Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ragnarok: the Twilight of 815


Let's make sure there's no mistletoe at 815.

Crusty Old Dean is trying to get the Official Child of Crusty Old Dean (OCOCOD, an afflication for which, sadly, there is no known cure) into mythology.  COD immersed himself in Greek and Norse myths around ages 8-10, mainly for two reasons.  For one, he had been reading a lot of comic books and found out that Thor was not just a comic book character.  For another, he was simply fascinated by all the bizarre stuff that came up: in a world of four TV channels showing inoffensive sitcoms, no cable TV or internet, he thoroughly enjoyed the dysfunction of rampant sex, violence, monsters, cow-licking creation stories, and child-eating that seemed to be part and parcel of myths.

One of the recurrent themes in Norse mythology is that of Ragnarok:  that history is cyclical, that the world, including the supposedly immortal Gods, will destroyed in an apocalyptic battle – and yet reborn, only to have the entire process repeat itself.

Well, at the last meeting of Executive Council, we received the latest installment of the 815 Ragnarok:  a seemingly endless cycle of apocalyptic discussion about the placement and future of the denominational offices of the Episcopal Church.

As a reminder to any new readers out there, or any readers at all (seriously:  don’t you have real blogs to read?), Crusty spent a decade on the denominational staff of the Episcopal Church, and at one time had an office with a window and his name outside the door at 815 Second Avenue.  And yea verily, rumors and plans for relocating the Church Center have abounded pretty much ever since it was opened there.

First of all, we should note that the opening of the Church Center itself was an act of Anglican establishmentarian hubris, like calling a denominational Cathedral that represents less than 1% of the population a "national" Cathedral.  At the time of 815's founding, many church denominations were consolidating offices on Riverside Drive, on the upper west side of Manhattan, in a new bulding which also housed the National Council of Churches.  Dwight Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of 475 Riverside, and Congregational, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, and other denominations either had their headquarters there or housed significant parts of their denominational structure there.   Yet the Episcopal Church Center had no interest in joining this party, continued with plans to open its own headquarters, with the Presiding Bishop at the time noting that “These people work for the Episcopal Church, not the National Council of Churches.”  Note:  accuracy of quote is disputed, this was relayed orally to Crusty Old Dean by an aged NCC employee. And, in a bit of irony, the Presiding Bishop was also first president of the National Council of Churches for part of this time.  Awkward!

Mmm...hogfat...
In addition, the area where 815 is located is not, as some might presume, built on an ancient Indian burial ground, the standard trope for buildings that may be seen to carry a trouble history.  Rather, the area was available for redevelopment in the 1950s for the Church Center and United Nations because of another reason. In the days before reliable refrigerated shipping, the mid-town east side was the home of slaughtering yards and was home to abbattoirs, cattle pens, and breweries.

Lastly, we should also acknowledge that moving denominational HQs are difficult.  The times that it has happened, historically, often has to do with denominational mergers.  The most recent example is illustrative:  the ELCA opened a new HQ in Chicago, in an office building within spitting distance of O’Hare.  It did so because the ELCA was formed from the merger for three different entities in 1987 – the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), and the American Lutheran Church (ALC), each previously with its own denominational headquarters.   However, these three entities were only formed after 1963, when 26 Lutheran bodies merged – and these 26 are in turn the result of mergers from the 1910s and 1920s which brought together over 50 Lutheran bodies. The ELCA was able to “do it” because they were creating a new body, and, rather than privileging the headquarters of any of the existing merger partners, chose a new one.  Likewise, for instance, with the formation of the Presbyterian Church, USA, in 1983, from the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States.  Rather than either of the major partners’ existing HQs, the organizing assembly had a choice between Kansas City and Louisville, or, as one member at the founding Assembly told COD, reflecting on the historical background of the properties in question, “A choice between a whorehouse and a warehouse.”  The most recent successful relocations have come from mergers, not from denominational choice – though there have been smaller church bodies which have done so, such as the United Church of Christ (to Cleveland).

So 815 was born with a hefty dose of establishmentarian hubris and on top of rendering plants.  What could go wrong?

And, 50 years after its founding, it has become an almost ecclesial Detroit:  once occupying 9 floors with over 400 employees, it now leases out 3.5 floors, with further consolidation in place to allow for more floors to be rented. 

Alas, the cycle of Ragnarok for 815 does not seem to be in the thousands of years the ancient Norse believed, but, roughly, every few years or so.  There have been reports, or General Convention resolutions, or internal conversations about selling, regularly since its opening in 1963.  There have been resolutions at the General Convention level in 1982 (D081), 1985 (A069), 1988 (D130), 1991 (D002), 1994 (D092 and D033), 1997 (D012).  These are only resolution available through the online electronic database of GC resolutions -- Crusty is 34,000 feet over America right now and does not have access to his pre-1976 collection of General Convention journals.  Also this does not include any Executive Council or internal staff proposals.  In the lunchroom at 815, one of the older support staff once swore that in 1974 potential new owners were measuring out and parceling up office space before a proposed deal was squashed.  Whether apocryphal or not, evidence to the theory of continued discussion about the place and role of the Church Center.

We are in the midst of just another cycle.  Last General Convention passed Resolution D016; to see Crusty’s initial thoughts on this, go here.  The original resolution, passed by the House of Deputies, called for the establishment of a Task Force and a recommendation within a specific, designated time period -- by June 2013.  This was amended simply to express the "will of the General Convention" to move the headquarters away from 815 Second Avenue without any Task Force or required benchmarks.  Having been on staff up until 2011, COD knew that there were already internal discussions and conversations, which were also noted in the debate around Resolution D016.

At the most recent Executive Council meeting, a report was presented on the question of the Episcopal Church Center. The Executive Oversight Group – hereafter for COD to be EOG – consisting of senior staff at the Church Center, prepared this report.  This report was, in turn, informed by work undertaken by Cushman and Wakefield, a global real estate firm that “assisted” in the work, and whose involvement was underwritten by the diocese of Los Angeles (perhaps in atonement for its significant reduction of its diocesan giving to the denominational offices?  Crusty does not know).

Crusty, as usual, has some thoughts – and he freely admits that his comments here are based on the Episcopal New Service coverage.  Crusty has neither seen the report, nor was present at the Executive Council meeting.  All COD has, like 99.99% of the church (more than the percentage of the church that live in the Eastern and Central time zones) is this ENS report.

Right off the bat, Crusty has a problem with the lede of the story (as the son of a printer, having smelted lead for hot lead linotype machines, Crusty refuses to use lead instead of lede): “The church’s denominational offices would remain at the Episcopal Church Center in New York if the Executive Council accepts a recommendation it received Feb. 26 from a group of Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society executives.”  Shouldn’t this read something like, “could remain” or “would remain for the time being” or something?  After all, can’t the General Convention pass a resolution in 2015 to undo any action Executive Council might make during a triennium?   Seems overly deterministic here.

But onward!  The report makes several recommendations; key among them are:

--that the denominational center and staff remain at 815 in New York City,
--that there be further consolidation to rent out more office space.

There are many reasons given for this recommendation.  One is the synergy and proximity to organizations such as Episcopal Church Foundation, Episcopal Relief and Development, Church Pension Group, the United Nations, and so on.  The other is the critical mass of Episcopalians who live in the Central and Eastern time zone (80%, which is an improvement from 1900, when 90% of Episcopalians lived east of the Mississippi).  Crusty, frankly, wonders what the real implications of this are as a reason not to move; perhaps Episcopalians are unable to understand our time zone differences?

Among the several reasons given, several stand out for Crusty:

1)            Crusty is glad that we, apparently, have rediscovered our sense of social justice in terms of employment fairness.  The report notes several issues related to a move, including the potential for a two-tiered compensation system (some new hires in a lower cost of living area being paid less than some continuing employees), concerns about moving to an area which does not recognize same sex marriage, the fact many staff could or would not be able to relocate, and so on.

Crusty is delighted!  He also hopes perhaps this commitment to fairness can be applied in other areas and not only trotted out when deciding not to move the denominational headquarters.

Maybe we will no longer terminate union contracts without notification or negotiation, as occurred in 2009 with maintenance staff, while at the same time speaking out in favor of union rights in other areas.

Perhaps we can actually set standards for severance which are in conformity with other non-profit organizations.

Might we even redress the already existing two-tiered compensation system that we have, where employees with the exact same qualifications can receive different compensation packages because of ordained or lay status?

2)            COD notes that everyone in the church seems to be embracing our polity when it suits them and ignoring it when it does not.  Many will, no doubt, be infuriated with this recommendation, given that the General Convention clearly expressed its desire for the relocation of 815.  Crusty, rather, sees this as a sign of progress and acceptance of our true polity.  Because the reality is, many levels of the church simply ignore General Convention resolutions and canons as they see fit.  We do, after all, have a canon on communion of the unbaptized, along with GC resolutions on eucharistic hospitality (like the 1979 GC standards passed in resolution form), but in many places and many area this is just ignored.  Likewise, a friend once sent COD a power point presentation on the revised ordination process to be rolled out in a diocese, asking for input.  Crusty noted that it departed in some respects from that approved in the 2003 and 2006 revisions of the Canons; the person replied that they knew that and this was better for their missional context.   Just look over resolutions passed in 2003, 2006, and 2009, let alone stretching back years, and we can see how many are routinely ignored.  So what’s good for the diocesan and parish geese are good for the denominational gander? Or are we all willing to be accountable?

3)            Crusty is frankly baffled by some of the language in the report as quoted in the release.  He was struck, in part, the way the report

declares that “the real underlying energy in examining the location of the church center is less about its location and more about how it actually functions,”

ponders, “how long, we wonder, would it be before complaints about the isolation of the Church Center in New York would become complaints about the isolation of the Church Center in some other city?”

and further suggests that “Perhaps rather than shifting the locus of our communal anxiety from one site to another, we would be better served in the long run to use our best judgment to make a rational and strategic decision in the best interests of the church’s engagement of God’s mission and then clearly articulate that decision to the church.”

WTF is that all about? COD is perplexed that comments such as these appear in a report whose goal is to present a recommenation about the location of the Church Center.  On what grounds and basis and data is this report able to identify “underlying energy?”   Why is it speculating about whether a move would lengthen or shorten the Ragnarok 815 cycle?  Why not just make a recommendation and put a lid on the editorializing and creating of straw men?  COD, for one, welcomes discussion of new ideas about a denominational center, but holds none of the opinions mentioned here.

Why needlessly antagonize or dismiss people with language like this?  

4)            In fact, if anything, COD is concerned that fixation on issues above – like whether the EOG is thwarting the will of Convention when in fact everybody ignores what they feel like – will take attention away from some other potentially important aspects of this report which may not get their due.

--For one, the recommendation by the very real estate firm retained to provide advice that they should sell the place, and that the church should not be in the business of property management.  The EOG report's recommendations not only firmly puts the church in the business of property management but expands that business by suggesting

a)            further consolidation to make more floors available for rental and
b)            eventually asking for rent/financial agreements from current Episcopal Church agencies located in 815.

--For another, one the one hand Crusty finally welcomes some financial transparency; in some of his budget posts from spring 2012 (remember spring 2012?  Before Psy and when Michelle Bachman was running for present? Doesn’t it seem like five years ago?)  COD wanted to know more about debt service and lines of credit which were not outlined in detail in various draft budgets.  Well, here we get it:  we find out there was a $37 million loan, not line of credit, taken out in 2004 to fund the extensive – and admittedly needed, included asbestos abatement – renovations of the Church Center, and that this is secured not by the building, but by unrestricted endowment assets.  We even know the interest rate, 3.69 %!

Remember last time we counted on investment income?  "Oops."
Yet an important element in the recommendation not to sell is that it is better to pay off a loan at 3.69 percent with the expectation for 8% growth in investment assets.  To this Crusty says, “Yes, we know how well depending on investment growth worked for the 2000-2009 triennia.”  One of the reasons for the massive, and in part foreseeable, budget shortfall in 2009 which led to layoffs was the consistent underperformance of investment growth. Have we learned nothing?  Maybe we'll get another "oops" in 2015 like we did in 2009.  After all, the finance and investment people won't be the ones losing their jobs.

5.            Crusty also has a procedural concern here:  what about the newly formed Task Force on Restructuring?  What are the implications of making a report and recommendation to Executive Council when there is another entity charged with looking at reform and restructuring of the church?  Should we consider tabling this report (it was presented to Executive Council, will go to a committee for discussion, and future consideration at the June meeting) or even referring it to the Task Force?  Or will we have dueling proposals for 2015?

Finally, Crusty, while not agreeing with some of the language used here, particularly some of the bizarre editorializing comments above, does agree in essence with some of the central tenets here.  It really doesn’t matter where our denominational headquarters is unless we are committed to a holistic rethinking of the kind of denominational structure we need.  Moving it for the sake of moving it, without concurrent discussion about the nature, scope, and purpose of a denominational structure, is pointless.  Likewise, keeping it in place without a holistic appraisal is likewise pointless.  As Crusty has said repeatedly on this blog, we have regularly rethought and changed our structure.  In the 1780s, governance inherited from the Church of England was in some ways radically reimagined for a new context: having clergy and lay people share governance; electing bishops; and so on.  Likewise, at the turn of the 20th century the Episcopal Church engaged in a sustained conversation about restructuring and governance (one could even argue this extends from the period of the Civil War through World War I) , leading to changes in 1919 that led to creation of a denominational structure.  So who the hell cares where a denominational HQ is if we can’t rethink how we need to do mission in radically changed contexts and think through how this relates to dioceses, congregations, ecumenical partners, and other networks and organizations?

And, like Ragnarok was not the end, the Episcopal Church will survive.  After all, in 1801 the first bishop of New York resigned to become a gentleman botanist farmer, thinking that Anglicanism would die out.  In the early 1800s the diocese of Virginia didn’t even bother to hold its diocesan council for a couple of years and had shrunk to a handful of clergy.  We still have African American Episcopalians despite a legacy of de facto segregation, exclusion, and institutional racism which the church, at times, tries very hard to forget.  We could go on with other examples.  Even if we do die, we will be reborn; the question is, can we seize this moment and shape the change that is coming, rather than be shaped by it?  This triennium, Crusty thinks, will be a referendum on whether the church is able to do that.

10 comments:

  1. It's the sunset of 815, not twilight. It remains to be seen whether the Task Force on Restructuring will muster the courage to say the obvious: by 2030, few Baby Boomers will still be pumping current income into the system, so it will be impossible to retain even half of the national church staff we have today.

    Some folks in TEC would prefer to leave office or retire rather than deal with it now.

    And for those of us employed by multinational corporations and who work daily with colleagues around the world by email and conference call, an argument that the national church staff must be based in 815 because of proximity to related organizations like CPF is an absurd rationalization.

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  2. COD writes, "So who the hell cares where a denominational HQ is if we can’t rethink how we need to do mission in radically changed contexts and think through how this relates to dioceses, congregations, ecumenical partners, and other networks and organizations?"

    In a post with a lot on which one can chew, that is the real meat of the issue for me. The move to create a "national church" structure resulting in a full-time Presiding Bishop in the Post World War I era came out of an understanding of the mission of the church at that time and in that context. Very significant changes have occured which warrant a serious reevaluation of the role of churchwide staff and resources. I am thankful for the restructuring task force and pray that they get the chance to lead the way as we sort through this evolving context.

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  3. I wholeheartedly agree that the key priority is to come up with a clearer vision of how (or whether) we'd like a denominational structure to work before we go about moving the HQ willy-nilly. I remain unconvinced that there is truly a significant 'need' for such an entity, but can, at the same time, agree that such a thing can be useful. I think, however, a more devolved polity, united around the prayer book and missional networks like ERD would be better suited for this day and age. Our corporate structure is a blunt edged instrument at a time when something more nimble, sharp, and adaptable is needed.
    I had great hopes for the Restructuring group appointed by GS, but I see that they have already redefined their own mission in ways that may be troubling. see Mark Harris at http://anglicanfuture.blogspot.com/2013/02/task-force-on-church-structureal-reform.html

    Jon White

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