Restructuring the canons

There has been loads of conversation lately about restructuring the Episcopal Church. I’ve followed much of it, though I’m still getting my thoughts in order to post here on 7WD. Short version: we need to put everything, and I mean everything, on the table and then structure our church for 21st century needs.

There is great urgency, and now is not the time for a decade-long series of incremental tweaks. We need to start with a clean slate and be bold. That will require some agreement as to the mission of the church, which will not be easy. But there is one easy thing the next General Convention can take care of in ten minutes, just to prove that we have our priorities straight and can get things done quickly.

Our canons are in the wrong order. If you haven’t perused the canons of the Episcopal Church lately, head on over to this page, where you can download them. We don’t need to rearrange every canon, but I think we can fix the order of the Titles within the canons.

At the moment, we’ve got the cart before the horse. Let me explain.

In the present canons, the order is this:
Title I: Organization and Administration
Title II: Worship
Title III: Ministry
Title IV: Ecclesiastical Discipline
Title V: General Provisions

Looking that this, one could reasonably assume that “Organization and Administration” are the most important things we need to codify in our canons. But that’s just not true. Here is the first sentence of the current canons:

At the time and place appointed for the meeting of the General Convention, the President of the House of Deputies, or, if absent, the Vice-President of the House, or, if there be neither, a presiding officer pro tempore appointed by the members of the House of Deputies on the Joint Committee of Arrangements for the General Convention, shall call to order the members present.

Hardly a rousing beginning, and it concerns only the thousand or so people who will be sitting in a convention center once every three years.

Consider this canon, which begins Title II, concerning worship.

All persons within this Church shall celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday, by regular participation in the public worship of the Church, by hearing the Word of God read and taught, and by other acts of devotion and works of charity, using all godly and sober conversation.

It concerns every Episcopalian. It concerns the most important thing we do as Christians, namely the worship of Almighty God. It concerns the mission of the church. As a bonus it has that lovely turn of phrase about “godly and sober conversation.”

And then just for grins let’s have a look at the beginning of Title III about ministry. It starts, “Each Diocese shall make provision for the affirmation and development of the ministry of all baptized persons…” Now, granted, much of Title III concerns ordained ministry. Because most ministry that happens in the church is lay ministry, the present canon’s focus on ordained ministry needs to be corrected, surely. Even today though, Title III has plenty of bits about lay ministry, including provision (widely ignored by many diocesan Commissions on Ministry and bishops) for the training and licensing of many lay ministries.

Suppose this was the order of our canons:
Title I: Worship
Title II: Ministry
Title IIII: Organization and Administration
Title IV: Ecclesiastical Discipline
Title V: General Provisions

We’d start with things that are most important and that affect everyone. We’d move to ministry, the extension of our worship. And only then would we get to legislative structures and internal discipline.

While I think General Convention is incredibly important, it is not the heart of our life as a church. In many ways, it is the best and fullest expression of gathered Episcopalians, but it is only for a privileged few. Try this test. This summer, wait two weeks after General Convention. Pick a random congregation in your diocese. Go there. Pick ten random people sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning. Ask them to name one thing that General Convention has done that will bring them closer to God. My guess is you’ll be lucky of one of the ten people can manage this.

For those who are able to travel to General Convention, it can be fantastic. It does, I would argue, affect all Episcopalians, but there’s currently a massive disconnect between the eight legislative days of General Convention and the spiritual needs of Episcopalians or even the missional needs of the world.

Fixing all this will take time. We’ll need to consider unintended consequences of potential fixes. It is important to guard against consolidation of power in undesirable places or the taking of power from others. I have found much with which to agree in comments from our various leaders and leadership bodies. And lots of others have contributed to this conversation. No doubt there will be much ink (or pixels) spent on this topic.

While we’re sorting all this out, let’s start by fixing our canons. Let’s get this one simple thing done, and place first things first. We don’t need to do more than rearrange.

What will it accomplish?

First, we’ll put our most important canon about the most important thing first. The canon on the Lord’s Day is perhaps the only canon that concerns every person in the Episcopal Church directly.

Second, we’ll show that we can grab the low hanging fruit and make a delicious canonical smoothie. By that, I mean that we can act on the simple things while we are discerning some of the complex things. We do not live with the luxury to do nothing. Our church needs to act fast. More important than that, the needs of the world are too great for us to dither idly.

You often hear politicians talk about staying “on message.” Getting our canons in the order I propose will help us stay on message. And that message is simple: worship is our heart as Episcopalians and as Christians. While organization and administration are important, they must be understand to exist in support of worship and ministry, and not the other way around.

First things first. This should not be controversial. Let’s just get it done.

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8 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    You can approve canonical changes in one convention?

    Do not take this comment as being against the idea. Any communicator worth his or her salt knows where to put the stuff you want people to see. We know the value of a good first impression. I’m simply curious if your proposal is possible.

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Yes, Bob, canon changes take only one convention. Prayer book and constitution changes take two.

  3. Bob Chapman says:

    It isn’t often that a person sitting in the pews, such as myself, doesn’t know how such things are done, it makes me wonder if the average person in the pews even knows what a canon is.

    They are important. At least following them is important, as the national church found out a few years ago with respect to the treasurer. The process of getting them, though, is more like having KJS ascend Mt. St. Alban (with a veil covering her face) and picking them up for us.

  4. vicki13w says:

    As a so-called cradle cradle Episcopalian, I think it’s a great idea! Peace.

  5. SarahB says:

    I vote for that – not only the canons change (very important!) but even more for the hurry-up.

    We are losing generations and we don’t have time for endless discussion and counter-discussion. Tweaking just means we are ok with the losses if we can basically keep things the same.

  6. Reverend Ref says:

    I think your proposed order is a good start. Now I’m wondering if we can get Larry the Cable Guy as a keynote speaker for canonical reordering.

    “If ya’want people to know what’s impertent, then this is probly a good way to do it. Vote fer canonical reordering and Git ‘er done!”

  7. Vickie Houk says:

    I think you are on to something here. Unfortunately its those organization and administrative types who “order” GC. When i introduce someone to TEC I start with worship and mission/ministry ’cause that’s how they encounter us in the real world. Never had someone drawn to TEC because of organization and administration.