By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The governing board of the Episcopal Church set the tone for the next three years Nov. 15 as members heard a call to make way for evangelism, racial reconciliation, and new forms of being the church in an age of shrinking budgets.
The call came as the 40-member Executive Council gathered at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, for its first meeting since General Convention in the summer. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry addressed council members, including about 20 new members, about an “enormous opportunity” ahead.
“The Convention gave us a clarion call and clarified our common mission in this mission moment of our life together,” Curry said. “It was a call for a churchwide focus on evangelism and racial reconciliation as how we can live fully as the movement of Jesus in this world.”
Curry proposed a new position on his staff: Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Racial Reconciliation. He said he learned, as Bishop of North Carolina, the value of having canons serve as “direct links” between congregations and the bishop. In 15 years in North Carolina, he increased the diocesan staff by more than 50 percent.
The council heard a separate call from House of Deputies President Gay Jennings, who highlighted some stark realities that met with limited discussion at General Convention. She noted that one-in-three Episcopal congregations had fewer clergy on staff in 2013 than in 2006. Meanwhile, operating revenue in congregations fell by 7 percent, creating a “not sustainable” situation.
“If the old model of a dedicated building with a full-time priest is required for us to do God’s mission, we’re in trouble,” President Jennings said. “By any measure — demographic, financial, liturgical, spiritual — the Episcopal Church is negotiating the challenge of a threshold right now.”
New times require new approaches, she said, and the Episcopal Church faces a fork in the road. The church can either say, “Let’s include everybody,” or say, “That is not who we have always been. That is not true to our roots.”
“I’m a big fan of the first one,” she said, “the one where we say, ‘Great. Welcome. Come on in. It’s a big tent. Let’s include everybody.’… Jesus said that’s how we’re supposed to do it.”
When members broke into small groups, they focused largely on justice issues, ranging from economic inequality to violence in society. When they summarized their discussions for the council, they noted challenges on the horizon.
“We need to educate people so that they don’t think that a new church plant is something they need to resist because it might steal all of the Episcopalians that are available in an area,” said the Rev. Susan Brown Snook of Arizona.
Province IX, which includes Episcopal congregations outside the United States, made a plea for greater recognition and understanding in the new triennium. The province was “crippled” by under-representation at General Convention due to limited funds for travel, said the Rt. Rev. Lloyd Allen of Honduras.
He noted the Executive Council has not visited Province IX for 10 years, and urged the body to do so before the next General Convention.
“To better appreciate the work that Province IX does, you must be in situ,” Bishop Allen said. “You cannot legislate and program sitting up here for us. You need to come and see, go and tell, what is going on in Province IX.”
Image: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preaches during the opening session of Executive Council’s meeting. • Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service