I was elected by my diocese to serve as an Alternate Clergy Deputy to the 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis, and it happened that I was serving on the floor of the House of Deputies and able to add my assent to what turned out to be our unanimous approval of Resolution C095: “That this General Convention establish a Task Force under the Joint Rules of Order, whose purpose shall be to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration…”

The resolution provided the framework for what came to be known as the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), and I have followed the work of that Task Force as best I could, as it has been presented through study papers and the recent open letter.

The ecclesiastically-interested corners of social media and the blogosphere have of course been rich in response to the TREC, with many voicing enthusiastic support and with many others raising significant questions and concerns. Some readers seem to think the whole question is dead on arrival, while others look forward to an opportunity to discuss major restructuring of the Office of the Presiding Bishop, the General Convention, the program officers and facilities of the Episcopal Church Center, and the alphabet soup of our Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards. See, for example, at the tip of the iceberg, The Lead’s collation of responses.

All this is as it must be, I suppose, and I’m sure the conversation will continue with energy all the way to Salt Lake City in 2015. Since I’ll be serving in the Pittsburgh Deputation again then, I’ll try to keep abreast of the discussion — though that’s obviously a challenge. Only so many hours in a day…

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In any event, while I will certainly continue to pray for God’s direction, correction, and blessing upon our church as we move toward the next steps in the conversation, I find that over the past couple of years, while the members of TREC have been working on their various tasks, I have myself become more and more convinced that, as a church, we are in danger of following the unfortunate example of the man who is seen on his hands and knees one night, studying the ground underneath the street lamp. A passer-by asks him what’s going on, and he replies that he has lost a contact lens.

“How fortunate that you lost it here,” the passer-by comments.

“Actually,” the man replies, “I lost it over there,” gesturing into the darkness. “But I couldn’t see anything over there, so I decided to look here, where there was more light.”

Concerns for “structures, governance, and administration”at the level of the denomination are obviously what the Task Force has been asked to address, but it is my sense that the questions being raised really don’t have much to do with what most Episcopalians or even most Christians are actually concerned about when attempting to “reimagine” a robust and renewed church. I think where most of us begin, when we think about renewal, is at the level of the particular, the local, the neighborhood parish, the Midweek Bible Study at the local Starbucks, or the conversation over the back fence or at the water-cooler.

We’d like to see Christ-centered, biblically and spiritually energized local congregations equipping faithful men and women and boys and girls for a Christian life of daily service and witness that makes a difference in the Church and in the world.  We’d like to see churches where worship is rich and authentic, where Jesus is Lord, and where the Holy Spirit is building us up with all the good gifts necessary to do the work we have been given in our particular time and place.  And when we think about larger questions of “structures, governance, and administration,”  we want to see them simply and directly in the context of true episcope—to be experienced meaningfully at the grassroots as effective pastoral oversight and direct support and encouragement.

Larger structures are of course inevitable, but they aren’t of much interest until it’s clear what difference they make on the front line. I don’t think that case has been made, and perhaps that’s at least partly because there really isn’t much consensus among those who are concerned with these larger structures regarding what it is they actually picture them supporting at the local level. There are all kinds of good reasons to be on our hands and knees under the street lamp — I just think it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll find what we’re looking for there.

In any event, as I was reading and thinking about TREC’s recent open letter, I was at the same time in conversation with some students in a class I’m teaching this term at our local seminary about that lovely and classic collection of homiletical essays and meditations by the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (Revised edition. London: SPCK, 1985). In the chapter “The Priest and Politics,” Ramsey specifically visits the issue of how tempting it is for us to center our focus and attention on Big Issues, Politics, Governance, Structures, Programs and Schemes, devoting so much of our time and energy and material resources to the life of the Institution, of the Many. He concludes his essay with a quiet, corrective pastoral word. And while, again, I’m sure we’ll all look forward with interest to conversations about the “reform” of our “structures, governance, and administration” in the coming year, I’m going to try to keep Archbishop Ramsey’s tune playing in the background. As our friends in the 12-Step Movement often remind us, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Amidst the vast scene of the world’s problems and tragedies you may feel that your own ministry seems so small, so insignificant, so concerned with the trivial. What a tiny difference it can make to the world that you should run a youth club, or preach to a few people in a church, or visit families with seemingly small result. But consider: the glory of Christianity is its claim that small things really matter and that the small company, the very few, the one man, the one woman, the one child are of infinite worth to God. Let that be your inspiration It is to a ministry like that of our Lord himself that you are called. The Gospel you preach affects the salvation of the world, and you may help your people to influence the world’s problems. But you will never be nearer to Christ than in caring for the one man, the one woman, the one child. His authority will be given to you as you do this, and his joy will be yours as well (The Christian Priest Today, p. 42.)

 

The image above is “Lamppost in Berlin” (2010) by the Flickr user motiqua. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

The Rev. Bruce Robison has served as rector of St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park, in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh since 1994. He is something of an old-fashioned evangelical, but with Benedictine tendencies — and with a vocational affinity for life as Village Priest, Country Parson. Bruce occasionally serves in adjunct positions at Trinity School for Ministry and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

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A good word, and I’m especially thankful for your use of Ramsey at the end. I’m all for restructuring, but I can’t help but feel a bit cynical about the aims of the current approach – as if it’s these darn structures that are holding us back and keeping us down! It seems like a big cop out from simply getting on with the work of forming disciples. No national or diocesan structural problems will keep a well-led parish from growing, period.