Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Episcopal Church, in light of last Sunday's reading

This past Sunday, as I listened to our parish's excellent readers proclaim the first lesson from Second Samuel 7:1-14a, my mind started wandering around the words. My sermon for the day was on that text, which always changes how I hear it when it is proclaimed. 

As I listened, I was struck by God's words to David and how they seemed to relate to the Episcopal Church in this moment, particularly the work of the Acts 8 Moment. I began wondering what might happen if the story was retold for today... this is what I came up with.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Episcopal Church was settled in her country and culture. She was the American church of privilege and prestige—or at least thought herself so. "Do you know how many Episcopalians have been president?" her members would say, as they sipped their coffee after services, confident that any visitor surely would want to join such an established church—albeit in a technically disestablished context.

The Episcopal Church believed she had been given rest from her enemies all around her, that she would be the vanguard of ecumenism and the dawning of a new age of Christianity. Indeed, we had much to hope for in those days, much we believed was secure and confident and given. Much that was ours.

We said to the prophet, "See, we are now living in a rich and strong church, but the word of God seems to be on the streets, among the poor and those arguing for causes like racial justice and gender equality. Come, let us build a civilized home for the word of God, let us give to social justice the mantle of our church."

The prophet said to the church, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."

The word of the Lord did not come to the prophet that night. The word of the Lord did not warn of the dangers inherent in this desire to build, to construct. The word of the Lord may have come to the prophet, but the prophet either did not hear or was not able to proclaim to the church that she had strangely enough begun to think she was the architect of her rest, of her success, of her peace.

But at a church gathering several decades later, with some aspects of the church crumbling, others crying for renewal, others vying for power, in the midst of this the voice of the Lord came to the prophet again.

This is what the prophet heard.

"Oh Episcopal Church, are you the one to build me a house to live in? Are you to restructure this building into something strong and secure, something that revisions the powers and assumptions of the twentieth-century in a twenty-first century context? Are you the one to build this.

"I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day. For generations and millenia I have been moving about in a tent and tabernacle, in a movement and a whisper, in a reformation and a retreat. Whenever I have moved about among all the people of God, did I speak a word with any of the leaders whom I commanded to shepherd by people, saying, 'Why have you not built me a strong church, one in which I can dwell and be proud?'

"Now, therefore, listen to me my servants: I am the Lord God, the Lord of the Angel Armies, I took you from a tradition began anew over issues of divorce and sex and politics. I took you from sordid fights and breathed my life-giving Spirit into you, that you might rediscover what it means to be my children.

"Lo, these almost five-hundred years I have led you, I have been with you wherever you went. You do not even realize the many times my hand stayed the work of your enemies before you. I made your name great, that this tradition might grow and become prosperous, that it might include millions of people and stand among my most ancient of churches.

"Listen to me, Episcopal Church. Let me wrap my arms around you and and cool your fevered brow. You are not the ones to fix this. You have lost your place but you have not lost me. I swear by my own name that I will appoint a place for my people, I will dig into the rich soil of the dirt of this world and plant you there, so that my people might live in their own place, so that they will not be disturbed anymore and so that evildoers shall afflict them no more.

"Oh Episcopal Church, you are so deeply beloved, but it is because I have made you from myself. Your structures are beautiful, your paraments declare my glory, your music sings the praise of my Triune Glory, a glory into which the angels long to look.

"You are so deeply beloved as a part of my people—but remember that you are not the entirety of my people. Yet even now, the Lord declares to you, that I am at work making you into a house. I am cutting your rough edges and smoothing your corners that you might be a part of a holy temple, a new house, into which all my people will stream and find rest. Your rest may disappear to build this house—but the rest you will create for my people will be better.

"And some day, when your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, when your conventions disband and the leaders of today sleep in the dust, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body. They will suffer pain as you have, but they will also be saved by it. Through them I will continue to establish my reign, my dominion. And your offspring shall continue the work you have done, building a house for my name, teaching all the children of the earth forever that I am your father and your mother, your source, your beginning, your end. And that you—even you, O Little Faith—you are indeed my children."

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~ BCP 280

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

One Millennial Perspective on Restructuring

One of the tricky things, I've discovered, in being a younger priest is the assumptions that go along with it. It never ceases to amaze me how, in so many aspects of the life of the church, people assume all sorts of things that "my generation" wants when it comes to Christianity—things that often have little to do with my own interests and desires or with those of my friends.

A few days ago, one of my friends on Facebook posted an observation about the ongoing General Convention budget debacle. In case you haven't been watching this closely, the budget submitted by Executive Council is largely a train wreck. (For a particularly good take on this, I commend anything written by Tom Ferguson—otherwise known by his blog "Crusty Old Dean"—particularly this post.)

Then, just days before General Convention begins, our Presiding Bishop released her own budget. (Once again, Tom's take on this is also pretty good.) I agree with Tom that Bishop Katharine's budget is light-years better than the Executive Council budget. It restores funding to important areas and it creates grant work to fund church-planting and other mission imperatives. Indeed, the whole budget is organized around the Anglican five marks of mission. It still cuts the staff at the church-wide office, but it does so in consultation with the current staff and in a much more thoughtful approach than how those cuts have happened in recent years.

Most importantly, to me, it seems to get rid of the rather obvious (and embarrassing) contest between the PB and the President of the House of Deputies. The Executive Council budget had increased staffing for both offices. Bishop Katharine's office still gives one more staff person to the President of the House of Deputies.

Of course, there has been some complaints raised about the process that led to Bishop Katharine submitting her own budget. This returns me to where I started—the observation my friend posted on Facebook. She said,
It seems to me that people over 40 are concerned about the process that led to the submission of this budget and that people under 40 are concerned with the actual merits of the budget itself.
This rings true for me. And I think it raises a larger point about structure and restructuring in the Episcopal Church today.

I get the sense that much of the restructuring debate is happening within the terms of the Boomers currently leading this church. When I hear them talk about cutting a bloated bureaucracy and expressing concern about the Presiding Bishop's exercise of her office, I think it's coming from a very distinct perspective. What I hear in that, to be honest, are the vestiges of the anti-institutional, down with the man, question the powers, Boomer mentality.

And it makes absolutely no sense to me.

I know I don't speak for all Millennials, for every person in the church who is from my generation. But I want to try here to speak authentically for myself at least.

If our church is truly going to move into the twenty-first century, we will have to move the conversation beyond the late twentieth century concerns with powers and institutions. I have no problem with institutions, with authority, and with people exercising the authority they have been given.

Our canons do set up a system of shared governance, but one in which orders to play a particular role. The Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies are not co-primates. The Presiding Bishop's role in the canons is significantly larger than that of the President of the House of Deputies—and I'm OK with that.

A significant part of the Executive Council's budget was the cutting of program based upon something they called the "subsidiarity principle." That is, basically, we'll cut something the church-wide office at 815 used to do and trust that it happens better locally and in dioceses. To me, this principle comes from the Boomer anti-institutional bias.

There are things that happen better at the national level. The subsidiarity principle will result, I fear, in gross inequity between richer dioceses and poorer dioceses. If youth ministry or ordination exams are done solely at the diocesan level they are going to vary dramatically—and I don't think they will vary fairly.

To me, if there is a bloated bureaucracy in the church right now it is General Convention and its attendant CCABs. That is a place I think we can slim and shrink so as to be better poised for mission and ministry. I affirm the idea behind resolution B015, seeking to create a unicameral General Convention (instead of our bicameral model). I do think it should be amended so that a vote by orders would be three-fold (laity, clergy, and bishops) rather than two-fold (laity/clergy together and bishops together)—that way the laity always have their own voice and nothing can be passed without their consent.

To me, our bishops sitting in one house with their diocesan deputation, with one or two lay people, one or two clergy (instead of the current four and four deputation) makes much more sense. And, it emphasizes the shared nature of ministry much more than the competition often engendered by our current bicameral model.

I would rather cut General Convention, get rid of the multiplicity of CCABs, and then have a well-funded and staffed church-wide office, one that can create resources and programs that we can draw on from across the church, one that can ensure there is a level of commonality regardless of diocesan resources. I am comfortable with the Presiding Bishop leading our church as she has been—and leading our church on a strong national level. I simply do not buy the questioning of authority and institution that seems rampant among my older colleagues.

General Convention has begun meeting in Indianapolis. Their website is up and running and has several real-time resources. I hope that as they begin considering restructuring, as they engage in questions surrounding our national finances and budget and program, I hope that they will not simply follow what often feels to me like the knee-jerk reactions of one particular demographic voice within our church—boomer or millennial or other.

Instead, I hope that the various generations of our church will speak up and will listen to each other. The church of the twenty-first century is coming together, it's the church in which I will exercise my own priestly ministry for the rest of my life. It needs to be structured for mission and ministry—not dismantled by any one generation's biases.