Plus ça change: Lessons from James DeKoven

Every generation seems eager to travel well-worn paths. We imagine that we are more clever than those who have gone before, even as we repeat their mistakes. I was thinking about all this today, as I was pondering the life of Blessed James DeKoven, whom the Episcopal Church remembers today.

DeKoven, for those who may not know about him, is remembered largely because he was NOT elected (twice) to be a bishop. Why? In his time, the Church was torn about by great controversies, not unlike our time now. In DeKoven’s day, the fights were over ritual. As the Oxford Movement was taking hold in England and America, more and more people became more and more interested in “ritual”. In contrast to the simplicity of early American worship patterns, they wanted a rich liturgical life, expressing centuries of rich Christian tradition.

OK, you say, what are we talking about? These ritualists favored radical ideas such as candles on the altar. They thought ministers and their congregations might benefit from Eucharistic vestments in worship. Bowing and kneeling at particular moments were imagined to be edifying. Lawsuits in church and civil courts were filed as people lined up in opposition.

In 1874, DeKoven was elected Bishop of Wisconsin and as Bishop of Illinois in 1875. Both times, consents were denied by the wider church, as people believed his ritualism to be outside the bounds of acceptable belief and practice. For his part, DeKoven defended himself, “The gestures and practices by which we recognize the presence of Christ do not matter. Only Christ matters.”

Today, most of us in the Episcopal Church would have no trouble agreeing with DeKoven’s statement. While one person might not enjoy a praise band or another might not find Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to be inspiring, we could agree that Christ can be present in many styles of worship. The manner of worship matters little to whether Christ is present. It’s likely we could go further and say that it’s a wound to the Body of Christ to quarrel over such trivial things as whether one might put candles on the altar.

The pitch of screaming in our church today rises ever higher. It’s easy to find someone to fill in the blank in the following sentence with either Mary Glasspool or Mark Lawrence. “Our church has no place for ______ as a bishop.” Read about the life of James DeKoven, and it would be hard to find anyone willing to put his name in that sentence, were he alive today.

I suspect in two or three generations, people will look back at our time and laugh, as we laugh upon learning that candles on the altar were once the burning controversy. “The ‘manner of life’ by which we recognize the presence of Christ in his ministers does not matter. Only Christ matters.” The euphemism “manner of life” is of course borrowed from the odious B033 resolution from General Convention 2006. That resolution is not talking about holiness of living apart from sexual orientation. Whether or not someone demonstrates fidelity, charity, and sanctity unquestionably matters. Whether or not someone is married or celibate, unquestionably does not matter. I suspect in a couple of generations, most of us will agree that the Holy Spirit can find a home in the life of someone whatever her or his sexual orientation. Again: “The ‘manner of life’ by which we recognize the presence of Christ in his ministers does not matter. Only Christ matters.”

Through the nineteenth century, the Episcopal Church lost tremendous “market share” for three reasons. First, we used much of our energy and resources fighting over things which now seem pointless. Second, we did not adapt to changing conditions, especially in our liturgical responses to the times. Third, other people were there to meet people’s needs.

Now in our time, we’re losing “market share” and squandering our inheritance of the Gospel in three ways. First, we are using too much of our energy and resources fighting over pointless things. Second, we are unwilling to adapt (institutionally, but also liturgically) to a post-Christendom world. Third, the culture of consumption offers a more compelling narrative to most people than the church. That third one really stings, but it’s absolutely true. There’s a good reason why Average Sunday Attendance is higher at your local mall than your local churches.

So I’d like humbly to offer three proposals — three ways we might learn from the nineteenth century.

First, we need some perspective on our present struggles. We ought not to sue one other (either in church or in civil courts) over second-order matters. If someone is teaching that Jesus wasn’t raised on the third day or that God the Father didn’t create everything, that’s a big deal. If someone is teaching contrary to the agreed standards of the church on second-order matters, let’s at least get some perspective. I am not suggesting that anything goes, but I am also saying we shouldn’t die in the trenches over every difference. If I live in, say, Texas and I don’t approve of Mary Glasspool, perhaps it is enough to take comfort that I do not live in Los Angeles. If I live in California, it ought not to worry me too much what scheming might be happening in South Carolina.

To be clear, anyone might well possess strong opinions on these things. But to climb into a pulpit in San Francisco and condemn Mark Lawrence in the guise of a sermon is to fail to proclaim the Good News. Likewise, to spend energy at a diocesan convention in South Carolina passing resolutions about goings-on elsewhere is to fail to do the mission work of the church. In business terms, there is a high opportunity cost to our squabbling.

I am in the Dennis Canon camp. For those of you who are not church geeks, this means I support the notion that church buildings are properly held in trust for the dioceses and for the Episcopal Church. In my view, if a congregation decides to depart the Episcopal Church, they have no right to their real property. However, it is a sinful manifestation of our modern culture that reasonable people cannot reach reasonable agreements when this happens. If it is ridiculous to imagine people thinking they can “take their church building with them”, isn’t it also ridiculous to hire legions of lawyers to prevent that? A building is only a building, and it must not be worth more than the Gospel.

Suppose, when a congregation overwhelmingly decides to leave, the bishop and the departing rector sat down and reached an amicable agreement whereby the diocese could maintain its fiduciary trust and the congregation could stay in its home. There are examples of this, but not in the last few years. Of course, things get complicated when the vote is 60-40 and there are still lots of people who would like to stay in the Episcopal Church. I recently heard about a church building which is being used by both a departed Anglican congregation and a continuing Episcopal congregation. Frankly, that sounds like good stewardship. Why do we Christians think we need a vast physical plant that is only used fully for a few hours each week?

I recognize this isn’t easy. But I also do not think we could be managing our conflict in a worse way than we are doing so at present. Every news report of schism and lawsuits is an indictment of the whole church. We must not be willing to lay the blame only on “them”, but “we” must also accept some responsibility for strengthening Christ’s Body. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…”

My second proposal is that we (quickly!) look at our institutional setup. Our church needs to consider staffing models that look more like the third century than the Victorian Empire. I am speaking especially of churchwide, provincial, and diocesan staffs. (Speaking of which, can someone give me one compelling reason for the Episcopal Church to have nine provinces?) Part of the impetus for this should be more effective stewardship of resources. Most of the benefit, however, would be in the mission of the church.

Imagine getting rid of diocesan staffs completely. What if we returned to an early model for the church? A bishop could also lead a congregation, whilst serving as bishop of a few other congregations. The bishop would have a close relationship with, say, ten or fifteen congregations. I don’t know if this is a good idea, but we need to be thinking about “crazy” ideas like this one. Our present models for staffing were set in place when the Episcopal Church was twice its present size, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

If you want to experience the ire of the Episcopal Church, try suggesting a change (even a small one) to the way General Convention is done. You’ll get angry emails, cranky blog comments, and more. I think our church is a bit like that prickly person we all know. The most “confident” person, most unwilling to change, is usually someone with deep insecurities. At some level, people have to know that things are not going so well with our current Byzantine system of committees, agencies, boards, fiefdoms, duchies, commissions, and cliques.

At one recent Executive Council meeting (again, explain to me why it takes a zillion people to be an “Executive” Council), the big triumph was that they configured themselves into five committees instead of four, or some such thing. Meanwhile, church attendances dwindles, the needy cry out, and millions of people have not heard the Good News.

It’s time to hit the reset button. We need to do more than renumber the legislative committees at General Convention or tweak the number of CCABs. We need to ask whether it makes sense to gather as a General Convention at all, and if so, how should that look? Now, I happen to think that we do need this gathering, but I think it needs to wholesale reinvention. The barrier to all this is that many of our current leaders simply circle the wagons at the mere hint of change. I do not know how to fix things. I do know that a better answer probably will come from the faithful people who come to church every week craving hope, who have no interest in synodical governance. No, these people will not be the ones to design the better system, but we need to make sure the better system helps us reach and empower them and all those who have not yet found a church home. In other words, the real stakeholders of General Convention should not be Bishops and Deputies, but the people who are outside the church looking for meaning.

Third, we need to get our story straight. The Episcopal Church is not a social club. We are not a merely social service agency. We are not just a gathering of people for fellowship. We are not a living museum with nice music and beautiful stained glass windows. We are the Church. Our mission is to proclaim the Good News to a world in desperate need of salvation. While it’s fine to talk about how much meaning we find in our tutoring program, we also had better talk about Matthew 25. Sure, we can tell people how comforting we find our weekly Communion service, but we also had better talk about John 6.

It isn’t enough to say to people, “I like my church”. We have to say to people, “My salvation depends on my church”. (As usual here on 7WD, when I talk about salvation, I’m talking about sozo, not getting into heaven.) You see, the culture of consumption is very good at telling people about life, and life abundant. But that’s our story! We need to get busy preaching by word and deed the Good News. We need to get busy sharing our vibrant belief that this life can and should be filled with great, deep joy. We need to help others find life, and life abundant.

To do that, we’ll need to clear the decks. There just isn’t time to waste on pointless fights and institutional fiefdoms. The field is ready for harvest, and we’re arguing about who gets to stand where in the barn. Friends, let’s get out to the field. There’s work to do.

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4 Responses

  1. Dear Scott,

    Many thanks for a fabulous anaysis of a problem which touches us this side of the pond, too. 30 years ago, when I wrote a thesis on the kinds of issue that got De Koven, in their English manifestations, I realised that Anglicanism ewas, to use a dread marketing term “overbranded.“

    I have also dallied in my time with the notion of all our area deans being bishops, though actually gone off it somewhat as a good way of working in our sociological context. I have more than dallied with the notion that people have our number uncomfortably well when it comes to squabbling and office politics, and they have quite enough of both in their lives anyway to have better things to do than come and join us in ours.

    The key question for me against which to test everything we do is “How is x good news — to the world, to our people, to us?” If there’s no answer, or an inadequate answer, we need to do something about that. If we lose the capacity to be excited by what my friend Stephen Cottrell calls the joy and beauty of the gospel, we’re all gone coons…

  2. Bob Chapman says:

    It’s all over. Anyone making sense like this gets kicked upstairs to be a bishop.

    I’m sorry for you and your ministry, Scott. You have such great ideas.

    (PS. Why can’t current diocesan regions/deaneries/convocations become a type of “mini-diocese” headed by a bishop (suffragan, assistant, or whatever). There is still good happening in things like diocesan summer camps and other wider ministries that I would hate to lose to regional interests. I’m not sure the Diocese of Toronto is the best example of this type of leadership model, but it is one.)

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    +Alan, that sounds about right. The problem, at least over here, is that there’s no urgency to ask the Good News question. It feels an awfully lot like we’re whistling past the graveyard. We need to stop the whistling, look at the graveyard, and proclaim new life. Soon!

    Bob, what did I do to deserve that? I thought we were friends? On a more serious note, I do not really think we should completely sack everyone on a diocesan staff, but I think we’re waaay too heavy at the top. If we start with some off-the-charts ideas, we might come up with some bold, feasible ideas. We need NOT to start from where we are and make incremental tweaks.

    Thanks to you both for great comments. I thought there might be more comments, but I think lots of my readers are on CCABs or diocesan staff somewhere. It might have been too close to home. Oops.


  1. March 23, 2010

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by davidsibley: Suggesting that everyone read the most recent blog post from @scottagunn here: . He’s on to something!…

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