By Steven R. Ford
A now-dead former actor and U.S. president was once accused of conflating real life and cinema, and on occasion he undoubtedly did. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Good movies are meant to examine some aspect of life and reality, and fudging a little on what’s being examined can sometimes produce valuable insights.
On my way to Hanoi, where I’m writing these words, I managed to look around Tokyo during a 12-hour layover. I was awed by the incredible rebuilding that has taken place since the rampage of Godzilla. Despite the claim in a current film that the rampage never took place, it was in fact captured on black-and-white footage in 1954 and shown in theaters throughout Japan and America.
The original Godzilla, one might recall, was brought to Earth’s surface by massive displays of power in the South Pacific. He knocked down Tokyo buildings with his huge reptilian torso and destroyed entire neighborhoods with his fiery breath. Apparently by grassroots consensus, most new buildings appear to be Godzilla-proof. It’s reminiscent of New York City, where without any official edict high-rises constructed since 1933 have been non-scalable by oversized apes. Local problems spur local solutions; communities seem to know instinctively how to build themselves up from near ruin by unwieldy giants.
If Hanoi’s destruction came from a huge creature, it was called bureaucracy, and its work was slow and insidious. Occasional American bombing raids targeted mostly industrial areas and the Long Bien Rail Bridge, and isolated, privileged national leadership left rebuilding from collateral damage to local residents. The central committee drained financial and human resources to fight increasingly nasty battles in the South. Money was lost to constructive use, and human casualties never came home. At the same time, a growing power elite was siphoning away even more money for administration and economic planning, which usually bore no fruit at all. It simply wasted resources. By the end of the Vietnam War, per capita annual income was in the neighborhood of $300.
Hanoi today remains a very poor city, at least on paper. Per capita income is a dismal $1,500, yet economic vibrancy is obvious almost everywhere and people are moving in from the countryside in ever-increasing numbers. The secret, apparently, is that leadership has pretty much given up on social and economic planning, aware since the 1990s that such things do not work in multicultural societies. Neither do huge bureaucracies work well anywhere. Most economic activity is cash only, and most workers are paid under the table. Few records are kept and very little in tax money is collected. Now there’s very little money to support an increasingly irrelevant regime. Small businesses thrive, neighborhoods have upgraded themselves, and public services are provided locally. Slow, steady crumbling has been replaced by community-based restoration and renewal.
It’s no secret that mainline Christianity is suffering destruction and rapid decline. I’m not convinced that God is through with us yet. Instead, we’re gradually crumbling for a variety of reasons, many of our very own making. Certainly cultural change is leading many people of faith to find spiritual fulfillment in contexts other than churches.
In the Episcopal Church’s case, millions upon millions of dollars are being wasted to fight increasingly nasty culture wars in secular courts; this is money lost forever to mission and ministry. Court battles, moreover, produce casualties who will never come home. National and diocesan bureaucracies and expenses seem never to mirror numerically declining constituencies. Instead, they keep on growing, which is the nature of all unharnessed bureaucracies. And they increasingly make decisions (e.g., clergy placement, how money will be spent, etc.) for communities about which they know little or nothing.
Perhaps Hanoi’s grassroots revival might provide insights for reimagining the Episcopal Church. What if we suddenly stopped paying for continuous court battles, retired litigation debt, and (as the House of Deputies voted to do in 2012) sold the Church Center? What if we reduced diocesan funding and staff to reflect the actual canonical functions of dioceses, which are really pretty minimal? And what if the national bureaucracy were radically reduced to reflect that the Episcopal Church is now the same size as it was in the 1930s? Suddenly considerable resources would be available for congregations to serve their local communities. Residents of affected neighborhoods might actually become involved in the life of the local church. And giving might well increase as parishioners could see the tangible results of their stewardship of time and talent and treasure.
We might think about reimagining the church to be bureaucracy-proof. Perhaps the steady decline of neighborhood churches can be reversed by taming the destructive beast and redirecting resources to the ministries of local congregations. The slow crumbling of parishes and missions is a largely local problem. By keeping sufficient resources for ministry, their members are undoubtedly quite capable of developing effective local solutions.
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. James the Apostle in Tempe, Arizona.