Monday, September 2, 2019

The Collapse Is Here.

Crusty has noticed some buzz in the interbloggerwebotwitfacesphere around the Episcopal Church's release of annual membership statistics. The news, friends, continues to be not good, very bad, alarming, four horsemen of the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, bad.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2016!  

Turns out the super rich are more numerous than Episcopalians.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2011!

Collapse, my friends.  That's what's coming. 

Hey!  I wrote that in 2012!

In what is becoming a Groundhog-Day esque experience, the Episcopal Church has once
As Phil predicted: It's going to be cold, dark,
and last the rest of your life.
again released its membership numbers, and once again, it is VERY bad.

Some of the current cover-your-eyes numbers:

From 2008-2018, average Sunday attendance has dropped nearly 25%, to about 562,000.  By comparison, in the year 2003, it was 858,000.

We have more parishes with an average attendance of less than 10 persons than we do with congregations with attendance of 300 or more.

And this is not taking into account other demographics, such as we are about 87% Anglo when the United States is about 62% Anglo, and the average age of an Episcopalian in 57 in when in the United States the average age is about 37.  We are old and white in a missional context that is less old and less white.

The numbers continue to be terrible overall.  Some provinces have declined 30% in average Sunday attendance in the past decade.  To be sure, these are aggregate numbers.  A couple of dioceses have shown small growth.  Some parishes, no doubt, are growing.  But overall we simply cannot ignore the trends.

In the past decade I have blogged on these issues here, here, here, herehere, and probably some other places I've forgotten. I've also given presentations at clergy conferences and even at a state Council of Churches annual meeting on issues of denominational collapse.  

I've noticed a kind of cycle here. When the membership and attendance numbers get released, what usually happens is there is a flurry of debate about the "reasons" for the decline: some of it on target, some of it ridiculous, but despite a general understanding of the state of our situation, overall a general state of unwillingness to engage the issues in any substantive ways has settled in.  The Episcopal Church membership statistic release conversation is almost like the way American society has its gun debate after mass shootings:  a flurry of the same statements being made, then the whole conversation just goes away in a week or so.

Here's a brief rundown of some of the reasons for the decline:

1)  The Episcopal Church did not keep up with movements in population.  Approximately 12-13% of Episcopal Churches were founded after 1968.  We have had massive population shifts to the South, Southwest, and West, and simply never kept up with those shifts.  New Haven, CT has a population of 130,000 and 7 Episcopal churches.  Mesa, Arizona, has a population of nearly 500,000 and 2 Episcopal churches.  (Yes, I know New Haven has a greater metro population -- but so does Mesa.  Not an exact analogy, just an illustration.)  I once was living in a diocese whose generally population had nearly doubled in 30 years but had not planted a single successful church in those 30 years.

2)  Demographics.  As noted above, we are older and whiter than the society as a whole.  Of course we're shrinking when we're old and white in a country that's less old and less white.  There's a similar dynamic in seminary enrollments.  Looking at the aggregate numbers of the 200+ seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, the number of people enrolled in accredited seminaries has dropped.  Yet if you look at the seminaries that are the most diverse, their numbers have increased.

3)  Conflict.  This one gets spun a lot: the whole canard that liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing, and liberal churches are shrinking because millions are leaving over disagreements on human sexuality.

Conservative churches are shrinking.  The Southern Baptists have been losing members for nearly a decade.  The Catholic Church's Anglo-membership numbers track very closely with the Episcopal Church's losses, and the Catholic Church is only barely holding steady because of growth among non-Anglo members.

Yes, the Episcopal Church has lost members due to conflict.  We shouldn't be pollyannish about that.  But making it somehow the central, core reason simply doesn't hold up to any reasonable demographic or statistical scrutiny.  For instance the single biggest drop in Episcopal Church membership in the past 40 years -- 400,000 + members -- has come not from conflict, but from former overseas missionary dioceses becoming either independent or linking up with other Anglican provinces (Philippines, Panama, Liberia, etc.).

4)  Secularization.  Church attendance collapsed in Europe in the past 75 years as it has become a largely secularized, post-Christian society.  It has collapsed Ireland in the past generation, going from having one of the highest rates of church attendance of any culturally Western society to now looking more and more like the rest of Europe.  We are well into the post-Christian secularization in the United States.

5)  Toxicity of Christianity.  To a large portion of the un-churched culture, Christianity is seen as toxic.  The Pew Research Forum and Barna Group have both done extensive studies of un-churched attitudes towards Christianity.  In a Barna Group survey, the top words associated with Christians by un-churched persons are "hypocritical" and "judgmental".

6)  The end of denominationalism, with the whole model established in the 1500s coming to the end of its historical life cycle.  (And BTW -- good riddance, denominationalism!  It was birthed out of empire, ethnicity, class, and regional differences.  We can still share our different Christian charisms and leave that balkanization of Christianity behind!)  In fact, we need to go all-in on ecumenical cooperation and collaboration precisely at a time when many are privileging our distinctivenesses.

This is not an exhaustive list, there are many other factors; nor have I done justice to all the aspects and elements of the ones I outline here.  Scroll through the old blog posts referenced above, check out the very good work of Pew and Barna in these areas.  (Note: while Barna does important demographic and statistical analysis, I do not often agree with the strategies the suggest for addressing the decline.)

So we actually don't need a lot of think pieces:  members are dying and we are not replacing them.  It's pretty straightforward.

And what's even more terrifying: the many folks just don't seem to care.  I've been in parish ministry for several years now and frankly have been terrified by most of the reaction when we have conversations about this stuff.  It seems to fall into several areas, these are comments I've heard in various places in the past 4 years since I've been in parish ministry:

--Refusal to engage.  I had a clergy person stand up and say (paraphrase): "Attendance doesn't matter, what matters is the ways in which we are changing the lives of our members
Actual photo from most church conversations
about membership statistics.
for the better."

--Technical fixes.  Another colleague who said, "What we need is a new hymnal, people don't like old hymns from the 1800s."

--Understanding the situation perfectly well but not caring.  Another colleague said, "I'm only 5 years from retirement I just don't have the energy to do any of what we need to do to grow the parish."

--Knowing perfectly well what needs to be done but unable to do it.  I have a bishop who's a friend who said, "I need to create yoked congregations and pair up about half the parishes in my dioceses yet given our polity hardly any of them will do it so they're probably just going to close and we'll have a bunch of empty buildings in 25 years."

--Worshipping our governance as a way forward.  I've seen dioceses reorganize their deaneries thinking that'll do it. We spend millions on General Convention which has done next to nothing on church revitalization and growth.  We decided to be "nimble" and got rid of all almost all of the Committees, Commission, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) in 2012.  At the end of the 2018 General Convention, we had re-created and re-established more task forces than we had CCABs in 2012.  We were also spending more money on them than we did in 2012, and all without the clearly defined mandates, membership composition, and lines of accountability that the old CCABs had.  General Convention does what it is set up to do, and addressing our collapse is not one those things.

In his systems theory work, Ed Friedman identified two aspects of anxious religious systems that come back to me again and again:

--Just because you may be right about something, don't think that will get you anywhere or convince anyone.

--A system may clearly know exactly what they are facing, may be well informed as to their options, and may still choose to do nothing, or even choose the option that will lead to their death.

Crusty sees plenty of both of these behaviors Friedman noted in many explicit and implicit statements and actions, both in the Episcopal Church and with ecumenical partners.

So after 8 years of blogging on this, and four years on the front lines in parish ministry, I have become more convinced that we are well into The Collapse.  I wrote this from the blog several years ago:


For Jared Diamond [in Guns Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies], 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.  For instance,

Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and are 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. 

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 basically 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.

So one major problem 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 the 1950-1990 period was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society.  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 affinity based networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.

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.  

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. 

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011.  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.  General Convention is going to be unsustainable eventually, anyways. 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 mission, formation, and evangelism.  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 those parishes as clubs for members, provide a congregational hospice 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:

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 the 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, Julia Chester Emery, and others argued this in the 1800s.  In our own time people many 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.

So I wrote that part years ago, in 2012.  The Collapse continues to unfold, and, as a whole, we continue to do not much about it.  I'm honestly not sure why every single meeting of Diocesan Convention, every single diocesan Standing Committee,  every single meeting of Executive Council, does not have the membership numbers report given to them as an agenda item and have a discussion on how we are going to outline a coordinated churchwide effort at renewal and evangelism. 

I wrote what follows years ago as well:


Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).
So it's not about one generation over and against one another.  Since we [all] are the church, we need to BE the church together.  Millennials need to understand how institutions are helpful in furthering goals -- you can put up all the online petitions you want, but more substantive organization is essential to effect change.  Boomers need to get just how different things are, this isn't like not knowing how to work a DVR or which input button lets you watch DVDs on TV.   Xers, I think, can serve an important bridge function in how we straddle the divide between Boomers and Millennials -- I said to a colleague once I felt my whole ministry might be like the Steward of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (well, without the homicidal mental illness): striving to preserve something until someone else (the Millenials and Gen Z) comes to claim and transform it.   How much of the church can we preserve, how can we let what we have and know and are, be resources to the Millennials and Generation Z?  The church has looked very, very different from age to age:  from house churches in Dura Europos in the third century to a Gothic Cathedral in the 13th to Methodist circuit riders in the 19th, and so on.  The 21st century church will look very, very different from the 20th century church.

And I say, God help us.  Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?  The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that. 


And hey, I've practiced what I preached: I became academic dean of a seminary I thought would not survive, and realized that resurrection was the only option. I worked with many other faithful, committed folks to merge it with another seminary and transform it from a nearly 100% residential model to 100% low-residential model (online courses, short-term intensives).  It didn't make everybody happy, to be sure, but the seminary survives, has more than tripled its enrollment, and is serving people most of whom would not have been able to engage theological education.  I've been in parish ministry for four years and through lots of effort we are holding the line, not growing but not shrinking; winding down some legacy programs and outreach but beginning new efforts; all in a town that has not seen any overall population growth in 20 years.  

I've written and blogged and presented on these issues for nearly a decade, and now have realized I have moved into acceptance mode.  And let me clarify what I mean here:  this is not weak resignation to the evils we implore, as the hymn warns us.  Acceptance does not mean I am OK with the church's generational failures in mission, evangelism, and formation.  I am going to go down swinging.  I have, however, accepted the fact that a good portion of the church will choose to die rather than change or adapt.  That is the acceptance I have come to.  It's why I don't blog on structural change or give the kind of long breathless General Convention recaps that I used to.  Because our dioceses and congregations are going to close or merge and Convention will look different in 20 years by necessity.  

I said years ago I thought around the year 2035 the Episcopal Church's attendance numbers would bottom out in the 400,000 attendance range, and will have closed 20-30% of the parishes to give us south of 5,000 congregations.  It's then that the church will either begin to slowly rebound, or continue to slide towards irrelevance.  

The church as we know it is dying.  But the church itself is not dying, because it can't.  The church is God's creation.  It's not ours to kill; God help us we probably would have already if we could have.  And that rebound in the 2040s, if there is one, will be because have seen the new way of being church that God is calling us, and have embraced it.

So I ask again: for those of us active now, to whom God has entrusted the church in this transitional moment: will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

They Can't Help Themselves: Oops, TLC Did It Again

Look, despite what you may think, Crusty doesn't really enjoy going on rants.  People who know me seem to say I'm generally rather pleasant.  The last thing COD wanted to do on a semi-hiatus is comment on the work of The Living Church yet again, given that they tried to fundraise off the criticism I gave them last fall for a poorly written piece riddled with errors of fact.

But they did it again.  Another simply poorly written, inaccurate, misleading article, this time on "The PB's Ecumenical Moment."  You can read it here.

Unfortunately, as has become my custom in pointing out their shoddy journalism, Crusty first needs
TLC b all like.
to address the errors of fact and poor sourcing of this article.  They did it again!

1.      Corrections and Items in Need of Clarification

A.   "Back in October, ecumenists from the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church released A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, which invites the two denominations to formally share in Communion and interchangeability of ordained ministry. It also commits TEC to recognize the UMC’s episcopate as possessing equal apostolicity."

The document was actually released back in 2017, not in 2018.  Here's my blog post that breaks it down.

These weren't "ecumenists".  Full disclosure:  I am on this dialogue team.  I am a full time parish priest.  None of the members of the Episcopal Church delegation are formally ecumenists.  We have one retired seminary professor, parish clergy, and an active bishop.  Ecumenical staff serve as consultants and resource persons.  These were Episcopalians nominated and appointed to represent their church.  Serving on a committee does not make you a professional.  Going to a PTA meeting does not make me an "educator."

Also:  there is a significant difference between recognition and reconciliation, which the document noted here itself points out.  We can recognize another church's ministry, but that does not mean we have a reconciled ministry.  We recognize the ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, but since we do not have a reconciled ministry, a Catholic priest can't serve in an Episcopal Church.  While the document recognizes the ministries of The United Methodist Church, it crucially proposes a process for reconciliation, including a means by which The United Methodist Church may share in the historic episcopate.  That's an essential element of the document not noted here.

B.   "Another historic agreement that was celebrated when I was in seminary was the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith."  

This is not the name of the statement.  It is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  Here is an important resource for this article.

C.  "These feelings of dislocation only intensified when African Anglicans were patronized and vilified during the events of 2003 and afterward as the Anglican Communion began to fracture."

Crusty, too, has been moved by powerful experiences of Christianity in other parts of the world; in my case, time I spent in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and seeing Christians emerge from Communist persecution.  However, choosing 2003 as a date when the Communion "began to fracture" seems jaw-dropping when we look at the concerns raised over the ordination of women in the 1970s and the consecration of women bishops in 1989 and following.  

African Anglicans were indeed at times patronized and vilified.  We must reject any and all efforts to talk about a monolithic "Africa" and be aware of how colonialism, imperialism, and racism have led to these horrific caricatures of Anglicans in other parts of the world.

However, many African Anglicans and others have also vilified, demonized, and dehumanized LGBTQ persons.  I myself was told by an African bishop, to my face, personally, that I was "A false teacher, no Christian, and there is a special place in hell for you for the souls you are leading to damnation by your blessing of homosexual perversion and all the children corrupted by it."

There has been hurtful rhetoric employed all around, and to single out one side seems disingenuous.  

Speaking of disingenuous, let's talk about the photos presented as the smoking guns here.  

D.  "What is missing — or rather, whom — in these pictures? What kind of person would be unlike the others? Hint: the dialogue group with the Methodists gets some credit."

Whom is the object of a verb or preposition, and here "who" is properly a predicate nominative -- "who is missing".  Hey, TLC, do you have copyeditors?  This is an unhinged blog with a Geocities look and a staff of one and I try my best to, you know, do grammar goodly.

Several photos are presented as evidence that these are white people talking to white people.

The photograph on the signing of the JDDJ has nothing to do with the Episcopal Church's ecumenical work.  The Anglican Communion was not even a signatory in 1999 when this photo was taken. 
Proof that all hip hop is all white?
These are representatives from the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church.  Why is this photo here?  Is this lack of knowledge of ecumenism, incompetence, or deliberate efforts to mislead?  There's really no other option.

The other photo is from a joint Canadian-American meeting, not the full Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee.  It does include a blind person.  There are many kinds of diversity. The United Methodist dialogue photo is a year old, and does not include current membership, which does has more persons of color.  There are no photos of the Presbyterian-Episcopal bilateral dialogue and Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in the USA, both of which have persons of color in membership.

E.  "From my perspective, TEC’s ecumenical agreements, both consummated and proposed, seem a little like liberal white people of mostly English heritage and liberal white people of mostly German heritage (okay, with some Swedes and Norwegians thrown in) agreeing that their doctrinal differences aren’t really important and that Jesus is okay with them not sharing what is, in fact, most important to them (institutional power, assets)."

Then perhaps you should broaden your perspective, and maybe you are the white person only interested in agreements with white persons. Like, if you can't find the mark at the card table, you are the mark. The Episcopal Church has full communion agreements with the Mar Thoma Church of India and the Philippine Independent Church, including sharing of ministries.  The Philippine Independent Church has two dioceses in the USA, and there is a Concordat Council that meets to look at areas of joint cooperation.  These are two churches almost entirely non-Anglo, and have very few people of English and German descent. 
A noted historian of American religious history has called The United Methodist Church "the fourth major historically African American Methodist Church," because of substantial African American and African constituencies.  18 of the UMC's 46 bishops in the United States are people of color.  The glibness here is combined with a demonstrated lack of familiarity, a truly toxic mixture.

F.  "We are blessed with a leader who is winsome, good for the brand, eloquent, erudite (Teilhard de
I think Fairport Convention when I think winsome.
Chardin at a wedding? Really?), and focused on racial reconciliation as a primary concern of his nine-year ministry. And, well, he’s

For someone supposedly transformed by an experience in Sudan, I would not expect flippancy with regards to the racial dynamics which are supposedly so important.  Expressing surprise at a well, black man's use of de Chardin recalls to mind Joe Biden's remark that Barack Obama was "bright and articulate." 

G.  "Is this not the acceptable time, the auspicious hour, the ecumenical moment for TEC to form binding, unitive agreements with historically black denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church?  We are in contact with historically black Methodism only through the 11-member Churches Uniting in Christ."

The Episcopal Church has been involved in multi-lateral dialogues with the historically African American Methodist Churches as part of the Consultation on Church Union and its successor body, Churches Uniting in Christ.  The Presiding Bishop preached at the CUIC gathering Dallas in 2017.  This is not just "contact."  This is over 50 years of ecumenical dialogue.  In 2017, at that gathering in Dallas, the member churches recognized one another's ministries (though, as Episcopalians, we do not yet have reconciliation of ministries and sharing in the historic episcopate).  

Also, to equate "contact" with "ecumenical dialogues" leaves out common work on the National Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission, World Council of Churches Faith and Order and other committees and commissions, common lobbying efforts with our Office of Government Relations, and a host of other areas.

H.  "In the denominations I mentioned, there are often bishops who wear Anglican collars and purple shirts. They have seminary-trained clergy and a venerable, robust theological tradition that branches off from ours."

If the color of clergy shirts is a marker of ecclesiastical union, then it looks as though we may not have interchangeable ministries with Archbishop Justin Welby or the literally hundreds of Anglican
When the Anglican Communion really fractured? #PurpleUp
bishops worldwide who do not wear purple shirts.  Giving the increasing numbers of non-seminary trained clergy in the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican world, I also am not clear as to why this is lifted up as a basis of seeking visible unity.

The Episcopal Church enters into discussions on full communion on the basis of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, not ecclesial haberdashery.

I.  "What would the argument against interchangeability be? What about full visible union?"

See comment above -- Quadrilateral, Chicago-Lambeth.   That's the basis.  Also, it's in the Prayer Book.

J.  "And we have an asset that we can share: money."

This is just astonishing.  We really have nothing else to share other than money?  That is all we are
I think I prefer the previous pictures than this vision of ecumenism.
offering to historically African American Methodist Churches?

K.  "We could leverage the Church Pension Fund (CPF) for the cause of racial reconciliation. It is an open secret that CPF has massive uncommitted reserves (assets in excess of what even a liberal estimate of the fund’s liabilities would require to cover them). TEC could offer to include clergy of the historically black denominations in Churches United in Christ on equal terms in the pension plan. Credit for years served in the pre-uniate denomination would be automatic, and all new entrants to CPF would be instantly awarded a HAC (Highest Average Compensation) equal to their current salary or the highest they’ve earned within the last seven years (instead of an average of the last seven)."

First of all, "uniate" is considered by most Eastern Rite churches to be on the level of a kind of slur, and is hardly ever used in ecumenical discourse.

Second of all, it is shockingly presumptuous to offer the terms and basis of unity without first being in partnership.  Perhaps historically African American Methodist Churches might want to put this into other areas?  One of the elements of dialogue is, you know, to be in dialogue, not show up with suitcases of cash and tell people what we'll do for them.

Third of all, it is an incredible oversimplification of the state of the Church Pension Fund.  What is an open secret is their Annual Report, which they, you know, publish.  And the very first page of the Church Pension Fund's 2018 Annual Report notes it received $97 in assessments and paid out $383 million in benefits.  So there's a gap of almost $300 million in what is taken in through assessment and what is paid out.  The reserves cover that gap.  And, with fewer clergy overall, and more part-time clergy, combined with a surge of retirement of Baby Boomer clergy, this gap will increase.  Yes, the Pension Fund does have more than enough assets to meet its obligations.  But it's not Apple.

We also might consider some of the economic injustices within our own church, where women and clergy of color are paid less than their male counterparts, maybe figure out how to support bivocational clergy.  We also have a two-tiered system, where full time lay employees do not receive the same pension benefits. Is economic justice in pensions a zero-sum-game?

L.  "Progressives in TEC might be discomfited to be confronted with conservative views from their African-American brethren who are supposed to be liberal about everything of importance, and whose spirituality they consider more admirable from a distance. Grumblings that TEC should take back Gift to the World in response to the UMC Special General Conference’s vote on marriage and sexuality underscore this progressive ecumenical sore spot."

Hey, not all white people are progressives on matters of human sexuality, and not all African Americans are conservative on matters of human sexuality.  Huh.  Just like we shouldn't be monolithic about Africa, maybe we shouldn't be monolithic about what "white" people and "African American" people think about human sexuality.

Also, where would we take A Gift to the World back to?  It is a proposal for offered for feedback and discussion, and has not been formally put on the table anywhere in the Episcopal Church.  

M.  "A frequently mentioned stumbling block in TEC’s ecumenical endeavors has been a perceived “Anglican arrogance,” especially on “Faith and Order” issues. When it comes to white denominations such the ELCA, UMC, and PCUSA, I’ll admit to it, and I think it’s justified."

40% of the UMC's membership is non-white, taking into account overseas jurisdictions.  16 of its 46 bishops in the USA are people of color.  It's not a white church.  

N.  "Nevertheless, as an Anglo-Catholic I can truly say — with God as my witness, I do not lie — that if being called Pastor Price instead of Fr. Price would achieve real union with my African-American brothers and sisters in Christ in another denomination, then I would never allow someone to call me Father again. And that goes for a suspension of the Ordinal."

I'm not sure what in God's name this means.  Do we really think that forms of address form the basis of full communion, like the color of bishops' shirts?  Seriously, please, please look at the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  It says what we are willing to forego, and what we consider essential.  We entered into full communion with the ELCA and everyone is still free to address their clergy however they would like. 

Also: it's not suspension of the Ordinal.  It's suspension of the Preface to the Ordinal.

And: it was passed by over 90% of the both Houses of Convention at two separate Conventions, so it does look like there was broad consensus on this matter. Not a lot of debate about whether to suspend it or not.

And: it's not "giving it up."  It's a suspension, for one time only.  All subsequent ELCA clergy had to be ordained under the provisions of Called to Common Mission.  We didn't give it up.  It's still there, and still in effect.

And: we only did that once, and once only, with the ELCA.  The proposal with the Moravians and United Methodists does not propose suspension to the Preface to the Ordinal, but offers other ways to share in the historic episcopate.  

O.  "I can think of no greater practical, concrete, costly act of racial reconciliation than for TEC and a historically black denomination to reach an agreement leading to full, visible, sacramental, and hierarchical union. I recognize that this would go far beyond the goals of TEC’s current ecumenical paradigm."

Once again, our goals are based on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.   What goals are being referenced?  Please provide a citation. 

Also: I do not know what "hierarchical union" means.  This is not a term in usage in the ecumenical movement.  

Also:  "Sacramental" union is incorporated into full visible unity and full communion by the definition of those terms in ecumenical agreements, and is a redundant term here. 

P.  "And our presiding bishop is precisely the leader who could make credible overtures and apply the kind of pressure a real effort in this direction would require."

Presiding Bishop should be capitalized.

Wow, that's a lot of questions for clarification and corrections of errors of fact in a roughly 1650 word article!  Nicely done.  I got all the way to the letter P, I thought I was going to have to start outlining points as AA, BB, etc.

OK, with that done, let's move on to Part 2:

2. Thing is: I agree with the central point here.  

Our ecumenical endeavors must address issues of race and racism as church dividing issues, otherwise they are empty and meaningless.  An entire section of the United Methodist Church-Episcopal Church report from the first round of the dialogue addresses this.  I know because I wrote it, along with colleagues committed to these efforts.  You can find it here.

This Episcopal Church has a long legacy of institutional racism.   We must name it.  African American congregations were not given voice and vote in diocesan conventions until the 1860s.  We created de facto segregation with the creation of "Colored Convocations."  The suffragan bishop canon as originally passed specifically denied vote in the House of Bishops to suffragans because Southern dioceses intended to elect African Americans as suffragan bishops for African Americans.  After the Civil War, formerly enslaved persons in South Carolina sought to form congregations, and asked that clergy be ordained for them.  The diocese refused, and several of those congregations joined the Reformed Episcopal Church, which did ordain clergy for them.  And we could go on and on.

We must confront our own sins here, and must address race and racism as a church dividing issue.  I was Assistant Ecumenical Officer from 2001-2009, and Ecumenical Officer of the Episcopal Church from 2009-2011.  We held three ecumenical dialogue sessions with representatives from historically African American Methodist Episcopal Churches from 2006-2010.  Yes, the Episcopal Church must make racial reconciliation part of our ecumenical work.  We are trying.  We have not been perfect, by any means.  We must continue to reach out.  And we must do so in a spirit of humility and seeking common ground in mission and ministry, not what color shirts we wear and what we call our clergy.

And The Episcopal Church must also address its own institutional racism and systems of white privilege, otherwise we will have very little legitimacy as a dialogue partner.  There is no mention of this at all in this article.  

While I agree with the central point, does what is proposed here actually move this conversation forward?

It proposes the following things.  Read the article.  This is what is actually proposed.

--That the Presiding Bishop do this.  It is his "moment."  Well, the church as a whole must get behind this, not just the Presiding Bishop.  He is not some sort of Bagger Vance magical African American who can show us the way and lift us above ourselves.

--That we throw money at historically African American Methodist Churches.  Perhaps we should be in dialogue and build relationship? 

--That the color of clergy shirts indicates common ground, and giving up a title of address no ecumenical agreement would ever ask anyone to do is somehow going to bring about visible unity.

While I agree with the central argument of this piece, this article is just appalling.  

It takes more than insipid, flippant, insouciant, poorly sourced articles with minimal actual engagement with our ecumenical endeavors, full of a number of errors of fact, to address the issues raised in this piece.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Dispatches from the Sunken Place: United Methodist Special Conference

Well, like Michael Corleone in Godfather, Part 3, it looks like everytime I think I am out, something drags me back in.  I have been taking a blogging hiatus, but, after spending the past 3 days watching the proceedings of the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and having spent 17 years of my life as a member of The Episcopal Church-United Methodist Church bilateral dialogue team working for a closer relationship between the two communions, I found I kept looking longingly at the keyboard, compelled to say something.

It was a tweet from a delegate attending the Conference that pushed me over the edge:

For those of you have not seen Jordan Peele's horror masterpiece which is a devastating and terrifying take on race and racism in contemporary American society, stop reading this and go watch it. 

OK, now that you're back, you can understand the depth of sadness that this tweet represents:  that a church convention is similar to that place where one is completely aware but helpless in the face of violence and terror being inflicted.  Yet after listening to hours of discussion and debate at the Special General Conference, I have to say this tweet nailed it exactly:  in many ways the United Methodist Special Conference WAS the sunken place.

In the course of just one day delegates did the following:  a)  voted for legislation even though they quite likely knew some aspects of it would be later struck down; b)  accused other delegates of bribing people for votes; and c) compared another's position to a virus infecting the church; and d)....I just can't go on.  There was lots more.  And that was what was said in the Convention hall in front of thousands of people!  Following social media, and some of the awful things said there, was even harder to bear.

(This is, BTW, one of the reasons why I took a hiatius from this blog.  I came up with the character of Crusty Old Dean in 2011 and the distinctive voice of this blog after watching Stephen Colbert's character on the Colbert Report.  Dismayed by some of the rhetoric I heard in the church, I created this blog and character as a kind of metacommentary, going over the top in mimicking what I heard around the church while trying to make my points.  I took a hiatus, in part, because I couldn't bring myself to do it anymore, given the level of discourse in the church and in our society had become so poisonous that the character I was playing was no longer out of the ordinary or event over the top.  I'm also writing a book, which is the other main reason.)

So, a quick explainer:

1)  How in God's name did we get here?  What was up with that Special General Conference?

The United Methodist Church has language in its governing document the Book of Discipline which specifically states that"The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."  (Although despite many assertions that this has always been the teaching of the church, FWIW this language was not adopted by General Conference until 1972.)  The Discipline also has language specifically forbidding clergy from performing same sex marriage ceremonies.

Proposals to change or amend this language have been made at the last several United Methodist General Conferences.  Despite this language, there have been numerous examples of openly gay persons being ordained, and celebrations of same sex marriages.  Most notably, one jurisdiction elected an openly gay, partnered person as bishop.  The church's highest body found this to be a violation of the language in the Discipline, yet did not have the authority to nullify or remove the bishop, so in turn referred those matters to the local authority which had jurisdiction.  The same body which elected her is the body that has authority to discipline her, and has declined to discipline her despite the ruling.  This is but one example of the ways various local authorities have found work-arounds, for lack of a better term, for the language in the Discipline.

After more debate at the 2016 General Conference, the delegates asked the bishops to try to find a way forward despite the deep divisions in the church.  The bishops eventually decided to call a Special General Conference to deal solely with trying to determine a way forward on the issue of human sexuality, prior to the regularly scheduled General Conference to be held in 2020.  (Various bodies have provisions to hold special meetings in between regularly scheduled ones.  The Episcopal Church held a Special General Convention in 1969, for instance, in between its regularly scheduled 1967 and 1970 General Conventions -- which was also a trainwreck, BTW -- and my parish held a Special Parish Meeting to vote on what to do with a large bequest.)

The bishops put forward three plans for consideration at the Special General Conference (all of these summaries are necessarily truncated, giving the overall gist of the plans, some of which were quite lengthy and complex):

i)   The One Church Plan (OCP).  This would have removed the prohibitions in the Book of Discipline against homosexuality, and allowed local annual conferences (roughly equivalent to dioceses) and congregations to decide on whether to permit same sex marriages and ordination of openly LGBT persons.

ii)    The Connectional Plan.  This would essentially have done away with a single United Methodist Church and created three non-geographical grouping that congregations could choose to affiliate with.  Though never explicitly spelled out, these were envisioned to be a Traditionalist (no same sex marriages or openly LGBT clergy), Affirming (not only permitting but affirming and endorsing full inclusion of LGBT persons), and a Moderate/Centrist.  An annual conference would choose one of the three bodies, and congregations within those annual conferences could in turn choose a different one.  So if your Annual Conference (roughly = diocese) chose the Traditional, your congregation could still vote to join the Affirming.  And you could have three United Methodist Churches in the same town, each belonging to a different jurisdiction.  Unfortunately this one borrowed heavily from the church's segregated past.  In the 1939 merger of the northern and southern branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church which split in 1844 over slavery, the price for reunion was legislated segregation, with African American churches placed in a non-geographic jurisdiction.

iii)   The Traditional Plan (TP).  This would have strengthened current provisions.  For instance, it would have implemented mandatory sentences for persons found in violation of the Book of Discipline and required local board of ordination to certify all persons for ordination were complying with the language in the Book of Discipline.  (Since the language was around "self-avowed and practicing", in some areas a kind of "don't ask-don't tell" emerged.)  It was, in essence, a doubling down on current prohibitions and actually strengthening them.

The Council of Bishops forwarded these three proposals to the Special General Conference, and indicated they were endorsing the One Church Plan.

iv)  In addition, The Simple Plan (SP) was drafted and put forth by the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.  This would have removed the language concerning prohibition of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian teaching from the Discipline and made no other structural changes of any kind.

There were other proposals, and modified versions of some of the above proposals, in the mix as the Special General Conference opened.

2)    So what happened in St. Louis at the Special General Conference?

Several things to keep in mind before proceeding:

i)  The United Methodist Church truly is a global church, and is becoming more so.  It has jurisdictions in Europe, Asia, and Africa and an enormous overseas presence.  In 2004, 19% of delegates to Annual Conference were from overseas conferences, called Central Conferences.  In 2016, that was over 40%.  I tell Episcopalians, "Imagine if nearly half of the Episcopal Church lived in Province IX or non-US dioceses." While far from being monolithic, the Central Conferences overall tend to be conservative theologically.  Many are also located in areas which have bans against homosexuality.  Russia, for instance, has laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and in my time there doing research on Christian churches, many are concerned that being connected with an American, LGBT-friendly church could open them to financial liability (fines may be levied against organizations into the thousands of dollars for "homosexual propaganda"), or having their licenses to function as churches revoked.

ii)  These overseas jurisdictions, the Central Conferences, have substantial autonomous self-governance.  The can legislate for themselves.   However, the US-based United Methodist Church does not have this provision for self-governance. The Central Conferences thus can vote on measures in General Conference which are binding on the US-based church, but not on themselves, while the US-based church does not have this ability.

iii)   The United Methodist Church has a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which can issue binding decisions on whether what is passed by General Conference is in violation of the Book of Discipline.  The Episcopal Church simply has nothing even remotely close to this.

So:  what happened?

Functioning as a committee of the whole, the Conference decided to move forward only with consideration of the TP.  However, certainly parliamentary efforts resulted in the SP and the OCP also being considered.  Some delegates seemed openly to adopt an effort to try to offer as many amendments to the TP and parliamentary procedure steps to try to run out the clock and have the Conference adjourn without approving any plan. In a church that had for years not been able to muster a majority to change the language in the Discipline, it seemed to be a very high bar to find the votes to pass the SP or OCP, and it seemed most likely some version of the TP would pass.

In the end, with about an hour left before mandatory adjournment, the Traditional Plan was adopted by a margin of 54 votes, 438 in favor, 384 opposed.

However, the situation remains in flux.  The SJC ruled parts of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional when it was initially considered on Monday, Feb. 25.  On Tuesday, Feb. 26, a number of amendments were presented trying to fix those issues.  The SJC in turn ruled some of those unconstitutional.  Additional amendments were proposed.  The Traditional Plan was passed without final rulings on constitutionality of some matters.  The SJC is meeting in April, and could rule some aspects of what was passed unconstitutional.

3)   So what's next?

--It is likely a good number of United Methodists will be considering leaving, both conservatives who do not think the Special General Conference went far enough, and those affirming of LGBT persons who feel they cannot comply.  The Wesleyan Covenant Association, an organization which "connects orthodox churches" and which endorsed the TP, is meeting February 27 and 28 to determine their response to the Conference.  Had the Conference not passed the TP, it was predicted by some that the WCA would announce the formation of a new, traditional church organization.

--The SJC will likely weigh on provisions of what was passed, including a key provision which would have allowed congregations to leave the denomination and under certain conditions keep their property.  If this aspect gets ruled unconstitutional, all hell breaks loose and lawsuits over property will abound.

--The regularly scheduled General Conference of the United Methodist Church is scheduled for May 2020, and everything passed at this Special General Conference can be up for a vote again.

4)  So what are non-United Methodists to do?

First of all, prayer for our brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church.  I served as ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Church and have been to a number of General Conferences.  I've told Episcopal Church colleagues that what was coming in the United Methodist Church would make the conflict the Episcopal Church had over Gene Robinson look like the Council of Nicaea by comparison.  I knew it would be bad.  But the Special General Conference was even worse than I imagined, with a level of hurt, anger, vitriol, and despair that was truly hard to witness.  Many people are shocked, angry, hurt, and feel abandoned by their church.

Second of all, resist the urge to say "Hey, come to our church!"   Many United Methodists are grieving.  They love being United Methodists.  It's a bit of an extreme example, but the first thing you say to someone who lost a child is NOT "You can always have other children!"  Listen.  Pray for and with.  Express support.

Third, let's not forget the mote in our own eyes as Episcopalians.  We have dioceses which do not fully incorporate LGBT persons in the life of the church and same sex marriages rites are still not openly available to all.  We still have significant gender disparity in leadership.  We are part of a global communion which is mostly opposed to full inclusion of LGBT persons.  We lagged far behind other denominations in incorporation of LGBT and women in the church.  The ELCA endorsed same sex marriages, for instance, in 2009, six years before The Episcopal Church.

Fourth, let's also remember the way in which unity is often built on the marginalization of others.  Anglicans love to talk about our "Elizabethan Settlement" and diversity and tolerance of Anglicanism.  Elizabeth executed over 300 people for religious reasons and people would be fined for not coming to church.  Marriages of non-Church of England members were not recognized as legal until the 19th century, and England abolished the slave trade before it let Jews and Catholics vote.  Episcopalians like to talk about our seamless reintegration of the church after the Civil War, we do not talk as much about the fact that the price for this was segregation and consigning African American Episcopalians to second-class status, including being refused for admission to Northern seminaries.  While noting that the UMC is now essentially demanding marginalization of LGBT persons for the sake of unity, may we also be willing to see where that has happened and continues to happen.

5)   What does this mean for the proposal for full communion between the United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church?

There is an official proposal for full communion, including interchangeability of ministries, between The United Methodist Church and The Episcopal Church.  This is scheduled to be considered by the 2020 General Conference and the 2021 General Convention of The Episcopal Church.

Frankly, it remains to be seen whether this full communion proposal can proceed.

From the Episcopal Church side, it would be difficult to accept full communion with a church that would not recognize our openly LGBT clergy and marriages.

From the United Methodist side, can a church which voted down proposals to allow for difference of interpretation on homosexuality (the SP and OCP) get a majority vote to enter into full communion with a church that has widespread acceptance of LGBT persons?

I have been a member of this dialogue since 2002, and after attending my first General Conference in 2004 it was clear to me that the United Methodist Church, as constructed, would not survive intact.  It seemed sad but likely that there would be either a de facto schism -- which was what the Connectional Plan above offered, in effect -- or the formation of one or more new denominations. 

If have read this blog, you should know I think denominationalism is dead, a relic of nationalism, racism, classism, and colonialism, and that God is calling Christianity to new ways of being in the 21st century.

My hope is that if there is a significant break within the United Methodist Church,and there is the formation of new church bodies  -- and I believe there will be -- that the Episcopal Church and progressive, affirming elements of the United Methodist Church can consider creating a new body.  Not "Methodists are welcome to become Episcopalians!"  But healing the schism of the 1700s that should not have happened had there been greater patience and charity on all sides, and bringing a potential abundance of resources and opportunities to mission, evangelism, and ministry. That God could be calling us to something transformative, and not flogging the dead horse of denominationalism.

However, I realize that is likely a pipe dream.  It's hard enough to get two local congregations to hold a joint Ash Wednesday service, let alone create a new denomination.  Nearly 20 years after Called to Common Mission brought about full communion between the ELCA and Episcopal Church, we have hardly any substantive joint seminary collaboration, and next to nothing on shared positions on the diocesan staff or denominational staff level.  Many in our denominations are far, far more interested in preserving the husk of our denominational relics as long as possible, and there are still so many wedded to the power and privilege they enjoy in their denomination, and many fearful of loss of identity.

Failing that, the Episcopal Church should be willing to enter into dialogue with Methodist bodies that would be willing to do so on the basis of the full communion proposal which is the product of nearly twenty years of discussion.

At the very least, the Episcopal Church can affirm the recognition of the ministerial orders of persons ordained in the United Methodist Church and be ready to offer space in our churches, or in our seminaries, or to join in our national, diocesan, and regional social service and justice agencies and organizations.

To fail t do any of these would show us to be hypocrites, more interested in our own survival, and that as allies were are little more than an ecclesial version of "thoughts and prayers" with no actual, substantive support.

That said, we also need to note some limitations.  While we popularly may talk about "valid" or "invalid", that is not how the Constitution and Canons or our ecumenical agreement speak of ordained ministries of other Christians.  We can recognize another church's ministry as being an occasion of God's grace without yet having a reconciled ministry which allows interchangeability of ministers.  We recognize the ministerial orders of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, but a Catholic priest can't stroll in off the street and preside on a Sunday morning because we do not have a reconciled ministry.  Similarly, we don't, for instance, think United Methodist baptisms are invalid or persons whose weddings were blessed by a United Methodist elder have had only a civil marriage.  Yet we do not have a reconciled ministry, which is what the full communion proposal is for.  So while we can invite our United Methodist colleagues to preach, and assist with baptisms and weddings, they cannot yet preside at the Eucharist or at other sacraments in the Episcopal Church.

It is my conviction that we are in the midst of a massive reshaping of Christianity, the most wide ranging since the upheavals of the 1500s we call the Reformation period.  Differences on human sexuality and of the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church is part of what is also an ecclesiological issue, dealing with questions of authority, interpretation of Scripture, and globalization, among other factors.

It is my prayer that we will not be trapped in this Sunken Place, but can see where God is calling people to new and different ways of being church: that we who sow now in tears may reap with songs of joy.  These next few years are going to be crucial ones as to whether we are more interested in resuscitation or truly are willing to believe in transformational resurrection.