Monday, January 19, 2015

TREC: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) was created by the General Convention in 2012 and charged with presenting a report including concrete proposals to the General Convention of 2015. That report was issued this past autumn, and is now being widely discussed in Episcopal Church cyberspace. My comments here are intended to be a contribution to that conversation. (However, my comments here are on the report itself, not on anyone else's comments or critiques.)

The Good
There is a good bit that the TREC report gets exactly right. The call for Episcopalians to keep the main thing the main thing, to reinvigorate our connection with core beliefs and practices, is welcome and needful. A case in point:
We believe that, rather than an anxious focus on how to preserve our institution, a joyful focus on the basic practices of the movement will hold the real key for moving us into God’s future.
And snippets like these, which demonstrate an awareness that "attractional church" is so last century, and, in the words of Eugene Peterson's paraphrase of John 1:14, we need to "move into the neighborhood":
We are sent to testify to God’s reign ... as we form and restore community by sharing in God’s peacemaking and healing. ... [W]e must learn how to bear witness to, and receive from, those of different cultures, faiths, and beliefs, “eating what is set before us.” For many churches now disconnected from neighbors, this will mean attempting small experiments in sharing God’s peace.
... as well as this call for prayerful and fearless discernment about which elements of our inherited institutional infrastructure need to be cast aside because they weigh us down and hold us back:
We must hold inherited structures loosely as we make space for alternative patterns of organizing our life together. We must discern what of our traditions is life-giving and what unduly weighs us down. Traveling lightly means going in vulnerability, risking being changed by God and our neighbors.
... and then there's this salubrious recognition of the need for Christians to be more intentional about forming community in an increasingly hostile secular cultural environment:
We must learn how to form Christian community and practice Christian witness in environments where the culture no longer supports Christian identity, practice, and belonging as it once did. This work of learning and discovery must take place at all levels of the Church, although it is primarily local work.
... to say nothing of a bit of brutal honesty about TEC's place in the world now compared to what it once was (and what we may be tempted to imagine it still should be):
While The Episcopal Church once held a place of cultural privilege in American society, it must now earn a hearing as one small voice among many competing for influence in the public sphere. In some circles, we gained a reputation as the Church of the white, wealthy, and powerful, but this exclusivity is at odds with God’s calling for us today. The institution will need to respond to profound cultural and societal changes, including the end of the cultural Christian era, a time when our membership grew partly because our surrounding culture supported the practice of Christianity and Church attendance.
Last, but probably not least, I commend TREC for proposing that gatherings of bishops outside of General Convention be styled "Convocation of Bishops." There has been needless angst of late over perceived disparity between the two houses of our legislative assembly when the "House of Bishops" meets twice yearly and the Deputies only triennially. Anyone who pays attention to what actually happens at these suspect extramural gatherings would quickly shed any anxiety. But changing the language would just make it go away completely.

The Bad (or at least questionable)
A few statements and assumptions strewn throughout the document simply cannot be allowed to slide without comment. Like this one:
The Episcopal Church’s identity is rooted in Jesus and his Way.
Generously construed, this is an aspirational statement. Would that it were an accurate description, but it is not. Of course, our constitutional liturgical formularies are thoroughly christocentric; that cannot be denied. But our prevailing ethos and culture, not so much. If anything, we are, collectively, largely christophobic. We're OK talking about "God," but substitute "Christ" or "Jesus" and we begin to get squirmy. Words like "discipleship" have acquired a certain cachet of late, but they still raise a few interior eyebrows. This needs to change. We need to learn to love Jesus and be able to say so.

Then there's stuff like this:
Collaboration among dioceses, whether through sharing resources, staff, or engaging in more joint initiatives, would strengthen the practice of our faith and the Church itself.
Am I the only one to whom this seems like a bit of a logical leap? I'm not going to knock collaboration among dioceses--who would?--but it seems less than a simple given that such a thing necessarily yields strength in faith and practice. I don't see the connection.

And, to get really technical, when the report gets to its proposal for a unicameral General Convention:
A majority of all Bishops and Deputies entitled to vote shall be necessary to constitute a quorum for the transaction of General Convention business.
Does this mean a composite majority of the whole number, or a majority within each order? I suspect this language will get "perfected" in the legislative process in Salt Lake City. Not to do so would open up a gaping whole to probably be filled by confusion and conflict.

The Ugly
Much that is in the TREC report is, by my lights, highly problematic. 
The Episcopal Church has a distinct and rich heritage of interpreting and expressing Jesus’ Way.
Let me be briefly autobiographical, by way of explaining why statements like this tend to make me see red. Four decades ago, I became an Episcopalian because I wanted to be an Anglican, and, in the United States, that was (and, I should add, IMO remains) the proper way to do so. And I wanted to become an Anglican because I believed (and continue to believe) that, by doing so, I was becoming a Catholic. So I'm not interested the Episcopal Church being or having anything "distinct," particularly a distinct manner of "interpreting and expressing Jesus' Way." In recent years, much has been made of the supposed uniqueness of our Baptismal Covenant. I don't happen to concur with the notion that it is unique, but, if I did, I would find the thought alarming. I'm rather attached to the notion, espoused by an Archbishop of Canterbury in the last century, that Anglicans are by ecclesiastical temperament not predisposed to having any doctrine, teaching, or practice that is uniquely our own, but that we hold entire the faith and worship of the Church Catholic in trust, along with the other parts thereof, against that day when our Lord's prayed aspiration for the visible unity of his Body on earth is realized. I'm just wildly idealistic that way.

I mentioned upstream that I commend TREC for calling Episcopalians to adopt a concretely incarnate posture toward our mission field. But such a call inevitably raises questions that need to be parsed if they're not going to lead to substantial confusion. Take this, for example:
... as we learn how to form Christian community and witness with those neighbors.
Does this mean something like, "Having introduced our neighbors to Jesus and welcomed their decision to become his disciples, we form community with them and bear witness together to the resurrection of Christ"? If this is what it means, then the statement is spot on. Color me cynical, but I suspect that it means something more like, "We meet our neighbors where they are and form community with them as we make common cause against human suffering and the structures of social injustice." If this is indeed what is meant, then we are merely reheating the Social Gospel that has repeatedly shown itself spiritually vapid and theologically bankrupt, yet, like the Terminator, keeps rising out of the detritus of its own destruction. If I am reading too much into this, I will rejoice in being shown the error of my ways.

Now, before finishing with the Big Kahuna ... the impetus to euthanize all the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards, save for the Committee on Constitution and Canons, is, in a word, brilliant. (Though, as a board member of Forward Movement, which is technically an agency, I should go on record that, since it doesn't cost the churchwide budget a dime, and is wildly popular on several levels, surely it, too, will be spared the axe.) The problem is, there's another exception: the group that began life as the Standing Liturgical Commission and, somewhere along the way, morphed into the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, is exempt from the purge. In fact, the proposal is to expand its remit even further by adding Theology to the mix. Of course, the addition, in its own terms, probably makes sense. I mean, we're fond of saying that "prayer shapes believing" and all that, which is probably mostly true, so ... why not? 

But the larger question is, Why does this have to be a standing commission? I would argue that the SCLM is itself the source of a great percentage of the interior turmoil that TEC has experienced for at least three decades. It should have been sunsetted after completing its work on the Hymnal 1982. Instead, its collective consciousness got so drunk on the frenetic pace of activity that led up to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that it needed to find ways to sustain the high. So it's been tinkering ever since. At every General Convention, SCLM resolutions and accompanying materials take up a section of the Blue Book way out of proportion to any other CCAB. We are a liturgically restless church, bored with our own rites, even though we haven't given them a chance to soak into the bones of our souls like oil and form our character. We flit. We're junkies always cruising for a new liturgical fix, and the SCLM is our dealer. We should make it take a timeout. At the very least, we should prohibit it from inventing its own work--getting General Convention to "direct" it to do such and such, which it them spends a triennium or two doing, presents its proposals while shrugging its shoulders and saying, "We're just doing what convention asked us to do," hoping everybody forgets that they're the ones that asked convention to ask them to do it. 

But make no mistake: If we add Theology to their already robust portfolio, it will effectively become a Super Commission. It will be R & D, engineering, production, and marketing for TEC, Inc. It will not just articulate our identity; it will determine and shape our identity. We will have surrendered our destiny to the expert class, and in the process, squandered our birthright as the baptized people of God.

And you thought that was the Big One? It's not. This is:
Resolved, That a task force on the episcopacy be appointed by the Presiding Officers composed of four bishops, four clergy, and four lay persons. The Task Force will explore the practice of and particular gifts, life experience, expertise, and social diversity required by the episcopacy, recommending to General Convention 2018 a new process for discernment, formation, search, and election of bishops in The Episcopal Church, and that $100,000 be appropriated in the next triennial budget for this purpose; and be it further  
Resolved, That within each bishop-search process, a mandatory time of discernment with the Standing Committees of the diocese in transition occur with the Standing Committees and bishops of adjoining dioceses.
If this doesn't make your blood run just a little bit cold, you're either not paying close attention or you are yourself up to no good. (Just kidding, of course ... but not much.) What's going on here? I ask that both sincerely and rhetorically--the latter because I have my suspicions, even though I haven't had any conversations about this specific proposal with anyone on TREC. The way one responds to this betrays one's underlying narrative of the essential polity of the Episcopal Church.

Over the last dozen or so years of intensified unpleasantness among all who profess and call themselves Anglicans, the questions raised by this resolution have emerged from the heart of the turmoil. Is TEC a monolithic church, of which the various dioceses are its own creatures ("it" being instantiated by General Convention) and which are, when the facade is stripped away, functionally mere regional subdivisions of the unitary whole? If this view is true, then the proposal makes perfect sense. If bishops are regional managers for TEC, Inc. then the whole organism, collectively, should appropriately have an outcome-based strategy for managing the composition of its senior executive staff. 

The problem is, the unitary, monolithic narrative is largely fictional, and of fairly recent provenance. The more organic and historical account, largely taken for granted and left unchallenged until the recent need to develop legal strategies in property disputes, is that TEC is a voluntary confederation of dioceses that are themselves the integers in the ecclesiastical formula, the atoms that come together to form the molecule. The dioceses are not creatures of General Convention; General Convention is a creature of the dioceses. This narrative is not only coherent historically; it is coherent theologically. The diocese, represented iconically in the bishop, presbyters, deacons, and baptized faithful gathered in synod at the eucharistic table, is the fundamental ecclesial unit. It contains within itself all the necessary charisms for full church life. Anything smaller, like parishes, and anything larger, like provinces or "national churches," exist purely for the sake of expediency and missionary strategy. They are not necessary in and of themselves. Only the diocese, strictly speaking, is necessary in an of itself. It is, of course, entirely meet and right that a diocese, through its bishop, be united in sacramental communion and mutual interdependence with its neighboring dioceses and with the whole church throughout the world. It is for this reason that dioceses may come together in structures of mutual accountability for the proper regulation of their own lives. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, along with its constitution and canons, is one such structure of accountability--and, I would add, a terribly important one. But, if one accepts this fundamental notion of diocesan identity, then the resolution currently at question is simply so much officious bureaucratic meddling. It is entirely inappropriate to let some idealized desideratum about the composition of the House of Bishops trump, or even exert a little bit of pressure on, the internal process of discernment within a diocese. This proposal has "Danger, Will Robinson!" written all over it. It deserves to be stillborn. 

I will simply flag here for future consideration the proposal to make the "asking" a canonical assessment. This is more complex than it might appear, and runs a high risk of invoking the Law of Unintended Consequences. I will probably take it up in a separate post.

There are other points I could make, but I believe they've mostly been covered by proxy in what I've already said. But do indulge me just this parting question: In what sort of ecclesiology does a church have a president and a vice-president

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Not-a-statement on Ferguson

As a bishop, I am a quasi-public figure, occupying a place on the long arc that eventually bends in the direction of celebrity. Within the constricted world of the Diocese of Springfield, and the slightly less constricted world of the Episcopal Church, and in some bits of Anglicanism beyond TEC, there are lots of people whom I do not know, but who know of me and a good bit about me.

Public figures from time to time make public pronouncements on matters that are either presumed to affect them peculiarly, or about which one might expect them to hold specialized information or unique knowledge, or about which their views might be considered generally significant. A few of my colleague bishops in the Episcopal Church, including the Presiding Bishop, have already “issued a statement” on the situation emanating from Ferguson, MO. It is entirely likely that more such statements will follow.

Mine will not be among them.

It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, feelings, and convictions regarding the tragic death of Michael Brown and the decision of the grand jury not to charge anyone with a crime in connection with his death. I have rather passionate opinions, as a matter of fact.

But that’s just the point: They’re my opinions. The opinions of Dan Martins, private citizen. Not the opinions of the Bishop of Springfield. The Bishop of Springfield has a teaching office, but–and I say this with utter respect and affection for my colleagues who have chosen to weigh in publicly on the situation as it emerges–while my teaching office has a great deal to say about the love of God made known to us in Christ, about the redemption of suffering through the mystery of the cross, about the dignity of every human being, about the reconciliation of those who are at variance and enmity, and about the eventual final triumph of justice and peace, it has nothing to say about whether the grand jury made a correct or incorrect decision, or about the conduct of the St Louis County prosecutor, or about the behavior of law enforcement authorities since Mr Brown’s death last August.

Dan Martins might have some things to say about all these matters, but the Bishop of Springfield does not–and, I will go so far as to say, ought not. Neither Dan Martins nor the Bishop of Springfield has any specialized knowledge about what really happened on that fateful afternoon last August. Fortunately, virtually no one cares what Dan Martins thinks, and that is as it should be, because, while he’s a reasonably smart guy, there’s a lot more that he doesn’t and never will know than he actually does know. A few more might care what the Bishop of Springfield thinks, because he is, after all, a quasi-public figure, a microcosmic celebrity. But pretty much all the Bishop of Springfield is either qualified or authorized to say about this or any other matter of public consequence is, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

There’s nothing new in that, and even less that is original. Some might consider it a cop-out. I look on it as my job. Christians of goodwill and an informed conscience can and do hold an astonishingly diverse range of views on matters of public policy and concern. The views of Dan Martins lie within that range. The view of the Bishop of Springfield is more singularly focused, and that is to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus the Christ from the dead, because any aspect of human experience not seen in that light is not really seen at all. The private opinions of Dan Martins pale in significance next to it.

Anyway, that’s my story, and I sticking to it. No statement to follow.

Monday, November 17, 2014

How I (attempt to) stay organized

A discussion on a listserv that I participate in resulted earlier today in a request that I share some of the methods and technological tools I use to stay (somewhat) organized and focused as I go about my work and personal life on a daily and weekly basis. So, what follows is a quick and pointed summary, for whatever it may be worth. I'm going to mention several applications to which I might otherwise be inclined to provide links if I were not trying to be really quick about this. So ... that's why God made search engines.

Most of my work is generated by email, or requires the use of email at some point in the process of its completion. I use Gmail. My diocesan email account is configured to deliver messages into my personal Gmail account. Gmail is rock solid in terms of downtime (i.e. lack thereof), spam prevention (i.e. it is virtually spam-free), and searchability. It allows me to either originate a message or reply to one from either account, as seems appropriate. I am not particularly fond of Google's design aesthetic, including and especially Gmail's. So I have, at various times, experimented with alternatives to the Gmail interface. So far, I have always returned to the interface I don't like the looks of because of its sheer unmatched functionality. Lately I'm auditioning Google's still-in-beta Inbox. It has a couple of features I need for it to acquire before I can put the classic Gmail interface out to pasture, but I generally like it--especially the "snooze" feature, which allows me to kick a message down the road to a time when I will be better able to deal with it.

So Gmail is the foundation of the entire system. The other two critical elements are Evernote and GQueues.

Evernote is the gold standard note application available today. It operates on a "freemium" business model and is very affordable any way you use it. It uses both categories and tags and is completely searchable--not only the notes that you type in, and not only editable attachments, but even graphic files. It is both highly functional and very easy on the eyes. It also plays extremely well with Gmail. There is a Gmail extension called PowerBot that allows me to clip either entire email messages, or just attachments, directly to Evernote, including categorizing and tagging without leaving my Gmail screen. There is also a browser extension (I use Chrome, by the way) that allows me to easily send web content--full pages or portions that I select--into Evernote, retaining hyperlink functionality. Evernote rocks. I mostly use the web version, but there are desktop (Windows and Mac) clients, and iOS and Android apps, so it is usable seamlessly across the array of devices. My goal is to be as paperless as possible, and a Fujitsu ScanSnap digital scanner allows me to scan hard copy directly into Evernote. Correspondence, invoices, and most anything else that lies flat goes that route, and is then disposed of.

GQueues is a task management app designed to play well with Gmail and Google Calendar. At its heart, it tries to be compliant with the principles of David Allen's Getting Things Done, which has a sort of cult following. So the program makes it easy to capture ideas about actions and projects right when they occur to me (provided I'm not in the shower, which, alarmingly, is where a lot of important ideas do tend to occur to me!), and have them available when I'm able to do further processing and organizing. There are iOS (and Android) versions of the app, which means I can use my phone's voice recognition abilities to create new tasks on the fly. GQueues supports both categories and tags, handles recurring actions with great flexibility (a non-negotiable for me), and is nice to look at. It also has a Gmail extension that allows me to turn an email into a task almost effortlessly, which means I can immediately kick it out of my email inbox. But here's the best part: GQueues can be configured as a Google calendar, which comes in handy when I do my weekly review (per GTD best practice) on Sunday evening. I go to my monthly calendar view, make the GQs calendar visible (it's usually turned off, for appearance purposes), and then I can drag leftover tasks from the previous week to new dates, turn off the GQs calendar, and forget about those items until their assigned date arrives and they appear in the "Currently Active" "smart queue" that I have created and configured.

At a lower level, I could also mention Dropbox, which I use every day--but it could just as easily be Google Drive or iCloud. Dropbox is just what I happened to fall into.

So, since Tuesday morning is the beginning of my work week, here's what will happen when I open up my Macbook over morning tea tomorrow: First I will look at my email (using Inbox), both for new arrivals that need to be converted to tasks, and items from today or earlier that I snoozed until tomorrow morning. Then I will go to my GQueues tab and navigate to my Inbox (my GQs Inbox, that is), where those tasks will be waiting for me. I will process them by assigning a category, perhaps a tag, and a "start" date (that is, when I want to begin seeing them on my radar--in the case of newly-arrived emails, probably the same day). Then I will open my Currently Active category (defined as all tasks with dates of today or earlier) and select some that either must be completed that day, or that I would like to complete that day. These I move into a category called Next Actions (GTD lingo). The system allows me to drag and drop them into a ranked order. This Next Actions list, then, is what drives my work day, apart from scheduled meetings and unforeseeable developments.

One last thought: I am grateful that the nature of my work enables me to integrate my vocational and personal lives. I don't keep two different systems. Tasks and calendars and contacts are all integrated, personal and professional. I realize not everybody can do this, but I sure am glad I can. So I may do "work" stuff while home in the evening, and I may sometimes do "personal" stuff while at my desk in the office. It all evens out.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Making Leadership Concrete

Last month, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) held a public meeting at Washington Cathedral that was live streamed and actually trended on Twitter for a while. One of the most memorable quotes of the evening came from Sean Rowe, Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Bishop Provisional of Bethlehem, and a member of TREC. In response to criticism of the draft proposal to place substantially more administrative responsibility on the office of Presiding Bishop, that it would inhibit the holder of that office from exercising strong leadership, Bishop Rowe offered his observation that "the Episcopal Church is over-led and under-managed."

This was an arresting comment because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom that places a higher premium on leadership than on management. Leadership connotes inspiration, vision, and dedication. Management connotes bureaucracy, pettiness, and mind-numbing attention to detail. I consider myself much more a leader than a manager. Leadership is energizing and fun. Management makes my eyes glaze over. Yet, while I can't speak to what Bishop Rowe had in mind when he made his statement, it immediately rang true with me. Here's why:

When an institution is in crisis, good leadership is necessary, but it's not sufficient. The Episcopal Church is, by any measure, in crisis. We are being engulfed by twin tsunamis: one demographic (rising median age) and the other cultural (dechristianization of society passing the tipping point). To be sure, such a situation demands compelling leadership, leadership that is galvanizing and unifying. But even the finest leadership will fail to arrest the crisis and turn the institution around if it is not accompanied by a plausible strategy and well-executed tactics. This is where I see us woefully under-resourced.

To use a military analogy ... if commanders at a staff level set an objective of neutralizing the enemy's effectiveness in a particular geographic territory, they don't just inform the field officers of the objective and give them a motivational pep talk. They assess the available intelligence carefully, devise a strategy, arrange for supply lines and logistical support, test communication systems, divide the work into discrete tasks and distribute those tasks among the available personnel, having ensured that everyone is properly trained. Then they give the motivational pep talk. The successful execution of the the campaign that follows the leadership talk depends utterly on a host of management details that must be seen to.

It is my observation that, in the church, we have no shortage of visionary leaders who can paint the big picture and call forth the worthiest instincts of the baptized faithful. What we seem to lack are managers who can make the lofty vision concrete--break it down into digestible units, organize those individual digestible units on a large scale, match real, live, fearful and fallible people to the tasks that need doing, train them to the point where they feel confident in their ability to perform as required, deploy them effectively, and assess results in the field, making tactical adjustments as necessary. Unless we make the whole notion of "mission" concrete in some way that resembles this process, it's just talk, and will avail for nothing.

Management is not very often exciting. It is subject to abuse (read: micromanagement). It's not glamorous, and doesn't make headlines, or even--except very rarely--inspire blog posts! But it is absolutely mission-critical, and that we have not focused on it more intentionally is negligent on the part of ... our leaders. (For the record, while I am not exonerating the Bishop of Springfield in this leadership indictment, I'm pleased to say that we are at least pointed in the direction of dealing with the management issue.)

Yes, the Episcopal Church is over-led and under-managed.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Living With the End in Mind

Full disclosure: My initial formation as a Christian was in fundagelicalism (a neologism that I thought up, though I'm not the only one to have done so). I discovered the Anglican tradition during my college years in the early 1970s, and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church as a graduate student, in 1975. When I came under the hands of the Bishop of Los Angeles on that day, the intention of my heart and mind was that I was embracing Catholic Christianity, grabbing onto a golden thread that leads back across time to the apostles and to Jesus, accepting the essential givenness of the faith and laying aside the notion that I had either the authority or the responsibility to read the Bible, pray, and come up with my own theological understanding of any given question. It was a great relief.

Part of the Catholic package is a rather more robust view of the nature and significance of the Church than I had been accustomed to in my youth. In my evangelical upbringing, I was led to think of the "invisible" Church as a spiritual entity made up of of those who genuinely trusted Christ for their salvation, the number of which is known only to God. Institutional structures that bear the label "church" in one way or another are voluntary associations of like-minded individual Christian believers who come together for the purposes of worship, instruction and mutual encouragement, service, and mission. This might be called a low ecclesiology (theology of the Church), but the truth is that, while evangelical theologians have certainly devoted more pixels to the subject than I have just used in my broad stroke two sentence summary, ecclesiology is kind of an afterthought among evangelicals, an "Oh yeah ... " after detailed and sophisticated treatments of christology, soteriology, hermeneutics, and other chapter headings in a systematic theology textbook.

Among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and some streams of the old-line Protestant traditions, however, ecclesiology garners proportionally more attention. Details may vary according to brand name and other considerations, but in each case the Church is seen as sacramental--that is, both a sign of and a tangible vehicle for God's redeeming and restoring the fabric of a universe corrupted by sin and death. It's not just a voluntary association, like the Rotary Club or the Moose Lodge, that one can join and unjoin as seems expedient. It's organic--a body, the Body of Christ--a family, a tribe, an ethnicity (read the First Epistle of Peter) into which one is born (most would say, via baptism), marked with the identity and nourished by the life of the risen Christ. I love ecclesiology. The doctorate it would no longer be prudent for me to pursue at my age and stage of life would probably be in that subject. I am grateful to be in a Christian tradition that takes ecclesiology seriously.

Now, one chapter in that systematic theology textbook that is likely to be heavily highlighted and underlined by my evangelical friends is the one on eschatology. Eschatology concerns Last Things--the wrapping up of the story, the end of history ("end" being understood in both of its senses; that is, as conclusion/cessation and as ultimate purpose). Wherever I've lived, it's never been difficult to drive around town and find a church offering a "prophecy seminar," or a Bible study on the last book of the New Testament, probably misrepresented as "Revelations," or a screening of a movie from the Left Behind series. I can remember having heated discussions--as a teenager, with my teenage peers; my God, what geeks we were!--over the fine points of premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. We would debate the meaning of the Second Death, and the Great While Throne, and ... well, you get the point. Evangelicals may not do ecclesiology, but they certainly do do eschatology.

Anglicans ... not so much. We do say the creeds, of course, which include language about "the life everlasting" and "the resurrection of the dead," and that Jesus will "come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead." But I wonder whether these items often get serious attention in confirmation classes and adult formation programs. And we have in our calendar and lectionary the three Sundays preceding Advent, along with Advent Sunday itself, which form a sort of mini-season that focuses heavily on eschatological themes, though I fear that many (most?) preachers, liturgy planners, and musicians may not pull their weight in shining a light on these themes. And, if you parse the language of our liturgy in the right way, we have a rather high view of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. When the baptized faithful are gathered at the altar, time and space are transcended, and we participate in the Celestial Banquet, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The exquisitely thin veil that separates the living from the dead is pierced, and we enjoy koinonia (which is to say, holy communion) with those standing or kneeling next to us, and with those who have gone before us marked with the cross of Christ. What percentage of our communicants get that dimension of the Eucharist, however, is hard to say.

Still, even with these fairly robust creedal and liturgical linchpins, details are scant. Our biblical hermeneutic does not encourage us to see the text of Revelation as some kind of code that needs to be broken. "Rapture" is not in our vocabulary, so our position on how it relates in time to the Tribulation and/or the Millennium is "none of the above." We tend to just say, in effect, "In the end, God wins. Evil and death are defeated, and God's reign of justice, peace, and love prevails." It doesn't often occur to us to worry about anything more detailed than that.

And, for the most part, in my opinion, that's fine. For the most part. But there is, I think, one way that our tendency to be eschatologically laconic puts us at risk. When I look around my ecclesial environment, I see a default preference for an unreflective realized eschatology. Realized eschatology is the notion that the end of history (this time only in the sense of ultimate purpose) lies not in the future, but in the past. When Jesus announced the inbreaking arrival of the Kingdom of God, he was effectively initiating that Kingdom. The mission of his followers, then, is to continue that process, to "buil[d] Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land"--and every other land, green, pleasant, or otherwise. There is no cataclysmic apocalyptic future event that we need either anticipate or fear. It's up to us to cooperate with God in the construction of the New Jerusalem.

Now, I don't happen to think that realized eschatology offers a coherent--or even interesting, for that matter--account of either the biblical narrative or the gospel hope of Christians. It leaves me feeling very empty ... empty and bored. But it does not deserve to be dismissed casually, out of hand. It has been espoused by some eminent intellectual lights (the formidable New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd, for one). Rather, realized eschatology merits being engaged and taken seriously. But here's my point: So does whatever realized eschatology's opposite number counterpart is, which doesn't, so far as I know, have a commonly-accepted categorical name, so let's call it crisis eschatology, because instead of depending on the world getting better and better, through human efforts in cooperation with divine providence, until heaven-on-earth is attained, it presumes that conditions will get steadily worse until some sovereign and cataclysmic act of God shatters every aspect of reality as we know it and God establishes, without any human assistance, the heavenly Jerusalem, where justice, peace, and love prevail.

So, both schemas resolve into the same happy ending, which is something to give thanks for. I'm not going to argue my preference for the more traditional account. That deserves a book-length treatment, which is beyond my ken. And my concern is not so much over the prevalence of realized eschatology among Anglicans as it is over the unconsidered and reflexive character of that prevalence. Crisis eschatology, even though it is abundantly present in our sacred texts, both biblical and liturgical, and in our hymns, is rarely given a fair hearing in the parish hall or the classroom.

And it makes a difference which model motivates us. In realized eschatology, the mission of the Church is to effect God's kingdom. This places a premium on activities that change the structures of society (and the environment), and success is measured in terms of how solid and lasting such changes prove themselves to be. The enlivening vision is one of ongoing incremental positive change, even if it's two steps forward and one step back. In crisis eschatology, the mission of the Church is to announce God's kingdom, which is evangelization, and to model God's kingdom, as a sort of sneak preview of things to come, in the life of the Christian community. This vision provides ample motivation for social outreach--the amelioration of suffering, the preservation of life--but purely as an iconic manifestation of God's love, not in the hope that conditions in the world will get better and better, because, in fact, they are bound to get worse and worse this side of God decisive intervention, which happens only in God's time and in God's way, the details of which are revealed to no human being. In the meantime, the Church's energy is focused on building authentic kingdom-modeling Christian community, and on calling all people everywhere into that community through repentance, faith, baptism, Eucharist, discipleship, and witness.

We continue to argue and struggle over what faithful Christian discipleship and witness looks like in this world. We don't argue much about eschatology. But I wonder sometimes about how much our fights over sex and marriage and, when we have the leisure, mission, are really proxy fights over eschatology. Perhaps we should move the conversation out into the open.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Three Polarities to be Eschewed

The truth is not always in the middle, and I say this even though, as an Anglican Christian, I hold a preferential option for the via media.  Sometimes truth, light, and life are found only at one end of a spectrum. It happens.

But, by my lights, it doesn't happen very often. The more imminent threat to our social and political discourse, whether in the secular or the ecclesiastical arena, or in the territory where the two overlap, is the tendency of too many to set up camp on one end of a contentious polarity and then go about demonizing those who inhabit the other end. The truth may only rarely, and by accident, be precisely in the middle. But it is almost never completely at either end.

Particularly in recent years, this tendency seems to be on overdrive. We tear our hair out over legislative gridlock at national and state levels, but we need look no further than district lines to see where the problem lies. Whichever party controls a state legislature in a year when the tens column turns is able to draw the map to preserve its own hegemony. Both parties do it; there are no clean hands here. The result is that districts tilt heavily in one direction or the other. You have to be an extremist--that is, inhabit one end of the various political polarities--to get elected in most places. So we end up with legislatures, and a Congress, full of hyper-partisan ideologues who are constantly looking for ways to shore up their position in the next election, controlled by fear of what would happen if they lost power. In the meantime, nothing gets done.

The church I serve, the Episcopal Church, has been rent asunder by polarization and the concomitant spirit of fear over the last decade and longer. Most on the conservative end have decamped to other ecclesiastical domains, most of them to the newly-formed Anglican Church in North America. A great many of them still love to trash-talk TEC, however, instead of really moving on. Self-proclaimed progressives control the enterprise now, and there are scarcely enough in the "loyal opposition" (and that, indeed, we are) to make a noise loud enough to get anyone's attention. (There is some solace in powerlessness, but that's another blog post.) Interestingly, though, even while securely in the driver's seat, my "progressive" friends often seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to ferret out crypto-traditionalists and others who might seek to undermine their hard-won gains. There's a lot of fear ... though I'm not sure exactly what of. The polarization is abetted on both ends.

Polarization is no doubt effective in rallying the troops, but it obscures the truth. There are three polarization narratives out there (among many more, I'm sure) that strike me as particularly problematic:

This polarity pits those who look for a Muslim behind anybody who looks vaguely Arab or South Asian and a jihadists terrorist behind every Muslim, against those whose only hermeneutic of Islam is of a peace-loving "Abrahamic" faith. (It is from the latter group that the label "Islamophobia" comes from, directed toward the former group.) At the first end, the scaremongering is frightfully inaccurate and unhelpful, and leads to such things as the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, which the shooter mistakenly identified with Islam. There is overwhelming incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of Muslims living in American have no sympathy whatever with acts of politically or religiously-motivated violence against anyone anywhere.

That said, it is naive and dishonest to deny that groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS (or ISIL, depending on how you like to translate Arabic) locate their identity and mission squarely and solely in the teaching and practice of Islam. One can argue that they distort and misconstrue Islam, as many Muslims indeed so argue. But they are not generic terrorists, they are Islamic terrorists. In a society where freedom of thought and expression are valued, it should not be off limits to criticize not only violent acts, but also the avowed motivation of those who commit violent acts--in this case, Islam. Fear mongering and ethnically-based prejudice are reprehensible. I have a small list of Facebook friends who are very close to being blocked for such behavior. But calling into question this or that aspect of Islam is not, necessarily in and of itself, either "hate speech" or bigotry. One need not be either a despiser of Islam or a champion of Islam. Those are not the only options.

This polarity pits those who advocate for inclusion of homosexual behavior and homosexual relationships within the range of "normal" against those who understand sexuality and marriage as innately configured to procreation and the raising of children by their biological parents in a stable family. The activities of Westboro (so-called) Baptist (so-called) Church are only too well-known, and their now-deceased leader, Fred Phelps, was larger than life. To suggest that God "hates" anyone, particularly a whole category of people who share a certain sort of sexual inclination, is absurd and disgusting on its face. Such attitudes need to be condemned loudly and unambiguously. Phelps and all who think and act like him are an embarrassment to all who profess and call themselves Christians.

Equally disturbing, however, is the attempt by some on the "progressive" side to, by rhetorical fiat, eliminate all the territory between their position and that of Westboro Baptist. It's an elegant strategy, really. Stake out the moral high ground by casting (quite successfully, it appears) a narrative that it's all a justice issue on a par with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and, voila!, anyone who opposes you in any way is automatically a bigot on a par with Bull Connor at the controls of a firehose. Anyone not full-throatedly in support of "marriage equality" is consigned to outer darkness next to those who made Rosa Parks sit in the back of the bus. It's a deft polemical maneuver, and the extent of its success is, frankly, chilling.

It is also complete foolishness. There are any number of rational and defensible positions short of the pole of fully re-defining marriage to include same-sex relationships and still light years away from anything Fred Phelps would have recognized. To not see this is to be willfully obtuse. The ease with which the labels "bigot" and "homophobe" get thrown around and seem to stick should alarm anyone with a sense of decency, let along charity.

"Christian Persecution"
In an attempt to put an edge on the disintegration of Christendom, I have been won't to allude to the statement of the now-retiring Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, to the effect that he expects that he will die peacefully in bed, his successor (now known!) will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square ... all before there is another societal seismic shift, and the Church is restored to a position of leavening influence.

One does not need to scan social media for very long before finding evidence that allegedly points to the "persecution" of Christians--not in the ISIS-controlled parts of the Levant, but right in the heartland of the United States. Valedictorians are forbidden from mentioning Jesus in their speeches, college football teams are prohibited from emblazoning their helmets with crosses in memory of a teammate who died, the evangelical campus ministry Inter-Varsity is "de-recognized" at both public and private universities because they require student leaders of their chapters to actually profess Christian faith, atheist groups sue to have "In God we trust" removed from our national currency ... and the list could go on. Others, usually Christians themselves, off a rejoinder, saying, in effect, "This is not persecution, you wimps! You're just whining because Christianity is no longer privileged like it once was, and now you have to compete in the marketplace of ideas along with everyone else."

Both of these voices are missing something, I fear, in their enthusiasm to make their points. Compared to their brothers and sisters in China and Sudan, to say nothing of Iraq and Syria, American Christians have yet to suffer even a whiff of true persecution. Inconvenience? Yes. About a third of the time, I'm in a hotel room on a Saturday night. In virtually every place, at the breakfast buffet the next morning, I see parents with their children in athletic uniforms, on their way to competitions scheduled for Sunday morning. My heart breaks a little every time I see this. But my achy-breaky heart is nowhere near a persecuted heart. To say otherwise would be to dishonor the Christian children beheaded by Islamic terrorists.

But ... which way is the arc of history presently bending? If I were a betting man, my money would be on Cardinal George. I'm only two years younger than his successor, so that gives me a bit of pause.  From time to time, still, I lay my hands on teenagers in the sacramental rite of Confirmation. In good traditional fashion, I then give them a token symbolic slap on the face, and remind them, when I can, that this is a sign that the vows to which they have just committed themselves are increasingly likely to get them into trouble before they're my age. I don't think I'm wrong, and I pray for them in advance  of that moment, that they will be strong.

If we can resist the allure of these three polarities, at least, we stand a better chance, I think, both as a society and as a church, of knowing the truth, and finding it liberating.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Why I'm Not Going to Taiwan

Every March and every September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church (virtually all the active ones, and a few of the retired ones, at any rate) gather for a regular meeting of the House of Bishops. (The September meeting is dispensed with in General Convention years.) Later this month, the House will convene ... in Taiwan. I will not be there. It seems appropriate to offer an explanation. Indeed, my colleague bishops and the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield deserve an explanation.

The Episcopal Church has, since 1835, been coterminous with an entity called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). Indeed, all Episcopalians are presumed to be members of the DFMS, which is conceptually a very good thing, I would say; the community of the baptized is intrinsically a missionary community. As members of the DFMS, Episcopalians participated in the burgeoning missionary activity from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were giants and heroes in those days, and some of them now populate our calendar of saints.

As part of this general missionary effort, Episcopalians were among those who introduced Anglican Christianity in China. After the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, many Chinese Anglicans escaped to Taiwan, and, in 1954, the Diocese of Taiwan was organized, and admitted into union with General Convention the following year, which felt like a logical move, since they already had so many close ties with Americans. So, even though it is almost completely on the other side of the world, the Diocese of Taiwan remains to this day part of the Episcopal Church. We also have dioceses in Central and South America and in the Caribbean, but these are virtually in the shadow of the Mother Ship. There is also a small convocation of Episcopal churches in Europe, which exist for a variety of historical reasons. But Taiwan is by far a geographic outlier.

The Bishop of Taiwan, the Rt Revd David Lai, invited the House to meet in his diocese, and the Presiding Bishop, presumably in consultation with her Council of Advice, accepted the invitation on behalf of the House. We have known about it for at least the last year and a half. I have attended every meeting of the House since March 2011, the very month of my consecration. I have blogged every day of every meeting, right here at this site. (Indeed, I am acutely aware that this post is the first since the spring meeting six months ago; I hope to remedy that pattern!) I enjoy the camaraderie with other bishops. Valuable things happen at those occasions. Nonetheless, after extended thought and prayer, I made a decision not to attend this Fall 2014 meeting. Here's why:

It would not be good stewardship of the financial resources of the Diocese of Springfield. I have no doubt that the Treasurer and the Standing Committee and the Diocesan Council would have accepted the news of my intention to attend this meeting with no detectable degree of pushback. It's not like we're just too poor for me to go. But it would be considerably more expensive than last year's Fall meeting, which was in a hotel near the airport in Nashville, and the one three years ago (2012 was a General Convention year), which was in Quito, Ecuador. While we are not presently an impoverished diocese, neither are we a wealthy one. It would feel inappropriately extravagant for me to requisition checks to cover airfare and lodging for me to spend a week in Taiwan at this point in the life of the diocese.

The optics are bad. The Episcopal Church is flourishing in a handful of demographic/geographic pockets. In most places, we are slowly dying, like California nut trees in the midst of the extended drought. Dioceses are downsizing their staffing. At least three dioceses have part-time bishops. The median age of our communicants continues to creep upward. There is real doubt as to whether we will be able to sustain ministry in rural areas very much longer. Our infrastructure at a churchwide level is likely to be significantly smaller following the next General Convention. And now, against such a backdrop, nearly a hundred bishops (some with spouses, but, in any case, considerably fewer than would normally attend a regular meeting) are jetting off to Asia for a meeting that could have been held much, much less expensively in any number of locations, both domestic and foreign. It just doesn't look good.

It would abet a polemical narrative about the character of the Episcopal Church. "The Episcopal Church," is, in fact, an alias, a shorthand for the more unwieldy Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The dioceses that originally confederated to form PECUSA were all in areas that were part of the USA. Only a few decades ago, what is now styled the Executive Council was known as the National Council. Despite regular admonitions from certain quarters not to do so, at a local level, Episcopalians still routinely refer to the "national church" in casual parlance. In many of our liturgical forms, we pray regularly for "the President of the United States." Anglicans in other lands are wont to speak of "the American church" when they actually mean TEC. Of course, because Americans once tended to congregate in expatriate enclaves while living in Europe for business or personal reasons, chapels were established in various countries there. Many of those congregations perdure, and are no longer merely serving expatriates, but include many natives of the countries where they are located. Because of our DFMS efforts, we planted churches in Latin America, Haiti, and the Caribbean. The result is that the Episcopal Church is present in some 26 countries (one of which is Taiwan).

This is not the fruit of some grand missionary strategy; it just happened that way. But lately there has been an effort to make political hay out of happenstance. From at least 2006 (I can't remember whether it goes back further), the dais in the House of Deputies at General Convention has been decorated with the flags of all 26 countries where TEC has a presence. In conversation at official levels, the use of the expression "national church" is vociferously discouraged. In the same time frame, the conflict level among (and within) the 39 member provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion has risen markedly. TEC has found itself increasingly at odds with provinces representing an overwhelming majority of the world's Anglicans. I have no direct knowledge of any conspiracy toward this end, but one cannot help but make speculative inferences from the available information, to the effect that there are those who wish to foster a narrative that TEC is indeed, intrinsically and inherently, an "international" church, with the not-quite-implied but deftly suggested corollary that we are somehow thereby less in need of our relationship with the Anglican Communion, that we have the capacity, if circumstances warrant, to become a rival thereto.

As I have said, I have no idea whether there's someone masterminding the construction of this narrative, but I do know that, whether it's accidental or intentional, I cannot in good conscience assist in propping it up. One of the ways the Taiwan meeting was "sold" to the House of Bishops was that, by gathering there, we would be shining a light on the international character of our church. I nearly made my decision on the matter in that moment. We are an American church. That we have foreign dioceses in our own hemisphere is testimony to the missionary zeal of our forebears, but the final stage of a responsible missionary strategy is always to spin off such churches as they mature into self-sustainability. We have already done so with Mexico and Brazil, for example. Rather than exploiting our Latin American dioceses for purposes of TEC branding, we should be focusing on helping them reach the point where they can form a new autonomous (but interdependent, of course) Anglican province. The number of flags on the dais should not be a point of boasting, but a source a mild embarrassment that we haven't done a better job in bringing the missionary cycle to an organic conclusion.

My feelings about missing the meeting are not unalloyed. While I do not relish trans-Pacific air travel in economy class (having once done Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok and back all in a middle seat), I'm sure it would be interesting to see the land, the people, and the church in Taiwan. I will very much miss the interaction with my colleagues, especially my Class of 2011 friends. And I'm facing in the direction of paranoia that, just because I'm not there, something crucial to my interests, or the interests of my diocese, will come up, and my voice will not be heard. There are no doubt those who will judge me pejoratively for not being there, or for the reasons here articulated why I am not there. So there are risks in my decision, and my eyes are open about those risks. Perhaps I err. But, as they say nowadays, it is what it is. I do hope those who attend have a good meeting. I will be holding them in my prayers.