Tuesday, March 17, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Five

The last day. Everyone pretty much wants to be out of here. We had a little extra time after breakfast before gathering at 10am for Morning Prayer (again, with a selectively emended version of Psalm 97), followed by the only on-the-record-with-Roberts'-Rules business session of this meeting. You can go here for the official press release, which I certify as the truth and nothing but the truth. You may be curious about the item proposed by the Pastoral Development Committee regarding "core values" in the run-up to General Convention. I don't mean to trivialize it, but it's basically "We promise to play nicely." Nothing nefarious; no hidden agendas that I could detect. I do, of course, as you might suspect, generally have a hermeneutic of suspicion. But sometimes things are indeed as they appear.

I did raise a concern--a couple of times, in fact--about the House being asked to vote on things with very little or no notice. Again, it can be a way of sneaking substantive things by under the guise of something routine or innocuous. For instance, the report of the Ecclesiology Committee. To my suspicious eyes, this document had all the earmarks of an attempt to provide cover for TEC's legal arguments in property disputes, with its (erroneous, IMO) assertions about the hierarchical polity of TEC from General Convention downward. So I was relieved when the resolution was merely that the House receive it, rather than commend it. But it did have language about disseminating it throughout the church for further study, which I found problematic, because, whatever the resolution actually says, it would have the appearance and the weight of an action of the House of Bishops when, in fact, only a minority of the bishops have even read it yet. So, after some parliamentary haggling, we appended the word 'Draft' to the title, and removed any reference to dissemination. I felt good about this result, even though I would rather it have gone away completely. After the meeting, I had a good talk with the bishop who is the primary mover and shaker behind this, and I think we understand one another much better as a result. There may even be some cooperation in the offing.

The resolution asking the Presiding Bishop to appoint "an independent commission" is an outgrowth of the recent tragic events in the Diocese of Maryland. I think it might be compared to an NTSB investigation of an airline accident.

We adjourned the business session early enough for some more down time before lunch. After lunch, I had time for another circumambulation of the lake, on what turned out to be another gorgeous day.

The afternoon was devoted to preparation and orientation for General Convention, which happens in late June/early July. We're going virtually paperless this time, with rented iPads being handed out to all bishops and deputies. These will contain an intranet link to whatever business is before the house, with amendments to resolutions made in real time, along with supporting documents. Should be interesting.

Dinner on the last night of an HOB meeting is modestly upscale, and many of the bishops dress up a bit. Lots of bow ties. Not me, though. I just came as I am. What you see is what you get. Looking forward to heading out tomorrow morning on the 11:30am shuttle to the airport in Asheville. Ready to be home.

Monday, March 16, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day 4

After breakfast, I absented myself from the Eucharist (see yesterday's entry) but sneaked back into the back of the chapel in time for the day's retreat meditation from Mark Beckwith, Bishop of Newark. His assigned theme was "Interfaith." That sounded a little odd; "interfaith" is usually an adjective that modifies a noun like "worship," or "relationships," or "cooperation," or some such. He recounted his experience of living as a child in a very Jewish suburb, a very WASP suburb, and then in Japan, where he dabbled in Buddhism. If I understood him correctly, he invited us to be open to finding Christ on the margins of our experience, on the margins of the environments in which we live and work. As per the established pattern, we walked back to our plenary room for table discussions. I have to confess that, while interfaith dialogue and cooperation in certain areas is probably a good thing, as I triage the demands on my time and attention, it's safe to say I will likely never find it to be the best thing or the necessary thing. There's too much else that is more urgent. Or so it seems to me, at any rate.

Following lunch, I had time for a vigorous half-hour walk around the lake, which felt good on another very nice day (after the morning gloom burned off).

The afternoon was devoted to consideration of the report from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). This was done in plenary presentation, plenary discussion, and table discussion, and we spend three and a half hours on it. I have already written a longish evaluative analysis of this document upstream on this blog, which you can find here. I haven't really changed any of my opinions, so I'll simply mention that I got up during the plenary session and reiterated by point from the blog post that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) should not be given an exemption from the plan to sunset all committees, commissions, agencies, and boards (CCABs).

At 5:00 we heard from Sam McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the Church Center in New York ('815'). He took us through a slide presentation on the current state of churchwide ministry and mission.

The time slot after dinner was dedicated to various interest groups, so I hung out, naturally, with my Communion Partner colleagues. CP is dedicated to fostering the highest degree of fellowship possible between TEC and the other Anglican Communion provinces, especially those in the Global South, and advocating continuously on behalf of the Anglican Covenant. We had some strategizing to do as we look toward General Convention.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Three

This being the Lord's Day, with the intention of "sabbath" built into the schedule, there is less to report. The Eucharist was at 10am, with John Tarrant, the Bishop of South Dakota, presiding. Once again, the Theodicy Jazz Collective led the music with great energy, skill, and sensitivity--they are really good--though I still remain unpersuaded that jazz as a genre plays well with eucharistic liturgy. Now, I don't want to sound whiny, but I can't not mention the level to which I was upset by the liturgy itself--ostensibly Rite II from the Prayer Book, but with the text generously emended to exclude masculine pronouns for God, which is the ideological hobgoblin of today's liturgical elite. I can usually take this somewhat in stride on such occasions--ideologues gonna be ideologues--but I had my own little meltdown when we sang Thomas Ken's Psalm paraphrase, the concluding verse of which is the ubiquitous 'Doxology,' and the text of that verse was altered to exclude "him" in the first three lines, and render the Holy Trinity as "Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit" in the last one. I can tolerate a little ideology, but heresy is a tougher pill to swallow, and any evocation of the Trinity that eschews "Father" and "Son" is most likely just that--heresy. I will probably absent myself from the Eucharist tomorrow and Tuesday. It's just not a spiritually safe place for me.

We were then addressed, while still in the chapel, by David Bailey, bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission. His assigned theme was "economics and class," but, as one might imagine, he chose to explore that territory through the lens of his experience with the Navajo people. Bottom line: In addition to upper, upper middle, middle, and lower, there is another class--invisible. And the descendants of native peoples in this land are generally invisible to the rest of us. The invading European-Americans treated them, in a word, shamefully, and largely as a result of that shameful treatment, native populations today suffer from a long list of social ills that is just plain depressing. Sobered by the picture Bishop Bailey painted, we repaired to our table groups to process our experience of and involvement in unjust social structures. My own opinion is that this subject is exponentially more complex and contradictory than most who are reflexively energized by issues of social justice are usually willing to acknowledge.

That brought us to lunch, after which we were free until dinner. I used the time for a nap, a long walk around the lake on a beautiful day, and to catch up on some reading. After dinner, we had a standard element in meetings of the House--a "fireside chat." We actually did meet in a room with a fireplace, but I don't really noticing an actual fire. This is a closed, of-the-record meeting, moderated by the Presiding Bishop, about which we are covenanted not to say anything. So I won't.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day Two

Following breakfast, the first order of the day was the Eucharist (not much Catholic piety here!). Lloyd Allen, Bishop of Honduras presided, partly in English, mostly on Spanish. The music was provided by a group flown here from Los Angeles as a gift of the bishop thereof, the Theodicy Jazz Collective. They are incredibly talented and accomplished young musicians. I'm very fond of jazz and very fond of liturgy. I'm less sure the two go together, that jazz doesn't have too broad a semantic range to support the work that needs to be done in liturgy. But there were moments when I enjoyed it a great deal.

Following the Eucharist, we remained in our places in the chapel and heard our second "retreat" address of the meeting, by George Wayne Smith, Bishop of Missouri. He spoke of the idea of "home" and how the place that roots us and the place where we live are, for bishops, rarely one and the same, and that chances are that neither place is one about which we can avoid feelings of great ambivalence, which is not inappropriate for disciples of Jesus, because our true and lasting home is in a place we've never even yet been. Yet, we should strive to "go native" in the places where we are placed, to seek the welfare of those places, because that is the very path of our salvation, and the salvation of the world.

We adjourned back to our usual plenary room with more discussion around table groups on the themes raised by Bishop Smith. This might seem tangential to our purpose for being here, but it's not. If bishops are going to successfully engage difficult issues, that process is helped by building up reservoirs of trust and mutual affection.

Lunch took the form of mini-provincial meetings, so I ate with the other fourteen bishops, minus one who is not here, from Province V.

After a short post-mealtime break, we gathered for the obligatory group photo. I don't know how many of are here, but I would guess it's in the neighborhood of 130, so that is no mean feat.

Back to plenary at 1:30, where we got to some of the hard stuff--the report of the Task Force for the Study of the Theology of Marriage. They have, as you may know, proposed changes to the marriage canons that render them gender-neutral, opening the way to full-on same-sex marriage in the Episcopal Church. My understanding of this issue is no secret. The proposed changes shrink back from the nature of marriage as a social institution that is, in fact, created by God, and is the effective sign of the covenant union between “Christ and the Church” (Ephesian 5:32). We're playing with fire here.
We stayed on this task until 4:45. First, 30 minutes of table discussion. Then, well over an hour of "Indaba-style" discussion in groups of about 20, spread over various locations. Then back for another half hour or so of plenary discussion. My contribution, both in the Indaba and the plenary, was along these lines:

Over recent years and decades, we have dealt with issues around sexuality and marriage primarily politically (legislatively) and liturgically. Now, with this task force, we are beginning to deal with it theologically. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it's risky, because it will present us with the temptation to be too clear, too precise. As Anglicans, precision in doctrinal formulations has never been our thing. And that lack of precision is precisely what has very often enabled us to stay together through some very serious disagreements. I am able to be in and serve in this church because of that lack of clarity. Even though many of you do things I think are a little crazy, I can always point to the Prayer Book and say, "This is what my church teaches." But if we opt for excessive clarity at this point in our history, people like me might not have a place left in which to stand. Do not those who want to move the ball down the field in terms of sexuality and marriage already have the tools with which to do that? Might we not perhaps be better served, at this moment, by simply doing nothing? By letting the issue work itself out organically rather than legislatively? Who knows? We may be able to "muddle through" once again. But if we opt for excessive clarity, we are cutting ourselves off from that opportunity.

It's way too early to predict how any of this will turn out this summer, but I can say that I have had positive comments on my remarks from a broad cross section of bishops.

We then spent about 30 minutes hearing from some special guests: bishops from the Union of Utrecht, with which TEC is in full communion. This was followed by brief evening devotions, and dismissal for our "Class" dinners. My class of 2011 is a great group of bishops and spouses. We have become good friends, and I am very grateful for their fellowship.

Friday, March 13, 2015

House of Bishops 2015 Spring Meeting, Day One

My first two meetings of the House of Bishops--spring and fall 2011--were tightly packed with mostly passive plenary meetings, with little "down" time. I found it stultifying. Apparently, I wasn't the only one, because each one since then has been substantially more relaxed in its pace--aspiring to a retreat-like ambience, and I was very grateful. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the direction of freneticism. It isn't that anything we're doing is intrinsically not worthwhile. But it does raise questions about whether we're being asked to do too many things and whether the things we're doing are the highest and best use of the aggregate energy, knowledge, and experience assembled in this place. I wish we could walk away from the temptation to have our meetings dominated by themes that are, as it were, "ripped from the headlines," and which we can generally do little or nothing about, while giving short shrift to concerns that our closer to our actual lives, and over which we indeed to have some influence.

After initial housekeeping-type issues, the morning session began with a welcome from the Presiding Bishop in which she explicated the theme of the gathering: Fostering a culture of curiosity, compassion, and courage in Christ. I'm just the messenger here; draw your own inferences. In point of fact, the theme is racism and race relations, but one could be forgiven for not guessing that from the way it's articulated.

We then did the standard thirty minutes of "check-in" at our table groups, briefly sharing what's been going on with us personally and professionally. We stay at the same tables for the three years following each General Convention, so there's some continuity in our narratives. Following check-in we came back together for Morning Prayer (Psalm and canticles sung, plus a hymn), the homily taking the form of an extended meditation from the Bishop of Atlanta, Rob Wright. His aim was to stimulate our thinking around our experience of and/or participation in racism, broadly construed. Next up was the Revd Eric Law, a priest of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Executive Director of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a leadership training project. Fr Law took us through some exercises intended to prepare us and equip us for respectful conversation over difficult issues. I will only say this: He is not an INTJ. Then, of course, we had table-group discussions of some questions Bishop Wright had prepared for us that pertained to his meditation.

We broke for lunch between noon and 2:00. After eating, I used the time for picking away at the steady onslaught of emails and text messages.

The afternoon was devoted to a project called Traces of the Trade, the centerpiece of which is a documentary film of the same title, a quite compelling piece of work, which we viewed. We were led in this by a married couple named Dain and Constance Perry. The film and the accompanying presentation laid upon, with some awkwardness and pain, the extent to which New England, so often lauded as the seedbed of abolitionism, nonetheless prospered economically in the 18th and 19th centuries as a direct result of the slave trade. Even those who do not personally commit evil nonetheless often enjoy wealth and privilege that were amassed as a result of social evils like slavery, and are therefore implicated in that evil, in ways both numerous and subtle. There was about 30 minutes for those who wished to to briefly share with the whole group something of the experience of or entanglement in racism.

For a number of reasons, I chose not to attend the 5pm Eucharist (I wasn't the only one), and use the time to be in touch with Brenda, and keep picking away at those emails.

We had an evening session from 7:30 until 8:45 or so. The focus was on the events of the last few months emanating from Ferguson, MO. Appropriately enough, Bishop Wayne Smith of Missouri facilitated this time.

I didn't speak during the time to do so in the afternoon session. Here's what I might have said had I done so: My mother was raised in Arkansas during the height of the Jim Crow era. I'm old enough to remember de jure segregation: waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and the like. I observed the stereotypical brand of southern racism firsthand. The n-word was not foreign to my experience, but it was foreign to my own working vocabulary. My parents were repentant of the racism of my mother's upbringing. I was brought up in an anti-racist household where there was a great deal of sympathy for the civil rights struggle in its late-1950s/early 1960s incarnation. To me, at that time, the chief end of the movement, the manifestation of justice, was a truly color-blind society in which people would be judged, paraphrasing Dr King, by character content rather than skin color. I was committed to this aspiration. Had I been a few years older, I may have been in Selma.

And that's why I was disturbed in the mid- and late sixties, when the civil rights struggle took on a harsher, more militant, and occasionally even violent dimension. When elements within the black community adopted language like "honky" to denote whites, I was crestfallen. When cries for affirmative action and reparations emerged, it seemed to contradict everything about the earlier idealism. Even later, when racism came to be defined not as irrational prejudice or invidious discrimination, but as the mere exercise of unearned white privilege, I was skeptical trending in the direction of disgusted.

A great deal has happened since all that, and the situation is very complex. I don't pretend to have any answers, easy or otherwise. But, as a Christian, and a pastor, who endeavors to think theologically at odd moments, my frustration is that the Church seems to not be able to break loose from the stale polemical categories of the secular conversation on race and race relations. We are so immersed in the post-modern radical individualism of western culture, which is the source of the regnant politics of personal identity, that we have forgotten how to think like Christians. In baptism, we are given a new identity: Christian. It trumps, and transforms, and eventually supersedes any other identity by which we might be tempted to define ourselves. We are one in Christ, not in some other racial or ethnic or national group or gang. This is the fundamental gospel social paradigm. The ultimate solution to racism is not reconciliation between races, as such, but, rather, evangelization, and subsequent acceptance of Christian identity as so far eclipsing all other categories as to render them virtually moot. I realize we are a long, long way from attaining this. I just wish we were a little more intentionally aiming at it.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

[This post is a bit long. The first section gives historical background information on divisions within Anglicanism. If you consider yourself up to speed on those things, you may wish to scroll down to the section labeled "Getting to It" ... or even further to "Really Getting to It."]

For as long as I have been an Anglican Christian and a member of the Episcopal Church, which exceeds four decades now, my ecclesial environment has never been free of dramatic conflict. The first General Convention that I paid attention to in real time (1976) dealt with the twin quagmires of Prayer Book revision and women's ordination. Every three years thereafter, the rhetorical decibel level has spiked.

In 2003, however, the baseline level of underlying conflict escalated not just incrementally, but exponentially. There has, since then, been a "new normal" in the way we engage one another over areas about which we are in fundamental disagreement. A relative trickle of Episcopalians departed in the 1970s over issues of liturgy and sacraments, forming what became a dizzying array of "alphabet soup" ecclesial entities. (Of course, there had been a notable schism a century before that over sacramental theology, resulting in the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church.) But these ruptures were mere blips, wrinkles, compared with with the departures that ensued in the wake of 2003. Solid (indeed, in all but one case, overwhelming) majorities in the conventions of five dioceses voted to separate themselves from the General Convention. Tens of thousands of Episcopalians and former Episcopalians have either engaged in protracted litigation, or walked away from buildings and financial assets, or both. A new generation of ecclesial acronyms has appeared, and multiplied, and been culled. Out of that soup, the Anglican Church in North America has emerged as an entity that appears to have some staying power, having made what looks like a successful transition from the first to the second generation of top leadership.

Of course, in our shrinking world, turmoil in North America creates waves for Anglicans in other regions. In recent decades, while TEC has been growing precipitously smaller, Anglican Christianity has been growing markedly larger, both numerically and in vitality, in Africa and Asia, in provinces that have become known as the Global South. These provinces, many of which are on a frontier with militant Islam, tend to be much more conservative on issues of sexual morality and marriage than their developed world counterparts. Most of them find the notion of condoning, via blessing, same-sex partnerships (let alone "marriage") to be unimaginable, a violation of core precepts of the Christian faith as revealed by God. Many (most?) within the Global South have made various alliances with Episcopalians and former Episcopalians in the U.S. who share their assessment of how the dominant thinking has evolved in TEC around sexuality and marriage.

The question that arises, then, is, Are these extramural Anglican entities in North America actually ... Anglican? And that, in turn, raises the question, What defines "Anglican"? The classic answer to the latter question, which would have been widely agreed to before the post-2003 fissiparation, is that "Anglican" denotes full sacramental communion with and recognition by the Archbishop of Canterbury. By that standard, ACNA, despite the first 'A' in its acronym, is not Anglican, because Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is on record that he does not consider them a province of the Anglican Communion. On the other hand, the Diocese of South Carolina, which separated from the Episcopal Church late in 2012, and is not part of ACNA, has been given a foster home by the Global South under the provisions of an agreement developed by the primates of the whole Anglican Communion (reportedly including TEC's Presiding Bishop) in Dromantine, Ireland in 2005 and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 2007. This is arguably an official mechanism, endorsed by two of the four of the Anglican Communion's Instruments of Unity, and, I have it on good authority, is precisely why South Carolina chose to go that route rather than join ACNA.

Yet, there is another coalition within the Global South that muddies the waters. This is the Global Anglican Futures Conference, known widely by the acronym GAFCON. GAFCON does fully recognize ACNA as part of the Anglican fellowship, and for the most part withholds such recognition from the Episcopal Church, and while its leaders profess reverence for the historic role that the See of Canterbury has played as a sign of Anglican unity, they have at times seemed to proffer a narrative that Anglicanism could, in concept and if necessary, legitimately exist apart from a relationship with that ancient See. I think it can be safely said that the provinces and dioceses represented by GAFCON comprise a solid majority of those around the world who can currently claim to be Anglican even by the classical standard. So ... it's complicated, with lots of eddies and tide pools and countervaiing forces.

Getting to It
Such is the maelstrom that Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby inherited when he assumed office at the beginning of 2013. Early on, he identified reconciliation as his top priority as a steward of the Anglican Communion, and appointed David Porter as his special assistant to that end; Canon Porter, an Ulsterman, cut his teeth on the endemic conflict in Northern Ireland. Dr Welby resolved to personally visit all 38 provinces of the communion, a goal he has now accomplished. The signs of his efforts are manifest in such projects as Continuing Indaba and more recently, a book promulgated by the Anglican Communion Office entitled Living Reconciliation (released last September) and they are founded on the presumption that the "reconciliation of those who are at variance and enmity" (Collect for St James of Jerusalem) is at the core of the gospel, articulated most compellingly by St Paul in II Corinthians 5.

In recent weeks, the Archbishop's vision for reconciliation has been sharply criticized from the direction of GAFCON. This is perhaps seen most clearly in a letter, published last December, from four GAFCON primates (who are also part of the Global South movement) in Africa to Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi of Burundi. Archbishop Bernard had participated in an October meeting in New York, along with some other African bishops and some bishops from the Episcopal Church, for conversations about possible future cooperation. This communique was issued by the meeting. The GAFCON primates take the project severely to task:

  • The theologically superficial approach of the “Friendship Communiqué” attempts to effect reconciliation without repentance.
  • We reject the process of “Indaba” as it is being implemented. Rather than seeking true resolution, it has been consistently manipulated only to recruit people to unbiblical positions. “Indaba” as currently practiced, is a fiction advancing human desires that are not informed by Gospel truth. 
  • The meeting uncritically proposes “Mission,” without recognising that there must be theological agreement about what purpose the mission pursues, as opposed to Biblical Mission which furthers the redemptive love of Christ through repentance and conversion. 

Even more recently, GAFCON has taken aim at the book Living Reconciliation itself, promoting a negative review by Church of England theologian Martin Davie. Among Dr Davie's critiques:
There seems to be no limit on what [tolerable] differences may be. The book assumes that the deeply divisive teaching of such Anglican Churches as the Episcopal Church of the United States on same-sex sexual relationships are within the bounds of what is acceptable within a fellowship of Churches.  
Really Getting to It
Full disclosure (though no news flash if you know me at all): On the underlying issues of moral theology and hermeneutical stance toward the tradition of scripture and church teaching, I am in league with the Global South and GAFCON. I believe we, as Christians in the 21st century, are the heirs of a consistent and compelling witness that the end (telos) of human sexuality is coherently realized only in an intentionally lifelong covenant between one man and one woman, which is to say, marriage. Any manifestation of sexual relations apart from such a context falls short of God's designs and purposes.

That said, I am also resolutely a member of the Episcopal Church, and by the providential sufferance of Almighty God, a bishop therein. I attempt to lead and care for a diocese, and I attempt to dutifully take my share in "the councils of the church," per my ordination vows. And as I go about my life and work, I rub shoulders with, and pray with, and collaborate with, and eat and drink and laugh and cry with, and sometimes make common cause with, Episcopalians whose words and actions with respect to the moral theology of sexuality I find to be gravely and tragically mistaken, who consciously, albeit without malevolent intent, abet the infestation of our ecclesial "system" with the equivalent of a malicious virus injected into the internet, a virus that will eventually cause massive harm and end up killing its host.

There are many--probably from within TEC, though most of the ones I have in mind are outside it--who would pose the stark question: Why? The moral legitimation of same-sex sexual relationships is effectively a "done deal" in the Episcopal Church, and we are on a pretty clear glide path toward the imminent redefinition of marriage to embrace such relationships. I can hear the voices from within my own church (well, more like thoughts--few would actually give voice to these notions yet) saying, "Why don't you move on to a church home that is more congenial to your traditionalism and let us proceed peacefully in the direction we're headed?" And I can hear voices from outside my church, many of them the voices of beloved friends and former co-laborers, who say, "How can you live and work alongside--indeed, be reconciled with--those who are contributing to the death of souls for whom Christ died? How can light be reconciled with darkness? How can life be reconciled with death?" And I find those voices sobering. I find them nearly convicting. Almost.

But not quite. And here's why: Reconciliation is a non-negotiable gospel imperative. It's not just "nice if you can get it." It's not adiaphora; it is essential. I am not suggesting that light should or can be reconciled with darkness, or death with life. What I am contending is that those who have been clothed with Christ in the waters of baptism, those who name Jesus as Lord, are constitutionally and irrevocably of one blood, one family. And in a family, you don't get to choose your siblings. You may not like them. You make think they're off the rails. You may find them insufferably boorish and be embarrassed by them. But you don't get to deny them. When they knock on your door, you suck it up and invite them in and fix them something to eat and drink.

And here, perhaps, lies the clue to going about reconciling the irreconcilable. Cognizant of an element of irony in doing so, I would point to Martin Davie's most salient point in his review of Living Reconciliation:
The New Testament’s emphasis is not on people learning to live with what divides then, but learning to live out what unites them
Those colleagues and friends of mine who are desperately wrong about the moral theology of sex? Most of them--not all, but most of them--say the Nicene Creed every Sunday without crossing their fingers. Most of them--not all, but most--will sing full-throatedly this Easter about Jesus rising from the dead and walking away from his tomb, and really mean it. Really. Most of them--not all, but most--sincerely believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God (and, of course, to contain all things necessary to salvation). Most of them--not all, but most--desire and intend to follow Jesus the Christ, the Risen One, as Savior and Lord, to be his faithful disciples. They get one very important thing very wrong. But they get a whole bunch of equally or more important things very right. I cannot in good conscience presume to unchurch them, nor allow them to presume to unchurch me. Rather, I am obligated as a disciple of Jesus to "live out what unites" me to them, which is none other than the blood of Christ and the water of baptism.

So I will accept part of the critique from my GAFCON brothers and sisters toward the model of reconciliation put forward by Archbishop Justin, in that merely learning to live with what divides us as Anglican Christians (or any division among Christians, for that matter) is too meager an aspiration.  We need to set our sights higher. But neither, in the meantime, may we set them any lower, and this is where Continuing Indaba and related projects are of value: they keep us at the same table, in the same room, even while we faithfully hold our sharply irreconcilable differences. Nobody is talking about compromising, meeting each other halfway, splitting the difference. Nothing of the sort. We hold on to our convictions. But we do so in a space where the Holy Spirit has some room to act, to (in the words of the Nashotah  House Prayer) "melt the heart of sinners to the love of [God]." Maybe my "team" is right, and will prevail in the end. I hope and expect so. Maybe my opponents are right and will be shown to be so as history unfolds. I doubt it, and expect it not. But the greater likelihood is that neither "side" is entirely correct, and that both are to some extent holding on to idols of their own making. We can't know in the present moment. I will probably no longer be in this world when that verdict is read. But I believe it my duty in the meantime to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:14), to remain in communion with all who are marked by the sign of the cross and labor under that banner, even in the midst of very deep divergences. Jesus deserves no less. The gospel deserves no less. The life of the world deserves no less.

Monday, January 19, 2015

TREC: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) was created by the General Convention in 2012 and charged with presenting a report including concrete proposals to the General Convention of 2015. That report was issued this past autumn, and is now being widely discussed in Episcopal Church cyberspace. My comments here are intended to be a contribution to that conversation. (However, my comments here are on the report itself, not on anyone else's comments or critiques.)

The Good
There is a good bit that the TREC report gets exactly right. The call for Episcopalians to keep the main thing the main thing, to reinvigorate our connection with core beliefs and practices, is welcome and needful. A case in point:
We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on the basic practices of the movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future.
And snippets like these, which demonstrate an awareness that "attractional church" is so last century, and, in the words of Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of John 1:14, we need to "move into the neighborhood":
We are sent to testify to God’s reign ... as we form and restore community by sharing in God’s peacemaking and healing. ... [W]e must learn how to bear witness to, and receive from, those of different cultures, faiths, and beliefs, “eating what is set before us.” For many churches now disconnected from neighbors, this will mean attempting small experiments in sharing God’s peace.
... as well as this call for prayerful and fearless discernment about which elements of our inherited institutional infrastructure need to be cast aside because they weigh us down and hold us back:
We must hold inherited structures loosely as we make space for alternative patterns of organizing our life together. We must discern what of our traditions is life-giving and what unduly weighs us down. Traveling lightly means going in vulnerability, risking being changed by God and our neighbors.
... and then there's this salubrious recognition of the need for Christians to be more intentional about forming community in an increasingly hostile secular cultural environment:
We must learn how to form Christian community and practice Christian witness in environments where the culture no longer supports Christian identity, practice, and belonging as it once did. This work of learning and discovery must take place at all levels of the Church, although it is primarily local work.
... to say nothing of a bit of brutal honesty about TEC's place in the world now compared to what it once was (and what we may be tempted to imagine it still should be):
While The Episcopal Church once held a place of cultural privilege in American society, it must now earn a hearing as one small voice among many competing for influence in the public sphere. In some circles, we gained a reputation as the Church of the white, wealthy, and powerful, but this exclusivity is at odds with God’s calling for us today. The institution will need to respond to profound cultural and societal changes, including the end of the cultural Christian era, a time when our membership grew partly because our surrounding culture supported the practice of Christianity and Church attendance.
Last, but probably not least, I commend TREC for proposing that gatherings of bishops outside of General Convention be styled "Convocation of Bishops." There has been needless angst of late over perceived disparity between the two houses of our legislative assembly when the "House of Bishops" meets twice yearly and the Deputies only triennially. Anyone who pays attention to what actually happens at these suspect extramural gatherings would quickly shed any anxiety. But changing the language would just make it go away completely.

The Bad (or at least questionable)
A few statements and assumptions strewn throughout the document simply cannot be allowed to slide without comment. Like this one:
The Episcopal Church’s identity is rooted in Jesus and his Way.
Generously construed, this is an aspirational statement. Would that it were an accurate description, but it is not. Of course, our constitutional liturgical formularies are thoroughly christocentric; that cannot be denied. But our prevailing ethos and culture, not so much. If anything, we are, collectively, largely christophobic. We're OK talking about "God," but substitute "Christ" or "Jesus" and we begin to get squirmy. Words like "discipleship" have acquired a certain cachet of late, but they still raise a few interior eyebrows. This needs to change. We need to learn to love Jesus and be able to say so.

Then there's stuff like this:
Collaboration among dioceses, whether through sharing resources, staff, or engaging in more joint initiatives, would strengthen the practice of our faith and the Church itself.
Am I the only one to whom this seems like a bit of a logical leap? I'm not going to knock collaboration among dioceses--who would?--but it seems less than a simple given that such a thing necessarily yields strength in faith and practice. I don't see the connection.

And, to get really technical, when the report gets to its proposal for a unicameral General Convention:
A majority of all Bishops and Deputies entitled to vote shall be necessary to constitute a quorum for the transaction of General Convention business.
Does this mean a composite majority of the whole number, or a majority within each order? I suspect this language will get "perfected" in the legislative process in Salt Lake City. Not to do so would open up a gaping whole to probably be filled by confusion and conflict.

The Ugly
Much that is in the TREC report is, by my lights, highly problematic. 
The Episcopal Church has a distinct and rich heritage of interpreting and expressing Jesus’ Way.
Let me be briefly autobiographical, by way of explaining why statements like this tend to make me see red. Four decades ago, I became an Episcopalian because I wanted to be an Anglican, and, in the United States, that was (and, I should add, IMO remains) the proper way to do so. And I wanted to become an Anglican because I believed (and continue to believe) that, by doing so, I was becoming a Catholic. So I'm not interested the Episcopal Church being or having anything "distinct," particularly a distinct manner of "interpreting and expressing Jesus' Way." In recent years, much has been made of the supposed uniqueness of our Baptismal Covenant. I don't happen to concur with the notion that it is unique, but, if I did, I would find the thought alarming. I'm rather attached to the notion, espoused by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the last century, that Anglicans are by ecclesiastical temperament not predisposed to having any doctrine, teaching, or practice that is uniquely our own, but that we hold entire the faith and worship of the Church Catholic in trust, along with the other parts thereof, against that day when our Lord's prayed aspiration for the visible unity of his Body on earth is realized. I'm just wildly idealistic that way.

I mentioned upstream that I commend TREC for calling Episcopalians to adopt a concretely incarnate posture toward our mission field. But such a call inevitably raises questions that need to be parsed if they're not going to lead to substantial confusion. Take this, for example:
... as we learn how to form Christian community and witness with those neighbors.
Does this mean something like, "Having introduced our neighbors to Jesus and welcomed their decision to become his disciples, we form community with them and bear witness together to the resurrection of Christ"? If this is what it means, then the statement is spot on. Color me cynical, but I suspect that it means something more like, "We meet our neighbors where they are and form community with them as we make common cause against human suffering and the structures of social injustice." If this is indeed what is meant, then we are merely reheating the Social Gospel that has repeatedly shown itself spiritually vapid and theologically bankrupt, yet, like the Terminator, keeps rising out of the detritus of its own destruction. If I am reading too much into this, I will rejoice in being shown the error of my ways.

Now, before finishing with the Big Kahuna ... the impetus to euthanize all the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards, save for the Committee on Constitution and Canons, is, in a word, brilliant. (Though, as a board member of Forward Movement, which is technically an agency, I should go on record that, since it doesn't cost the churchwide budget a dime, and is wildly popular on several levels, surely it, too, will be spared the axe.) The problem is, there's another exception: the group that began life as the Standing Liturgical Commission and, somewhere along the way, morphed into the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, is exempt from the purge. In fact, the proposal is to expand its remit even further by adding Theology to the mix. Of course, the addition, in its own terms, probably makes sense. I mean, we're fond of saying that "prayer shapes believing" and all that, which is probably mostly true, so ... why not? 

But the larger question is, Why does this have to be a standing commission? I would argue that the SCLM is itself the source of a great percentage of the interior turmoil that TEC has experienced for at least three decades. It should have been sunsetted after completing its work on the Hymnal 1982. Instead, its collective consciousness got so drunk on the frenetic pace of activity that led up to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that it needed to find ways to sustain the high. So it's been tinkering ever since. At every General Convention, SCLM resolutions and accompanying materials take up a section of the Blue Book way out of proportion to any other CCAB. We are a liturgically restless church, bored with our own rites, even though we haven't given them a chance to soak into the bones of our souls like oil and form our character. We flit. We're junkies always cruising for a new liturgical fix, and the SCLM is our dealer. We should make it take a timeout. At the very least, we should prohibit it from inventing its own work--getting General Convention to "direct" it to do such and such, which it them spends a triennium or two doing, presents its proposals while shrugging its shoulders and saying, "We're just doing what convention asked us to do," hoping everybody forgets that they're the ones that asked convention to ask them to do it. 

But make no mistake: If we add Theology to their already robust portfolio, it will effectively become a Super Commission. It will be R & D, engineering, production, and marketing for TEC, Inc. It will not just articulate our identity; it will determine and shape our identity. We will have surrendered our destiny to the expert class, and in the process, squandered our birthright as the baptized people of God.

And you thought that was the Big One? It's not. This is:
Resolved, That a task force on the episcopacy be appointed by the Presiding Officers composed of four bishops, four clergy, and four lay persons. The Task Force will explore the practice of and particular gifts, life experience, expertise, and social diversity required by the episcopacy, recommending to General Convention 2018 a new process for discernment, formation, search, and election of bishops in The Episcopal Church, and that $100,000 be appropriated in the next triennial budget for this purpose; and be it further  
Resolved, That within each bishop-search process, a mandatory time of discernment with the Standing Committees of the diocese in transition occur with the Standing Committees and bishops of adjoining dioceses.
If this doesn't make your blood run just a little bit cold, you're either not paying close attention or you are yourself up to no good. (Just kidding, of course ... but not much.) What's going on here? I ask that both sincerely and rhetorically--the latter because I have my suspicions, even though I haven't had any conversations about this specific proposal with anyone on TREC. The way one responds to this betrays one's underlying narrative of the essential polity of the Episcopal Church.

Over the last dozen or so years of intensified unpleasantness among all who profess and call themselves Anglicans, the questions raised by this resolution have emerged from the heart of the turmoil. Is TEC a monolithic church, of which the various dioceses are its own creatures ("it" being instantiated by General Convention) and which are, when the facade is stripped away, functionally mere regional subdivisions of the unitary whole? If this view is true, then the proposal makes perfect sense. If bishops are regional managers for TEC, Inc. then the whole organism, collectively, should appropriately have an outcome-based strategy for managing the composition of its senior executive staff. 

The problem is, the unitary, monolithic narrative is largely fictional, and of fairly recent provenance. The more organic and historical account, largely taken for granted and left unchallenged until the recent need to develop legal strategies in property disputes, is that TEC is a voluntary confederation of dioceses that are themselves the integers in the ecclesiastical formula, the atoms that come together to form the molecule. The dioceses are not creatures of General Convention; General Convention is a creature of the dioceses. This narrative is not only coherent historically; it is coherent theologically. The diocese, represented iconically in the bishop, presbyters, deacons, and baptized faithful gathered in synod at the eucharistic table, is the fundamental ecclesial unit. It contains within itself all the necessary charisms for full church life. Anything smaller, like parishes, and anything larger, like provinces or "national churches," exist purely for the sake of expediency and missionary strategy. They are not necessary in and of themselves. Only the diocese, strictly speaking, is necessary in an of itself. It is, of course, entirely meet and right that a diocese, through its bishop, be united in sacramental communion and mutual interdependence with its neighboring dioceses and with the whole church throughout the world. It is for this reason that dioceses may come together in structures of mutual accountability for the proper regulation of their own lives. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, along with its constitution and canons, is one such structure of accountability--and, I would add, a terribly important one. But, if one accepts this fundamental notion of diocesan identity, then the resolution currently at question is simply so much officious bureaucratic meddling. It is entirely inappropriate to let some idealized desideratum about the composition of the House of Bishops trump, or even exert a little bit of pressure on, the internal process of discernment within a diocese. This proposal has "Danger, Will Robinson!" written all over it. It deserves to be stillborn. 

I will simply flag here for future consideration the proposal to make the "asking" a canonical assessment. This is more complex than it might appear, and runs a high risk of invoking the Law of Unintended Consequences. I will probably take it up in a separate post.

There are other points I could make, but I believe they've mostly been covered by proxy in what I've already said. But do indulge me just this parting question: In what sort of ecclesiology does a church have a president and a vice-president