On October 3, the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) convened a church-wide meeting held at the Washington National Cathedral and through a live webcast. I attended in person, but several others from our diocese attended via the webcast. These are my reflections on what was said, what wasn’t said, and what will (or at least should) be said next.
First of all, let me commend TREC for their work. This is a group of dedicated, hopeful, realistic leaders in our church. They have gone to great lengths to listen to many voices from all over our church and to share their ideas openly and widely for all to see. At times, they have considered bold strategies for reimagining our church. They have asked us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. In short, they have done a good job preparing the whole church for considering what steps must be taken to ensure its future vitality as a missionary body.
Considering TREC’s (unrealistic and out-of-touch) request that every diocese send one lay deputy, one clerical deputy, one bishop, and one person under 35, attendance at the Cathedral was sparse. I estimate that there were no more than 125 people there, but I feel sure that many more were “attending” via webcast. I hope TREC will provide those numbers soon. I am glad I was there in person, and it helped me to share my reflections with others in attendance and hear their thoughts on what happened.
After words of welcome and a prayer, Bishop Curry opened the meeting with his reflections on the work of TREC. If there is any part of the whole meeting worth watching or listening to, it was this. In short, he reminded us that Jesus came to start a movement. Grounding his remarks on Mark 1 and the calling of Andrew and Simon, Bishop Curry pointed to Jesus’ call: follow me. Jesus didn’t come to start a bureaucracy but a movement—a following—but even movements need structure to keep going. The work of TREC is to make sure that the structure of the church enables the movement to keep going. Those felt like wise words that put all of this in perspective, and I hope we can remember them as we consider whatever proposals come from TREC.
The other presentations were interesting, relevant, thoughtful, but largely repetitive. Dwight Zschiele did a good job of locating this movement within the missionary history of the Episcopal Church, but the best parts of his presentation were things that had already been published by TREC in their first paper (e.g., what makes our church distinctive and the four “Cs” of Catalyst, Connector, Capacity Builder, Convener that govern TREC’s approach). Using an extended analogy of a crew team rowing a boat, Katy George gave an impassioned presentation on the organizational issues facing the Episcopal Church. There were some good insights there, but, on the whole, it was a restatement of the problem with little more than overbroad and vague suggestions on what to do about it. Miguelina Howell did a great job of pointing out how the structure we already have is, in large part, a good thing, and the best thing she offered was a reminder that TREC’s work was only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Indeed, the future of our church depends on a lot more than a series of resolutions to restructure its bureaucracy.
Each presentation was followed by a question and answer period, and I liked the format. From the start, the questions suggested that the wider church was unhappy with this most recent publication from TREC (Letter to the Church: September 2014). One person prophetically suggested that reform in the church requires individuals to give up power but the most recent communication from TREC seems to focus on consolidating power. TREC did helpfully clarify that the Letter wasn’t a final proposal but a suggestion of the direction in which they were headed. If that’s the case, it seems the participants in the meeting hope TREC will do an about-face on a few of those directions.
On the whole, presentations were better than the question and answer sessions. Or, to be more precise, the presentations were better than the answers that TREC gave to the questions that were asked by the in-person and online audiences. The questions were fantastic, but TREC didn’t seem able to answer them. It felt like a student who had studied hard for a final exam but didn’t get the question she was expecting and so decided just to write everything she knew and loosely tie it to the question that was asked. The result was unsatisfying. TREC did more pontificating than answering. Maybe that’s because they’ve spent so much time together, talking the same language, answering their own questions, that what happened at the meeting was less direct exchange and more prepared rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this was an opportunity for real dialogue, but the back-and-forth was lacking.
One key example of this closeted thinking kept showing up in the meeting. Over and over, I heard members of TREC talk about the importance of redefining jobs and the organization structure of the staff who work for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), which is basically the name of the business side of the Episcopal Church. When questions were asked about the radical changes needed at the top, the response seemed to focus on making sure that employees of DFMS knew for whom they were working. When concerns about the size and ineffectiveness of the Executive Council were raised, the response had to do with the importance of redefining who was in charge of whom. To me, it sounded like TREC had taken most of their direction from people who work for or closely with DFMS (the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies, members of staff, those who work with them, etc.) and not from the rest of us (parishioners, parish clergy, diocesan bishops). My exasperation grew exponentially with each reiteration of this issue that, at one point, I tweeted, “Oh my god! Really? Work of TREC would be good enough if it straightens out job roles for church staff? Worst use of 3 years ever.” I hope and pray that something other than a new organizational flow chart comes out of this TREC work. And I think it will, but we might have to fight for it.
So here’s what I think is next. There will be a series of proposals that are presented to General Convention 2015. Some of them will be widely welcomed and only combatted by a few (e.g., changes to the legislative process, changes to the budgeting process, a shortening of General Convention, the elimination of most CCABs). Others will be dead-on-arrival (e.g., changes to the role of the Presiding Bishop, changes to the makeup of Executive Council, changes to the way diocesan apportionments are made). Some of what gets passed will be deeply effective, but much of what gets passed will only have a minimum impact on the future of the church. A lot of the resolutions that don’t make it through are the kinds of things that would have been effective were it not for the political process that killed those proposals. But I don’t think this will be the end of the process. This is only the first cycle in the current iteration of reimagining. It will take us another decade or so, but I think this movement will continue until real, substantive change comes to the church.