Update on Marriage in the Episcopal Church: Bishop Miller’s statement

Yesterday, the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops’ approval of the previous day, changing the canons (law) of the Church, and approving trial rites for marriage. My previous post on the topic links to the relevant documents and some of the discussion.

Today, Bishop Miller shared some of his thoughts and suggested how this might play out in the Diocese of Milwaukee:

While I have yet to work out the details, I anticipate I will authorize the use of the trial rites under guidelines similar to those set forth when I authorized clergy to bless civil marriages. As the new rites are marriage rites, clergy will be able to act as agents of the state should they so choose.

The Marriage Mess in the Episcopal Church

I haven’t blogged on issues around marriage and same sex blessings in the run-up to General Convention, for a couple of reasons. First, I found it difficult to wade through all of the materials and the extensive discussion around the various proposals. Second, knowing that the Supreme Court would weigh in on the issue of gay marriage in June, I suspected that its decision would have some impact on General Convention’s deliberations and I thought it best to wait and see.

Well, the Supreme Court has weighed in and yesterday, the House of Bishops weighed in as well. Yesterday, the bishops approved a number of things. They removed from the canons (church law) references to marriage that specified it is between a man and woman and they also approved for trial use beginning the First Sunday of Advent in 2015, two new marriage liturgies. Because they are “trial use,” they can only be used with the approval of the diocesan bishop. More details on the bishops’ actions are available here.

All of these resolutions will need to pass the House of Deputies, and the canonical changes will require approval at the next General Convention 2018. In the meantime, we’re left with at least two different liturgies, the possibility that dioceses will make different decisions about the use of those liturgies, and further strained relations within the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and with many other Christians.

Still, the bishops’ actions are significant. Given the speed with which gay marriage has become legal and accepted in our country, and given the extent to which it diverges from practice in the Christian tradition and traditional biblical interpretation, it’s worth considering carefully what affect these changes might have on the world-wide Anglican Communion and our relations with other Christians.  I’m even more concerned about the precedent this might set for how we will go about our theological and ethical reflection in the future; especially how all this might affect any future prayer book revision (an idea that seems to be getting increasing traction in the church). No doubt wiser minds than I have considered all this and have put their minds at ease.

Jordan Hylden wrote an insightful commentary that explores how the Episcopal Church might continue to make room for dioceses and bishops who oppose same-sex marriage in the church, and leaves us with the question whether the Episcopal Church can develop a way forward that will embrace diversity in doctrine, worship, and discipline.

The liturgies as proposed and other materials related to marriage from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music are available here:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has weighed on the House of Bishops’ votes:

Archbishop Justin Welby said that its decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.

At a time of such suffering around the world, he stated that this was a moment for the church to be looking outwards.

An interesting back and forth hosted by The Anglican Theological Review provides theological perspective and is worth reading, for the way the issues are articulated and clarified.

General Convention 2015

It’s less than two weeks away. I’ve been surprisingly disengaged from the whole thing, probably because of everything that’s going on in Madison and at Grace but I’m sure I’ll be paying close attention to the proceedings. It’s taking place against the backdrop of fast-paced and disorienting cultural change. It’s quite possible that the Supreme Court will make public its ruling on same sex marriage while General Convention is in session. But over everything looms the reality of enormous change in how Americans relate to religion and to religious institutions. The big news on the religion front this week will be Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment and I wonder whether its publication will have any impact on General Convention. I hope to have more to say about thoese issues in the next couple of days, but for now, I thought that I should at least get some of the most important resources out to readers of this blog (and to folks at Grace) who might otherwise not have access to them.

It will be interesting to see whether the Episcopal Church can begin to reshape itself for the new world in which we live.

General Convention’s Website is here.

Information about the nominees for Presiding Bishop is here.

The Blue Book contains all of the legislation and reports of the various interim bodies

Blogs to follow:

Acts 8 Moment

Scott Gunn

The Diocese of Milwaukee’s deputation has its own website and Facebook page

In addition to electing a new Presiding Bishop, among the most important issues under discussion will have to do with restructuring the church and marriage (including same-sex blessings).


I won’t be signing on…

I haven’t blogged Episcopal matters much in recent months for several reasons. First, I’ve been focused on other matters in my day-to-day ministry and as we prepare for renovations at Grace. Perhaps more importantly, there are urgent needs and issues in Madison and the nation that have demanded attention. And frankly, although the Triennial General Convention is a little more than a month away and the usual verbiage and posturing related to it are well underway, I haven’t found any of it particularly compelling. That’s surprising, because there are a number of important issues that will come before Convention—reports from the marriage task force, same sex blessings, restructuring, and the election of a new Presiding Bishop.

The level of my disengagement and disinterest was only slightly altered by the release yesterday of A Memorial to the Church: “Calling the 78th General Convention to Proclaim Resurrection.” Crafted by eight people and with a lengthy list of signatures from bishops, deputies, and others, the document is a plea for the transformation of the Episcopal Church:

 We, the undersigned, hold dear the Episcopal Church and believe passionately in the gift this church offers. Washed in the waters of Baptism and nourished from the deep springs of word and sacrament, we experience the power of God’s presence as we open the Scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. We stand in awe of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the power of the triune God to love, to forgive, to make whole. We know the joy of serving God through serving others. We long for a world with every unjust structure toppled. We love this church enough to yearn for it to be transformed.

The authors urge General Convention to take action:

Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now;


Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission;


Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry;


Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well;


Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives;


Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.

As I read, and although I am familiar with and respect many of the authors of the document, I wondered, “What world do they live in?”

That question reverberated as I read another document prepared for General Convention published the same day, “The Report on the Church.”

The four-year trend (2009-2013) shows an 8 percent decrease in active membership and a 9 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. The 10-year trend data provides a longer view of what has occurred in the life of the domestic dioceses of The Episcopal Church. In that period, the Church has seen an 18 percent decrease in active membership and a 24 percent decrease in Average Sunday Attendance. Communicants in Good Standing also declined by 18 percent during the last 10 years. It should be noted, however, that the severity of annual declines began to moderate somewhat in 2011, with domestic losses dropping from around 50,000 members per year to less than 29,000 per year for three consecutive years (2011-2013).

I began to wonder not only “What world do they live in?” but “What church do they live in?”

The Pew Survey that was released earlier this work shows a dramatic decline in religious affiliation in the US, a trend especially prominent among “millennials.” It’s not just about the decline of traditional mainline Christianity. It’s a transformation in the way people express and embody their religious lives. What might “discipleship” look like or mean in that context?

Don’t get me wrong. I think what the document advocates is spot on. My criticism is that it isn’t radical enough. Perhaps we need to be ready to “release our hold” on the Episcopal Church itself.

This past Tuesday, while I marched with other clergy through the streets of Madison in the wake of the DA’s decision not to prosecute in the shooting of Tony Robinson, I was struck both by the power and privilege of our symbols and buildings as well as by their relative irrelevance to the lives and issues facing our community. Clergy and lay people were present. We spoke, marched, prayed, and sang but most of the energy, passion, and message came from others. We contributed our prestige, privilege, and whatever moral authority we carry. And the final gathering on the steps of Grace was a great photo-op.

As we marched, I had a conversation with a retired Episcopal priest about the Pew Survey and what it meant for the Episcopal Church. I told him I thought that the Church would die but that the spirit of Anglicanism could live on in new forms of community and in new ways of being Anglican. But we must let that spirit blow where it will, and not try to divert it to rekindle the dying embers of old fires. I suspect the Episcopal Church lingers in those dying embers.

I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.


Strike up “Nearer my God, to Thee:” The Titanic (aka Episcopal Church) is sinking

We’re done rearranging deckchairs; it’s all hands overboard. TREC (the Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church, or maybe commission, I can’t remember) has issued its final report, available here.

I skimmed some of it but my eyes soon glazed over, I have four sermons to write in the next week or so, plus a vestry meeting tonight, so I waited for Crusty Old Dean to weigh in. And weigh in he did. I’m grateful to him because he knows the Constitutions and Canons, Episcopal history, and has extensive experience in the wider church as a long-time staff member and now as a Seminary dean. If you feel you must read the TREC report, be sure to have Crusty’s commentary open in another window.

Well, I’ll admit, I started reading the thing, but then I got to page 2 and to this paragraph:

The movement always precedes the institution, and practice always precedes structure. For this reason, we believe the most important thing we can do together in this moment is
return to three basic practices that helped to animate the early Christian movement. We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on the basic practices of the movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future. As in the past, the new future of The Episcopal Church will emerge from a focus on adapting and renewing the movement’s basic practices in our own various local contexts while adapting the current structures to enable and even encourage this movement to catch on.
I don’t know where this distinction between “movement” and “institution” comes from but I remember the former President of the House of Deputies use it in a talk and finding it remarkable that someone as deeply connected to the institutional church would find it a useful way of explaining the process of reform in the church. (I guess it derives ultimately from Troeltsch and or Weber, but I’m eager to be educated).
What bothers me about this distinction is that it’s artificial and utopian. We can posit the existence of a “Jesus movement” but the only sources we have for it were sanctioned by the institution (The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife notwithstanding). Jesus and his followers existed within and alongside an institutional Judaism which they were trying to reform and we know about Jesus only because of the institution that emerged from his death and resurrection.  Movement and institution are inseparable.
Something Crusty wrote in his closing paragraphs got me thinking, however. As he bemoaned the failure of TREC to capture the historical moment, he began to prognosticate:
and in the 2020s and 2030s our churchwide structures will collapse on their own.   There’s going to be lots of collapse in the church, after all.  A number of seminaries, about half our congregations, and maybe 40% of our dioceses will eventually no longer be viable.  Our churchwide organization will do the same.  Those surviving Episcopalians doing the mission of the Gospel will come together and create something.  Like the Popes declaring themselves infallible as their temporal power ended in 1870, like Episcopalians creating a new church only when their old one was destroyed in the Revolution, we can only create a new order when the old one has passed away.
I’m not sure why he mentioned those two particular historical moments but I began to think about other historical crises to which the church had to respond. The first that came to mind was the Protestant Reformation. It took decades (almost thirty years) for the Roman Catholic Church to respond institutionally to the challenge of Luther and the other Protestants. And the response itself took considerable time (the Council of Trent met sporadically from 1545 to 1563). But in the long run, Roman Catholicism was stronger and more vibrant, more stable too, than it had been in the preceding centuries.
An example closer to home (at least for Anglicans) is the Evangelical Revival of the late 17th and 18th centuries. A “movement” attempted reform; some elements of it remained within the institutional church; others left to form their own institutions. There are many other historical examples–the Franciscans (and Dominicans) in the 12th century; Vatican II; even Pope Francis, although it’s far too soon, decades too soon, to render any judgment there.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that if one looks at the History of Christianity, the impetus for reform almost never comes from the institutional center. In fact, the center almost always resists the reform. Occasionally, it will attempt to coopt it (as Innocent IV did with Francis), but usually even that fails.
Like Crusty, I had some hopes for TREC. I should have known better. Like Crusty, I have no doubt that the institutional structures that we have known, loved, profited from, and railed against, will not survive the next half-century. But I’m also quite confident that in the absence of planetary death or the parousia, in fifty years there will be new structures and institutions that will be the Body of Christ and participate in the Missio Dei, and that in less than a century, there will be new cries for reform in saecula saeculorum.

Requiem for a seminary? Requiem for a church

Once again, Crusty Old Dean tells the hard truth:

Requiem for a seminary? Requiem for a church which calls white black and black white, and calls things resignations which are not resignations. Shall we be a church where petty oligarchies can run roughshod, whether in seminaries, or dioceses, or parishes, divorced from their constituencies?

Reimagining the Episcopal Church: Where’s the Good News?

This week, the Task Force on Re-imagining the Episcopal Church released an update on its work. It begins with a description of what it has learned so far:

What we have heard is a deep, abiding love for our Church and its unique way of creating Christ-centered community and mission.  The Book of Common Prayer and the beauty and mystery of our liturgy bind us together across ages, geographies and politics. We deeply love the intellectual as well as the spiritual life that is cultivated in our members (“you don’t need to leave your mind at the door”).

The document goes on to describe a vision of a new world, and presumably, a new church:

Imagine a world where our parishes consistently are good at inspiring their traditional members and also are energized and effective in reaching out to new generations and new populations.  Imagine a world where the shape of our Church frequently adapts, as new parish communities emerge in non-traditional places and non-traditional ways, and as existing parishes merge and reinvent as local conditions change.  Imagine a world where Episcopal clergy and lay leaders are renowned for being highly effective leaders, skilled at Christian formation and community building, at new church planting, at church transformation, and at organizing communities for mission.  Imagine that Episcopalians easily collaborate with each other across the Church:  forming communities of interest, working together to share learnings from local initiatives, and collaborating to pool resources and ideas.  Imagine that the Church wide structure of The Episcopal Church primarily serves to enable and magnify local mission through networked collaboration, as well as to lend its prophetic voice.  Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration.

When they get down to the brass tacks of reform and restructuring, they highlight several areas where they will be making recommendations.

Criticism of the document has already emerged. Mark Harris offers commentary, some of it quite wise, including his observation that the document’s over-use of the word “parish” suggests that the task force hasn’t gotten very far in imagining other possible forms of congregational life, or other contexts for ministry and mission. Robert Hendrickson takes aim at the old “you don’t need to leave your mind at the door” canard.

What bothers me is the starting point (at least in this document). When it identifies what we share, it is describing a picture that could have been painted thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago–the BCP and the beauty and mystery of our liturgy. It starts with us. It doesn’t start with the gospel or with Jesus Christ. I understand that it is the product of a task force with a specific charge but it seems to me that now more than ever, our work at every level of the church needs to be rooted in the Gospel and in our relationship with Jesus Christ. It also needs to be surrounded and imbued with prayer. Nowhere in the document is scripture quoted. Any effort aimed at the transformation of human structures and institutions that lacks foundation in scripture, prayer, and a living experience of Jesus Christ is bound to fail.

A little over a week ago, I posted some comments on what we in the mainline might learn from Pope Francis. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope has this to say:

I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).

That’s a vision of the future of the Church I find compelling. It’s also a vision of the gospel I find compelling. It’s compelling because it is the product of someone whose joyful experience of Jesus Christ is evident to all. His passion for sharing the love of Christ on display at every turn.

Now, the TREC cannot hope to be as charismatic or popular as Pope Francis but I think all of us in the Episcopal Church have an important lesson to learn from the Pope. We exist because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We exist to proclaim his death and resurrection to the world. Our efforts to reform ourselves as a church should also be the occasion for our proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

If you want to learn more about this effort and share your own feedback to the task force, visit their website: http://reimaginetec.org/