News Analysis

By Derek Olsen

The churchwide meeting of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, promoted for several weeks as a night for prayer, presentations, Q&A, and engagement, concentrated on presentations. The meeting drew 140 church leaders to Washington National Cathedral on October 2. Online observers dwarfed that audience: more than 4,000 watched through a live webcast. A lively conversation on Twitter, ranging from the serious to the snarky, boosted the hashtag #TRECLive into the Top Ten range in the course of the evening.

After opening with prayer, four of the 24-member TREC team presented ten-minute addresses. After the first three speakers’ presentations, observers had 15 minutes for questions. After the fourth speaker, the floor opened for another 40 minutes before a brief summary and prayer closed the meeting.

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The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of North Carolina, led off with a rousing message that was equal parts homily and revival. Speaking on the biblical dimensions of TREC’s work, Bishop Curry took a cue from Mark 1 and Jesus’ calling of the disciples: “Jesus didn’t come to start a church or found a religion. He inaugurated a movement heading in the direction of God’s dream and reign.” Dubbing Harriet Tubman the patron saint of TREC’s work, he borrowed her wisdom and exhorted Episcopalians to “just keep moving,” no matter what. The bishop noted that movements evaporate if they are not organized. Through organizing, Jesus and the disciples were able to turn the world upside down. “We’re trying to do that in this mission moment,” he said, “following Jesus in our weird Anglican way.”

The Rev. Dwight Zscheile gave a historical and theological perspective on TREC’s work. Offering a lecture rather than a homily, Zscheile gave a solid account of where the Episcopal Church has come from organizationally. The church’s incarnational life involves rooting its identity in God’s mission, organization, and structure, he said. A quick survey of historic Episcopal structures, including the increasing participation of laity in the church’s life and governance, led into a description of the Church’s life today and the increasing failure of the corporate, CEO-driven model. “The denominational franchise model is no longer tenable in many places,” Zscheile said. Rather, effective mission is occurring — and must occur — at the grassroots: “the local church must be a missionary outpost in its own neighborhood.” A PowerPoint slide identified Four Cs that capture the role of the church as it moves into a new paradigm: Catalyst, Connector, Convener, and Capacity builder.

After further questions, Katy George spoke from the perspective of organizational development. She opened with a widespread question when churches feel an identity crisis: “What are we doing on the organizational side — are we just rearranging the deck chairs [on a sinking Titanic]?” Her response was swift and illuminating: “Structural reform is neither necessary nor sufficient to solve our problems — but, boy would it be helpful!” Naming the church’s challenges from this perspective offered the night’s clearest glimpse into how TREC understands structure: it should be both clear and accountable, and should support effective action and mission already occurring within the church. She noted that individual and local effort is not enough without broader support, and that the pension system does not encourage change. Episcopal Church Center employees need to focus on the toughest issues and make their work relevant to local needs, rather than serving in roles that require constant explanation and justification to diocesan leadership.

The Rev. Miguelina Howell presented a fourth perspective. Noting the grand worship space around her, she invited listeners to imagine a Starbucks store planted in its midst, bringing area travelers into its hallowed halls, if only in search of caffeine. “Would that horrify you? Would it make you look at the space differently?” Then she added: “Would you be willing to consider it if God asks — even if it takes you outside of your comfort zone?” There is a lack of clarity in the structures of the church. A better structure would be one with greater clarity and connection to purpose. This includes greater clarity about the role of the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council, with a continued focus on shared governance. TREC’s proposals, she said, are but a very small piece of the larger puzzle. The church should not look upon the proposals and resolutions from TREC as an answer, but rather an initial step of adaptive change and listening. The church currently lacks the spaces to share best practices from the local and regional level to build toward a cohesive process of transformation — yet this is the direction in which it must move.

Then TREC welcomed questions. Alternating between questions from those in the cathedral and those on the web, TREC responded to questions, concerns, and comments regarding young Episcopalians, money, and the size, scope, and role of General Convention. Sarah Miller, a student at the University of the South’s School of Theology, offered concluding remarks and prayer.

There were no straightforward answers about the shape or scope of TREC’s resolutions to come before General Convention; there was no detailed discussions of church structure. What did become clear was that TREC contains deep resources of intelligence, wisdom, and faith — and that its members are still bringing these virtues to bear on the issues facing the Episcopal Church. A subtle refrain throughout the night emphasized that the work accomplished this triennium would be a beginning, a start, an initial movement, and by no means a finished work.

Because of the initial character of the work, the balance between listening to the questions and concerns brought to the meeting and the time that TREC members spent explaining positions seemed a bit off. The Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement, captured this statistically in a tweet: “The final score at the TREC Bowl, brought to you by @scottagunn and @crustyoldean [the Very Rev. Tom Ferguson, dean of Bexley Hall]. TREC speaks 2:00:37 vs. Public speaks 17:31.” Questions and comments revealed an audience eager to be heard; that so few questions after the presentations directly engaged the content just spoken further confirmed that no additional prompts were needed — a host of concerns had already been brought to the table. If participants hoped this would be a time to offer comments and to be heard by the committee, the opportunity was not captured in the evening’s conversation; TREC did far more speaking than listening.

Throughout the presentations and the questions, it became clear that TREC was approaching its work from a very particular perspective, and not others; its members’ attention is and has been focused on clarity of roles at the highest level of the church, not on monetary or theological questions. The greatest energy centered on the roles of the Presiding Bishop, the Executive Council, and General Convention. Both the size of General Convention and which bodies continue the work of convention between its triennial meetings were present in the discussion. Other issues of structure seem not to have been discussed.

There were two notable questions met by a period of silence before a TREC respondent made a response; the first touched on this area. An online participant asked what TREC was prepared to do to help parishes in the theological minority. The period of silence after this question spoke volumes. The response offered the usual appeal to inclusivity and the need to engage with those different from ourselves, but what became clear was that the question concerned a level of structure and governance that TREC discussions had not touched upon. Relations between parishes, or between parishes and their dioceses, were not in the scope of TREC’s vision. Instead, TREC’s vision focused consistently at the top of the organizational structure.

Some pointed questions about money from members of Executive Council’s group on budget and finance likewise confirmed that the TREC’s discussions did not begin from a budgetary perspective. In particular, a pointed reminder that the money available — or not — for ministry at the local level was a bellwether of organizational health and efficiency encouraged TREC to take this aspect more seriously.

The second question met by initial silence highlighted the theological underpinnings of the group’s work: How were Christ and the Holy Spirit fundamental to the group’s work? Several individuals on the panel answered the question well and ably after the pause, but it was clear that there was no theological consensus informing the work. The term incarnation was heard several times throughout the evening, but there was no body around it. Yes, a discussion about the structure of the church necessarily involves an invocation of incarnation. But what about the rest of our theological vocabulary? Is there room, space, or weight given to redemption? It is necessary but not sufficient for a sacramental church to invoke incarnation. How do baptism and the Eucharist inform our understanding of the Body of Christ in its mystical, sacramental, social, and institutional forms?

Two other events in the life of the church cast an interesting light on the meeting. On one hand, the recent conflict between faculty and the dean at the General Theological Seminary provided a sobering warning. It is one thing to ask for and concentrate power in the hands of a few in the name of bold and decisive leadership. Working through the consequences of that leadership and the role of consensus-building and collaboration is another. On the other hand, the period for receiving nominations for the next Presiding Bishop had just closed. A number of tweets mentioned the Office of Presiding Bishop as Bishop Curry exhorted his listeners to keep moving forward, and again later as the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe fielded questions, including an eminently quotable response that the church is “overled and undermanaged; somebody has to get the work done.”

There is no doubt that TREC has been given a daunting task. TREC’s members should be commended for their work — and the courage to engage a restive church. However, there remain far more questions than answers. TRECLive was a good attempt for the group to speak to the church and to hear how the church responded. TREC has certainly spoken, but the larger question is the degree to which it has listened.

Derek Olsen, a member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, writes regularly at haligweorc.org.

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