Two of the most informative books on institutional and organization structure Crusty Old Dean ever read was a pair by Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies (1999) and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). In these works, Diamond points out a number of different cultures, societies, and organizations that self-destructed, sometimes due to factors beyond their control, sometimes due to disasters of their own creation.
COD strongly recommends both books for reasons having nothing to do with inside baseball ecclesial blathering; they are outstanding books by a top notch scholar, the first having won the Pulitzer. Anyway, COD has several takeaways from Diamond which are churning in his head.
For Diamond, there are a number of reasons why societies collapse. Some are outside, unexpected, and catastrophic: how would Native American cultures, some large and elaborate like the Aztecs, know that in a few years some outlandish looking people from out of nowhere would suddenly arrive and decimate 90% of their population with germs they had no immunity to? Many, many societies, however, collapse due in large part to decisions of their own making. A couple which are relevant here:
Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and be unwilling or unable to adapt when things change. As an example of this he cites Native American civilizations in what is now the American southwest. Scientists have been able to demonstrate that, at times, the American southwest suffers through catastrophic droughts, lasting years and years, almost like the seasons on Westeros (read Diamond to see the science, read George R.R. Martin to learn more about seasons on Westeros). Native American cultures overbuilt during good years, and, when the drought set in, were unwilling to believe what was happening or unwilling or unable to adapt -- and thus the civilization died out. Let the reader understand: have we Americans, hundreds of years later, overbuilt in places like New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada? These are areas which are barely sustainable under current conditions; what if a 100-year-long drought sets in? This will have a ripple effect, since southern California, in turn, is watered by resources diverted from the potential drought stricken area. Are we even remotely ready or prepared to deal with what happens if a catastrophic, decades-long drought hits, as we now know they have in the past?
So one problem is taking the blips, the anomalies, to be normative. COD is convinced that the Episcopal Church has, in a way, done something similar. We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period -- what it means to be the Episcopal Church is what occurred during this period -- when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.
Any perusal into the history of the Episcopal Church prior to this period will reveal a litany of concerns. Just to name a few: For one, it wasn't until the period around WW I that the Episcopal Church had more ordained clergy than lay readers. The church had a chronic and persistent clergy shortage for most of its existence, which, in turn, impeded its ability to engage in domestic and foreign missions, which, in turn, impeded effort at growth. For another, there were chronic struggles adequately to establish institutions. Colleges, schools, and seminaries opened and closed. William Augustus Muehlenberg, considered one of the foremost presbyters of this church in the 1800s, founded a series of institutions that flopped for every St Luke's Hospital that eventually thrived. Dioceses were established that were unsustainable and had to be re-merged with other dioceses (Duluth; Western Nebraska; we could name some more). Seems, at times, we have forgotten all of this. The thought of a diocese merging with another is seen as some unimaginable failure rather than something which happened not unfrequently. We fret about finding enough resources to meet missional needs, without remembering that the first incarnation of the DFMS was so woefully underfunded that the whole thing was scrapped.
The experience of Anglicanism in the United States has been one of chronic struggle for most of its existence. The same William Augustus Muehlenberg presented a memorial (in essence a resolution) to the 1853 General Convention lamenting that the Episcopal Church was simply missing the boat on what was happening in the USA and was going to lose out on the opportunities for mission and evangelism, thus jeopardizing its future (any of this sound familiar?). The General Convention referred it to a committee, and, three years later, rejected any of the suggestions for more dramatic, structural changes and only approved the option of allowing Morning Prayer and the Communion service to be used as separate and distinct forms of worship (at a time when MP, Litany, Ante-Communion/Liturgy of the Word, and Communion were often the order of the day on communion Sundays). Hmmm...General Convention reluctant to act on a proposal for significant change in the face of struggles of the church to accommodate to massive changes in society? Thank goodness that'll never happen again.
Anyway, back to Diamond: So one major problem we have is that we embrace the blip -- 1950-1990, when the church grew, in part because of positive steps and actions taken, but in part due to factors utterly beyond our control, like a population surge in our core demographic -- as normative. This includes taking things like establishing a large centralized church organization headed by a CEO in New York City as the normative way to organize for mission, because this was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society. We had the first full-time Presiding Bishop beginning in the 1940s, accelerating developments begun in 1919 with the establishment of the Executive Council (originally National Council) and making the PB and elective office. We look back on this period from 1950-1990 as normative, when one could argue, if anything, it was out of the ordinary for our experience. For almost all of its existence prior to 1950, the Episcopal Church was a collection of networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.
Reading Diamond, it's important to note there's nothing inherently wrong with assuming the anomaly is normative, it happens to almost all organizations and cultures at some time. It's how you react when the real normal comes back, or when a new normal emerges, which is important.
One reaction is refusal to acknowledge this. One of the more comical demonstrations of this to COD is the endless angst and spinning of numbers from the "golden age" of the blip. Instead of even knowing how much the Episcopal Church scraped and struggled, or admitting much of the growth from 1950-1990 was us riding a wave which lifted a lot of mainline Protestant boats, we instead ascribe it to our own abilities and as part of an inexorable process of growth and expansion. And thus follows, in some places, the spinning of numbers in the "decline", perhaps the most disingenuous being that this decline is due to decisions made which have driven out conservatives. With membership peaking in 1966 at roughly 3.6 million and now just under 2 million, there is the outlandish argument that this 40% decline is due to ordination of women, prayer book revision, and consecrating an openly gay bishop. (Make no mistake: the decline is real, but a decline due to a number of different factors). These persons making such arguments are either delusional or deliberately deceptive -- the single largest number quantifiable in that "decline" is a result of the "loss" of thousands of members of the Episcopal Church from dioceses which became independent of the Episcopal Church in the 1980s and 1990s: the Philippines, Panama, etc. The majority of the rest has to do with demographics (were are old, old, old compared to broader society -- folks are moving from the pew to the columbarium) and colossal failures in evangelism and discipleship (nobody coming into the pew to replace those heading out). Those colossal failures are legion: an inability or unwillingness to embrace cultural diversity (we are overwhelmingly white, white, white in an increasingly multicultural society; the Roman Catholic Church is losing Anglo members but maintains slow growth, under 1%, because of ministry to Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and African communities), just to name one. To be sure, some of these losses do come from those who left the church in reaction to certain decisions taken, but this probably only makes up 5-10% of that decline, if that much. You can read more of my reflections on "decline" here.
In fact, if you want to draw the circle even wider, one could argue that we are witnessing the end of another blip: the whole period from 500-1900 or so when Christianity held a privileged place in North American and Western societies. First beginning in Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, waves of secularization are coming ashore in the USA. This is going to wash away many notions in the West of what the church should be: a building belonging to an organization people join and hire a clergy person to minister to them which in turn is part of cluster of churches holding vaguely similar beliefs that pretends the culture as a whole thinks it has something to say. That blip is over as well. And guess what? Much of Christianity prior to, say, 400 can be described as diverse, loosely connected set of networks...maybe the new normal is just the old normal? (If you want to learn more, read Crusty Old Dean's 2005 page-turner, "The Past is Prologue: the Revolution of Nicene Historiography, available here, for only $167.)
COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011. The past few months have convinced him that one the one hand the scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can't use Excel properly).
Collapse, my friends. That's what's coming.
So COD offers the following:
1) Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.
2) Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance. Looks like we will spend 2012, just like we did in 2009, letting the General Convention and the Politburo that makes decisions slowly decide what we cannot do (in 2009, things like Liturgy & Music, Theological Education, and others; in 2012, Youth & Young Adult; in 2015, what next?) so they can struggle to do what they think they can still do or prefer to do. A slow, slow death march to irrelevance. Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to
3) Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do the mission of the church. We have some assets: $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks. Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years. We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support -- maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.
Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge. Or maybe it's already here and we can't fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.
4) End parishes as clubs for members with a chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees. Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close? How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered? How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support? How many dioceses are struggling to function? We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese. Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:
--We could recruit and train non-stipendiary priests to gracefully end parishes which are unwilling or unable to engage in any actual mission, evangelism, or discipleship; even develop a system of training and education for non-stipendiary priests which wouldn't make them have to drop everything to go to seminary.
--In turn, for what full time clergy we have, train them not to be chaplains to a gathered community but missionaries and community organizers. This will also require a fundamental rethinking of seminary education in how we train such folks. You know, COD is a Dean, and is ready to partner with whomever is willing to work on the two points above.
A good portion of the Episcopal Church, and most of Christianity in Europe and North America, is going to collapse in the next 50 years. How much? 50%? 75%? Decisions we make will help determine exactly the scale and scope of that collapse.
A cursory study of the history of the Episcopal Church shows that at many times people lamented whether it would survive, and at other times showed a constant litany of concerns about growth, organization, governance, and finance. Yet we can also learn from the past that, despite all of this, many believed Episcopal Church and Anglicanism have a charism to tap into something greater. By being a church catholic and reformed; by not being tied to a particular ethnic group; but not defining itself solely by theological confessionalism; by combining historic catholic order and representative governance. People like William Augustus Muhlenberg, William Reed Hungington, and others argued this in the 1800s. In our own time people like Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass and Peter Rollins are pondering whether Anglicanism is missing out on exploring how it can tap into a new Great Awakening in the religious trends sweeping our way, instead wrapped up in internal squabbles.
We can do so again. However, the only way to be resurrected is to die.