Step away from the disintegration booth!

As Episcopal church geeks will have noted, the report from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has released its report for General Convention. Go read the whole thing. If you don’t want to make the time to read all 73 pages, Nurya Love Parish has published a summary. The usual suspects in Blogospheria Anglicana have been busy. Crusty Old Dean has no use for the report. The Black Giraffe says there’s some good stuff. There are other reactions, and you can look for a round-up on the Acts 8 Moment site in the next day or so.

At the moment, I don’t want to say too much about the substance of the report. I’d rather talk about our reaction to it and where we go from here. But first, I’d like to go on a Crusty-sized digression.

There’s a episode on Star Trek (the real one, not one of the poser sequels) in which the Enterprise crew find themselves on a planet engaged in a long war. Entitled “A Taste of Armageddon,” the episode tells a compelling story about war and captivity to imagined reality. It turns out that two planets have been at war so long they don’t know any other way of life. Because actual war is messy (and might do enough damage to cause war-making to become impossible), they’ve decided to turn over the computation of casualties to computers. A bank of computers is constantly declaring where imaginary bombs have landed, and then the people in that area have to enter disintegration booths to be euthanized. So people die, but precious infrastructure is preserved.

disintegration boothThe Captain and his mates are rightly shocked by the site of people calmly queueing to end their own lives in disintegration booths. But the people on the planet can’t imagine any other way. In the end of the episode, the Enterprise crew destroy the war-game simulation computers. Now, if the people want war, they’ll have to deal with the costs of real bombs and the site of real blood. We viewers don’t know what happened, but it seems likely the people will choose the hard work of peace now that the painful but familiar endless war as they’ve known it must come to an end.

You’re wondering what any of this has to do with TEC or TREC, right? It’s a reasonable question.

While we haven’t installed disintegration booths at General Convention (yet), we are living in a painful reality in which no one seems to be able to imagine an alternative. Not just at General Convention, but across the church, we blithely do the same things over and over again, even while the vast majority of our congregations wither. It’s costly, but how else could we possibly do things? The pain of the present is tolerable, because it’s familiar.

You could see a glimpse of the jarring dissonance at the last General Convention. The same General Convention which passed the TREC legislation in an almost-miraculous unanimous vote, refused to make any actual changes. Along with the TREC resolution, votes were cast on things like forcing a move of our church headquarters, changing General Convention, or reducing our number of Committees and Commissions. In each case, Deputies or Bishops blinked. We like the idea of change, as long as it doesn’t involve actual change.

I have a hypothesis that if you went to a random group of Episcopal congregations and asked a random bunch of Episcopalians a question like “Do you think the church needs to change in order to meet the needs of a changing world?” you’d get something like 80% affirmative answers. If you then proceeded to ask that same group of people about a series of specific changes, I think you’d get 80% negative answers. We like the idea of change, as long as it doesn’t involve actual change.

A friend tells the (apparently true) story of the mayor of a nearby and prosperous city who told its citizens that he wanted to bring “Progress Without Change!” It’s hilarious until you look in a mirror. We Episcopalians like the idea of change, as long as it doesn’t involve actual change.

TREC had a thankless job: create a set of structures for our church that will be sustainable, which most people will like, and, hardest of all, that the currently entrenched machine will vote into being. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job. They’ve got some specific proposals that would, I think, bring us to a healthier place. There are some vague generalities which will, I hope, provoke much-needed conversation.

There’s no way their legislative package will pass General Convention. For one thing, it’s full of technical errors. More to the point, General Convention isn’t going to point a phaser at the war simulation computers just yet. Still, I think TREC has some proposed a few reforms that General Convention needs to consider. A unicameral deliberative body is a fantastic idea, I think. I’ll have more to say about the resolutions in due course, as I begin to blog the proverbial Blue Book in the next few weeks.

Here’s my prediction: we won’t make big changes at this General Convention. We’re still willing to walk into symbolic disintegration booths because the alternative is even more scary. We won’t look at serious reform until our simulation computers are destroyed. Don’t worry, that’s coming along soon. You see, very soon, the institutional Episcopal Church is going to collapse in on itself. My guess is that within 10-15 years, somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of all congregations will close. That will create a trickle up tsunami of necessary reform as dioceses figure out how to live on budgets that are 50% or more smaller. Soon enough, the Episcopal Church will see its income stream evaporating.

An aside: this institutional shrinkage is nothing to be feared. The churches that are closing aren’t really churches already; for the most part they’re clubs or preservation societies. The Gospel will continue to be preached, taught, and shared, with even more vigor as the church becomes relatively more lively. Eventually, we will begin to grow again with renewed strength. (If we had enough foresight and courage, we’d manage this decline by forcing closures sooner rather than later thus freeing up more assets for mission rather than preservation.)

I don’t think our legislative bodies will vote serious, meaningful reform as long as our lives are pretty comfortable. That’s a pity, and I hope I’m wrong. Still, it will happen soon enough.

To be sure, we’ll see some reform now. I’d expect us to reduce the number of churchwide committees. Already, the President of the House of Deputies has proposed some excellent ways to make General Convention more efficient. Our budgeting process seems to be off to a better start this time, and it seems likely we’ll invest even more on mission this time around. There’s plenty of good news.

If we could do one thing now — and this is what I’ve told every member of TREC who would listen to me and anyone else who would listen to me — we would align authority, accountability, and responsibility more carefully in our churchwide leaders. At the moment we have a grossly dysfunctional system that prevents the execution of epic, visionary, purposeful leadership that we need. We have a system that encumbers the talented people who choose to serve at the churchwide level. Specifically, the problem is that there are too many cooks in the kitchen. An 815 staffer might get angry calls from a bishop, a deputy, a member of Executive Council, or any number of other imagined stake holders. In a healthy board-governed organization, this should never happen. Everyone on staff should be accountable to their manager and on up to the CEO or COO. And the CEO or COO should have some accountability to Executive Council and/or General Convention. That way, if someone has a beef with a staffer, they go through a clear process. The staff member doesn’t have to worry who her or his real boss is, or fear reprisals from Executive Council (to name an example).

I see the TREC proposal as helpfully clarifying the role of the Presiding Bishop while preserving a rightful place in governance structures for lay leaders, other bishops, and other clergy. From my perspective, we’re not creating a pope, we’re just giving authority to match responsibility. I’d also be OK with more accountability, such as a way to remove a PB or an election at every General Convention. But those are details. The point is that we need great leaders, and they need to be able to do their jobs. At the moment, we get some great leaders, but we don’t let them do their work. And we miss out on plenty of great leaders who simply won’t go to work in such a dysfunctional system.

Ending and Beginning

This is (finally) the end of this post. But it’s the beginning of what I hope will be a fruitful process. It will take years. Just as when you go on a lengthy pilgrimage, you get there by taking one step at a time, let’s just make sure we’re keeping at the process of church reform one step at a time.

As I’ve said before, I’d like to encourage us to do three things:

  1. Realize that the TREC report isn’t perfect, but it has some good ideas (and some lousy ideas, to be sure). We need to avoid tearing the reform process to shreds because of this or that detail or proposal we don’t like.
  2. Realize that nearly everyone who’s taking part in this conversation is doing so faithfully with the best interests of the church in their hearts. We should not ascribe malice when we don’t understand motive. We should not assume that every proposal to strengthen lay ministry is an attempt to rob the clergy of power, nor that every clarification of episcopal authority is a neo-papal grab of lay authority. We *should* pay attention to spoken or unspoken interests that may be guiding people who are advocating for or against a particular proposal. For example, as a Deputy to General Convention and the head of a church agency and a priest, you can expect me to speak from those perspectives.
  3. Keep focused on where we’re going. Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations. He said his own work — and thus the work of the body of Christ today — is to bring about the healing of the world. Church structures of any kind are not inherently virtuous or evil. Rather, they should be evaluated on whether or not they help us to carry out the work Christ has given us to do. This is more important than maintaining a tradition of governance or of tearing down what seems like a sacred cow. Where are we going, and what will help us get there?

I’ll have more to say about the details of the TREC report — especially the resolutions themselves — soon enough. For now, take a measured look at the report and the reactions.

Above all, pray for our church.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is
amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in
want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake
of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

Oh, and step out of the queue for the disintegration booth. There’s hope!

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3 Responses

  1. Shirley Banks says:

    “We Episcopalians like the idea of change, as long as it doesn’t involve actual change.”

    A confession: I love little-c church. I want the pretty buildings to be well cared-for and humming with people doing good deeds and worshiping God. Redolence of beeswax is a nice touch.

    Big-c Church is harder. It is the Body of Christ alive, dispersed, and incarnated in the world right here, right now.

    What if Jesus commanded us to drop our nets, sell all we have and give the proceeds to the poor, take up our cross, and leave behind everything familiar? Can we even consider it?

  2. Shirley Banks says:

    PS the Body of Christ alive, dispersed, and incarnated may not smell like beeswax.

  3. Dick Ullman says:

    “The churches that are closing aren’t really churches already; for the most part they’re clubs or preservation societies.” True words. It might be more true to say “Most of the churches that are closing…” But good for you to break the taboo of speaking this truth.

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