Most of the talk going into General Convention was about three things: a new presiding bishop, marriage, and restructuring the church. We already know most (though not all) of what will happen with respect to the first two. What about 2012’s goal of “reimagining the church”?
A great many things were on the table. It is probably not realistic to think that they all could have been accomplished in a coherent and complete manner. But I have caught a sense of dismay from some of the valiant reformers that we may not accomplish nearly what we could have. Fr. Scott Gunn of Forward Movement told The Living Church yesterday that “this convention does not seem inclined to accept much change in structure. … Many of our leaders seem fearful of losing their power and privilege. Current systems seem safe and familiar.”
In the battle between structural reform and institutional inertia, is inertia winning?
Remember some of what had been proposed:
- Elimination or reduction of the number of provinces. Provincial meetings are expensive and time-consuming, and there was a question whether their roles are better fulfilled by independent organizations and networks.
- A unicameral rather than bicameral legislative body, along with a more proportionate representation in the House of Deputies.
- The elimination of most standing commissions, in favor of specific appointment of bodies deemed necessary from time to time.
- A restructured Executive Council, so as to be smaller and to clarify lines of accountability.
- Increased funding and/or support for evangelism, church planting, and congregational revitalization.
Now, what has actually happened so far? And are they encouraging or discouraging developments?
- The number of provinces looks like it will remain intact. In my view this is disappointing, although I will admit that as an active participant in The Living Church magazine and Covenant I am inclined to place more value on independent movements than official structures. Such independent movements, in my view, have most often been the real drivers of Anglican renewal (e.g., CMS, the Simeon Trust, and the Society of the Holy Cross).
- However, encouragingly, most standing commissions have indeed been eliminated. There are an overwhelming number of resolutions to consider at General Convention. People by this stage in the game are walking around like well-dressed zombies. An overabundance of standing commissions tends to result in make-work, rather than what is strictly necessary.
- Resolution A002, which would have shrunk the size of General Convention and created a single unicameral legislative body, has been shrunk to a single resolution to “explore” how unicameral church polities work. I am unsure about a unicameral body, but I am quite disappointed by the lack of resolve to shrink the number of deputies and bishops. General Convention is astronomically large and expensive, and legislative committees are far larger than they need to be (indeed, they are too large to allow everyone to participate meaningfully). I am convinced that General Convention should be smaller, shorter, and more frequent. The enormous size and expense, coupled with the three-year interval between meetings, creates pressure to do something, anything, even if it hasn’t been fully thought out or isn’t constitutionally sound. To my mind, this is both a justice issue (think of the expense!) and a good-governance issue.
- I am not aware that anything has been moved to propose proportional representation. But it remains on my mind. I met a gentleman who is a deputy from the Diocese of Texas yesterday morning. Since Texas has four deputies for 76,558 members (2013 numbers), he represents 19,140 Episcopalians. My friends in the deputation from North Dakota (2,487 members) represent 622 Episcopalians each. Texas has over 30 times more Episcopalians per deputy. How is this fair?
- Executive Council has not been shrunk. Arguably, so I am told by people I trust who serve on it, it was a manageable size since most of its work was actually done in small subcommittees. That may well be true, and held in good will. I am, however, inclined to exercise a certain hermeneutic of suspicion towards an astronomically large national governing body (General Convention and Executive Council both) that is unwilling to make cuts to itself, in a shrinking church where every dollar and every work day count.
- There is also, apparently, something probably best described as a plot to give Executive Council the power to fire top members of the presiding bishop’s staff. This kind of power play is discouraging in every way. We have far better things to do as a church.
- Most encouragingly, however, there are strong commitments being made to evangelism, church planting ($5 million requested!), and congregational revitalization. Most of these initiatives came as a result of the “Memorial to the Church,” written by a group of people who cared enough to organize and make their case in advance before the whole church. I am deeply heartened by this, both in what was accomplished and in how it was accomplished. In discussion yesterday, the House of Bishops passed the church-planting resolution unanimously and broke into applause.
It seems fair to say on the whole that a ship this large will take longer than some had hoped to turn itself around. It is, alas, a paradox: Precisely the bloat and dysfunction that makes structural reform urgently necessary also makes it incredibly difficult.
There is a philosophical and common-sensical truism that explains many of our difficulties, I believe. Common action requires common intention and vision. And in a body this large, with divergent understandings of fundamental theological issues (see yesterday’s vote by the bishops to reject a study of “open table” communion, 79 to 77), common action can be difficult to come by. It is actually easier, the clearer a group is about its core values, to make room for various differences. If you’re clear about the most vital things that hold you together, it can be okay to disagree on the rest. But it has not always been clear in the Episcopal Church.
I have noticed this in any number of parishes. Church is the kind of thing that it is pretty much impossible to do except with Jesus. There is no one making you go to church. No one in the pews is going to get fired. No one gets paid for church (unless it’s your job). And there is no easy common denominator for everyone to rally around and cheer for, like Packers football in Wisconsin. Instead, we are asked to come together around the highest and most demanding common good that exists, God. This God demands us to rid ourselves of our self-deception, confess our faults with clear eyes and penitent hearts, and love, serve, and forgive our neighbors — which, by the way, includes everyone, even our enemies. How could this be possible without the presence and grace of our Lord and Savior?
I am not saying that Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building. But I am saying that the renewal we seek will never come at bottom without a conversion of every heart and every life to Jesus Christ, and a compelling proclamation of the Gospel. The change we need is not just structural, but cultural. We will need to:
- Recommit to reading Scripture, praying daily, gathering weekly for corporate worship, and giving for the spread of the kingdom, knowing that engaging in these practices brings personal and corporate transformation;
- Share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed, including learning how to tell the story of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, even and especially to those who have not experienced true transformation;
- Pray and fast for the Holy Spirit to add day by day to those who come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace;
- Encounter Jesus Christ through loving service to those in need and through seeking justice and peace among all people.
May it start with you and with me. “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15).
The featured image of La Sagrada Familia was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Vitold Muratov. It is licensed by Creative Commons.