Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Missionary Vision Talking Points

If you happen to be a rector, vicar, or priest-in-charge in the Diocese of Springfield, you will be getting this by email in a day or two. (It's a list of talking points that may be helpful at your annual meeting next month.) But I know there are others who are interested in the emerging missionary vision of our diocese, so I share it here.

  • We need to make some deep changes. There are a lot fewer of us than there used to be, and we're getting older. Do the math. This is not sustainable.
  • We don't have any time to lose. The rate of decline is alarming. We've already closed two churches this year. More are on life support. Yes, we need to make the right changes, but we need to start now.
  • Our challenge is to become mission-driven at every level. Ironically, if mere survival is our goal, we are guaranteed not to survive. If true mission is what drives us, nothing can stop us! This change of attitude has to happen among diocesan leaders, in local congregations, and in the hearts and minds of all our members.
  • The text of the Vision Statement:  The Diocese of Springfield is one church, organized for mission into geographic parishes, manifested in Eucharistic Communities and communities-in-formation, with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 60 counties of central and southern Illinois.
  • New way of thinking: We go to "them" rather than expecting "them" to come to us. The world around us has changed. Christianity no longer enjoys the privileged position in our society it once did. We must learn how to operate as a minority in a hostile environment. This means being able to engage unchurched and dechurched people at the level of their felt needs, and show them how knowing Jesus can make their lives and the world better.
  • A common vision reflects our theology as Episcopalians (Anglicans, in the Catholic tradition): The diocese, under the leadership of the Bishop, is the basic and essential unit of the church. We are all for one and one for all.
  • The geographic parish now becomes the organizing principle of our missionary work. Having a defined territory helps us raise our sights where they need to be raised and focus them where they need to be focused.
  • A Eucharistic Community is a group of baptized Christians who regularly worship together at the same altar. (For present purposes, of course, the assumption is that a Eucharistic Community is part of our diocese and under the leadership of our Bishop.)
  • The Eucharistic Communities in a given geographic parish are responsible for discerning, planning, and executing missionary activity in their parish. The Mission Leadership Team (current term: Vestry or Bishop's Committee) in each parish will develop a plan, in consultation with the Bishop and other diocesan leaders, and provide periodic reports on the implementation of the plan. Accountability and transparency are essential parts of a healthy community. 
  • A community-in-formation is a group of people who are coming to Christian faith for the first time or rekindling a prior faith. The assumption is that they not currently celebrating the Eucharist, but are being formed in preparation for baptism or confirmation, and toward becoming a Eucharistic Community.
  • Diocesan leaders will create structures and provide resources that will enable Eucharistic Communities to pursue their mission. The goal is to make the work of mission less intimidating by training our members to a point where they are confident and joyful about doing what they are called to do. 
  • The whole process of change must be constantly surrounded by prayer. Spiritual warfare will follow every phase of the implementation of this vision. We need a cadre of experienced and faithful and courageous "prayer warriors."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


I love Advent.

Liturgically, it is the most "interesting" season of the year. It has a shape that is completely irrational, but, somehow, when it all plays out, works beautifully. We begin at the end, with eschatology, Last Things. Then we're shot as though from a sling into a strange bifurcated dimension of time, with one foot in the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, and the other in the "rude and crude" figure of John the Baptist, preaching on the eve of the adult Jesus' debut into public life. Finally, on the fourth Sunday, we step back another thirty years or so to overhear the angel Gabriel's utterly outside-the-box exchanges with the Virgin Mary (Years B and C) and Joseph (Year A). It's a strange ride, but at that point we're actually ready for Christmas.

Spiritually, Advent is particularly compelling because it's so honestly real. It's about waiting and hoping and preparing, all in the context of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing. Doesn't that sound pretty much like ... life? The passage of a human soul through this world is one long Advent. The spiritual observance of a four week season each year never fails to connect me more deeply to some aspect of my "real" life that is very Advent-like, very much about waiting and hoping and preparing in an environment of simultaneous repenting and rejoicing.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is the degree to which Advent clashes with the larger culture's observance--both secular and religious--of the season, the "holidays." It makes me more than a little crabby, which gives me that much more to repent of!

There are two dimensions to this clash. The first, ironically, is with the premature Christian celebration of Christmas. "Back in the day," the weeks before Christmas were a time of preparation and joyful anticipation, but not of unrestrained celebration. That was saved for the actual arrival of actual Christmas, which then ushered in a twelve day period of festivity, concluding with the celebration of Epiphany on January 6. Now, even Christians, even liturgical Christians when they are outside a church building, tend to think of December as "the Christmas season." I've pretty much given up trying to actively resist this, but it does make me sad, because it creates an incoherence between what we do in church these four Sundays and what we do when we're out of church, and because we've lost something very beautiful. (For the record, I primarily blame the retailing industry for this.)

The other dimension is more obvious: We're now seriously into a post-Christian era in western developed society. There is a rapidly diminishing attachment to the notion of "Jesus is the reason for the season." Yet, there remains a critical mass of desire to keep this time of year somehow "special," and there is an array of cultural and economic forces lined up to fulfill that desire. Our society cherishes the echo of Christmas, the shadow of Christmas, if not Christmas itself. But if all you're after is a dose of nostalgia, a sentimentalized illusion of what once was, precision in timing is not so critical, and Advent gets quickly lost in the shuffle.

Like I said, this all makes me sad. And I try to avoid all that ... stuff ... as much as I can, which is to say, not very successfully. I have a completely Advent-compliant playlist in iTunes (including some wonderful choral settings of the Great O Antiphons), but it's generally not stuff most people would think of as very ... seasonal. And I really do try not to shame anybody who sees things differently. "Try" is the operative word here!

In the meantime, here's the Magnificat Antiphon for Advent, up until the 16th, when the O Antiphons take over: "Drop down, you heavens, from above; and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let it bring forth salvation."

Monday, December 05, 2011

God is Not Enough

Here's a look at the Bishop's article for the December edition of the Springfield Current. For those who get the hard copy, it should be out any day now.

The first article of both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds is “I (we) believe in God…”. It seems entirely appropriate that we begin our confession of faith with such an affirmation. Whatever else we might believe, it stands or falls, after all, with the existence of God. The Bible, the sacraments, prayer itself—it would all be empty superstition if God were not there it give it reality and life.

If the surveys are to be trusted, while professed atheism is on the rise in our culture, belief in God is still remarkably robust. Atheists can be found, but you have to look for them. It is neither remarkable nor controversial to believe in One Supreme Being who is responsible for the creation of the material universe and continues to be involved with it in one way or another.

It is, therefore, easy to overlook the fact that monotheism—the notion that there is, by definition, only one Being who can legitimately be called “God”—is a relatively recent intellectual development. When we read the Old Testament, it is clear from the sweep of the narrative—from Abraham to Moses to David and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—that the Israelites believed that while YHWH (rendered “the Lord” in most translations of the Bible), their particular god, was definitely superior to the gods of “the nations” (Hebrew–goyim: heathen, gentiles), He was not completely without competitors. The prophets continuously warned the people not to forsake YHWH, the one who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, for any of these competing deities. It was only later in the history of Judaism, almost at the time of Christ, that a truly monotheistic theology developed.

So, polytheism (belief in many gods) seems strange to most of us—at least on the surface. When we look a little deeper, though, it’s all around us. We’ve just refined the way we express it, from “belief in many gods” to “many beliefs about God.” There is a generally accepted hierarchy of belief: To affirm “God” is considered virtuous, even necessary. On that level we expect uniformity. But the next level is another story. What we say precisely about God is optional, a matter of personal opinion. On that level we expect diversity. And it feels admirably “tolerant” to do so. But we delude ourselves, I fear. To accept limitless diversity in what we say about God is tantamount to accepting belief in many gods. It is latter-day polytheism.

Simple belief in God seems such a virtue in itself that we are reluctant to expect anything more. It seems downright impolite. Well, the Christian creeds, by that measure, are not very polite, because after “I believe in God…”, they go on to say a great deal more. Specifically, they go on to say that this God who created heaven and earth did a scandalously un-godlike thing: He assumed human flesh, was born of a woman, and walked this earth as a man. Of all the world religions, only Christianity is bold enough to make that claim. Our belief in the Incarnation (God becoming a man) changes everything. It leads us from the intuitively appealing notion of one “simple” God to one “complex” God—as classical Christian theology expresses it: unity of being in trinity of persons. The God whom Christians worship is Triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a far cry from the generic God that our culture approves of. We would never have invented a God like this; we only know Him because He has chosen to reveal Himself to us.

The Incarnation also changes the way we view the material world. God took on flesh; God, who is by nature spiritual, became material for our sake. We can therefore never, in good conscience, despise our flesh. We can no longer see our bodies as mere “vessels.” To be a human being is to have a body; a disembodied spirit is not “free,” but less than fully human. The Christian hope is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. The whole physical world, and everything we do in it, is invested with the potential to carry deep meaning. This is the sacramental principle, that the common things we do with our bodies—eat, drink, bathe, touch, see, hear, speak, etc. etc.— can be instruments of grace, media through which God makes us like Himself, precisely because He first made Himself like us.

One of my sad observations about the Church in these times is that we have a tendency to reduce Christian faith to the lowest common denominator. For many people I meet—and I’m not talking about people off the street, but people I met in my role as a priest, and even now as a bishop—their religion can be summarized as “believe in God and be good.” That’s not enough! That’s settling for way less than the fullness of Christian truth. We have become disconnected from our own tradition, our own inheritance. We do not believe simply in “God”—some vague First Cause. In fact, the notion of such a generic god has absolutely no meaning for a Christian. As far as that kind of god is concerned, I am an atheist! No, Christians believe in a particular God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who makes Himself known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who unites us to Himself in Word and Sacrament through the ministry of a particular organism and institution: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, the society that commands our allegiance and affection before any other association.

I love how Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson puts it: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt.” So as we prepare for the celebration of the Great Scandal on December 25, let us raise our awareness beyond the sentiments of “the holidays,” and even beyond mere “believing in God and being good.” Let us worship and adore the Father of lights, the Word who was made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who fills us and guides us.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Missionary Arts & Crafts

There's an increasing amount of church chatter lately about the need to become more mission-driven, for Christians to get out out of the comfort zone defined by the familiar worship and program space of church buildings, and mix it up with ordinary people in their ordinary lives. Leaving aside the problem of wildly divergent understandings of "mission" (which is a whole topic unto itself), I happily add my Amen to this chorus. 

So the question of the day is, How do we do that? So far, most of what I read on the subject is hortatory. Preachers and teachers and conference speakers and retreat leaders ... and bloggers ... regularly harangue their audiences, captive and otherwise, on the need to "get out of the pews" and get "out in the world" and do something. But ... what, exactly?

It may be helpful here to remind ourselves of the important distinction between art and craft. Art is the product of inspiration, and is by its nature original. It springs mysteriously from a dynamic interplay between the artist's inner vision and his or her technical training, in varying proportions. A work of art--be it a novel, a painting, a musical composition, or whatever--is unique and unrepeatable. It is often brought forth laboriously, with veritable birth pangs on the part of the artist. 

Craft, by contrast, is the product of perspiration, and is by nature derivative. The scarf or the Christmas ornament or the ceramic turtle you bought at the last craft fair you walked through is no doubt a thing of beauty, perhaps even exquisite beauty, but it's not a work of art, if for no other reason than that there are a couple of dozen more just like it available at the same place. Craft is the application of acquired technical skill toward the production of an item or an experience (is "event planning" a craft?--I think it probably is) that is, at least in theory, infinitely repeatable. Quantities may be "limited," but a work of craft is always available in some quantity.

So, is Christian mission an art or a craft? As you might guess, I'm going to suggest that it's both,   that it indeed needs both aspects to be effective, but what we need to emphasize more, at this point, I think, is the craft of mission.

Inasmuch as mission is art, the primary artist is, arguably, the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who carries what the theologians call "prevenient grace" ("We love him because he first loved us." I John 4:19), working in the hearts and minds of individuals to convict them of their hopeless condition apart from God and "melt the hearts of sinners" with the "resistless energy of love" (from a prayer said twice daily in the chapel at Nashotah House). It is the Holy Spirit who inspires the church with a collective "heart" for mission, and galvanizes the church's energy toward the effective prosecution of mission. Every quantum leap forward in Christian mission--from the journeys of St Paul, to the evangelization of peoples outside the borders of the Roman Empire, to work of the Jesuits in South America and the Franciscans in California, to the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, to the current resurgence of Christianity under persecution in China--is evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Without the relentless original and ever re-creative artistry of the Holy Spirit, no mission (however one defines it) would be possible.

The practitioner of a craft takes the inspired fruit of the artist's labor (recognizing that the artist and the craftsman are sometimes one and the same person) and replicates it. In that work, the original vision of the artist becomes much more widely available and much more easily accessible than it would otherwise have been. This does not happen by accident. It does not happen casually, or without focused intention. It is a matter of thought and planning followed by trial and error followed by refinement and more thought and planning, eventually yielding a process that can be broken down into a succession of discrete actions, any one of which is actually quite simple, fairly easily taught and fairly easily learned. I have a very low mechanical aptitude, but I recently assembled two large metal shelving units (admittedly, not a work of art even in original conception, but my point still holds) in my basement, because all the tools and materials I needed were provided for me, and there were clear (I may speak somewhat generously!) step by step instructions for me to follow. The second unit took about half as much time to put together as the first one did, and had there been a third one, the assembly time would have been cut further still. Moreover, I would have been qualified to teach somebody else how to do it, saving them from some of the mistakes I initially made.

For some reason, we are stuck at the stage of "We need some shelves in the basement. Get out of your recliner and do something." I have no doubt that we have a critical mass of Christians, even among those who share my Episcopalian brand name, who are more than ready to get out of the recliner and get to work in the basement. I believe this because I believe in the sovereign and profligate artistry of the Holy Spirit. And I also have no doubt that we have a serious lack of materials, tools, and instructions. We're like military commanders sending troops into the field of battle without first securing their logistical supply lines, and often without proper training or ammunition. We expect them to be artists in the field, which most of them are not called and gifted to be. What they are capable of being, if we would properly equip them, is craftsmen

In a mission-driven church, leaders, beginning with bishops, will be doubling down on the work of "equipping the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). I am not suggesting that there has been lack of attention in recent years to this need. What I am suggesting is that perhaps, in our formation and education and catechetical work, we have been trying to produce more artists when the need is for more craftsmen. We have been teaching people the faith. We have been showing them how to pray and worship. We have encouraged them to be good stewards of their time, talent, and treasure, and some have even responded positively to those efforts. We have talked about mission, sometimes endlessly. What we have not done so well is to take the art of mission and break it down into a craft, a process with well-defined component steps that can be easily taught and easily learned--"Here, do this. Just this.  ... Great! Well done. Now do this"--etc. etc. 

Even as we renew our trust in the missional artistry of the Holy Spirit, the work of the hour is to equip the troops in the field, to form and deploy technicians of Christian mission, people whose knowledge of any grand strategic plan may be limited, but who, with joyful hearts motivated by a love for Jesus, are willing to learn to do one thing, to do it well, and to do it over and over again. The work of the hour among leaders is to secure robust supply lines that keep these troops fed, trained, motivated, and proficient at what they do. 

In short, we need to get organized for mission. Somebody (several somebodies, actually) needs to know the strategy, how it all fits together and works together. Leaders in the field need to be able to make tactical decisions, implementing the strategy at a local level. Only with this sort of leadership can those who are being led pursue the craft of mission confidently and competently. The good news is, we can do it. We have all the resources we need.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Guest Post: Another Anglican View

With the crack in the seams of the Anglican Communion continuing to widen, and "cracks in the cracks" even beginning to appear (witness recent developments in the AMiA/Rwanda relationship), and with anxiety over who's accepting and who's rejecting the Anglican Covenant ratcheting up, this piece shared with me by Father McMichael seems salient. Speaking personally, it well defines the circle (a wide one, I think) of those I am happily eager to "do church" with.

Another Anglican Voice
Proposed by
The Rev. Ralph McMichael, Ph.D

We are Anglicans.  We are Anglicans who are deeply concerned about our fellow Anglicans who are taking steps to “walk apart” from the Anglican Communion.  Likewise, we are Anglicans who are deeply concerned about our fellow Anglicans who are overly defining how Anglicans should walk.  We have Anglicans who are walking away from the Anglican Communion through unilateral actions, and we have Anglicans who stridently insist through various coalitions that all Anglicans must walk as they do.  We are Anglicans who are distressed over the escalating abandonment of the essentials of catholic faith and order, and we are distressed by efforts to solidify Anglican identity through appeals to such historical documents as the 1662 BCP and the Thirty-Nine Articles.  The problem, as we perceive it, is the dissipation of the Anglican catholic vision of drinking from the deep well of tradition in order to bring living water to the full scope of humanity wholly called to share in the divine life.  In other words, the Anglican appeal to essential or primitive catholicity is never a search for safe harbor but a dynamic that will draw us into God’s future for the church and for the world.  Anglicanism at its best nurtures a generative tradition and a faithful creativity.  With this preamble in mind, we would like to address directly the current situation of the Anglican Communion.

We are Anglicans who wish to uphold the disciplines of communion, including those articulated by Lambeth Conferences, the Windsor Report, and the proposed Anglican Covenant.  And yet, we hold that authentic theological reflection and debate must continue on an array of critical questions facing the Anglican Communion.  We decry any province taking unilateral action of any sort that steps away from communion: the binding mutuality of all ecclesial actions.  Likewise, we consider any effort toward unilateral speaking one to another to be its own kind of threat to communion: the binding mutuality of all ecclesial speaking. 

We are Anglicans who desire to remain faithful members of the Anglican Communion through communion with the See of Canterbury.  Some of us wish for the eventual acceptance of gays and lesbians into all the orders of ministries of our common life.  Some of us maintain the traditional teaching on sexuality and marriage.  All of us are committed to the disciplines of communion, ongoing vibrant theological reflection, and to the Anglican tradition of essential catholicity that generates a life of worship and mission exercised in humility and patience.

Therefore, we call on the whole Anglican Communion to enter into the disciplines of communion where we act and speak in light of the whole but not as the whole, where we act and speak always as response to the gift of communion that only God provides.  The disciplines of communion are to be renewed and understood from the baptismal font and the Eucharistic table.  Let us live from our roots in the Triune life into which we were baptized, and into which we participate at every Eucharist.  Let us stop hacking off branches of the tree instead of tending to the roots.  Let us dig deep and wide in the Holy Scriptures and the works of our own tradition.  From the disciplines of communion, from our common roots, life will grow and flourish: a life characterized by glory and not anxiety, by patience and not haste, and a life of wholeness and not division.  Will this solve the problems of the Anglican Communion?  No, but that is not why we are here. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Unpacking the Vision

This is the lead article in the November issue of the Springfield Current, our diocesan newsletter.

Beloved in Christ,
Many who are reading this attended the regular 2011 annual synod of the diocese last month, and heard my address on that occasion. Most, probably, did not. So the text of the Bishop's Address is printed elsewhere in this issue of the Springfield Current. It deals with a draft Vision Statement for the diocese, and what I want to do here is continue to unpack some of the elements of that statement. So, if you were not at synod, I encourage to take the time right now to read my address, and then come back to this article.


So ... I'd like to share a few thoughts on what I see as some of the implications of this statement. If we embrace this statement, how will it affect the way we think and act as a diocesan community? How will it change the way we experience life at a congregational level? Among other things, this Vision Statement will ...
  • ... change much of the language we use about who we are and what we do. That may seem like a small thing, but the words we use doinfluence how we think, and how we think influences how we act, and how we act influences what we accomplish. Terms like Parish (in its new context) and Eucharistic Community, along with others, will become familiar in time, and when they do, it will means that we have changed.
  • ... organize us for mission by focusing attention on defined geographic areas. The Eucharistic Communities in a particular geographic Parish will be responsible for pursuing the mission of the diocese in that area, and accountable to the rest of the diocese for that stewardship. This will involve detailed and carefully-made plans that are shared with the rest of the diocese. Of course, this also presumes that the diocese as a whole will provide leadership and training resources that will enable the Eucharistic Communities to accomplish this mission.
  • ... draw us into "retail" evangelism and outreach ministry. Episcopalians are notoriously generous when it comes to writing checks for particular special needs when they arise, and supporting programs of service and evangelism with their financial resources. This is "wholesale" outreach, and may have worked well when the culture was predominantly Christian. But now we live in a post-Christian culture, and the need now is for individual Christians to build connections with individual non-Christians in very intentional and systematic ways. Again, huge amounts of training and formation for this sort of ministry will be necessary.
  • ... encourage us to see ourselves as one church, rather than an association of local churches. Our theology has always been that the diocese is the essential primary unit of the church, but our practice as Episcopalians has said otherwise, and has focused on the local congregation. Without diminishing the importance of the local congregation (or, in the new way of speaking, Eucharistic Community), it's time to align our thinking and acting more closely with our theology. This means moving beyond some of the unspoken jealousies and rivalries and suspicions that have hampered our mission and ministry in the past. Really. That game has to be over.
  • ... call us to develop (or adapt) concrete patterns of disciple-formation in which lay people can be trained and become confident. I've alluded to this already in two of the bullet points above, but it deserves its own place in the sun. We will need to be "methodists" in the sense of being quite disciplined about the spiritual formation of all our members, identification and practice of spiritual gifts, and growth in virtue and holiness such that we are less focused on tip-toeing around one another's egos and more focused on the task at hand, which is announcing, modeling, and expanding the Kingdom of God.
  • ... invite us to constantly raise the bar on the quality of our worship. Our week by week liturgy at the local level needs to become more organic, vital, and authentic to each local environment. This is not so that it will become more appealing or accessible to newcomers; we need to relieve the Sunday Eucharist of that burden. Rather, it is for the sake of our already faithful communicants, that they will be adequately nourished and recharged for their work in the world.  
  • ... eventually make us rewrite our constitution and canons. This vision is, to use jargon from the 90s, a "paradigm shift." Our current governing documents assume the old paradigm. If we're going to operate in a new one, we will need new governing documents. New wine, new wineskins. But we need not rush into this work. We need to first see where we walk, and then pave those walkways with a new constitution and a new set of canons.
  • ... require ceaseless prayer on the part of a cadre of spiritually mature and well-grounded "prayer warriors." I'll tell you straight out: I believe in what is called "spiritual warfare." I believe that when Christian disciples begin to do something right, something good, something that glorifies God and builds up his church, "spiritual forces of wickedness" become alarmed and become more active. I have not the slightest doubt that the Evil One will begin to throw obstacles in our way as we pursue this vision. Often, such obstacles take the form of a moral failure on the part of a key leader. Or it could take the form of sickness, or intractable conflict and strife. Whatever form it takes, we will need to combat it with serious, concerted, and relentless prayer. 
This is serious stuff. It will be difficult. There will be missteps and mistakes galore. Burnout will be a constant hazard. And I have never been more excited and hopeful about anything in my life. We have a rich heritage in the Diocese of Springfield. God has been faithful to us in countless ways. We stand on the shoulders of some true heroes of the faith--some whose names we know, most whose individuals identities are forgotten. But I would like to think that our finest days are yet ahead of us, and that the miracles we see in the future will far outshine those that we see in the past.

Praised be Jesus Christ.


Monday, October 24, 2011

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Covenant

According to Episcopal News Service, there is a resolution, approved today by Executive Council, that will now automatically become an 'A' resolution in the General Convention "Blue Book." It thanks those who participated in the development of the Anglican Covenant, but states that the Episcopal Church is unable to subscribe to the covenant in its present form. 

The effect of this is that, unless somebody else submits another resolution that actually makes it to the floor, deputies and bishops will not have an opportunity to vote for the adoption of the covenant. The way it is framed, even if Executive Council's 'A' resolution is defeated (an unlikely event, IMO), TEC would still not be adopting the covenant. 

This should certainly come as no surprise to anyone. It is nonetheless sobering to see the machinery for our rejection of the covenant taking concrete form. 

I am an ardent supporter of both the idea of an Anglican covenant and the particular text of the covenant that has been developed. It lights the approach path for a quantum leap in Anglicanism's "coming of age" as a wordwide communion with a particularly ecumenical vocation.I would like to have the opportunity to cast my vote in its favor, even in a losing effort.

That said, I must confess that Council's resolution is probably an accurate representation of the center of gravity of opinion in the church. Regrettable, but accurate. There is a great work of teaching and winning of hearts and minds to be done.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Diocesan Synod Address, 2011

I have to begin by telling you how completely thrilled I am to be standing before you at this moment doing what I’m doing. A year ago, I got to speak to you briefly as your Bishop-elect. There was an air of cautious optimism in the room, and I was very excited about what lay ahead. But we didn’t know each other well then, so there was a certain reserve in our embrace of one another. Now I have some nine months on the ground in the diocese. I’ve logged about 20,000 miles on the vehicle you all own, and I’ve visited all but a handful of our churches. So I’m overjoyed to be able to tell you: I still go to bed every night and say a prayer of thanksgiving that I have the best job in the entire world, so I thank you and I thank the Holy Spirit for the trust that has been placed in me!

There is a great deal that I could talk about. But my remarks this afternoon are an exercise in triage—omitting much that is good and worthy of being said in order to focus on the one thing needful. So I would like to tell you a story. I believe it’s a true story, though I can’t be certain because it takes place in the future. And I’m not really going to tell you the whole story, I guess, but pretty much just the ending, because it’s important that we all know that the story does have a happy ending, since the chapters leading up to the last one … well, they are a little scary! Oh … and I should probably mention that we are all characters in this story. Only the names have been changed to protect the unsuspecting.

Lisa and Jeff live outside of Sharpstown in Jones County—check me out, there are no such place names in Illinois; I told you the names had been changed—about 14 makes from the county seat city of Pinehurst. Jeff works in his father’s retail farm implement business, and will one day own it; Lisa works in a local beauty parlor. They have two kids in high school, which can get a little expensive, so a couple of years ago they found themselves in nearly $50,000 of revolving credit card debt. It seemed that they just weren’t very good at managing their finances. Through one of Lisa’s clients, they heard about a series of seminars being held down at the VFW Hall. They were feeling just vulnerable enough that they were willing to accept help from just about any direction, so they attended the meetings.

Doing so not only turned their financial life around—now their debt is less than $20,000, they’re living within their means, and they’re looking forward to actually opening a savings account—not only is their financial life turned around, but they made some new friends who were also part of the group. Lisa and a couple of the other women are talking about starting a support group for mothers of teenagers. What she and Jeff learned about halfway through the financial management series was that it was sponsored by St Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Pinehurst. Lisa’s client, in fact, the one who told her about the seminar, is a member of St Gabriel’s.

Now, Lisa’s parents were Methodists when they were kids, and Jeff’s were Catholics. But neither Lisa nor Jeff ever had any experience with any church, except for the occasional wedding or funeral, where the religious talk never made any sense to them. But a couple of their new friends invited them to a come to a group meeting in their home, right there in Sharpstown. There was some good food, good fellowship, some conversation about the big issues of life, and always a short prayer at the end, led by the host couple, Julie and Mark. Jeff and Lisa were a little skeptical at first, but they really liked the people, and found that they enjoyed exploring the spiritual dimension of their lives, which they had never done before.

After about three months of coming to these week night home group meetings, there was a special visitor. Julie introduced him as Father Cliff, the priest from St Gabriel’s. Over dinner, Lisa and Jeff learned that Fr Cliff actually had a day job as an administrator at Pinehurst High School, and took care of St Gabriel’s in his “spare time.” At the discussion time, Fr Cliff informed the group that he had rented the VFW Hall on every other Sunday night beginning the following month, and wanted to know whether anyone in the group would be interested in joining him for a simple service of worship and instruction—a little music, some prayers, and a time of teaching about the basics of Christian faith, and, of course, some food. For those who continued to be interested, this could lead to baptism. On their way home that night, Jeff and Lisa agree that they would begin to attend those services.  

So they do. And they find that they actually enjoy the experience. Much to their surprise, they begin to pray, on their own, at home. Not too much, but some. They also find that their relationship with their kids begins to be a little less stormy, and is sometimes even a little sweet. Nobody knows quite why, but both parents and kids are happy about it. The kids begin to join their parents at the VFW Hall on Saturday nights.

This goes on for a couple of years. The VFW Hall meetings are now held every week. The oldest child is now away at one of the state universities. It’s fall, and Fr Cliff begins to gently raise the question: Who feels ready for baptism? By this time, there are over 20 adults in the group, none of whom had any previous ties to a church. To Fr Cliff’s delight, the response is, “We thought you’d never ask!” So the instruction becomes a little more intense. They begin to read more scripture in their worship. By this time, both Jeff and Lisa have each gotten hold of a Bible for their own personal use, so they notice that the passages of scripture that are read are not chosen randomly, but follow a pattern. Some people from St Gabriel’s quietly begin to show up and assist Fr Cliff with the teaching by leading small group discussions. New songs are introduced in their worship—songs with unfamiliar language and vocabulary that the catechists need to explain the meaning of—and the group is taught to give responses to various things the leader might say.

At the beginning of December (or, as the group is told, “Advent”), each of the candidates for baptism is paired with a sponsor from St Gabriel’s, someone who listens to them and prays for them and emails them and talks by phone at least weekly. About ten weeks later, at the beginning of Lent (which Jeff remembers his Catholic grandmother talking about, though he never knew what it was), the 20 candidates solemnly sign their names in a special book that has been prepared for that purpose, as their sponsors vouch for the fact that they have been faithful in attending worship and instruction, and have lived in the world in a manner worthy of a follower of Jesus. Fr Cliff and the other catechists begin to mention something called the Eucharist, though whatever they say about it is kind of vague, and they never teach about it directly. But Jeff and Lisa and their other friends get the distinct impression that it’s pretty important, and that, after they are baptized, it will be a regular part of their experience.

Around the middle of Lent, everyone is given a special hand-calligraphied copy of the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father, and told to memorize them. Then, on the night before Easter, a bus appears in the VFW Hall parking lot, which takes everyone to Pinehurst, and St Gabriel’s Church. They’re ushered into the back of the church and given a hand candle. It’s very dark. A lot of scripture is read, and the passages are very long. But the catechumens have heard them all before. It is in these stories that the gospel has been explained to them: the Creation, the Flood, Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, the Exodus, the Valley of the Dry Bones. Then their sponsors present them to Fr Cliff, who is dressed up in a way they’ve never seen him before! He asks them if they renounce the ways of this world, and if they promise to follow Jesus as Lord. Then the whole congregation says the Apostles’ Creed with them and answers some more questions. Then, one by one, Fr Cliff baptizes  them, and pours oil over them—generously—and tells them that they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. Then, for the first time, they give and receive the Sign of Peace, and finally, are actively present as heaven and earth are joined and death and life become indistinguishable from one another, and they dine on the Body and Blood of him whose true members they have now become.

The next Sunday, they gather for the Eucharist once again, only this time back in the familiar VFW Hall in Sharpstown. The Bishop is there, somebody they’ve only heard rumors about until this point! He leads them in a discussion about becoming their own Eucharistic Community, and, together, they decide on a name: the Church of the Advent, Sharpstown. The Bishop goes on to tell them that they are now part of an entity known as Jones County Parish, which is now comprised of two Eucharistic Communities: St Gabriel’s, Pinehurst and Advent, Sharpstown. Members from both Eucharistic Communities will be elected to serve on a single Mission Leadership Team, which is responsible for planning and advancing the mission of the Diocese of Springfield in Jones County.

Soon thereafter, Lisa and Jeff make plans to host a home group of their own. Their hope is to conceive and give birth to yet another Community-in-Formation in Jones County Parish, since there’s a new bio-fuel plant set to open in the community of Larkspur, about 17 miles north of Sharpstown. And so it goes.

In the meantime, a hundred miles to the northwest, in Gibson County, a more urban area, two long-established Eucharistic Communities in the city of Parkerville, Incarnation and St Margaret’s,  have reconfigured themselves into Gibson County Parish, merging their vestries into a single Mission Leadership Team. This is not yoking, in the sense in which we have used that term. This is getting organized for effective coordinated and collaborative mission in Gibson County. Sunday services will continue at both Incarnation and St Margaret’s, both in the distinctive styles to which they have become accustomed. But now they’re working together to find ways of serving a growing immigrant population, many of whom seem to be sitting lightly to their traditional religious heritage. They’re talking about establishing a literacy program for parents and advocating on their behalf with the local school system. Serving the marginalized openly in the name of Christ, announcing good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind—the people of St Margaret’s and Incarnation, who only a little while ago thought of themselves as rivals, are energized by their participation in fundamental Christian mission.

Across the state laterally now, the people of Fawcett County Parish, meeting for worship in historic St David’s Church in the county seat town of Reedsport, have done a sophisticated demographic survey of their parish, and discovered a significant population of unchurched, and economically marginal, households living in mobile home parks tucked away in various corners of the county. So they picked one, and got permission to hold a Vacation Bible School in the park’s community building. Nearly 40 children showed up, which enabled them to established relationships with their parents. One of these parents, a single mother, agreed to host a bible study in her trailer if somebody from St David’s would come and lead it. There is hope that a Community-in-Formation might soon be established in that area.

And so the church’s mission is pursued across the diocese. It’s not done exactly the same way in any two places. There’s a huge amount of trial and error … especially error! More attempts at mission fail than succeed, but there’s a sense that, at least we’re “failing forward.” More to the point, there’s a sense that we’re all doing this together. We’re mutually accountable. The people at Reedsport in Fawcett County are vitally interested in what’s happening down in Jones County, and both are keeping tabs on how the Eucharistic Communities in Parkerville are pursuing the whole church’s mission in Gibson County. They are interested in one another’s mission because they know themselves to all be members of one church—the Diocese of Springfield.

My brothers and sisters, about six weeks ago the members of our Department of General Mission Strategy met in working retreat over a Friday night and a Saturday up in Springfield. I met with them. Naturally, we talked about … mission strategy! With the able assistance of Mr Mark Waight of St Michael’s, O’Fallon, we emerged from that meeting with a draft Vision Statement for our diocese. I haven’t read it to you yet. But you already know it, because I’ve just described it to you. But here it is anyway:

The Diocese of Springfield in one church, organized for mission into geographic parishes, manifested in Eucharistic Communities and communities-in-formation, with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 60 counties of central and southern Illinois.

“The Diocese of Springfield is one church…”  That’s not a novel concept. It’s what our basic Anglican theology tells us about any diocese, because the diocese is the fundamental unit of the church. Anything either smaller than that or larger than that is just a matter of expediency. Within our diocese, we have everything we need to effectively pursue our mission. Everything. That may not be the way we’re accustomed to thinking. But it’s time we claim who we know we are, and begin to live that way.

“…organized for mission into geographic parishes.” In the Episcopal Church, we use the word “parish” synonymously with “church” or “congregation.” But that’s not what the word means. Traditionally, it refers to a specific piece of geography; a parish has clear boundaries. This vision statement allows us to reclaim that heritage, and use it as a way of being accountable to one another for mission. Within a geographic area, who is responsible for organizing and pursuing the church’s mission in that area? The congregations in that area! This is just a “back to the future” thing.

“…manifested in Eucharistic Communities…”  Notice that the ‘E’ and the ‘C’ at the beginning of ‘Eucharistic’ and ‘Community’ are capitalized. This suggests that we’re not just being descriptive here, but floating the idea that Eucharistic Community might be a more useful formal term by which to speak of the people who habitually worship together at the same altar week by week, the people who make up what we presently would call the “congregation” of a Parish or Mission. In the terms of this proposed Vision Statement, there will, at first, usually be a one-to-one correspondence between Parishes and Eucharistic Communities. But if this vision grows wings, we will many instances of two or more Eucharistic Communities in the same parish.

“…and communities-in-formation…” In my story, the group that eventually became the Eucharistic Community in Sharpstown, the Church of the Advent, was for a couple of years a Community-in-Formation. The Eucharistic Community of St Gabriel’s in Pinehurst, acting through their Mission Leadership Team (formerly known as the Vestry) of the mission of the diocese in Jones County Parish, conceived a new Community-in-Formation when they rented the VFW Hall for the personal finance seminar, and gestated that new community through the home group hosted by Julie and Mark, and gave birth to that Community-in-Formation when the Saturday night worship and teaching sessions began. Simply put, a Community-in-Formation is the child of a Eucharistic Community, and when that child grows up, it becomes a Eucharistic Community in its own right.

“concretely incarnate in all 60 counties” Did you know that 60 out of the 102 counties in Illinois are within the territory of the Diocese of Springfield?  At present, we have 37 churches at which the Eucharist is regularly celebrated on Sunday. But four of those are in Madison County, three are in Sangamon County, and two each are in McLean, St Clair, and Marion counties. So do the math: This means that we have no mission work established in 31 of our 60 counties. I realize, of course, that some people cross county lines to go to church, but I think you see my point. One of the fruits of pursuing our mission more effectively will simply be that we are visible in more places.

I hope your head is spinning right now. I hope you’re disturbed. I hope you’re apprehensive about what I’m saying. Because if you’re not all those things, then you’re probably not grasping that the vision I’m laying out is a many times more serious challenge to the status quo of the way we “do church”—in this diocese or elsewhere—than anything we’ve ever encountered in our lives. We could spend the rest of today, and all of tomorrow, and not even begin to tease out all the implications. Unfortunately, we’ve got other stuff we need to do. But make no mistake: This is a game-changer.

And I’m more than aware that, at this point, everything I’m talking about is only a trial balloon. Before any of it can happen, there needs to be a very deliberate process of conversation and buy-in. If it’s just my vision, or just the vision of the DGMS, it won’t get to first base. There’s enough here to make everyone in this room hugely uncomfortable, at the very least. But nothing less drastic than this is called for at this hour in our life together. I, for one, am scared to death. But I’m also excited beyond words. What an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of the Lord renewing his church, and through the church being renewed, having the world be renewed. As the Lord tells us, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Point of Christianity

I don't know that, on my own, I would naturally use an expression like "the point of Christianity." It's just not my style. But over on the listserv that is operated for members (and recent former members) of General Convention, somebody else did today, and it struck me as one of those rare lucid moments when a bright light is inadvertently shined on why many members of the same church frustrate one another so much, and talk past one another so much.

It's because of vastly divergent views on ... well ...  the point of Christianity.

The commenter queried, "Do we believe that the point of Christianity is to love one another, shun violence and hatred and care for the poor and needy. Or does it exist to get people to believe in Jesus so they won't go to hell?"

To be honest, if I had to choose, I would opt for the latter, though I don't think the alternatives are really quite that starkly opposed. Of course, I have no problem with love, non-violence, disavowal of hatred, and caring for the poor and needy. Those are important--yea, necessary--components of faithful Christian witness and ministry. But they are not themselves the "one thing needful", and I believe we are in error if we see them as "the point of Christianity." And while I would not choose to use language about the avoidance of hell to express "the point of Christianity" either, it is, I believe, less far from the mark. 

Using affirmative terms, I would suggest that "the point of Christianity" is to make people fit to live in heaven, to be in the unfiltered presence of God without being vaporized by the sheer weight of divine glory. This is a process called sanctification (in the west; our eastern friends are apt to say theosis--deification). The process is fueled by grace, and grace, while generally ubiquitous, is found surely and certainly in the sacraments. 

For my money, this is a lot more exciting than just trying to make the world a better place. 

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Low Country Rumblings

I am hesitant to weigh in on the news coming out of the Diocese of South Carolina. I have been enjoying an extended period of low political drama as I try to settle in to my new ministry. But I'm also hesitant to say nothing, and my insights have indeed been solicited.

Bottom line: I don't think it's time to sound any alarms, or presume the activity of any malign conspiracies. Not yet, at least. It is well-known that there is a small minority of Episcopalians in the diocese who are disappointed that the majority, including Bishop Mark Lawrence, are not on board with the general drift of the larger Episcopal Church on the controverted issues of sexuality. Some of them, evidently, have initiated a process under the section of Title IV that governs the discipline of bishops, alleging that, by action and inaction, Bishop Lawrence has "abandoned the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church."

The canons specify that the matter now rests with a Review Committee, consisting of bishops, priests, and lay persons, headed by Bishop Dorsey Henderson, retired diocesan of Upper South Carolina (and a lawyer). In broad terms, this group is like a grand jury. Its job is to determine whether there is sufficient substance in the allegations to merit a trial.

I could be wrong, but my suspicion--and, of course, my hope--is that the panel will respond in the negative, and the matter will be laid to rest for the time being. I'm not going to take the time to "fisk" the allegations and the supporting documentation--that is no doubt being done elsewhere in cyberspace--but it is clear to me that that all but one are entirely specious and deserving of summary dismissal. To cite South Carolina's endorsement of the Anglican Covenant and its disavowal of TEC's association with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice as evidence of abandonment of the Episcopal Church beggars belief.

The only "charge" that is even worthy of discussion, in my opinion, has to do with the diocese's removal from its constitution its accession to the canons (not the constitution) of the Episcopal Church. This stems from a very particular issue. The convention of the diocese (and many others) believe that a particular canon (ironically, the one one under which Bishop Lawrence is being charged) is itself unconstitutional. Like I said, this is at least worthy of discussion, but it strains credulity to see it as in any way damning.

So I am hopeful that the Review Committee will see these charges for the nonsense they are. In the meantime, inflammatory rhetoric about grand conspiracies is ill-advised, unhelpful, and, at the very least, premature. Let's calmly let the process play out and see what happens.

I know a little bit about being the victim of unfounded allegations, so my heart goes out to Bishop Lawrence and all the people of the Diocese of South Carolina. May sanity, charity, and grace prevail.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Parting of Friends? (not quite)

John Henry Newman's last sermon as an Anglican was entitled On the Parting of Friends. He then left his cure at Littlemore and shortly thereafter was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

This afternoon (if all went according to plan), there was a liturgy at St Patrick's Church (RC) in Fort Worth, Texas wherein a group of former Episcopalians was received en masse into communion with the See of Rome. They form the nucleus of what will in due course (sooner than later, I think) become the first American manifestation of Pope Benedict's provision for "personal ordinariates."

[Factual excursus: These are communities that will exists outside (though in cooperation with) the diocesan structure of the Latin Rite (that is, mainstream Roman Catholicism). An "ordinariate" is akin to a diocese, under the pastoral care of an "Ordinary." A diocesan bishop (in any tradition than maintains the historic episcopate) is always an Ordinary, with responsibility for ordering the life of the local church. In the case of this new structure, the Ordinary may or may not be a bishop. The reason for this anomaly is that the Ordinary may be a married man. While there have been several married former Anglican clergy serving as Roman Catholic priests for a couple of decades now, there is no provision for married men serving as bishops. So these new Ordinaries will have the administrative and pastoral authority of bishops, including seat and voice in the appropriate national Conference of Bishops, but will not themselves be able to ordain other clergy.

The purpose for this arrangement is to allow former Anglicans to retain the "spiritual patrimony" of Anglicanism. What this means precisely is not entirely clear, but it will no doubt include liturgy that has the "look and feel" of the various sub-streams of Anglo-Catholicism, including hymns and other music.]

One of those participating in the Fort Worth liturgy today is a close personal friend of long standing. We began seminary together a quarter century ago this month. Our children played together. We were formed together as priests, and ordained days apart. I gave a preaching mission in his first parish. We served different parishes in the same city for three years. His son took piano lessons from my wife. We broke bread in one another's homes. (Shooting empty beer cans with BB guns on Easter afternoon still sets the bar for me as to how best to observe that piece of sacred time.) He preached at my institution as rector of the parish I served for 13 years in California, and I preached a year later at his institution as rector of the parish he went on to serve for 15 years in Texas. We have taken road trips together just so we could have time to talk, and the conversation was never silent. We have known one another's joys and known one another's sorrows. We have stood at the same altar and presided at the sacred mysteries of Christ's Body and Blood. We have been friends. We have been colleagues. We have been brothers. And I probably haven't told the half of all that could be told. 

We are still friends; that much is clear. I'm also certain that we remain brothers, though the character of that relationship is changed. What focuses my attention today, however, is that we are no longer colleagues. 

So I'm processing some pretty strong feelings today. While today's event is "interesting" to anyone engaged with the Anglican angst of the last several years, for me it's personal. I've known this day was coming for at least two years. So I'm not surprised. And that advance knowledge makes the actual event not one whit less shocking. 

Part of what I feel is joy. One whom I love is filled with joy, and I cannot but "rejoice with those who rejoice," per St Paul's injunction. This is the realization of a vocation he has felt coming on for a long number of years now, carefully and prayerfully discerned. What's not to like about that?

Part of what I feel is envy. This is a little difficult to articulate. I don't wish I had been standing beside my friend today. These are not the conditions under which reconciliation with the See of Rome would seem coherent and compelling for me. But reconciliation with the See of Rome is, in my opinion, a surpassingly worthy objective--certainly for Anglicans, but for all other Christians as well. To be out of communion with a church that has double apostolic foundation is, at best, an anomaly, and the burden of explanation rests on those outside such communion. The organic visible unity of Christ's Body should be at the top of everyone's prayer list.

Part of what I feel is anger. I'm angry toward all the forces that have contributed to making contemporary Anglicanism the fractious mess that it currently is. I am angry that other developed-world Anglicans have named a justice issue where I don't believe one exists, and have advanced a social agenda that a huge minority (at least) of the Episcopal Church (let alone the rest of the Anglican Communion) was not ready for. And I am angry that, with impatience that they see as righteous, some have resisted those developments by resorting to incendiary rhetoric, and turned aside from the agonizing but holy work of staying connected to a church that is still a church, even if it is in grave error. So my anger is bi-directional. Today's events in Fort Worth may have been inevitable; I don't know. But they have certainly been hastened by outside forces, and unnecessarily so.

Most of what I feel is grief. Something quite precious to me has been changed into a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable shape, so I experience it as a loss. That my friend and I can no longer receive the Blessed Sacrament at the same altar is a reality I can scarcely contemplate. I will get over it. Grace will abound in ways I cannot presently imagine. In the meantime, I will be sad, and my challenge will be to make friends with that sadness and put it at the disposal of the Holy Spirit for the outworking of God's providence.

All will be well. All will be well. All manner of things shall be well. (h/t Julian of Norwich) God is good, all the time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On the Ministry of Bishops: Some Rookie Reflections

I'm just back from my second meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. While in Quito, I observed both the anniversary of my election, and the six-month mark of my consecration. I'm still getting a feel for the culture and ethos of not just being a bishop, but being a bishop in a community of bishops. Those really are two related but distinct things, and I'm a little further along with the first learning curve than I am with the second, though solid progress has been made in the last few days.

While we were in South America, there was a bit of an internet buzz back home over the fact that we were assembled in such a faraway location. On balance, I concur with the skepticism. The airfares were steep, and the travel was inconvenient. For what it's worth, attendance at this meeting was perceptibly lower than when we met last March in North Carolina. That said, the hotel room rate--and we were at a Hilton--was dramatically lower than what we would have gotten domestically, and restaurant meals were downright cheap by comparison. Plus, in a time of crisis in the Diocese of Ecuador Central, I believe our presence there was a beneficial influence.

But the internet buzz was not only about the fact that we were meeting in Ecuador, it was about the fact that we were meeting at all. The criticism goes something like this: "The House of Bishops is only one of the two key players in the governance of the Episcopal Church. Why should bishops get to meet six times during a triennium, while the members of the House of Deputies only meet once?"

If one focuses narrowly on the process that produces legislation that governs the church, this critique may have some merit. It would appear to give the bishops, collectively, an unfair advantage. With only some 130 active bishops, it is already a more nimble body than the unwieldy 900-member House of Deputies. Adding to this the effect of the collegial relationships that are formed and sustained by meeting twice a year, and the fact that either house has an effective veto power over any proposed legislation, it would, in fact, appear that the "junior house" (as some Deputies are wont to call it) has disproportionate influence--some might say, unjustly so.

However, despite the experience of a not inconsiderable number of General Convention "wonks", I think it's safe to say that General Convention is not the church, and the church is not General Convention. There's a great deal of being and doing within the Body of Christ that has nothing to do with the legislative process. Much of that being and doing either requires or is enhanced by the presence of a bishop. This is amply evident at a diocesan level. To the baptized faithful within a diocese, the Bishop is an iconic sign of Christ the Good Shepherd, living and moving and having being among the flock of Christ. One of the lessons I've learned over the last six months is that a good percentage of my job involves just getting out of my car looking like a bishop, and then posing for pictures. Other things I do and say are pretty important, of course, but the significance of just being the Bishop cannot be overstated.

But, just as a diocese, despite possessing within itself the fullness of the Church's being, does not exist in isolation from other local churches that also possess the same fullness, a bishop does not exist in isolation, but is, rather, part of a college of bishops. There is a network of accountability--most of it mutual, some of it hierarchical. For bishops in those dioceses that are ordered by the structures of the Episcopal Church, the collegial character of the office is defined with some precision in the constitution and canons of the church, as well as in the rules and customs of that collegial community.

A bit of confusion--confusion leading to consternation--is perhaps engendered by the fact that, when the bishops of the Episcopal Church meet, they meet as the House of Bishops. This may be unfortunate, though there is so much inertial momentum behind it now that changing it is probably not worth the energy it would take to make it happen. The reality is, however, that when the HoB meets apart from General Convention, there is absolutely no legislative business that can take place. No canonical amendments can be proposed, debated, or voted on. Any resolutions that are passed (and they are rare) are strictly "mind of the house," with no binding effect on anyone. Instead, what happens at five out of every six HoB meetings concerns those aspects of a bishop's life and ministry, and the life and ministry of the college of bishops, that are non-legislative. This includes issues of leadership development, ongoing theological and spiritual formation, and teaching. While I dissented from the Pastoral Teaching promulgated by this most recent meeting, I wholly affirm that it is within the purview of the bishops' collective ministry to teach the faithful. Need I even be so explicit as to say that the House of Deputies has no cognate responsibility? 

(Of course, subjects will from time to time be discussed among bishops that may eventually find their way into the legislative process, as was the case this week with regard to structural change. But the same can be said of any of the 50+ CCABs, all of which include priests/deacons and lay persons, to say nothing of any number of informal networks, especially in this internet age.)

So ... bishops are not mere agents of General Convention. They are accountable to a whole panoply of duties and expectations that have nothing to do with General Convention. Look at the ordination vows and examination questions in the Prayer Book, as well as the catechism. Taking a share in "the councils of the church" is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. I do wish we could refer to these assemblies as something like "bishops' meetings." Perhaps then there would be less angst about the disparity of opportunity between the two houses of General Convention. It's been said that TEC is "synodically governed and episcopally led." There is some wisdom in this, I think. The House of Bishops should not try to govern apart from the church's synod (i.e. G.C.), and the House of Deputies should let the bishops do their job, which is to lead.

Nor, it must be added, are bishops really creatures of General Convention. Yes, the life and work of a bishop in communion with the Episcopal Church is defined and described in the canons and in the liturgy. But, as Episcopalians, if we are true to our own heritage and identity, we are quite clear that we don't make any of this up. We are part of the Church Catholic. The structures of church order, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the pastoral oversight (episkope) of the flock of Christ--these are all gifts from God that we hold in trust, as stewards, along with other ecclesial bodies that drink from the same well.