TREC Goes Big

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), created to present the 78th General Convention “with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration,” has proposed these broad strategies:

  • Making General Convention (like the Church of England’s General Synod) a unicameral legislative body with three orders (bishop, clerical, and lay) and reducing the number of deputies by more than 200.
  • Investing more authority in the presiding bishop, cutting the size of Executive Council by half, and retaining only two standing commissions (what are now known as Constitution and Canons, and Liturgy and Music).
  • Changing the church’s methods of training, deploying, and paying its ordained ministers.
A Flurry of Data

TREC met with more than 2,000 Episcopalians during the past three years; compiled their widely divergent priorities into multicolored word clouds, bar graphs, and idea maps; and found a broad description of the Episcopal Church’s spiritual identity.

As with any wide-net survey, the results are sometimes so diverse that they contradict each other. A word cloud for the question What should the church let go of? included 815, bishop, buildings, General Convention, fear, music, politics, and racism.

This is the task force’s summary of values that inform the Episcopal Church:

  • Breadth and expansiveness: We value a spectrum of Christian belief and practice within the “ordered freedom” of Prayer Book liturgy. We embrace the Anglican ideal of holding together multiple perspectives within one community of faith.
  • An incarnational view of human life: The incarnation represents God’s definitive “yes” to human life, experience, and culture. Every local culture can bear (and distort) God’s life, and the Church must take shape within those cultures to be the body of Christ.
  • A sacramental view of Christian life: Episcopalians understand the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist as touchstones for the Church’s identity and witness, as they represent God coming to us in the ordinary stuff of the world: water, bread, and wine).
  • The arts, liturgy, and mystery: We believe that we can express the sacred through the arts and music.
  • Social engagement and prophetic dissent: We aspire to be fully inclusive and to strengthen society in Christ’s name with grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation for all people and for God’s creation. The Gospel calls us to dissent from predominant patterns and structures in the world.
  • Continuity and change: In our commitment to the incarnation, we seek to uphold classical Christian faith but to adapt to historical change.

TREC’s proposals would give more power to General Convention deputies but — because of its emphasis on the presiding bishop’s role as “chief pastor, spiritual leader, principal local and international representative, and prophetic voice of the Church” — decrease laypeople’s influence between conventions.

TREC recommends that “the PB should be retained as the CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of [the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society], with clear managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff.”

Assessments on dioceses would decrease by an unspecified percentage but become mandatory, and the Church Center would have the power to withhold financial support from transgressing dioceses.

Executive Council would decrease in size from 42 members to 21, and the Joint Standing Committee on Nominations would propose its membership. The number of deputies attending General Convention would decrease by two for each diocese.

The recommendation of turning General Convention into a unicameral body carries other assumptions that change the leadership role of bishops.

Retired bishops would no longer be granted seat, voice, or vote at any meeting of the bishops. This proposal goes further than General Convention, which has sought — and repeatedly failed — to revoke retired bishops’ voting privileges through an amendment to the Constitution.

Bishops, who have chosen the presiding bishop throughout the Episcopal Church’s history, would now have one-third of the voice in making that decision, sharing the role equally with clergy and with laity. The House of Bishops would meet as a “convocation of bishops” between each General Convention.

TREC’s section on training clergy will sound familiar amid regular news of seminaries fighting for their survival, joining forces, and offering alternative to residential training.

Because TREC’s proposal would revise General Convention’s historic structure, it proposes detailed changes to the church’s Constitution and recognizes that those changes require approval by two consecutive conventions.

Two initial responses to TREC’s report expressed disappointment.

The Rev. Susan Snook, a church planter in the Diocese of Arizona and a founder of the Acts 8 movement, wrote on her weblog A Good and Joyful Thing: “[TREC’s members] don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline. What do you do with a church that is dying? You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere, you ask dioceses to consolidate, you discourage parishes from spending down their endowments in hopes that some future generation will find more productive uses for the money. And maybe, in addition to all that, you find ways to make governance more efficient.”

And the Rev. Tom Ferguson, dean of Bexley Hall Seminary wrote on his Crusty Old Dean weblog: “TREC is over and done. That means it is OK to move on, and to begin to look for signs of life and resurrection in the church. Our opportunity to shape churchwide reform will pass, we will not do much of substance, and in the 2020s and 2030s our churchwide structures will collapse on their own. There’s going to be lots of collapse in the church, after all.”

Dean Ferugson added: “A number of seminaries, about half our congregations, and maybe 40% of our dioceses will eventually no longer be viable. Our churchwide organization will do the same. Those surviving Episcopalians doing the mission of the Gospel will come together and create something.”

Douglas LeBlanc

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