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Toward Convention I: polity

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Cross-posted from Confessions of a Carioca

I guess it’s about time to start “thinking out loud” about next month’s triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church. This will be my fourth, but my first as a bishop; so it will be the same, but different.

(SIDEBAR: To my friends who are “formerly Episcopalian,” remember that gloating is probably a sin. You are missed.)

I will make no attempt to cover the depressing array of resolutions that we will be confronted with. Each recent General Convention has been shorter than its predecessor, but with no curbs placed on the type or number of resolutions that may be submitted. So it’s pedal-to-the-metal that whole time we’re there. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I need a vacation. Full disclosure: Two of the resolutions have my name on them. And there may be more. So, if I’m pointing fingers, I’m pointing at myself.

I want to hit four broad areas, in four successive posts: Polity, Same-Sex Blessings, the Liturgical Calendar, and the Anglican Covenant.

Polity (or Structure, depending on one’s angle of approach, though the two cannot really be separated) is arguably the elephant in the room at this convention. It has quickly become a very hot topic because straitened finances at a national level are forcing us to make it one. Indeed, the last time I woke this blog up from dormancy, it was to propose, in the wake of the Presiding Bishop’s remarks to the Province V Synod, that General Convention lay aside all other business, save for a bare-bones budget just to keep the lights turned on, and focus entirely on structural reform. I would certainly be willing to put into abeyance the two resolutions that I am sponsoring (one on the Anglican Covenant, and one that would authorize use the 1979 lectionary) in order to help make this happen. But I don’t expect the idea to gain very much traction. Our level of collective pain is not yet high enough.

I don’t have a comprehensive and well-thought through proposal for restructuring the church at a national level, nor do I have a favorite among those that are out there. But I do have a strong suspicion that, if we manage to stumble across an effective solution for preventing institutional meltdown (and I’m not at all sanguine that we will do so), it will be a “back to the future” enterprise. The familiar Church Center apparatus emanating from 815 Second Avenue in New York did not exist in any form prior to 1919, and did not exist in its current form until after World War II. In many ways, the evolution of this institutional presence evolved right alongside corporate America, and it seemed to our forebears a very expedient development. It has been only since 1946 that we have had a Presiding Bishop who is not also the bishop of a diocese.

That was then, this is now. To borrow from Walter Russell Bowie, “new occasions teach new duties,” and “time makes ancient good uncouth.” In the internet age, amid the shadows of postmodern values, the kind of top-down hierarchical structure that seemed like such a no-brainer in the’50s and ’60s is yesterday’s news. Now it’s all about subsidiarity. And networking. I’m not saying that adopting those two virtues du jour will get us where we need to be, but I am saying that not adopting them will prevent us from getting there.

So, in my occasionally-but-not-always-humble opinion, here’s what needs to happen:

  • We need to get out of New York. Sell the property in an expeditious manner and get out. This is certainly important for financial reasons, but it is even more important for symbolic and practical reasons. ‘815’ is a symbol of aloof elitism to too many Episcopalians (and, sadly, a large number who are now former Episcopalians). We need to bury the bogeyman of “the national church.” (Yes, I do know that expression is not au courant, but, I think for silly reasons; so I continue to use it.) Most of what’s done there either doesn’t actually need to be done (i.e. it conflicts with the principle of subsidiarity) or can be done by telecommuting. I realize that closing the Church Center will adversely affect some people, and we should do what we can to ease their transition. But the plug needs to be pulled. Now.
  • The next Presiding Bishop needs to be a part-timer. Yes, I mean the one we elect in 2015. The PB needs to remain a Diocesan, and delegate all administrative duties to a General Secretary (or some such). Of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, only two have a Primate who is not also a Diocesan — us and Canada. Even the titular head of the communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the bishop of something. He has a diocese. Sure, he has help running it, and he spends lots of time away, but on any given Sunday morning, it is not remarkable for him to be visiting a parish — preaching, confirming, celebrating the Eucharist — in the Diocese of Canterbury. Heck, even the Pope has a diocese, and it is only by virtue of being the Bishop of Rome that he is everything else he is. We would, of course, need to remove the canon that requires the Presiding Bishop to visit all the dioceses. And it would have to become the norm that that the Bishop-President of each province would be the chief consecrator of new bishops. But we’ve done it before, and we can do it again.
  • The President of the House of Deputies needs to be just that — and only that. The scope of this office has mushroomed exponentially, but only over the last few triennia. This is unfortunate. It has not been ever thus. We need a PHoD who will scale the job back. Way back. The PHoD is not a co-primate. She or he is not a public spokesperson for the Episcopal Church. The PHoD’s job is to preside over the House of Deputies, while the House of Deputies is in session. Yes, it takes someone who has the capacity in his or her life to take the time to make appointments to General Convention committees and CCABs. But, in the new world, won’t there be considerably fewer of each?

These suggestions are horse pills for many. They would create casualties. Adaptive change does that. And this is barely the tip of the iceberg of the painful decisions General Convention needs to make. The scary fact, however, is that the only body with the authority to initiate and prosecute thorough reform is the very body most in need of that reform. History is not encouraging about such a combination of circumstances. Getting past this difficulty will require a special infusion of the Holy Spirit that enables us to start behaving like a church and not a legislative assembly. Kyrie eleison.

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