Wednesday, July 11, 2012

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.


  1. I thoroughly agree with your post. Throughout the week I felt one is either called to the work of General Convention or not. I am not called. I am glad I served as an alternate as the role offered me a great opportunity to better understand the governance of the church. My favorite parts of General Convention was meeting new people to explore ways of living the Gospel.

    There is a structural dissonance that is out of step with 30 churches closing every month and the expectation that 2 to 3 times more will close every month over the next 5-10 years. The triumphalism of General Convention is part of the denial that The Episcopal Church is timeless and will not change.

    As a priest I feel far more connected living the Gospel through my Postcolonial Networks in its multi-faith and transnational relationships than I do at General Convention. In these relationships there is abundant space for ambiguity and a multiplicity of ways of living and questioning.

    I continue to be uncomfortable with the dominant model of the Christian church where unity reigns and we must all agree or the majority agrees and then we all must follow the way chosen. Unity of this nature is a colonial model that perpetuates interpersonal violence. Why not walk in multiple directions of practiced faith and then meet at the Eucharistic table to be fed for the journey?

    I do not see change coming other than through an organic process over time. Change will not come through General Convention but rather will emerge through changes in the way people practice their faith and live their values.

    Thank you for your post.

  2. Thanks, Joe! really thoughtful - so glad to hear about your experiences. There are many ways and places that Christian community DOES work and does do good things - I was glad George Clifford picked up on groups like Interfaith Power and Light, which, like your Post-Colonial network, pulls together disparate people and moves things along. There absolutely can be sustainable (financially and spiritually) parish churches, but it requires enormous flexiblity and imagination to surf the tsunami waves of culture.