Sunday, December 15, 2013

In a World Where TREC Is Humanity's Only Hope...

Crusty Old Dean recently finished reading the Task for for Reimagining the Episcopal Church's (TREC)  Letter to the Church, which can be found here. Anyone stumbling across this blog for the first time (as COD has repeatedly said, Don't you people have panda cam to watch?  Why are you wasting your time reading this blog?) should know that Crusty has spilled a lot of ink (though no ink actually gets spilled anymore) writing about restructuring and reimagining the church.  Back in the fall of 2011, when TREC stood for the Texas Real
In case you don't believe me.
Estate Commission (google it!) COD was doing this.  So yeah, this is something that Crusty has been pondering.  Since we are nearing the halfway point to the 2015 General Convention (did I just scare you?) COD is pleased that TREC has issued a letter outlining its current thinking.

The letter begins by noting that TREC has "listened" to the church.  We can be sure this is not just lip service, because by listing what they have heard, the sheer breadth of canard and contradiction they note shows that they did, in fact, listen to the church.   

While not surprised by anything TREC "heard", Crusty is still nonetheless troubled, because it reflects some deeply rooted problematic elements of The Episcopal Church.  This is not TREC's fault, to be sure; as Jules said to Vincent in Pulp Fiction, "If my answers frighten you, you should cease asking scary questions."  So what does COD find scary?  For instance, the description of the Book of Common Prayer that TREC "heard" from the Church. What did they hear from the church about the BCP?  The transformational way in which God's grace can be made present in the community gathered to celebrate the sacraments? No, the 
What does a restructured church look like?

 canard that it binds us together. This shows the historical myopia most Anglicans have with some foundational elements of our own history -- job well done, generations of crappy formation.  For example, the notion that the Elizabethan Settlement "settled" anything, and imparted the DNA to Anglicanism to be sanguine, comprehensive, and conciliatory.  (Ask the Irish or the Jesuits how they feel about the Elizabethan Settlement.)  This kind of narrative can be true if one selectively reads history to support that kind of reading.  Similarly with then notion the Prayer Book "binds us together."  You could make a wonderful case that the BCP has been as divisive as it has been unitive.  The first BCP was enforced by the army in the west country of England.  Battles of interpretations of the Prayer Book between Evangelicals and those influenced by the Oxford Movement led to efforts to pass civil legislation in Parliament to set liturgical boundaries, and endless debates in the General Convention of the Episcopal Church on determining what the Prayer Book did or did not permit (see:  most of the 1870s, when, instead of coming up with ways to handle issues of emancipation, the Episcopal Church disbanded its Freedmen's Commission and continued to debate liturgy).  Yes, let's look at how the Prayer Book bound together low church Episcopalians having Morning Prayer with Sermon and Anglo Catholics having a solemn high mass with Benediction afterwards, stretching the same Prayer Book to these different realities.  This is not a critique of TREC; only that we continue to drink the Kool-Aid of self-reinforcing and false narratives in the church.  Similarly with the pride in a church where "you don't need to leave your mind at the door."  This has always struck COD as smacking of intellectual elitism and one of the last hangovers of our destructive establishment entitlement.  Thank GAWD we are not like those VULGAR...fill it in.  Baptists, snakehandlers, Roman Catholics beholden to a foreign power.  It shows an arrogance and elitism because it somehow presumes that other Christians somehow make you check your mind at the door.  This is so shockingly condescending it makes me ashamed to be an Episcopalian sometimes.  Friends, there are lots of Christians who value critical engagement and reflection on the faith.  Get off it.  This is a legacy of the Episcopal Church's sense of entitlement and aloofness, the same church where John Henry Hobart refused to vote, the same church that never took a stand on slavery, and that did not mention the Vietnam War once in GC in the 1960s (but credit where credit is due, also took the lead in many elements of labor movement).  We are still struggling to live into the visions of social justice that an incarnational faith calls us.  The Book of Common Prayer is not just for beauty and mystery and a false sense of unity: like the best of the Christian Socialist and Anglo-Catholic movements, it is how the God who transformed the world in the incarnation makes grace present.  If we continue to think it's what makes us special, then it may not matter what TREC does.

As part of its listening, despite getting contradiction (more social involvement!  less social involvement!) and canard (gosh we so darned awesome and tolerant and smart and always have been), it does find consensus in three areas in its listening to the church, namely, that they have heard

--the Church is calling for us to reduce the bureaucracy and resource-intensity of our Church wide processes.
--The Church wants the work of General Convention and other Church structures to be more relevant and more life-giving to our local parish communities.
--And, the Church wants us to face and grapple with the tough issues and the “elephants in the room” that suck up our resources, time and energy and that block our growth.

I’m terrified that there was not consensus in any sense of mission or purpose as to why the church is here, and that this is all about structure.  Wouldn't it have been nice to hear some missional consensus:  "We have heard the church calling us to be agents of transformation and reconciliation!"  However, COD is keeping his powder dry on that matter; it may be the nature of the process of consultation that TREC has used -- if they didn't structure the listening process to ask those questions, we won't get those answers.  

Anyway, considering the consensus that did emerge, COD finds himself hoping that these are questions which are not just being leveled at churchwide structures.  These three issues are not ones we should solely think pertain only to our churchwide structures; there are ones that have been relevant to every single congregation Crusty has ever been a part of.  How often do great ideas for mission and ministry in a local congregation die the death of spending 18 months going through various committee approval processes (THAT IS A TRUE statement, COD once saw this happen in a congregation)?  Dare we ask how often the structure of our local congregations is “life giving”?  And how many communities have you been a part of that discuss their elephants on the room?  Crusty agrees with this consensus, and would like to call the Episcopal Church to extended reflection on them -- but hopes that this will not degenerate into projecting aspects of our dysfunction on all levels to the denominational level.  COD could barely stifle his laughter sometimes, sitting in the gallery at the House of Bishops at General Convention, where bishops would stand up and lambast 815 or the "national church" when COD knew damn well their own dioceses were unholy dysfunctional messes.  Let's hope TREC doesn't reinforce this glass house mentality, that dioceses and congregations, many of which would never call themselves to task on these issues, project them onto the "national church."

A New Vision

In this next section, Crusty kept thinking of the great Don LaFontaine, king of the movie trailer voiceover.  Known for his dramatic, deep-voiced “In a world
Imagine a church where...
where…”, Crusty wishes Don could have narrated this section as “Imagine a world where…”  For a YouTube tribute to some of his greatest voiceovers, go here.

COD has no real problem with with much of this – congregations should be mission focused, we do need to inspire current members and reach out to new generations and populations, etc.  It's not so much what TREC is saying here, but, like with the comment above about the relationship between what we are asking of our churchwide structures and what our reality is in our dioceses and congregations, COD finds himself asking:

Do we really have to imagine this world from scratch?  Aren't there some places doing this?  TREC notes only 30% of congregations could be considered spiritually vibrant and mission-focused.  Instead of wringing our hands, could we say:  "That's awesome!  Let's learn from those 30%!"  One of the core principles of community vitality is that we can only build on our strengths, not our weaknesses.  How we can we learn from places already doing this?  The world we are being asked to imagine is not Mars.  It is earth, and some congregations, dioceses, and other church organizations have been doing some of the very things TREC is calling us to..

Crusty wished the diversity aspect had been clearly emphasized, not buried in our call to reach out to “new populations.”  For one thing, these populations aren't new, they're not even new to us.  Native Americans, after all, have been here for a while.  So have African Americans, which Episcopalians have, at times, simply refused to evangelize with integrity and commitment.  TEC is overwhelmingly white.  Always has been.  We are in a culture which is increasingly majority minority and TEC has to actually live into the diversity it pays lip service to.  This call to reach out to "new populations" is not something which needs to be buried, it needs to be placed at the center.  We have failed to live out the gospel which does not see the distinctions the world creates.

Crusty particularly like the call to "Imagine that the Church wide structure of The Episcopal Church primarily serves to enable and magnify local mission through networked collaboration, as well as to lend its prophetic voice."  Just like we could learn from those places in the church that are already making some significant adaptation, could we also we learn from the past?  “Networked collaboration” could describe how many churches did mission work in the 19th century, for instance, when mission was done not by denominational structures (they didn't exist) but individuals coming together and forming organizations like the Guild of St Matthew and the Evangelical Alliance and the Church Congress and the Board of Missions.

TREC also calls us to "Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration.:  Glad that TREC is catching up with COD.  Crusty one point proposed flipping General Convention:  let's make what is the Exhibit Hall, where Episcopalians from all over the church come to network and showcase what they are doing, the center, and make the House of Deputies and House of Bishops where we help bring that church into being.

Realizing the Vision

 Here COD breaks ways with TREC:  "We will have to work through a grieving process as we individually and collectively lose structures that have been critical parts of our lives and even of our identities."  There's a reason COD’s motto is let the dead bury their own dead.  We have become addicted to structure and process, even in some cases making an idol out of it, and Crusty will not
Leave the dragon skin behind, TEC.
grieve over leaving much of it behind.
  To COD, this is like Eustace in Narnia leaving his dragon body behind. Having a dragon body gave Eustace powers he didn't have, like being able to fly and breath fire, but he let Aslan's claws cut into him and rip it off so that he could become what God intended for him.  

Crusty also isn't thrilled with the growth language here:  "At the same time, we will also have to find a way of adopting a new and more hopeful mindset: we will need to believe—truly believe—that The Episcopal Church can, should and must GROW!"  Exclamation point in original.  Heresy alert:  COD doesn't care if the church grows.  Crusty wants a church that is focused on transforming individuals to transform the world to bring about God's reign.  That kind of church will grow, but not because it has growth as its purpose, but bringing about the reign of God.  Does this mindset still echo a survival mentality?   Reorganization cannot be the next church growth fad.

TREC then provides a sneak peek at some of the principles behind the changes they will be proposing (the "they" below refers to "changes"): 

1.     They will “clear the way” for innovation and adaptation, freeing up our time and energy, and speeding up decision making.
2.     They will give the leadership of the Church a bold and holistic agenda of change which, if adopted, will role model the kind of similar bold changes that must occur at every other level of the Church.
3.     They will reinvent the role of Church wide organizations and structures: away from “doing” mission and towards enabling mission; away from setting agendas and assigning resources and towards connecting local communities and individuals for mutual learning, support and collaboration.

COD agrees wholeheartedly. But here he is concerned with a kind of top-down interpretation here.  Just like the critique above that we might be able to learn from places in the church already doing transformative change -- and that could inform TREC's work  – might not the changes TREC proposes reflect, instead of model to, changes that are happening all over the church?

       "Some of these proposals will feel incremental, and many have been debated before. Some will feel bold  and risky. Some of them will go beyond the scope of a narrow interpretation of the resolution that created  our Taskforce (C095). Some of them go even beyond the scope of the authority of General Convention."

Once again, glad that TREC has been reading Crusty.  He was the one in 2012 who thought COO Stacy Sauls proposal for a special generation Convention was too timid, and called for an interim PB to be elected in 2015.  Complex solutions have complex problems, and the debates we are having around structure are part of a sweeping re-creation of Christianity in the West.  Christendom and Constantine are dead.  And thank God they are dead.

TREC begins to wind things down by giving some teaser hints of areas where their proposals will be focused.  They offer five areas where they are developing recommendations:

1.     The role and mechanics of General Convention: Narrowing the legislative agenda and reducing the size of its legislative bodies, while expanding the scope of our get-togethers so that they serve not only as places where key legislation is debated and adopted but also as vibrant, open and inclusive celebratory Mission Convocations—bringing together passionate and active practitioners of every kind of mission going on around the Church.

Agree mostly, the COD would prefer not “narrowing” but “focusing”.  Crusty spent most of the fall of 2011 trying to get anyone to care about this stuff.  As an aside, COD has no patience for those that presume changing our current structures is somehow inherently an assault on the principles of the church.  Someone once accused Crusty, in person, face-to-face, that reducing the size of the HOD was "racist, because a smaller HOD would mean fewer people of color."  COD would have none of it.  "Who dioceses elect has nothing to do with the size of General Convention; it is the dioceses that are racist, classist, and age-ist, since they are the ones responsible for whom they elect."  Crusty would be all for having representational requirements, since I don't think the church is willing to do what it takes to live into our diversity.  (Adult communicants are persons over 16.  How often do we put them on Vestries, or as delegates to diocesan Conventions, etc.?)  The ELCA requires 60% of their Assembly be lay persons.  The United Methodist Church has had requirements for representation of under-represented persons -- which one reason why they have people of color and women as bishops and the Episcopal Church continues to elect overwhelmingly white people.  To that suggestion, Crusty's interlocutor retorted, "We can't have quotas in the church, that goes against the Gospel."  COD replied, "So does racism, and GC is overwhelmingly white."  The Episcopal Church has a long history of institutional and structural racism.  Restructuring is not itself inherently racist. 

2.     Roles and accountability of the Presiding Officers and of the Executive Council–particularly as related to Church wide staff: Establishing simple and clear lines of accountability and responsibility, reducing redundancy, clarifying confusions which can inhibit clear decision-making processes, and resizing the Council to function more effectively as a governance board.

Crusty spent much of the spring of 2012 arguing this.  We need to rethink and clarify relations between Presiding officers, Executive Council, and churchwide staff.  We have a structure thoroughly overhauled in 1919 and tweaked repeatedly through accumulated changes.  We need a thorough rethinking of what kind of structure, roles, and accountability we need for this time and place.  COD does continue to be concerned that the TREC train and the Nomination process for the next PB are moving along parallel tracks.  How can TREC propose any kind of changes to governance when we could quite easily lock in no changes by electing someone to a 9-year term as PB under the current canons?  COD has called for electing an interim PB in 2015 to resign in 2018 so a new PB could come in under and revised Constitutional or Canonical changes.  See some of COD's thoughts here.  I mean come on, there's no funding for a TREC gathering in the fall of 2014 but we added another $100,000 to the search process for the Presiding Bishop?

3.     Breadth of CCABs (Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards) and the creation of alternative, fresh and creative models for Church wide collaboration: Recasting most of our CCABs into a new model of distributive and accountable collaboration. Creating on-line collaboration models that connect local mission leaders across our Church so that our collective “agenda” can dynamically adapt to local needs, and so that we tap into the greatest asset of our Church—all of us, sitting in the pews, doing great work locally but mostly disconnected from each other and from The Episcopal Church.

Um, yeah.

4.     Number of dioceses: Considering a one-time, objective process for establishing norms for a healthy and viable diocesan size and structure in order to enable mission and reduce the complexity of our organization.

Absolutely, COD can name a half dozen dioceses off the top of his head that aren't viable.  But good luck with that. 

5.     Capacity and leadership development: Establishing effective leadership formation and development approaches for all orders of ministry, grounded in our vows of baptism and ordination, as well as in the particular needs of the 21st century. Calling out the implications for clergy career paths and deployment, as well as the implications and opportunities for seminaries and other current leadership development programs. Encouraging the creation of new “centers of excellence” or other mechanisms for fostering ongoing learning and large-scale capability building, encouraging networking around existing nodes of great work.

COD honestly does not know what this means -- I mean, he knows what the words mean, but how will TREC be doing this?  Do they know that there's lot of people in the church doing this right now?

"It is also clear that there is a deeply felt need to develop some common understandings of how individual dioceses can best make decisions about, and provide the best support for, parish vitality and viability. Given how vastly different the cultural and demographic landscape has become since most of our congregations were founded and buildings constructed, how do we make the most faithful and strategic use of our resources as we make decisions about the number of parishes, locations, consolidations, new plants, etc.?"

COD has been preaching this for years:  let's not let this culture of scarcity infect us like some sort of zombie plague.  We have resources of institutions, people, property, and finances.  Heck, if we closed 815 tomorrow, there are almost $250 million in endowed funds held in trust (granted much of it probably restricted) and a building on 2nd Ave and 43rd St in Manhattan.  That's something to work with.  Likewise how can we make effective use of the resources we have to shape the changes we need to make?  This is going to be incredibly complicated, and we must realize that some congregations, dioceses, seminaries, and even denominations will choose to die rather than change.

TREC then announces its plan for a gathering in Fall of 2014 to present its proposals:

        "In line with our vision to live into new ways to “do Church” in the 21st century, this meeting will be virtual,         so that we can involve as broad and diverse a group as possible, without restricting access to those who        don’t have the financial resources to join an in-person gathering."

Sure, but you could do both, have a virtual and an in-person meeting.

This handicapping of TREC's work by refusing to fund a gathering in Fall of 2014 is something COD continually finds troubling.  We spend three years and over $225,000 to nominate a Presiding Bishop but are unable to fund a gathering for restructuring of the church.  This reinforces one of Crusty's central concerns:  that there are those who derive power, prestige, privilege, and authority from the current structures of the church, and who will be unwilling to give that up.

COD remains hopeful for TREC's work:  the church does need to be engaged and present in this process.  There are smart, faithful, committed people of goodwill on TREC and Crusty continues to pray for them.  It is not TREC that worries COD.  It's our ability in the midst of our scarcity and anxiety to take the steps needed, to which God is calling us in this time and place.