Monday, June 11, 2012

Toward General Convention: Polity

I guess it's about time to start "thinking out loud" about next month's triennial General Convention of the Episcopal Church. This will be my fourth, but my first as a bishop; so it will be the same, but different.

(SIDEBAR: To my friends who are "formerly Episcopalian," remember that gloating is probably a sin. You are missed.)

I will make no attempt to cover the depressing array of resolutions that we will be confronted with. Each recent General Convention has been shorter than its predecessor, but with no curbs placed on the type or number of resolutions that may be submitted. So it's pedal-to-the-metal that whole time we're there. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I need a vacation. Full disclosure: Two of the resolutions have my name on them. And there may be more. So, if I'm pointing fingers, I'm pointing at myself.

I want to hit four broad areas, in four successive posts: Polity, Same-Sex Blessings, the Liturgical Calendar, and the Anglican Covenant.

Polity (or Structure, depending on one's angle of approach, though the two cannot really be separated) is arguably the elephant in the room at this convention. It has quickly become a very hot topic because straitened finances at a national level are forcing us to make it one. Indeed, the last time I woke this blog up from dormancy, it was to propose, in the wake of the Presiding Bishop's remarks to the Province V Synod, that General Convention lay aside all other business, save for a bare-bones budget just to keep the lights turned on, and focus entirely on structural reform. I would certainly be willing to put into abeyance the two resolutions that I am sponsoring (one on the Anglican Covenant, and one that would authorize use the 1979 lectionary) in order to help make this happen. But I don't expect the idea to gain very much traction. Our level of collective pain is not yet high enough.

I don't have a comprehensive and well-thought through proposal for restructuring the church at a national level, nor do I have a favorite among those that are out there. But I do have a strong suspicion that, if we manage to stumble across an effective solution for preventing institutional meltdown (and I'm not at all sanguine that we will do so), it will be a "back to the future" enterprise. The familiar Church Center apparatus emanating from 815 Second Avenue in New York did not exist in any form prior to 1919, and did not exist in its current form until after World War II. In many ways, the evolution of this institutional presence evolved right alongside corporate America, and it seemed to our forebears a very expedient development. It has been only since 1946 that we have had a Presiding Bishop who is not also the bishop of a diocese.

That was then, this is now. To borrow from Walter Russell Bowie, "new occasions teach new duties," and "time makes ancient good uncouth." In the internet age, amid the shadows of postmodern values, the kind of top-down hierarchical structure that seemed like such a no-brainer in the'50s and '60s is yesterday's news. Now it's all about subsidiarity. And networking. I'm not saying that adopting those two virtues du jour will get us where we need to be, but I am saying that not adopting them will prevent us from getting there.

So, in my occasionally-but-not-always-humble opinion, here's what needs to happen:

  • We need to get out of New York. Sell the property in an expeditious manner and get out. This is certainly important for financial reasons, but it is even more important for symbolic and practical reasons. '815' is a symbol of aloof elitism to too many Episcopalians (and, sadly, a large number who are now former Episcopalians). We need to bury the bogeyman of "the national church." (Yes, I do know that expression is not au courant, but, I think for silly reasons; so I continue to use it.) Most of what's done there either doesn't actually need to be done (i.e. it conflicts with the principle of subsidiarity) or can be done by telecommuting. I realize that closing the Church Center will adversely affect some people, and we should do what we can to ease their transition. But the plug needs to be pulled. Now.
  • The next Presiding Bishop needs to be a part-timer. Yes, I mean the one we elect in 2015. The PB needs to remain a Diocesan, and delegate all administrative duties to a General Secretary (or some such). Of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, only two have a Primate who is not also a Diocesan--us and Canada. Even the titular head of the communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is the bishop of something. He has a diocese. Sure, he has help running it, and he spends  lots of time away, but on any given Sunday morning, it is not remarkable for him to be visiting a parish--preaching, confirming, celebrating the Eucharist--in the Diocese of Canterbury. Heck, even the Pope has a diocese, and it is only by virtue of being the Bishop of Rome that he is everything else he is. We would, of course, need to remove the canon that requires the Presiding Bishop to visit all the dioceses. And it would have to become the norm that that the Bishop-President of each province would be the chief consecrator of new bishops. But we've done it before, and we can do it again.
  • The President of the House of Deputies needs to be just that--and only that. The scope of this office has mushroomed exponentially, but only over the last few triennia. This is unfortunate. It has not been ever thus. We need a PHoD who will scale the job back. Way back. The PHoD is not a co-primate. She or he is not a public spokesperson for the Episcopal Church. The PHoD's job is to preside over the House of Deputies, while the House of Deputies is in session. Yes, it takes someone who has the capacity in his or her life to take the time to make appointments to General Convention committees and CCABs. But, in the new world, won't there be considerably fewer of each? 
These suggestions are horse pills for many. They would create casualties. Adaptive change does that. And this is barely the tip of the iceberg of the painful decisions General Convention needs to make. The scary fact, however, is that the only body with the authority to initiate and prosecute thorough reform is the very body most in need of that reform. History is not encouraging about such a combination of circumstances. Getting past this difficulty will require a special infusion of the Holy Spirit that enables us to start behaving like a church and not a legislative assembly. Kyrie eleison. 

11 comments:

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bishop Daniel, I'm with you 110% on the PB, and about 90% on the PHoD. As to NY, I don't think the city is the problem, but the size of staff. I'd be happy to see a much smaller staff in the present building, with other floors rented out to help pay down the debt. A move might cost more, and feed the notion that the location is really important.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

I really like the idea (advanced somewhere) of relocating the office to adjacent to the Washington National Cathedral (perhaps using facilities formerly occupied by the College of Preachers). The administrative offices can be virtually anywhere, and if the PB is also a diocesan bishop, than that person would presumably have his or her office in that diocese, not at the "national church" administrative offices.

Fr. Everett said...

I support your ideas. I think reducing the administrative costs of the church is key, put the money into mission and growth. The PB should also serve as a diocesan bishop, and the PHOD needs to preside at the HOD and that is it.

Jon said...

I'm ambivalent about subsidiarity as a rallying cry. In the business world it seems like the most successful businesses are the really huge ones, and they only talk about empowering smaller parts of the company as an excuse to push costs down the pay scale. That said it very well might be possible to decrease the staff and quantity of work done at the national level, although the Pension Fund might be a counter example.

I disagree almost completely on selling 815, however. As a general rule, one should only sell property if one can't afford to keep it. I wouldn't object to the staff leaving NYC, but we should only do so if it makes sound financial sense.

Dave Halt said...

I concur with the assessments and the solutions herein presented. Unfortunately, too many of the entrenched powers will not give up their positions willingly. Although, I will/do pray for a movement of the Holy Spirit!

Jon--If you have what amounts to deficit budget, a significant draw on the endowment, and a large mortgage on a property, is it really affordable?

conciliaranglican.com said...

Dan Martins for Presiding Bishop, 2015!

(While continuing to be Bishop of Springfield, of course...)

Jon said...

Dave, the mortgage is the only piece of that that would worry me. Property is generally only not affordable if you have to spend more on the property than it either brings in through renting or saves in reduced expenses. Of course, a business facing liquidation through bankruptcy will also have to sell the property even if the business's ruin had nothing to do with property costs. Further, if the mortgage can't be entirely discharged with money left over or at least reduce expenses enough to cover renting new offices and the transition expenses, selling will just leave us worse off than before.

Ian+ said...

In the 1970s, Prime Minister Trudeau initiated a policy of decentralization, whereby federal HQs and processing centres were moved from Ottawa to various cities across Canada, both to help the local economies and to get gov't closer to the people-- one of the good things he did. Could GC effectively delegate various office to various provinces? Another example north of the border: the Mothers' Union elects all of its executives from a single diocese each time so that they can get together easily and cheaper than if they were spread across Canada (where airfares are far higher than in the US). Also, I have long thought that units like ERD & PWRDF (the Cdn equivalent) should be reduced to merely funnelling funds to their international partner, Action by Churches Together, thus eliminating a lot of middleman costs.

Father said...

Well said, Bishop Martins. And I'd vote for you as PB - it'd be another one of those "for your sins" kind of jobs. I suppose it takes a really juicy one to deserve the punishment of being PB?

John Richmond said...

Idle thoughts of a scattered mind....

I seem to recall that the so-called N/national C/church looked at property in greater Kansas City some years back. Could I be dreaming? Something must have scared someone, as 815 is still 815. Many people do not know how very up-to-date things are in KC, and what a pleasant metropolitan area it can be. (Admittedly, I was ordained to the priesthood in greater suburban KC, on the KS side of the border, so I could be prejudiced.) Moving right along....

I have read and been told for years that, regardless of the place, institution, and so on, the top-down, hierarchical model for just about everything is passe. If so, why do I feel that the current PB is greatly attached to power, and the use thereof? A friend in another, more liberal diocese refers to it all as the spread of "the imperial episcopacy." Or perhaps I mean "episcopate."

It will be interesting to see how the experiment works in Western Kansas, i.e., the new bishop is also rector of Grace Church, Hutchinson, one of the few parishes of any size in the diocese. Might not work everywhere, but it might prove useful in many places. And even lead us back to the old model of the PB, and how he/she functions, on a different plane from that of W. KS and other small, rural dioceses.

Levi said...

James Russell Lowell, not Walter Russell Bowie, btw.