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