The Great Rummage Sale

RUMMAGE SALELast spring I wrote a series of posts called “Episco-Upgrades“. Most of them explored various ideas to strengthen the Episcopal Church for its work of building God’s kingdom. I got lots of feedback on this series, both in the comments on the posts and by email. I’d say it ran about 65-35 positive. Those who objected sometimes focused on limits to my (admittedly half-baked) ideas. Fine.

What really surprised me, however, was the intensity of objection from what I’ll call the “General Convention establishment.” (I realize this makes me sound like Jack Iker, but please humor me.) Wow. There are some people in the Episcopal Church who really don’t want anything to change. They especially do not want anything to change if the something is connected to General Convention, church committees, legislative process, or programmatic staffing levels at HQ.

Last week I spent a couple of days with leaders in the Episcopal Church who are ready to move past our “stuck system” and to hit the reset button. These folks love the Episcopal Church. They are bishops, cardinal rectors, associate clergy, and rectors of small churches. They love Jesus and want the church to share the Good News and to be Jesus in the world. They mostly would agree that our church needs some serious rethinking if we’re going to do those things to which we’ve been called as a church.

Since that meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about the mission of the church and what kind of institution (if any) might support the mission. On a more practical level, our diocese is getting ready to elect Deputies to the next General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and I needed to decide if I would run again. More than one person told me, last spring, that if I didn’t like General Convention the way it is now, I shouldn’t come. The Episcopal Church welcomes you, unless you point out the irrelevance of its legislative structures.

I’ve decided to run for election as a Deputy from Rhode Island. I’ve also decided to encourage others to run, especially those who believe that the institution of the Episcopal Church needs some freshening up, if not reinvention. Maybe you, dear reader, will consider running as a Deputy if you are an Episcopalian. You see, I’ve learned that there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Deputies who believe that we can find a better way to be the Episcopal Church. If enough of us start showing up, we can begin to turn the page to the next chapter in our history. Lord knows, we need to do that quickly.

In the midst of all this, a friend emailed me this interview with Phyllis Tickle. She speaks about the Great Emergence — an increasingly popular way to talk about this shift we’re experiencing now in the life of the Church. Tickle says we need to “de-institutionalize” the Church. There’s more, so you should go read the whole thing. But I think she’s on to something.

Of course, we need institutional frameworks to nurture our work in the wider context of a nation and the world. But we need to become more aware that the institution is the means to an end, not the end itself.

I don’t pretend to have this figured out. As one person put it at the leadership conference I attended, our generation’s task is to begin the transformation of the church. We know that what the church has been will no longer work. It is not likely that we will see the church into its next era. Rather, our task is to get things ready to hand off to the next generation.

As another person said to me recently, every 500 years the Church has a big rummage sale. The last one was the Reformation, of course. Before that, it was the Great Schism a thousand years ago, and it was the establishment of Christendom 500 years earlier. Now it’s time again for a big rummage sale.

We need to figure out what is part of our core, and we need to keep that. And then we need to get ready to put out some of our non-essential, but treasured possessions.

Bible? Keeping. Patristic teachings? Keeping. Nicene Creed? Keeping. Ancient patterns of liturgy? Keeping. Threefold ministry? Keeping. Watered down Christology? For sale. Real estate? For sale. Program-oriented congregations? For sale. Byzantine committee structures? For sale. Endless battles about sex? For sale. Staff who are more than one step away from local mission? For sale. Idolized institutions? For sale. No, strike that. If you’ll cart away our idolized institutions, I’ll pay you.

That’s my list. What’s yours?

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4 Responses

  1. Kiva says:

    Looking back at my search for the right path of learning and communion for myself, I can see that the framework of religious institution aided in my early formation. It also gave me insight into thought, belief, and reference patterns that were shared across much of my country and continue to shape public dialogue, sometimes subconsciously, even as a breadth of new patterns infuses our society. That’s a large part of the reason I insisted that my kids have a structured religious component in their early lives and education.
    I also understand, however, that staying completely within that framework forever would have stunted my growth. I’ve learned a great deal by stepping outside and looking back in from different perspectives. I have facets of knowledge and understanding that I’ve never seen offered from within (my experience has been in the Roman Catholic Church).
    I wanted to find individuals and groups within, both lay and religious, who were open to discussion, debate, exploration. I found some of what I was looking for in the writings of mystics, but nobody brave enough to think that there could be saints and mystics among us now, nobody who was willing to contemplate the fullness of what Jesus or even St. Paul said we were capable of in our daily lives.
    Institutions tend to build themselves up, reinforce themselves, protect themselves from outside influences, stagnate. If we’re willing to think of the institution as not a building, or a hierarchy, or a system of governance, but rather as a set of core teachings around which we build our lives, religion has a chance of becoming more strongly that which helps people in their search for deep meaning in their lives, not that which makes them reach for another framework on which to continue growing.

  2. David Knight says:

    Scott
    It was a pleasure to meet you and learn from you at GOL. I could not agree more with what you have written. As someone who foolishly continues to read the HOB/D listserv, and occasionally post, I can attest to what you have witnessed. Those on the “inside” of GC, really cannot fathom another way, a better way. It’s a massive bureaucracy and completely out of step and out of date for our world now.
    As much as GC drives me insane, I too intend to run for deputy again, for I believe the only way to change it is from the inside. Hopefully the people of MIssissippi will agree with me.

  3. Kirk Smith says:

    Thoughtful analysis as always. The difficulty is that it is nearly impossible to reform an institution from within.

    I really liked your last couple of paragraphs and may repost them on my weekly send-out to the Diocese.

  4. Stefani Schatz says:

    Scott, again I agree with my esteemed colleagues … I’m going to run for deputy too! There’s probably more than two or three gathered together can “change”, but maybe become a thorn in the side! And maybe a parallel org is where to start, like GOL.
    PS – I’m listening to the miqra LIVE – very cool! awesome !!