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Yearning for Transformation

Orderly Counsel Series

If you were at General Convention 2012, you probably vividly remember the moment when the legislation to create the Task Force for Reimagining the Church (TREC) passed the House of Deputies unanimously. We all stood and joined our voices on “Sing a New Church into Being.” Full of hope, we were looking toward a reborn Episcopal Church.

But each of us probably had different ideas about what that new church would look like. Somewhere in our hearts, we all knew that just restructuring our ways of organizing ourselves would not be enough. We needed a reawakening. We needed to rededicate ourselves to evangelism and mission. We needed to come to a new understanding of how to reach new people and new ages and ethnic groups. We needed to leave tired conflicts and structures behind, and find better ways to answer God’s call in the 21st century.

Given all these hopes and needs, it was inevitable that TREC could not meet them all. TREC’s prologue was inspiring and right on target, calling us to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly. Terrific! But there have been mixed reactions to TREC’s specific recommendations. And some things were missing:

  • A concrete, achievable proposal for church planting, congregational revitalization, and evangelism
  • A vision for what the churchwide structure is supposed to accomplish
  • A mission statement for our staff, including its size and composition
  • A vision for how we should spend our money and what kind of headquarters building we need, if any
  • A way to structure ourselves in order to help heal factional rivalries and bring us together on the same team

Well and good. Those things may be missing, but it was probably unrealistic to expect TREC to do everything — and there are many people ready to take up the call and work on these priorities that remain before us.

We and our coauthors (Tom Ferguson, Frank Logue, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, Steve Pankey, and Adam Trambley) believe that if the Episcopal Church does nothing different, the institutional church as we know it will cease to exist in two or perhaps three decades. Many (if not most) of our congregations are teetering on the edge of non-viability. Our churchwide structures have blossomed even as our numbers have shrunk and our ability to collaborate is easier than ever. But there is a new way, and that way is at the center of the Memorial to the Church. “We can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.”

If we cling to our institutional bulwarks, whether at the congregational, diocesan, or churchwide level, we will slowly sink into oblivion. But if we decide that the only reason we even have an institutional church is to proclaim the Good News, to make disciples, and to be the body of Christ, we have a vibrant future. Placing Jesus at the center gives us license to lose our fears and to gain unimagined, Spirit-led creativity. That is what our Memorial (an old-fashioned Episcopal term for an open letter to the church) is about.

The first followers of Jesus were scattered into the countryside by the persecution in Jerusalem. You can read the whole gripping story in the eighth chapter of Acts. Leaving behind the comfort of temple worship and their familiar city, they went into new places and proclaimed the gospel. That crisis — leaving Jerusalem — precipitated the evangelism and disciple-making that led to the spread of Christianity throughout the world. Crisis is opportunity. The Holy Spirit is a powerful, animating presence when we step out of the way.

On the one hand the Memorial is just words, including a bunch of familiar words. But it is more than that. It is a call for us to anchor ourselves and all we do in the church within ancient practices of discipleship, evangelism, and service. It is a call for General Convention to become serious about letting go so that we might live. We want the Episcopal Church to be strong and vibrant — not just because we love it but because we think the Anglican witness to Jesus Christ has a lot to offer the world.

Will General Convention have the courage to leave behind the comfort of our cherished habits and the familiarity of our treasured places? We cannot be sure if we’re ready, but we can be sure that if we listen to the voice of our Savior and Lord, we will hear him telling us to “be not afraid.” What if we could set aside personal agendas and seek to follow the person of Jesus Christ? What if we could be brave and take exciting risks for the sake of the gospel? What if we decided that we love each other more than we love fighting with each other? What if we voted as if we believed that God can raise the dead and that with God all things are possible?

A Memorial to the Church

Several priests and other General Convention deputies — Susan Brown Snook, Tom Ferguson, Scott Gunn, Frank Logue, Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, Steve Pankey, and Adam Trambley — have issued a “Memorial to the Church.” These are their proposals.

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did. So there was great joy in that city. Acts 8:4-6,8

In the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the newly formed church of disciples of the risen Savior found itself in a new situation. No longer could Christians depend on traditional ways of following Jesus and traditional places in which to do it. Driven out of their comfortable existence praying in the Temple in Jerusalem and waiting for the kingdom to come, they found themselves in new and unexpected neighborhoods, developing new ways of proclaiming the Word. Yet they found that the crowds were eager to hear the Good News of Christ and welcomed it with joy. The very loss of the old ways of being the church gave them opportunities to expand and multiply the reach of Christ’s loving embrace.

Our beloved Episcopal Church is in a similar situation. We must find new ways of proclaiming the gospel in varied and ever changing neighborhoods. Old ways of being the church no longer apply. We can no longer settle for complacency and comfort. We can no longer claim to dominate the political and social landscape. We can no longer wait inside our sanctuaries to welcome those who want to become Episcopalian.

We have a choice before us. We can continue, valiantly and tragically, to try to save all the rights and privileges we have previously enjoyed. We can continue to watch our church dwindle until it someday becomes an endowed museum to the faith of our forebears. We can continue business as usual until we lose our common life entirely.

Or we can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.

We, the undersigned, hold dear the Episcopal Church and believe passionately in the gift this church offers. Washed in the waters of Baptism and nourished from the deep springs of word and sacrament, we experience the power of God’s presence as we open the Scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. We stand in awe of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the power of the triune God to love, to forgive, to make whole. We know the joy of serving God through serving others. We long for a world with every unjust structure toppled. We love this church enough to yearn for it to be transformed.

We recognize the importance of this present moment. We join the Task Force for Reimagining the Church in calling for the church to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly. Our deepest hopes and aspirations are not dependent upon any particular act of this Convention. Many essential steps are found in the daily walk of discipleship undertaken by congregations and individuals throughout the church, and we commend the work of many who are helping the church adopt these discipleship practices. This Convention, however, has the opportunity to act on a number of matters that can support God’s faithful people, our parishes and missions, and our dioceses in living out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Specifically, we call upon the people of the Episcopal Church to:

  • Recommit to reading scripture, praying daily, gathering weekly for corporate worship, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom, knowing that engaging in these practices brings personal and corporate transformation;
  • Share the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed, including learning how to tell the story of how Jesus makes a difference in our lives, even and especially to those who have not experienced true transformation;
  • Pray and fast for the Holy Spirit to add day by day to those who come within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace;
  • Encounter Jesus Christ through loving service to those in need and through seeking justice and peace among all people.
  • And we call upon those bishops and deputies gathered for Convention to the following actions as specific ways we may enter this time of transition in a spirit of exploration, discovering the gifts that the Holy Spirit has for us in this moment:
  • Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now;
  • Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission;
  • Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry;
  • Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well;
  • Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives;
  • Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.

Like those early followers of Christ, we find ourselves being scattered out of familiar and comfortable places and ways of being the church. Rather than be ruled by memory and consumed by fear, we can embrace this crisis, trusting that the Lord of Life will give us everything we need to spread the Gospel, proclaim the kingdom, and share the love of God. May God grant great joy in every city and neighborhood into which we go.

Yearning for Transformation

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