Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Future of the Episcopal Church

I'd guess that most of the readers of this blog come here because they're looking for a way to think about the lessons for the upcoming Sunday or reflect on the Daily Office lessons. During General Convention, the audience changes dramatically as most of what I write has to do with the ins and outs of that body's work. Although General Convention is still a long ways away, it's time to begin talking about it.

The Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church has released its second study paper. This one is on governance and administration, and you can read it here. (Unlike so many "study papers," this one is worth a read.) It offers huge, sweeping changes, which seem to be on the right track. It invites us to imagine a church that is structured differently--actually, not all that differently, just smaller--but it's worth engaging in the dream. Instead of huge, unwieldy bodies like a 40-member Executive Council, the church would be administered by smaller, slightly less unwieldy bodies like a 21-member Executive Council.

In particular, I draw your attention to three proposals (in addition to the Executive Council change, which I just pointed out).

1. General Convention gets smaller, leaner, and (to use the word of the last Convention) more nimble. Fewer deputies is a nice gesture (not sure how important that is), but far more important is limiting all legislation to a tightly defined list of topics, which you can read in the paper. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! We don't need to be debating (or even considering) most of what comes out in the Blue Book. Some of it is important. The proposal to offer Communion to the unbaptized is worth considering (and rejecting, but that's another post). The question of whether same-sex relationships should be blessed is definitely worth considering. But we shouldn't waste our time debating whether the Palestinians and Israelis should make peace with one another. Yes, that's important, but it's beyond our scope.

2. The roles of the Presiding Bishop (PB), President of the House of Deputies, Secretary of the General Convention, and others might get changed. The paper asks what might happen if we asked our PB to be a bishop instead of a CEO and hired someone else to run the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (which is to say the church). That might make a lot of sense. Sometimes institutions need leaders who are better at visionary work than administrative work. Sometimes dioceses need pastors instead of business executives. But, usually when that happens, he or she brings in a team to do what he or she can't do alone. In theory, that's how the current system is set up to work, but it doesn't seem to be. Also, at this point, it's hard for me to imagine that kind of change actually happening--that the stakeholders would give up that kind of authority. (The same can be said for all of these changes, but this one seems particularly unlikely.)

3. Almost all of the Standing Commissions are eliminated. As a member of one of those that would be cut, I can't say enough what a good idea this is. Yes, there is important work to be done, but as the working paper suggests, let's define that work at General Convention, call for the creation of a group to carry out that work, and then have that group disband after the work is done. Otherwise, we get in the self-perpetuation business. That's where we're stuck right now--working to exist simply for the sake of existing. And that's not gospel work. Instead, that kind of attempt actually gets in the way of the important work that needs to be done. I think we often confuse the importance of the subject at hand with the rationale for having a Standing Commission to work on that work. For example, I'm on the Standing Commission for Lifelong Christian Formation and Education. All of us--and by that I mean every Christian I know--agrees that Christian formation is important. It's the business of the church. No one thinks we should stop doing it. But just because Christian formation is essential doesn't mean the Standing Commission should be spending any time, energy, or money trying to do it. I believe that there are more efficient and effective ways for our church to do gospel work than the Standing Commission structure, and I'm glad to see there's a recommendation that we consider significant changes.

Ultimately, though, this is a proposal. And, when things get specific--when members of Standing Commissions find their work going away--unanimous votes like the one taken to establish this Task Force don't happen. But at least we're talking about it. And I hope the momentum continues through the next General Convention.

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