Review by Eugene Schlesinger
God has called the Church to be so much more than it is. This conviction drives Vocātiō, the latest book by C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas. He calls the Church to unlearn its institutionalized patterns of being and embark on a missional pilgrimage in response to the God who calls us to walk in the way of Jesus. This is a bold and important call for any church, but especially for one in decline, like the Episcopal Church. Our strategies of institutional maintenance are failing, and only by regaining a missional bearing will we avoid dwindling away in irrelevance.
In Vocātiō, Doyle retells the Church’s history and prophesies its future. The story begins with the Church’s prehistory in God’s relationship to Israel, moves on to the Jesus movement, and thence to an ever-increasing institutionalization. Doyle is quick to point out that not all institutional apparatus is bad: in the first three centuries, the Church’s emergent structures provided necessary coherence while retaining suppleness and flexibility.
With the Constantinian embrace of Christianity, though, the Church joined the world’s principalities and its structure intensified and hardened. Yet Jesus continues to call the Church to new life, to join him in his life-giving mission, to leave behind the dead ends of institutional captivity. The dry bones can once more live in a future missional church.
Vocātiō employs a “missional hermeneutic” and recognizes that God has always called his people to join him in mission and be a blessing to all. In what it affirms, this missional hermeneutic is commendable; it sees key emphases of Scripture clearly. This clarity is obscured, though, in what the hermeneutic denies. Doyle consistently decries “temple-centric” mindsets (pp. xxv, 1, 12). Yet the Hebrew Bible’s perspective is decidedly temple-centric, and recent scholarship has helped to recover the importance of the temple in the ministry of Jesus and the earliest Christian communities.
Doyle’s account of God’s mission is admirably rooted in the practice and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel’s tones ring clearly and unambiguously in this volume. Much of the narrative is concerned with overcoming violence and sibling rivalry (a gloss on René Girard’s mimetic scapegoating). While this framework is helpful (the Church is indeed called upon to embody a nonviolent way of being in the world), it is also at times anachronistic and myopic. It speaks clearly to the needs of our age, but one would be hard-pressed to find many premodern or even early-modern sources giving it much consideration.
Doyle’s ecclesiological proposals are nothing if not bold. He calls for, at once, a proliferation of non-stipendiary clergy, not appropriating funds from wealthy churches to subsidize clergy compensation for smaller churches, and avoiding clergy salary caps for the sake of attracting and retaining talent. While serious conversations about clergy compensation are needed, this proposal strikes me as being precisely predicated on the sort of supply and demand/social Darwinian market economies that Doyle elsewhere decries in the book. One wonders to what extent his diocese’s massive endowments and foundations color the outlook.
Moving beyond financial considerations, in the future missional church, clericalism is eliminated, because ministry and mission are primarily the work of the baptized, and occur in the world beyond the Church’s walls. The clergy should be de-professionalized, reconfigured away from the market economy, and into missional terms. Bishops will be “hubs of mission” serving to connect the Church and focusing on “the things that laypeople do not want to do because they are not part of the primary mission” (p. 127). Priests will venture into the community, connecting people and resources, working for justice, and proclaiming the gospel everywhere they go (pp. 129-33). Deacons will connect the Church’s resources to concrete needs in the community (pp. 133-34).
I fear these proposals would actually have the opposite effect of what they intend, because they could lead to the clergy encroaching upon the proper mission of laypeople. Laypeople have a secular vocation, by which they encounter individuals and populations who may never darken the Church’s doors. If the clergy begin to focus exclusively on the world beyond the Church, we may very well be left with a new clericalism, only now in a different location.
This is not to suggest that the clergy stay sequestered in the Church. Their fundamental identity is not as bishop, priest, or deacon, but rather as baptized, and so they share in the ministry and mission of all the baptized (pace Doyle’s pervasive distinction between the clergy and “the baptized”). Yet within the baptized community, their primary ministry should be that of equipping and empowering the laity to carry out this mission.
Bishop Doyle is right: the Church is called to be a missional community, sent into the world by the Holy Spirit, and in the company of Jesus, to bless and call all into renewed peace and fellowship with God. Moreover, he is right to point out how our institutional apparatus often obscures and obstructs our mission, and that clericalism is a pernicious poison sapping missional vitality.
The solution is to recover the missional dynamism that lays at the heart of the Church’s existence. My research into this question has led me in a quite different direction: recognizing that this dynamism is latent in some of the least expected and most traditional aspects of the Church’s life, needing only to become explicit and unleashed. Despite this disagreement on concrete proposals, I sincerely hope that we will attend to the call of which Vocātiō reminds us, and engage in the conversation into which Bishop Doyle invites us. I am grateful for the invitation.
Eugene Schlesinger is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University.