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

 

 

Something very fishy going on in the Episcopal Church

This one is primarily for Episcopal insiders, that very small, and declining number of people who care about what happens in the Episcopal Church.

This week, Mark Harris broke the news that four boardmembers of the UTO (United Thank Offering) had resigned in protest of what seemed to them to be an attempt by The Episcopal Church to take over their assets, their good name, and their mission. The UTO is a longstanding tradition in the Episcopal Church. Begun by women at a time when women were shut out of the organization, leadership, and structure of the church, it collects money from individuals and parishes and gives a crazy high percentage of that money away in grants. It has almost no administrative costs. What costs that do exist are largely assumed by the Episcopal Church.

But apparently, in an effort to increase transparency and accountability, a committee consisting of UTO board members and Church Center staff have created new bylaws for the organization that, in the judgment of the resigning board members:

The revised bylaws document eviscerates the United Thank Offering. It is monstrous and the worst set of revisions ever seen by one longtime bylaws expert.   Several Board members described initial reactions to the document as “Horror.”  The Board President said the word “eviscerate” occurred to her as well.

Mark, a former member of the Executive Council, and also a former member of the committee that was charged with studying the relationship of the UTO to TEC, is following this story very closely and has offered comment on the new bylaws. His questions and concerns are very helpful.

In the course of the day yesterday, the President of the House of Deputies, and “the Leadership” (whatever that may mean) also offered their takes on the matter. You can read their pieces here.

Part of what seems to be at stake here is that the proposed bylaws remake the nature of the UTO board (it was previously elected from various Episcopal Church Women bodies) and put the power of final approval of UTO grants in the hands of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.

Quite apart from another public relations disaster for the Episcopal Church, the Presiding Bishop, and its Chief Operating Officer, all of this seems to me to be quite contrary to the push for restructuring, and allowing grassroots organizations to thrive. To add another level to the grantmaking process is to make the process more cumbersome, more time-consuming, and more expensive. To take power away from the periphery and concentrate it on the center is to exacerbate problems.

The PR is awful; it’s embarrassing. To issue press releases under the aegis of “The Leadership” is laughable. They might as well call it the Politburo. It looks like all either the Presiding Bishop or the COO care about is money, property (a charge thrown out repeatedly by those involved in property litigation), and power. And because the UTO was largely independent, it had all of those things.

There is so little trust in the periphery for TEC; so little trust from ordinary members, from parishes and congregations. The UTO is one of those things that we could all agree on. We knew its origins; we knew that the money collected would go to amazing mission projects across the US and across the world.

Once again, instead of focusing on what we need to do, and what UTO has done in the past, we are focused on process, on power, on hurt. I’m really not sure we’ll have a UTO ingathering at Grace this fall. I certainly won’t be able to say with any certainty where the money will go.

How can you mess something up so completely?

But my prayer remains:

GRACIOUS GOD, source of all creation, all love, all true joy: accept, we pray, these outward signs of our profound and continuing thankfulness for all of life. Keep each of us ever thankful for all the blessings of joy and challenge that come our way. Bless those who will benefit from these gifts through the outreach of the United Thank Offering. This we ask through Him who is the greatest gift and blessing of all, Jesus Christ. Amen

 

Another Episcopal Bishop responds to the Supreme Court decision

A very different perspectives than those I linked to earlier (here and here) comes from Bishop Little of the Diocese of Northern Indiana:

While people who share my perspective are in a minority within the Episcopal Church, and while many have simply become silent in the face of such overwhelming numbers on the other side of these difficult issues, the Episcopal Church is far from monochrome.  And so it is essential that church leaders – and the church’s own news service – honestly recognize this diversity when they respond to an event such as the Supreme Court’s ruling.  To fail to do so is, effectively, to “un-church” a theological minority and to treat them as though they do not exist.

In other words:  Go gently in victory – and in defeat.

Here is my own commitment:

  • I will recognize and honor the presence of brothers and sisters within my own diocese who conscientiously disagree with me.
  • I will do all that I can to be in relationship with them, and to seek honest and open conversation.  That includes creating diocesan policies that honor their consciences as well as my own.
  • I will recognize that I might be wrong, and will continue to search the Scriptures.

And I urge my fellow leaders in the Episcopal Church – and the Episcopal News Service – to make a similar undertaking:

  • Recognize that there are faithful brothers and sisters in your diocese, in your parish, and in your ecclesisial institutions, who do not agree with you – even if they are silent.  Recognize and celebrate their presence.  Never speak or act as though they do not exist.
  • Do all that you can to be in relationship with them.  Talk with them.  Make sure that their consciences are honored.
  • Recognize that you might be wrong.  Continue to search the Scriptures.

The ENS article of July 1 and many statements issued immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling profoundly disturbed me.  They felt at best dismissive and at worst triumphalist.

I’m grateful to Bishop Little for speaking out.

More on decline in the Southern Baptist Convention: A mirror image of the Episcopal Church?

Jonathan Merritt offers advice to the SBC. Some of it might be of interest to Episcopalians.

Of note:

If you review the resolutions, reports, and microphone grandstands of the SBC’s annual meeting during recent years, you’ll find a lot of energy expended on secondary things. The Associated Pressreported this week on how debates over Calvinism is dividing the Convention. Add to this recent squabbles over the “sinner’s prayer” and other lesser issues, and you have a denomination that spends major energy over minor issues.

The SBC’s resolution history also seems to bear this out. There was the ineffective 1997 boycott on Disney, a resolution to retain the traditional method of calendar dating (B.C. / A.D.) in 2000, and a 2011 resolution disapproving of the revision to the world’s most popular Bible translation (NIV), which requested that LifeWay Christian Stores stop carrying it. (One year later, LifeWay still sells the translation.)

If the Southern Baptist Convention wants to regain the credibility, interest, and relevance it has lost, the denomination must learn to put first things first. Namely, sharing the gospel through missions and showing the gospel through acts of service, compassion, and justice.

And this:

Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.”
He concludes:
The denomination must now decide whether to chart a new path for the sake of its future or maintain its current course. But one thing is certain. When the convention gathers for its annual meeting in another decade, people will still be talking. The question is now, “Will anyone be listening?”

My message to members and friends of Grace Church in response to Bishop Miller’s letter

My previous post extracts several paragraphs from Bishop Miller’s letter and links to the full document.

For whatever reasons, there has not been a great deal of energy around the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church at Grace. I have not been approached by couples seeking the church’s blessing. I received very few questions and had few conversations last year during the run-up to and after General Convention. I do know that parishioners have a variety of views on these issues. Our disagreements to some degree mirror the disagreements in the wider church and in our society. I also know that men and women of good will can and do disagree on these issues as on many others and that the positions we take are in response to our desire and efforts to live out our calls to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

I am your pastor. I seek to be the pastor of everyone who enters our doors in search of God’s grace and love. I know both the power and fragility of the love of two people and I know how important it is that a couple can find support for their relationship in the body of Christ. That there are couples among us whose relationships cannot be acknowledged and blessed publicly saddens me to the core. It goes against my theology, my experience of the Gospel, and my model of our life together in Christ. I will continue to try to welcome, affirm, and be pastor to everyone—singles, couples, widowed, divorced—who seek to find and live out the love of Christ in their relationships as best and creatively as I can while keeping my vow of obedience to the bishop. And I will continue to pray and work for a deeper and fuller realizing of Christ’s love in all that we as a Church are and do.

Please contact me if you would like to talk about this or any other issue in the life of our congregation or in your personal life. As we continue to strive to discern God’s call for us individually and as the body of Christ on Madison’s Capitol Square, my prayer is the prayer of Jesus that we “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

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.

 

 

 

 

Bishops inspiring

By one of those remarkable coincidences I came across the addresses (or reports) of three bishops to their dioceses. They are very different in content, context, and tone, but each in its way, is inspiring, offering hope for the future, and reflective of an Episcopal Church that is mission-focused and forward looking.

From Bishop Shannon Johnston of Virginia, the remarkable story of his developing relationship with the Rector of Truro Parish, one of the congregations that left the Diocese of Virginia.

From the Diocese of North Carolina, Bishop Michael Curry’s convention sermon. If you think Episcopalians can’t preach inspiring sermons, have a listen. I heard him preach a powerful sermon at a conference a year ago. If you ever get a chance to hear him in person, jump.

And from Bishop Andy Doyle of the Diocese of Texas, a report on the innovative ministries and mission that are occurring their under his guidance: council13-bishops-report. I’ve blogged about Bishop Doyle before and I commend his book, Unabashedly Episcopalian.

One of the things Bishop Doyle mentions very late in that report is his effort to recast the role of the Bishop: as preacher, teacher, communicator. Looking at the episcopacy from below, it seems to me that for the Episcopal Church to thrive in the present moment, such re-visioning of the bishop’s office is crucial. (Recasting the role of rector is equally crucial, especially when the tendency is to focus on the administrative tasks at hand (I say this after a day spent in a two-hour executive committee meeting, followed by a couple of hours dealing with issues that grew out of that meeting as well as the ordinary tasks that cross my desk and my email inbox each day). Still, Bishop Doyle is right on. I don’t know if he’s aware that in articulating those areas of teaching, preaching, and communicating, he is returning to the Early Church’s notion of the bishop’s office, as well as the importance of those particular roles in later reform efforts. Such refocusing is needed today, and the three bishops I direct your attention to are doing that to great effect.