Saturday, July 7, 2012

For Sale

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. 


  1. Evan - I would say that a deeper change must occur first. Such change comes within hearts and minds, attitudes and perceptions, not so much with structure. We can sell "815" and relocate, but all that will happen with this kind of change is that we all start saying "492" rather than "815."

    If we honestly have change within heart and mind, etc., it may make no real difference whether the national church administration is at 815 Second Ave., NY, NY or 492 Euclid Ave. Cleveland, OH (aside from cost of operation).

    The UCC moved their headquarters to Cleveland from NYC a good while ago. There hasn't been much change for a thriving future that has occurred as a result.

    Bob Griffith+

  2. Thanks, Bob. Well put. I agree that simply selling 815 won't get much done. But I think it signals to those both within and outside the church that we want to try to make those other changes--the substantive ones--that would mean real, positive change in the church.

  3. Maybe moving the HQ to the heartland would cure a host of ills. Think about it.

    Good air connections would be nice, better rates than the Huntsville Jetport. St. Louis or Omaha might fit the bill.

    Russell Barr

    1. Russell was having trouble getting his full post on the blog. Here it is--his words, unedited by me.

      "I am one of those people who have used "815" to mean "those in authority with whom I disagree about..." so I resemble those remarks.

      "Perhaps it is my Southern upbringing showing, but I have long felt that New York City is overrated. People who lived there often keep their subscription to The New Yorker magazine until death so they can maintain connection to the hustle, bustle, and vitality they found in NYC. I've visited on several occasions and mainly recall blank stares walking down the sidewalks, grime, and absurdly high prices.

      "Be that as it may, I think moving our National HQ to a modestly priced Midwestern city like Omaha, NE or Kansas City, KS would reduce our payroll expenses and prevent our administrative staff from having an exaggerated opinion of their importance. It kills two birds with one stone.

      "I'm not sure a major move was what the sponsors of his resolution had in mind. But the idea merits serious consideration.

      "Before we count the $$ from selling the property, someone needs to check how much was mortgaged to pay legal fees for suing departing Anglicans. Or was it just our endowment that was mortgaged?"