Friday, December 7, 2012

Ghosts of Commissions Past: Thoughts on the Structure Commission

Christmas came early for Crusty:  the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies recently announced members of the Structure Task Force; see a list with short bios here.  And for the record, Crusty declined when several people asked if they could nominate him.  For one thing, he is under no illusion he would ever be appointed; for another, he wants to keep a critical distance from the Commission's work in order to hold them accountable.

To remind people (this is America, after all, we forget stuff that happened a week ago), this Task Force was set up by resolution C095 of the 2012 General Convention.  The Task Force's mandate is to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration.  

It will "be accountable directly to the General Convention, and independent of other governing structures."  Accountable how, exactly, Crusty is unsure -- on the one hand he has presumed, since this is nowhere defined, that is a sop to people who fear peasants storming some kind of General Convention castle; on the other hand, he wonders how to balance the requirement of accountability with the emphasis on independence to be given to the Task Force.

It is to have  "as many as 24 members, appointed jointly by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies by September 30, include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership."  Crusty assumes they were appointed by then but not released until now. 

It is to "gather information and ideas from congregations, dioceses and provinces, and other interested individuals and organizations, including those not often heard from" and "convene a special gathering to receive responses to the proposed recommendations to be brought forward to the 78th General convention, and shall invite to this gathering from each diocese at least a bishop, a lay deputy, a clerical deputy, and one person under the age of 35."  So all of you who didn't get appointed -- don't despair!  You can still be part of the process and feel like an insider!  Also, Crusty wonders what their definition of "critical distance" is, when a number of these individuals are members of the very governing structure (bishops and deputies) they are supposed to have critical distance from.

And, lastly, it "shall report to the whole Church frequently, and shall make its final report and recommendations to the Church by November 2014, along with the resolutions necessary to implement them, including proposed amendments to the Constitution and Canons of the Church."  Crusty is delighted to know he won't have to think up ideas for blog posts in the fall of 2014.  Christmas will come early again in two years!!

OK, with that review over, let's look at the Task Force itself.  Much comment in the blogosphere and its even baser counterpart, the commentosophere of the blogosphere, has focused on the makeup and structure of the Task Force.  Some have marveled at the fact that women make up only about 30% of the Task Force.  Others have noted there is only one deacon.  COD hears some of this criticism, but is loath to join in at this point.  Yes, I know you all just dropped your lattes upon hearing COD loath to criticize; it does happen occasionally.  Fact is,

1)  this is part of the problem of our entire appointment system; despite our continual paeans to our glorious democratic process,  two people, the PHOD and PB, appoint an overwhelming number of people to many of our interim governing bodies.  If we have a system like this, we have to trust those in charge; if, not, then change the system; and

2)  appointing people is a hard process, Crusty had to recruit people for nearly a dozen different committees and commissions as ecumenical officer.  You try to balance geography, gender, age, theology, sexual orientation, and so on -- and then you are limited by those willing to accept the appointment.  For all we know, the PHOD and PB's dream list was 65% female and they just weren't able to get the people they want; further,

3)  when you don't have a quota system, you also have to be willing to take what you get.  People tried to write strict representation aspects into the Task Force makeup, only to have it shot down in committee.  COD is on record as having supported specific slotting of spots, for the simple reason that it if we value things like diversity COD has no problem legislating it; he believes in it for affirmative action and doesn't see why it's not OK for the church.  He suspects the reason many people are against it is because we live in a fantasy that somehow we are above all of this, when in fact our church actually represents the race, gender, and class stratifications of society and we just don't want to do the really hard work to change that other than reassure ourselves that of course we're not racist or sexist or ageist.

There is one thing that made Crusty's jaw drop:  the clerical nature of the task force.  14 of the 24 members are clergy, or about 60 percent.  He finds this astounding given the reorganization of many the Standing Commissions of General Convention to a uniform number of 12, enshrining the principle of a 50-50 clergy-lay split.  Standing Commissions uniformly consist of six lay persons, three priests/deacons, and three bishops.  For a church that takes representation of laity in the life of its governance seriously, and has it enshrined in its canons, he felt for sure the Task Force would have a 50-50, 12-12 clergy-lay split, and frankly is disappointed that it does not.  It would have been an important symbol about the importance of honoring that aspect of our polity.

Otherwise, COD isn't too worked up, the makeup of the Task Force is fine by Crusty, he thinks they probably did about as well as they could.  

What say you, spirit?  Being a bishop or elected multiple times as deputy counts as "critical distance"?
Crusty would like to make one other comment.  Since this is Christmas season, with its interminable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Crusty finds himself haunted by Ghosts of Commissions Past.

After all, this isn't the only time the Episcopal Church has dealt with an urgent matter through some kind of special commission, committee, or task force.  While not exactly parallel under polity (this is a task force being formed under the Joint Rules of Order), the church has, in its past, formed special committees to deal with certain issues.

It's good that the church, as a whole, has reached a place in its change cycle where it understands that there is a need for a change.  There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of denial or people thinking things are just fine.  But you know what?  Institutions at this stage in a change cycle -- realizing that contexts have changed -- are in a very precarious and interesting place.  Put simply, there's no guarantee they will do what it takes to meet the challenges brought about by changes.  Some institutions have, and will, choose to die rather than change.  So while it's nice the Episcopal Church, through this resolution being passed unanimously, has come to place of recognition of the reality of profound changes in the church and society (sample some of Crusty's other posts for more detail), we shouldn't presume it will actually *do* anything.  It might, Crusty hopes it will, but the historical record doesn't necessarily mean it will.

Pass my memorial or else.
Let's take an example of one of the first of these special committees, the committee appointed to deal with the so-called Muhlenberg Memorial.  William Augustus Muhlenberg presented a memorial signed a number of clergy to the General Convention of 1853.  In it, he lamented a number of things: the church had fallen behind in its missionary strategy, having been outstripped by Methodists, Baptists, and worst of all, Catholics; that it had an critical shortage of clergy; and desperately needed to adapt to massive changes in American society and American Christianity (that last one sound familiar?).  Episcopalians had gone from being about 15% of the American population at the Revolution to shrinking to barely 15,000 by the 1790s.  It was experiencing slowgrowth in the decades since but as lagging almost laughably behind other denominations.  Methodists, for instance, exploded from a few thousand to over 800,000 and became largest denomination in the country by 1860.  The church lagged in domestic missions, being an  urban and Eastern phenomenon.  It was short of clergy, given the high bar for educational requirements (early on ordinands were required to present an account of their faith in the Latin tongue to their bishop; yeah, you can see a gentleman William and Mary grad fluent in Latin serving a mission station in Ohio, right?).

So Muhleneberg drafted a memorial to Convention laying out these concerns, and also making some concrete suggestions.  One was for greater liturgical flexibility, including consideration of Prayer Book Revision; another was extending ordination by Episcopal bishops to non-Episcopal clergy, as part of an effort to lay the foundations for what would be a pan-Protestant, national American church.  Convention received the Memorial and the House of Bishops appointed a committee to address the concerns raised, and to report back to the next Convention.

In 1856 it dutifully issued its report.  It acknowledged many of Muhlenberg's concerns as valid.  Its sweeping recommendation for changes needed?  It gave permission for parishes not to have to follow the pattern of Morning Prater, Litany, and Ante-Communion (liturgy of the Word) for Sunday mornings.  Parishes could do just MP, or do the Communion service.

The Commission, put simply, quailed.  It offered no substantive reforms in the face of the Memorial's clear laying out of the issues.  While there was modest and substantive expansion and missionary work, in some ways nothing changed.  The church was still chronically short of clergy:  it wasn't until the 20th century that ordained clergy outnumbered lay readers.  It was still an Eastern phenomenon: By 1900, 90 percent of members still lived East of the Mississippi River.  To this day, only 12% of Episcopal churches were founded after 1968 (given massive shifts of population to the West and Southwest, further showing Episcopalians are not where the people are at).

So just because we set up a Commission, and acknowledged some of the reasoning behind its formation, doesn't mean

a)  it will do anything, and
b)  even if it does, the church will adopt anything it suggests

Lesslie Newbigin, one of Crusty's heroes.
This is where we, as a church, need to be involved and hold this group, and our church, accountable.  This is not change for change's sake; rather, we are looking at a profoundly changed missional environment and dynamic and we need to recapture the sense of the church as a missionary organization and movement.  Lesslie Newbigin pointed this out in 1984, for Christ's sake!

Because we all have a place in the Commission's work, even if not appointed.

It is to gather information from the church: be heard!

It is to convene a special gathering to receive and consider its recommendations:  let your bishop and deputies know what you think!  Put forward people under 35 to attend this gathering!

COD wishes them well and will be praying for them, but you also better believe Crusty will be watching them.  Dear readers, hopefully you know by now not to frak with COD.


  1. How many people were on the Muhlenberg committee? Just because the resolution called for a maximum of 24 people doesn't mean there has to be 24. I worry it could unwieldy quickly, especially since it doesn't appear as if a chair has been appointed.


  2. I'm guessing that they will elect their own chair, or perhaps lay and clergy co-chairs. I'm as skeptical as COD about the effectiveness of the Commission and even more skeptical that any major reform will pass GC 2015, but we'll see...and the church is watching...


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