A few days ago, one of my colleagues here at General Convention told me a story from early in his ministry. He said that a rector with whom he worked preferred to recite the Eucharistic prayer from memory, which means that the whole prayer associated with Communion was said with no open book on the table. “The first time it happened, it scared me,” my friend recalled. I bet.
There are some parts of the service that I have fairly well committed to memory—not the whole Eucharistic prayer but little snippets that we say over and over ever week. One of my favorites is the Summary of the Law, which is recited by the presider at a Rite I service: “…this is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it…” We all know it pretty well—not just those of us who say it on Sunday. I love Jesus’ summary, which is found in today’s gospel lesson (Matt. 22:23-40), because it cuts through all the stuff and gets right down to it. What does all the law say—all the stuff that we might get tangled up in? Love God and love your neighbor. Period.
Yesterday at General Convention something amazing happened. The House of Deputies passed a resolution calling on the Episcopal Church to sell its headquarters at 815 2nd Avenue in New York. I’m told that people have been talking about this for a long time. I’m told that our net expense over a triennium for the Episcopal Center after rental income is factored in is over $11 million. I’m told that this step will enable the Episcopal Church to spend less money on administration and more money on mission. But I don’t think any of these tales really get to the heart of the matter.
For many, the Episcopal Center has come to represent the bureaucracy of our church. Often, when someone wants to talk about our church’s administration, they say, “815” to encapsulate it. Using the street address for the building is insider slang for the whole organization. Selling the headquarters, therefore, has less to do with saving money than it does with redefining how we do church.
Do we have a plan for the future? No, not really. Where will the necessary staff and meeting space move to? No one knows. Last night in our deputation meeting, our bishop asked us what sort of plan the resolution had in mind. “It doesn’t,” was our reply, “which is a problem,” the bishop continued. Maybe, but I don’t think this is about planning. That kind of thing will get worked out. What happened yesterday and, hopefully, will happen more fully when the bishops concur on the resolution was a “Summary-of-the-Law” kind of moment. Let’s cut through all the stuff and say what really needs to be said.
Our church needs to change. We must change and begin to grow both in faith and in number or else we will die. Will selling 815 make that happen? I don’t know. Not on its own. But it says to the whole church and to the world that we can’t do church the way we always have. In today’s gospel lesson, the Pharisee comes to Jesus to test him by asking a dubious question: “Which law is the greatest?” Jesus’ answer, which many of us have committed to memory, captures the bigger picture. Loving God and loving each other is what the law asks of us. Calling on the church to sell its corporate headquarters signifies a greater movement within our church. Ministry is what is important. The details will fall into place. But for now just remember what matters.