Wednesday, July 11, 2012

GC Deputies, young AND old: not now and never have been agents of change

OK. We are getting some peculiar cheerleading going on about this Convention.

Here is an excerpt from Scott Pomerank’s piece, entitled, Among the Dying. The title caught my eye because I thought it might give some more perceptive commentary on Convention. But alas, it was full of the usual kind of “all these impassioned people taking stands on all these important global issues,” and ended up with the usual, fairly smarmy comments about how the earnest youth will be the salvation of this decrepit but glorious old institution:

… Several full-fledged deputies are in their 20s, and at least one deputy—who has expressed herself impressively on the floor multiple times—is a college student.  Without exception, every one of these young people has spoken intelligently, articulately and passionately; several of them have spoken prophetically.

So is the Episcopal Church a sinking dinosaur?  Not if the young people here at Convention are any indication.  They, after all, presumably have many General Conventions ahead of them.  Many of you have heard me lament that calling youth "the future of the church" can deprive them of the right to be the present of the church.  Here in Indianapolis, the youth are seizing that right.  I trust them to help guide the church into the future.

Many General Conventions ahead of them? Oh, my God. Are you insane? Having BEEN one of those “youth who will change the future of the church” many years ago (in the go-go 1970s, when the Episcopal Church completely dismantled its entire New York office and gave the money to community organizations – I certainly don’t hear any talk of “revisiting” General Convention Special Program as a model of decentralization), and having spent decades promoting more of those many youth who will change the future of the church, let me tell you, little has changed. Plenty of those former youth are doing terrific things – they may even be going to church! They may even pledge! – but it is less and less likely that the terrific things they are doing are represented at General Convention. If the deputies who are in the 20s are still going to General Convention many years hence, then God bless them, but they are not agents of change.

General Convention: the cry goes up, how long?

I have been casually reading comments on the General Convention going on now, and the comments from  George Clifford, on Episcopal Café  follow along with the more reasonable ones. He hammers home the point that much of the discussion at church conventions (all denominations) rates barely a blip in the rest of the country, and that all the various “reforms” do little or nothing to stop the numerical and financial decline of the denomination. He made a few ho-hum, re-hashed suggestions about what to do about all this.

Near the end of his commentary, he made real progress though. This makes sense:

… formal denominational efforts to influence national and international policies and legislation have achieved proportionately few results for the resources invested. Single-issue ecumenical organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, have enlisted greater support, received larger resources, and produced greater results.

Successfully re-visioning and re-creating TEC will produce an organization focused on its strength (building local communities of God's people who join in worship, caring for one another, and offer hospitality to strangers) that networks with other Christian organizations to achieve other aspects of the gospel mandate. The end of Christendom suggests that a strategy loosely linked multiple organizations may be more effective than the monolithic church of the past. The Church’s unity will be seen in relationships rather than structures.

The central organization of the Episcopal Church (using that stupid abbreviation “TEC” or even worse “ECUSA” is a major PART of this whole problem! So fucking in-groupy) can do whatever it wants to. It doesn’t matter to the mission of the church. People can go to Convention and work out governance matters, and we clergy can follow the rules. Fine.

Meanwhile, the real church happens, as Clifford says, in de-centralized relational organizations, groups which rise up as occasions demand, and then fall away – if those who organized them have the good sense to get out of the way when the purposes for which they were organized no longer exist.

Enlightenment/entitlement theology has a death grip on the institutional church. Every fractured interest group wants a seat at the Table – but guess what: there is no Table any more, no one place where all the important decisions are made. There are many, multiple tables, and the ones which offer the most effective hospitality are the ones on local levels – some Christian, some interfaith, some post-Christian.

In 1919, the churches developed the strategy that the best way to influence American society was to imitate it – to develop its own corporate structure that mirrored the most successful models of American life, the corporation. This strategy became fully incarnate with the establishment of the Church Center at 815 Second Avenue. Church as corporation worked for a while, but it has calcified. Even big American corporations are more flexible than the Episcopal Church. Management schools have for quite some time developed more decentralized models, sensitive and able to change and adapt to changing environments. Business, which we imitated, changed – even Mad Men, by the 5th season, wasn’t Mad Men in the same way. The church, however, remains wedded to what it looked like in 1960. There are thousands of people who like it that way – all those people who love going to church meetings. It is fun. It can be exhausting. You can come to believe that it is important.

Meanwhile, whole new webs, relationships, projects, plans, organizations grow and shrink around us. In many cases, they ARE us, and in many more cases we can find common mission in ways that have nothing to do with institutional structures.