’t want to be part of the Episcopal Church. Their recent actions suggest the plan is to incorporate as a separate denomination (The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South Carolina).

What’s coming next is years of litigation, increased acrimony, conflict played out in the press. The lawyers will make money; bloggers will get lots of website hits; there will be anger, pain, and bad publicity all around.

So why not stop it all now? Why not imagine what a church would be like that could allow those who want out to go, leaving behind all of those who want to remain in the Episcopal Church? Let them have their property and go their separate way. And after they go, let’s imagine what an Episcopal mission might look like in the low country of South Carolina–an Episcopal mission freed from the oppressive traditions of slavery, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Why not put our limited resources toward that vision of a future church rather than paying lawyers and fighting to hold on to a vision of an eighteenth or nineteenth century Church?

Breathing life into Diocesan Convention?

Yesterday, the 165th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee met. Details of the gathering are here.

There were two resolutions: one a change to the canons to permit vestries of six members; the other the annual minimum compensation for clergy. Neither elicited any debate. There were only two contested elections (for a lay member of Executive Committee, and for a clergy slot on Standing Committee).

I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion of the budget but from my twitter feed, it seems that there was little debate on that. In fact, a newcomer to the diocese observed that the explanation of the rules for debate took up more time than the debate itself. It’s as if we were going through the motions–doing things that needed to be done without any energy or excitement.

The only time it seemed the room began to fill with ideas and energy was as we talked around our tables about three questions Bishop Miller gave us at the end of his address. Here they are:

How is your congregation experiencing new life?
How do we, continually ourselves and others to see the new life God is calling forth and deepen our relationship with God?
How can diocesan structures and ministries help you in these efforts?

The questions were oriented toward the diocese’s ongoing strategic planning process in which I participate as a member of the task force.

It got me thinking, though. We’ve been talking a great deal about restructuring the church, on the congregation, diocesan, and church-wide level. Diocesan conventions seem ripe for complete rethinking. Every year, several hundred of the most committed Episcopalian Christians gather in each diocese to elect members to various bodies, debate resolutions, and pass budgets. I’ve never met anyone who said they love the business session of a convention. We do it because we have to do it, because we can’t imagine another way of doing it. But here we are, several hundred of us, gathered to work and worship. We hang out together, rekindle relationships, make new friends. How might we use our time together more effectively: for teaching and learning, for asking big questions and hearing about new initiatives? For praying? Studying the Bible? Instead, we go through the motions of doing business. In our diocese, we hear the Bishop twice, preaching the sermon during the Eucharist and his pastoral address during the business session. Instead of listening, how might we foster more conversation, dialogue, and listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit?

Here’s Bishop Miller’s Pastoral Address to the convention.

Denominational meetings and social media

Monica Coleman reflects on the role of social media at gatherings of mainline denominations this summer:

I’m only a member of one of these denominations, but I’ve enjoyed being a voyeur on all of their activities. I think of it less as spying, and more as keeping my finger on the pulse of American Protestantism. While reports roll in on the decreased religiosity of Americans and low commitment to mainline denominations, these online reports tell a different story. They show the tensions, politics, hopes, aspirations, frustrations, and celebrations of people who care deeply about their faith and their community. I see them struggle with generational, moral, political, and theological differences. All while trying to be friends with those with whom they disagree. Within these churches are groups of people who are discerning when to walk away, and when to stay and fight. In my online spying, it seems like denominational conferences aren’t so different from most Christians I know. I find that immensely reassuring.

There’s been some discussion of the significance of Twitter for General Convention 2012. It may be that we will have to take some time to think about its significance and what we can learn from our experiences. Will there be a lasting impact? There’s been a great deal of talk about building networks in conjunction with restructuring. Are we seeing the birth of something new?

The same could be said about the viral response to the mainstream media stories on General Convention and the Episcopal Church. Dozens of writers responded almost immediately to the articles in the WSJ and NYT. Their pieces were tweeted and retweeted, shared widely, and offered the whole church ways of sharing our version of our story.

But there’s more. Social media has not just allowed us to build new networks and relationships internally, it has also contributed to our ecumenical conversations. It wasn’t just Episcopalians who responded to Douthat and others. Other progressive and mainline Christians did as well and new relationships are being forged even as the conversation is broadening.

I am interested in seeing how this all develops.

The Best of today from General Convention

a few of the things I read that are worth passing along:

The Rev. Chuck Treadwell (deputy, Diocese of Texas) on the relationship between pastoral theology and doctrine when thinking about something like “communion without baptism:”

Any priest who has been a priest for very long knows, however, that pastoral theology often falls outside normative teaching and practice. Therefore, we occasionally respond pastorally in ways that bend the norms.
I am reminded of what I was taught by the Rev. Dr. Marion Hatchett: “never break a rubric unintentionally”. I think most priest have given communion to an unbaptized person. Hospitality and compassion may require it. But the doctrine of Baptism remains.

There’s a proposal to sell the Episcopal Church’s property at 815 Second Ave in NY. It’s expensive, underutilized, and a relic of a former age. Crusty Old Dean weighs in:

We can’t stop at selling 815 and think we have slain Constantine.  COD is enthusiastically supportive of this resolution (I thought we should move most everything to the ELCA building in Chicago) with two caveats.

1)  We will need to be OK with the transition needed.  Staff, including support staff as well as program staff, will be needed to be treated fairly.

2)  We must also think broader and more holistically, and not rush to details and obsess over things like where the new denominational building might be.  We must also have conversations about what function our staff should have and how they will connect to all levels of the church.

If we don’t begin to think in this way, it won’t matter where the denomination gets its mail.


The proposed C001 resolution on restructuring (Thanks to David Sibley)

And finally, and most importantly, Bishop Curry’s sermon from this morning’s Eucharist–check it out, he can preach!

How not to restructure–lessons from the UVA disaster

I’ve followed the story about the ouster and reinstatement of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan quite closely. It’s a fascinating tale, full of intrigue, missteps, and people power. One interesting perspective from a faculty member (Siva Vaidhyanathan) is here

There are a number of ways to think about this–a battle over restructuring, the corporatization of the university, another episode in partisanship. I keep coming back to something else, our own debates over restructuring in the Episcopal Church. Of course, the situation is rather different (we’ve got no billionaires trying to call the shots), but there are similar tactics in play–secrecy, cabals, power plays (from all sides). Some of the rhetoric is the same, too. We’ve got to change because of the rapid change in our society, for example.

There’s probably also another parallel, the question of mission. Whom do we serve, why do we exist? Those questions are always at the forefront of debates in the church; they are also at the heart of the conflict in the academy right now.

Vaidhyanathan has this to say about the mission of higher education:

Universities are supposed to be special places where we let young people imagine a better world. They are supposed to be able to delay the pressures of the daily grind for a few years. They are supposed to be able to aspire to greatness and inspire each other. A tiny few will aspire to be poets. Many more will aspire to be engineers. Some will become both. Along the way they will bond with friends, meet lovers, experience hangovers, make mistakes, and read some mind-blowing books.

Does that sound wasteful? Does that sound inefficient? Nostalgic? Out-of-sync with the times? Damn right it does.

Perhaps the best lesson we might learn is how not to go about restructuring. The problem at UVA is that the Board of Visitors did not engage the entire university in the conversation about restructuring. Look what happened. Let’s avoid that one.

It all becomes clear now: Structure, dysfunction, and the Episcopal Church

Katie Sherrod, a member of Executive Council, has published her version of the budget and restructuring debates in and around EC. With Susan Russell’s from last week, the two combine to offer an alternative narrative to that produced by the Presiding Bishop and the Chief Operating Officer, and to offer explanations for the deep distrust among all the players involved. It’s clear that it’s not just the process that’s broken. The institution, structures, and relationships are broken as well. Indeed, so broken is everything that I’m not sure there’s any point in trying to fix things.

My question for all those involved–PB, COO, PHoD, EC, staff, even GC itself: “How can you imagine any of us on the margins of these structures, looking on from afar, can have any trust in any of it, or even any sense that what you do might have a positive impact on what we’re trying to do in the local church?”

Where do we go from here? Can these bones live? I don’t think so. I think there’s only one answer and it’s a complete demolition and rebuild. We’ve got to rebuild from the bottom up, not remodel the existing edifice. Those who are currently involved in running things should be excluded from designing plans for the new structure. They are both too invested in the Church as it exists and too caught up in the conflicts and struggles of the past to imagine new structures and to imagine a new way of being church.

How do we go about all this? There are lots of proposals out there already and I’m not going to add to the mix. Instead, I’m going to urge my diocesan deputation to General Convention to engage in conversations about structure with others and to encourage the development of a process that takes place outside the existing structures of the Church (i.e., General Convention, Executive Council, 815). I’m going to urge them to listen to voices that don’t want to re-open old wounds or rehearse old antagonisms (even if “old” dates only to October 2011, January, March, May 2012). From those conversations may bubble up an alternative way to approach restructuring. It may even be that an already proposed resolution might point a way forward.

Scott Gunn has a great deal to say on these matters. I agree wholeheartedly:

In my view, we should start with a blank slate. “IF we were creating the Episcopal Church from scratch for our time, what would it look like?” Let’s pretend we have no headquarters, no committees, no legislative assembly. Nothing. What would we build? What does our mission compel us to build?

Our question cannot be, does this committee do a good job and are the people who have served on it faithful servants? No, the question must be, how can we do this work? Is there a way to do it without a committee? Do we need a staff office to make this work happen?

There should be no sacred cows. Everything, and I mean everything, should be up for grabs. Except. We are an episcopal church, so we need to continue to understand that the fundamental unit of the church is the diocese, not the congregation or a larger structure. Also, we need a model that supports ministry and leadership by lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons. Open, clear, governance is necessary.

I’m also going to propose a resolution at our diocesan convention that funds our asking to the National Church only at the level needed for canonical support (apparently 5%). That would free up a great deal of money for us to use in developing programs and networks both internally and across dioceses to do the mission and ministry work we need to do as a church. It may also be that from such efforts a new creation might spring forth.

I’ve found Bishop Kirk Smith’s reflections about restructuring which he places in the context of “creative abandonment,” quite enlightening.

Is a representative democracy the best way to structure a denomination?

Like Churchill said, it may be better than the alternatives. It’s certainly better than the authoritarian hierarchy we see elsewhere, but can we envision alternatives?

Jim Naughton takes to task those who see in the infinite vote-takings at General Convention a culture of “winners and losers.” He wonders whether we have become to fragile for democracy.

Mark Harris has asked the same thing.

Others disagree. Susan B. Snook advocates a deep period of prayer and discernment as we look toward restructuring, rather than the calling of a special convention.

Scott Gunn’s blogging blue has come to the resolutions on public policy that are before GC 2012. He is sharply critical of resolutions that ask governments to take action. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves. I’ve sat through enough diocesan conventions to dread the debate over this or that resolution that takes a stand on some issue facing the state or the nation. I doubt that whatever we say, as a diocese or as the Episcopal Church, has any impact on lawmakers or on public policy. The impact it does have is on making some of us feel good, when the resolution that is passed is in keeping with our political agenda. It also alienates those who may take a different perspective on the issue, and ultimately, it may alienate outsiders as well.

In the Episcopal Church, we have seen a hard-fought partisan battle over the full inclusion of LGBT persons. That battle is winding down with the approval of liturgies for blessings likely this summer. There were winners and losers and many of the losers left the church.

We live in a political culture of hyper-partisanship and I think we need to ask ourselves whether the deep partisan divide that affects our political culture may also have infected our church. Are there other ways of decision-making that might avoid up or down votes on hundreds of resolutions? Are there other models for gathering the larger community together to discern God’s will? We have a legislative process in the Church and in the nation. The legislative process is broken in Washington; perhaps it’s broken in General Convention as well–or perhaps it diminishes us as individuals and as the body of Christ, instead of allowing us to flourish.

The analogy between bookstores and the church

David Lose, whom I respect immensely, wrote recently on the parallel decline of bookstores and institutional Christianity:

This means things may – actually, strike that, things will  – look different. But it may also lead to a renewed sense of the nature and purpose of our congregations.  After all, there are a lot fewer book publishers and bookstores than there were a decade ago. At the same time, more people are reading – print books, ebooks, blogs, webzines, etc. – than ever before. The question isn’t whether people will keep reading, but who will help them do it.

The same is true, I think, of congregations. This present generation reports a greater interest in mystery, the divine, and spirituality than has any generation in a century. So the question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God

Then I came across this. In 1931,

“In the entire country, there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels,” Davis writes. “In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Read the whole article.

The rise of book publishing, “the paperback generation,” perfectly mirrors the growth in institutional Christianity in the twentieth century. The decline in “bricks and mortar” retailing, perfectly mirrors the decline in institutional Christianity.

What should we conclude? Lose is right: “The question isn’t whether people will seek God, but rather who will help them find God.”