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.

The pathetic battle over diocesan seals

Last week, the conflict among Episcopalians in South Carolina reached a new low with a court battle (and restraining order) over the right to use the seal of the Diocese of South Carolina. We used to fight over doctrine or LGBT equality, even property (of course, we still do). Now we fight over diocesan seals.

If anyone on the outside would care enough to take notice, I’m sure this would open up a whole line of jokes. I can imagine the cultured despisers in Charleston issuing bon mots over their chardonnay or whiskey, if they even pay attention any more to the internecine battles of dying institutional Christianity. I can imagine, too, how this battle might become a marketing campaign for Episcopalians (of whatever variety) who are embarking on evangelism (we’ve got the truth and the true seal!). I can imagine how generations alienated from the institutional church for all sorts of reasons including our propensity to fight among ourselves, will laugh, and ignore, and seek meaning and purpose in life elsewhere than in the good news of Jesus Christ.

What pains me about this is not the conflict, although that is very painful. What pains me most is the energy and expense spent on a battle that no one will win, energy and expense spent in a futile effort to retain the signs, seals, status, and prestige of empire. For a seal is nothing more than that—a symbol of power—used over the centuries by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose its will on the people. Blessed by empire, a seal tries to preserve imperial power. And that, ultimately, is what this battle is about.

We saw earlier this week at the inauguration Episcopalians praying, worshiping, kowtowing to empire, praising the president while our drones continue to destroy innocent lives in Yemen, and the poor here at home languish. We see in South Carolina last, desperate efforts by Episcopalians on all sides to grasp at and retain power, wealth, and privilege.

In South Carolina and elsewhere, the Episcopal Church, which proclaimed its commitment to restructuring and “putting everything on the table” at General Convention last year with restructuring resolutions and task forces, rejected a possible future in order to preserve a past that is long gone. What would happen if instead of speaking of “continuing dioceses” or “faithful remnants,” the Episcopal Church used these situations to experiment with new possibilities? What if we gave up the power, prestige, and wealth of the past (and present) and seek to be the people of God, the body of Christ, in new ways, no longer bound to the power and property of previous centuries? What if we imagined and dreamed a new church, new ways of being church into being? What if we let go of the past, of all that it means, and venture forth on new journeys, trying to live faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways, new ministries and new missions? What if “we had the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, … who humbled himself, even to death on the cross?”

What would happen if we gave up our power, prestige, property, and seals?

What a Mess!

Mark Lawrence responds to yesterday’s developments. Money quote:

“Quite simply I have not renounced my orders as a deacon, priest or bishop any more than I have abandoned the Church of Jesus Christ — But as I am sure you are aware, the Diocese of South Carolina has canonically and legally disassociated from The Episcopal Church,” Lawrence said in a letter posted on the diocese’s website after the presiding bishop’s announcement. “We took this action long before today’s attempt at renunciation of orders, therein making it superfluous.”

Some circular reasoning here, I think, in that he claims his actions make the declaration of renunciation “superfluous.”

Other commentary on the spiraling crisis. From Mark Harris:

I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if one of the first dioceses to undergo the stress of division had come to the General Convention and petitioned to leave the General Convention, gave the grounds, showed that a large majority of the people and clergy were for it, and made suggestions as to how all could be responsible to the trust or common ownershop concerns. Could General Convention have said, go with our blessings, but know that we will continue in the area where you are to keep and Episcopal Church presence. I don’t know. But no diocese has to my knowledge ever petitioned General Convention on any level to a parting of the ways.  Instead leaders have gone with their followers, called themselves the Diocese and generally ended up in a spitting contest with The Episcopal Church leadership.

From Anthony Clavier:

When it comes to the essential morality of what has happened -I’m not using morality as in sex – few on either side have much to boast about. We’ve hurled insults as readily as we’ve sought to make theological justification for our positions. We look like our political parties. That’s no accident. We live in two worlds and as we spend more time in society and ‘culture’ as we do in the Kingdom: the world seems to triumph.


Is it too late?  It’s never too late. If those who manage the Episcopal Church don’t believe in conscience that they can make room for conscientious dissent, isn’t it their duty to make caring space for dissenters? If those of us who cannot square our consciences with the new canonical provisions, should we not do all we can to respond to any initiatives by the Episcopal Church to give us room.

Update on the Episcopal Church in South Carolina

I had some trouble figuring out what to title this post, since everything, including what to call the various parties involved in the dispute, is being contested.


At least I’m not being as tendentious as the the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs, which entitled its press release today “Presiding Bishop accepts Lawrence’s renunciation.” It’s not at all clear to me that what Bishop Lawrence did or said in his convention address of November 17 constitutes renunciation of his ordination vows. The Episcopal Cafe story is here.

The article goes on to say that the PB’s actions were fully supported by members of her Council of Advice.

I grant that this is a difficult situation but I fail to see what is being accomplished in these actions or in earlier ones, such as the PB’s “pastoral letter” that read more like a legal document than attempt to listen, mend fences, or pray for reconciliation.

Tobias Haller wonders whether the PB is jumping the gun. He points out that the canons require a written declaration of renunciation:

While I believe that Mark Lawrence has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, I do not think he has renounced his ministry, at least in the manner laid out by Canon III.12.7, which requires a written declaration to the Presiding Bishop expressing a “desire to be removed.”

If there is a way forward, or a Christ-like presence in this controversy, it seems to me the statements of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina are bearing witness to Christ’s reconciling love. Here’s a resolution passed by that Diocese’s Standing Committee on the situation: SC Ltr Res

Bishop Waldo wrote a pastoral letter. In it he writes:

Looking to the future, we do not know how things will unfold across the state. We do not know what individuals and congregations within the Diocese of South Carolina will do. We do not know how the leadership of The Episcopal Church will proceed.

We do know that friendships and relationships across the state will persist. I do know that I will stay in contact with my brother, Mark Lawrence, and those within this diocese who have appreciated and agreed with his theological perspective. I will also stay in contact and dialogue with those who have felt that The Episcopal Church has moved courageously in its theological developments. And, I offer my support to those within the Diocese of South Carolina who wish remain within The Episcopal Church. Both Bishop Mark Lawrence and Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori are aware of my offer.

My deepest hope is that in the long-term we, in our brokenness, will steadfastly hold on to the possibility of reconciliation and restoration, even if it takes us a generation. This is precisely the kind of dialogue to which our diocesan strategic visioning process calls us. I will continue to foster such dialogue and to be the bishop of all in this diocese, regardless of where members are on the theological or political continuum.

Therefore we must continue to pray for those whom we love and for those whom we struggle to love, whether they live within or beyond this diocese.

The complete text is here: Advent 2012 – for posting


Further Developments concerning the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The Presiding Bishop has written a “pastoral letter” to the clergy and people of the Diocese.

Dan Martins, Bishop of Springfield, has written a moving plea to both sides to step away from the brink. He adds in an update that contrary to a number of sources earlier in the week, the Presiding Bishop has not declared that Bishop Lawrence and the Standing Committee have vacated their positions.

Bishop Martins wrote:

To my beloved brothers and sisters in the Diocese of South Carolina, as you meet in convention this Saturday: For the love of God, step back from the brink. Lay aside that which is your right, in honor of him who laid aside everything for us, not counting equality with God something to be grasped. The entire Episcopal Church needs you, but none more so than we who have stood with you in witness to the revealed word of God and the tradition of “mere Anglicanism.” I am begging you: Do not abandon us. Let us together be Jeremiah at the bottom of the well, bearing costly witness to God’s truth. Let us together be Hosea, faithfully loving those who do not love us back, for the sake of the wholeness of the people of God.

To the Presiding Bishop: Katharine, for the love of God, step back from the brink. Rescind the announcements you have made about the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee being vacant. Give peace a chance. Create space for the seeds of future trust and love to at least lie dormant for a season in anticipation of future germination. When the Confederate dioceses formed their own church in the 1860s, the General Convention, in great wisdom, simply refused to recognize their departure, thereby greatly facilitating eventual reconciliation and avoiding the schism that other American Christian bodies experienced in the wake of the Civil War. You are renowned for your calls for nimbleness and imagination in the face of the challenges our church faces. This is the moment for you to exercise precisely that sort of leadership. The legacy of your tenure as Presiding Bishop will be written in the next three days. Will it be a legacy of juridical gridlock, or bold generosity for the sake of God’s mission?

Bishop Martins writes eloquently and passionately about the importance of the Diocese of South Carolina remaining in the Episcopal Church. I share his commitment to unity but am still wondering what the point of forced unity would be (or the legal battle set off by the diocese’s departure).

I got no dog in this fight: The Episcopal Church, The Diocese of South Carolina, and the end of denominationalism

“I’ve got no dog in this fight.”

It’s something you hear occasionally in the South, usually when discussing childish antics of politicians or conversations over community conflicts. Sometimes, it seems especially appropriate when looking at conflicts within or between denominations. It’s true for me in the ongoing tussle between The Episcopal Church and the entity that now calls itself “The Protestant Episcopal Church of South Carolina (well, it still claims to be the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, but now there’s also a continuing diocese). This is the pattern that has been followed in other places where bishops and dioceses have attempted to leave The Episcopal Church.

What makes this case somewhat different is that Bishop Lawrence and the Lawrencian Episcopalians claim that TEC has “abandoned” them. You can read about it all elsewhere. There are a number of purported theological issues at stake. The Lawrencians assert it’s not just about LGBT issues but about central matters of the faith like the uniqueness of Christ.

I lack the time or the energy to go into the details of the conflict, but it’s pretty clear even to an outsider like me, that none of this is going to end well. The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina has published a resolution urging Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori and Bishop Lawrence to seek resolution to this matter that would prevent the imminent legal battle. You can download it here.

In an earlier post on this matter, I wrote this:

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?

… I’m still waiting for an answer.

Look, everyone agrees that mainline denominations are in steep decline. Most observers think that the idea of “denominationalism” is on its way out, that in a few decades the way congregations are organized is going to look very different than it does today. That’s probably true even of hierarchically organized denominations like the Episcopal Church. Our intellectual energy, our institutional resources should be focused on thinking about the future, experimenting with new ways of being together as Anglican Christians, locally, regionally, and globally. We are in the midst of transformation. What the future will look like is unclear, but it’s safe to say that in fifty years The Episcopal Church will look very little like what it looks today. Why bother protecting its turf now?

When will we abandon our efforts to protect our “brand” and get around to doing the work of the gospel?

… I wonder whether anyone will attempt an answer to this question, either.

A Backyard Baptism: Bishop Tom Shaw is surprised by grace

I’ve written a good deal about baptism and eucharist on this blog. What I’ve written only hints at the extent of the debate going on in the church and depth of disagreement. It’s useful to step back occasionally and listen to stories.

Here’s one of the best I’ve read recently. Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts tells the story of a rather unconventional baptism. It’s a reminder to all of us that the assumptions we make and the language we use often can be barriers to encounters with the sacred, and prevent us from seeing God’s grace at work in the world around us.