TREC: Real Change Impacts Real Lives

by George Werner

I come from another century. I started seminary 55 years ago and have had a broad, deep and unusual journey through our Church. These reflections are mine alone and in no way represent the Church Pension Fund or my wonderful successors, Bonnie & Gay, as President of the House of Deputies. These reflections come from my experiences both inside and outside our Church.

During the 1970's, Presiding Bishop John Allin challenged us to raise at least $100 million for Venture in Mission. Our first response was disbelief, yet VIM eventually surpassed that goal by more than $40 million additional dollars. In the four decades since, there have been attempts to do something similar. None have come to fruition.
For fifteen years I was a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of UPMC Health System. We grew from a couple of hospitals to a world renowned, cutting edge, health system worth $12 billion.

When asked what that was like, I sometimes said, "Like watching sausage being made. It was not very pretty, but worth it at the end." During that period, I had another saying drilled into me, "If you can't measure it, you cannot manage it." I experienced what it was like to drill down deep into a massive operation so we could measure & manage it with excellence & efficiency. I realized how important that knowledge was to making the choices.

We have finite resources. They include money and time. We have had a multitude of programs, processes, systems & workshops. They have each addressed a specific need or challenge or served a helpful vision. They have almost all been positive. But the question in "finite resources" is not how wonderful such endeavors are or were, but how many can we afford? How many can we staff? What is the best combination of this variety of "good things" for our Church? This also asks which efforts should be deferred or ended. Real reform means tough decisions.

I mentioned that time is also a finite resource. I love the Commissions, Committees, Boards & Agencies of our Church. I appointed many lay and clergy members to these. I made it a point to spend 24 hours with most of them, to better understand their work and to see how my appointees were doing. My personal judgment of those years was of excellent and diligent efforts. Go back and read some of the Blue Book reports and you'll understand. Yet, too few of the excellent ideas produced actually became part of our life in the Church.

My seminary friend, the late Bob Anderson, told me that when he became Bishop of Minnesota, he had committed himself to intense visitation of the parishes & people. He discovered that he was ex officio on more boards than there were days of the month & chaired seven. Our Bishops, our Lay Leaders, our Deacons & Priests all have too much on their plates. We honor their ministries and gifts when we take seriously the value of their time.

Finally, when we consider reform, we must always remember that real change impacts real lives. My tagline on E-mail comes from Frederick Buechner. "To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love." I come from a generation shaped by the depression and WWII. It may be part of our DNA that to lead in times like these means to offer to give something up for love, to sacrifice personally for our Savior and our Episcopal Church. During the healthcare "storm" of the 1990's, the outstanding CEO of St. Margaret's Memorial Hospital told us, "Being CEO of St. Margaret's has been my life's dream, but I realize that for St. Margaret's to have the best chance for its future, I must step aside." That to me is sacrifice, love & holiness.

I am deeply grateful to the members of TREC, and the many, many others who are seriously wrestling with the future of our branch of the One, Holy and Catholic Church. M ay the Holy Spirit bless us all on the journey to find our best way to serve.

George Werner is the Dean Emeritus of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA. Ordained in 1962, he served parishes in Connecticut & New Hampshire. Among his positions in our wider Church, he continues as a Trustee of the Church Pension Fund and was the 31st President of the House of Deputies. He and Audrey have been married for 54 years and are the proud parents of four children and fourteen grandchildren.

Where is Jesus

by George Clifford

In the recent dispute between eight faculty members and the administration at General Theological Seminary (GTS), where is Jesus? In asking that question, I intentionally echo the desire of a group of first century Greeks who approached the disciple Philip saying, "We wish to see Jesus." That desire encapsulates the hope that both inquirers and communicants still bring to the Church and seminarians bring to their years in seminary. Where is Jesus in the dispute at GTS?

On the one hand, I am dismayed that the dissenting members of the faculty refused to attend community worship services at GTS. Praying together defines who we are as Episcopalians. I don't understand their decision not to teach classes. GTS is presently a rather fragile institution, both in terms of its enrollment and finances. Declining to teach seems a last ditch measure, akin to a strike that poses an existential threat to a business. Clearly, the dissenting faculty members appreciate the significance of their refusal to teach and believe that they have good cause for taking such a dramatic action. Is there really no way to speak prophetically, effectively, and pastorally? Regardless, I remain dismayed by their decision not to join in corporate worship. Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies, those who hate us, those who persecute us, and even our fellow Christians. Surely, all parties to this dispute are Christians who can pray together, so that in the midst of the conflict, they might bear witness to Jesus and the watching world might see him.

One of the valuable characteristics of our corporate prayer is that our worship is scripted, mostly in the Book of Common Prayer. This makes it difficult to use the words or forms of prayer as a cudgel with which to beat persons with whom we disagree. I understand people declining to receive Holy Communion, if one does not feel in a state of grace. But disputants refusing to pray together? In our various ministries of reconciliation, do we not encourage alienated parties to pray together, to seek God's presence and wisdom?

On the other hand, I am dismayed by the public actions of GTS's administration, both its Dean-President and Board. My concern is not primarily with the details of the dispute or potential solutions, but with seeing Jesus revealed in the actions of GTS's leadership. Although I have read with interest the statements issued by the Board and Dean, and those issued by the dissenting faculty, I remain largely unaware of specifics. I do not know enough about GTS and its problems to speculate intelligently about possible, let alone preferable or optimal, ways to resolve the issues.

Leadership consists of persuading other people to join in achieving the leader's goals or vision. Jesus practiced servant leadership, a leadership style marked, in part, by humility, honesty, genuine concern for others, healthy relationships, and reconciliation. If the public statements of the Board and Dean express humility, I confess to having failed to recognize that sentiment when I read the documents. Relational difficulties usually entail missteps on both sides. Servant leaders appropriately take the initiative (i.e., they lead) by honestly acknowledging their missteps. Again, if communiqués from the Dean and Board acknowledge missteps, I confess to having missed it. Healing broken work relationships often begins by identifying common ground, e.g., a shared commitment to Jesus, to GTS, to theological education, etc. Identifying common ground does not involve hypocritically ignoring differences; instead, finding common ground helps to build the trust and mutual respect vital for people to cooperate in spite of sharp disagreements. Reconciliation—a reuniting that presumes forgiveness and amendment of life—is a longer-term endeavor that rests on a foundation of humility, honesty, and healthy relationships.

The GTS disputants appear to be polarized rather than reconciling with one another. Of course, it is possible that GTS's leadership has been humble, honest about their missteps, sought to heal broken relationships, and taken the first steps toward reconciliation in private communications with the dissident faculty. However, all I can see, and all that most Episcopalians and most people to whom we are to show Jesus can see, is the public side of the dispute. I wonder how many other observers are asking, Where is Jesus?

As I wrote the first draft of this post, The Most Rev. Frank Griswold had agreed to mediate at a meeting between the GTS Board and dissident faculty members. That meeting has now occurred. The Board, in a statement issued following its October meeting, emphasized that forming leaders for the Church is GTS's priority, reported that an independent investigation found insufficient justification for terminating the Dean, invited the dissident faculty to reconsider their position, and identified scriptures for meditation.

If the Board's statement represents an early step in a long process toward healing and reconciliation, I can see a trace of Jesus. However, that hope may be unduly optimistic. The statement seems short on humility, acknowledges no missteps, and does not highlight any common ground with the dissident faculty. In what is now a very public dispute, at least some elements of those moves need to be public in order to achieve reconciliation, healing, and show Jesus to a broken, skeptical world.

Perhaps what ails The Episcopal Church in general, and GTS in particular, is that we are dim mirrors or poor imitators of Jesus. Replacing biblical literalism with a progressive interpretation that incorporates advances in human knowledge from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities has let the light of God shine more clearly and fully in our lives. However, that shift has diminished our use of explicitly biblical images and Christian theology, the language and concepts that define Christians as a distinctive people. An invitation to meditate on texts, included at the end of a statement and with no indication of how God's light shining through those windows has changed the Board's thinking, can easily appear as window dressing rather than as a substantive engagement with scripture.

Switching metaphors, maybe we (and I include myself in that we) are no longer very skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff. We value the wheat of inclusivity and welcoming all, but confuse it with the chaff of relativism. We value the wheat of rights, participatory democracy, and community, but confuse it with the chaff of individualism. We value the wheat of integrity, but confuse it with the chaff of unresolved conflict. We value the wheat of loving others, but confuse it with the chaff of self-fulfillment.

My hope, my prayer, is in time we, and non-Episcopalian Christians and non-Christians, may all see Jesus in the dispute at GTS and in its ongoing resolution.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

'Gone Girl'... Surprise! Ugh!

By Bonnie Anderson & Dan Webster

No spoiler alert. Nothing in this commentary will ruin this film for you. Just go see it.

Gone%20Girl.jpgLuckily, Gillian Flynn, author of the bestselling book, “Gone Girl,” also wrote the screenplay for the film. It’s a good thing, too, because the story is complicated, intricate, surprising and could have been another book-to-movie disaster. Unlike the American version of the film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” also directed by David Fincher, “Gone Girl,” can be easily followed without having read the book. However, if you have read the book, “Gone Girl” easily transforms your personal visuals to the big screen.

Amy Dunne goes missing on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, and so it begins. Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck respectively, deliver stellar performances as Amy and Nick Dunne, each with their personal foibles and creepy, but distinct, behaviors. Police, media, Amy’s parents, Nick’s twin sister Margot (Carrie Coon) and ultimately Nick’s attorney (Tyler Perry) all serve as supporting actors to emphasize the bizarre unfolding of this psychological and often startlingly, physical, thriller.

If you plan to see this film, know before going that the breath-taking and graphic physical violence, coupled with the intense mental gymnastics exposes a form of evil that is unknown to most of us. Buckle up.

Amy and Nick start out gaining sympathy from the audience. Two young professionals find each in New York City (no small feat), get married, lose their jobs in the recession, and move to middle America to care for Nick’s dying mother.

Like many Americans who lost jobs in the 2008 crash their lives were stressed. Then a move…another stressor. Then the death of a parent. A lot of such stress on even the healthiest of marriages can bring out flaws or even worse, shatter them.

Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens), lead detective in the “find Amy” investigation, keeps a calm and measured demeanor amidst the craziness of the media and the drama of the plot. She holds tight to the law of innocent until proven guilty and is the one sane and even somewhat kind, character in the film. Nick’s sister stands by him, but she’s as wacky as her brother.

There are enough twists and turns, deep valleys and high plateaus to remind us of an amusement park roller coaster ride. But the film is not amusing. Sex and violence are used as forms of manipulation. Trust, betrayal, and the critical background noise of the media, effectively shape the fickle public perception of Nick’s innocence or guilt in Amy’s disappearance. Perhaps coincidentally, the portrayal of the role of the media in this film effectively rings true to the manipulative role that media often plays in “real life” during high visibility situations. Lesson to be learned by the public perhaps.

Just about anyone’s life, when it comes under microscopic evaluation, can turn up disappointing decisions and callous mistakes. In church language we call that, sin. We know that we all fall short of God’s hope and plan for our lives. That’s why in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, other Christian denominations, as well as other religions, there are rites for the admission of sin, an opportunity for amendment of life and a commitment to do better.

As the pathology unfolds on the screen and the worst of the human condition presents itself, the question arises: Where is God in all this? Hard to say. It wasn’t obvious. But the words that came to mind are those said before many Holy Communion services in the Episcopal Church: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires knows and from you no secrets are hid.”

Secrets can damage the soul and destroy lives. When we can share those secrets with the Almighty there is the possibility of hope; a chance at redemption.

Bonnie Anderson is senior warden at All Saints-Pontiac, Michigan and immediate past president of The Episcopal Church General Convention’s House of Deputies. Dan Webster is a priest in the Diocese of Maryland and former broadcast news executive.

Church, State and the Vanishing Wall

by Linda Ryan

There are always topics that tend to garner a lot of public opinion, one of the latest being the issue of church and state and how much control each of these two entities should have with regard to the other. A recent article in the Washington Post by Michelle Boorstein referenced the result of studies conducted by two respected public opinion polling firms. The results indicated that 46% of respondents feared that their freedom to practice their religion was being interfered with or constrained by government. Another 46% believed that religious groups were attempting to force their beliefs on all citizens, whether or not the respondents agreed with those beliefs. The statistics were, to say the least, interesting and a bit disconcerting.

The demographics indicated that those who feared curtailment of religious freedoms were older Americans, white, Evangelicals, Republicans and those with very conservative political views. Those who felt their own beliefs were curtailed or ignored by other religious bodies were those described as young adults under 30(Generation Zs), Democrats, politically liberal, and generally unaffiliated with a church, denomination or religion. In short, the two groups are as different as chalk and cheese.

Freedom of religion has been a topic of interest since the founding of this country. One group of the original colonies was established by entrepreneurs and young men anxious to make their fortunes. With them came the established church as important (as was conversion of the local Native Americans) but secondary to profit. Another group was founded by dissenters who felt they were persecuted by the established church and sought a place where they could practice their faith unhindered. Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth wanted to purify the established church of its' more Roman Catholic elements. Puritans were much more restrictive, wanting to do away with the established church altogether and follow a strict Calvinist theology. Other denominations came to the colonies with each wave of new immigrants, each denomination having the opportunity to either make a space for itself in the cities or carve out a niche in the ever-shrinking wilderness.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that there should be a wall of separation between church and state, a thought which was incorporated into the Constitution of the United States as part of the first amendment of what is now called the Bill of Rights. That amendment stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." While we may not be seeing individuals and groups attempting to establish a national church, we are certainly seeing those individuals and groups attempting to establish law based on one set of religious beliefs -- theirs.

In an article on the Episcopal Café website, Editor-in-chief Jim Naughton made the following observation:

I don't think our freedom of religion is in any danger, and I am disappointed that well-fed, well-educated, mostly white, mostly male religious leaders who know they will have access to whatever healthcare they need and a comfortable place to which to retire has succeeded in painting themselves as victims whose rights are in danger."

Naughton has summed up the situation rather well, but I have a feeling, though, that had any woman made such a statement, she would be widely pilloried as a "Feminazi," man-hater or an example of male-bashing.

Looking statistically, it is generally possible to see that the balance of power between male/female is clearly on the side of the males. In Congress, for example, the ratio of males to females is roughly 81% to 19%.3 The Supreme Court is 66.6% male to 33.3% female. The religious makeup is of identical percentages with 6 Roman Catholic and 3 Jewish members. One woman justice is Roman Catholic and one male is Jewish.

In the ecclesiastical realm, at least among Roman Catholics, various Orthodox denominations and sects, many if not most Protestant denominations, and among many non-Christian faiths, the ratio of male to female leaders is more on the order of 100% and no females need apply. Statistics do not tell the whole story; what is easily seen, however, is that power and the control which comes from power is firmly in the hands of one group and that group shows no real signs of wanting to relinquish or even share it unless they are required to do so.

The increasing clamor that particular groups are being persecuted because others do not jump on their bandwagon or voluntarily agree to follow their beliefs is, I believe, the ultimate hubris. Dissenting opinions and people stating religious beliefs of their own in various media or even with picket signs hardly qualifies as persecution. In a sense, it feels like a reversal of the Christians in the arena with the lions in ancient Rome, only this time the Christians are circling the lions.

The news is full of reports of members of various religious groups around the world being shot, beheaded, burned alive, kidnapped, or forced to flee with only what they can carry on their backs by another group of religionists who are bent on conquest and/or conversion by force. Protests from groups in this country who claim persecution because people choose to decline to follow their particular belief system appears both ludicrous and totally egocentric. The egocentrism and feeling of persecution being felt in some quarters is the fear that they will either (a) displease God or (b) lose power and control resulting in someone else mandating different beliefs on them. For them, it is a case of force or be forced, or so it appears.

The chain-link fence that used to be the wall of separation has come to pass since more and more legislative regulations and judicial decisions are reflecting a favoritism of specific religious points of view over those of others, including those who have no religious beliefs at all. One glaring example is the recent Hobby Lobby decision where the Supreme Court decided in favor of the defendant's request for relief from providing insurance coverage of contraceptives for its female employees, regardless of those employees' own religious beliefs or lack thereof. Hobby Lobby declared that it would violate their (Hobby Lobby's) religious convictions to have to provide such coverage. Five male Roman Catholic justices, who shared a similar religious beliefs regarding contraception, ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. The three female justices and the Jewish male justice dissented.

There have been other legislations and decisions that upheld one religious group's beliefs over others' whose personal, physical, and medical well-being have been compromised without their consent or control or even any seeming respect for their own freedom of religion and practice. It seems the separation of church and state is a one-way street. The direction of the one-way street is determined by groups and individuals with very deep pockets and endorsed by people with power and control to make it happen.

So where does that leave us? Where is the dividing line? Is there a way where the two can really work together for the benefit of all? There is a place for legitimate medical legislation, I believe, particularly when it concerns all segments of society and helps to ensure their health, safety and equal treatment. Many religions teach the need for care for the most vulnerable in their societies, yet some who profess the same religion choose a very different interpretation of the same religious texts and teachings that mandate that care. Both religion and the government require the cooperation of those over whom they exercise supervision and control to a certain extent, and both have areas in which they have strength to balance a weakness in the other.

Perhaps if the two worked together, not to gain preeminence for one particular lobby, special interest group, religious entity or adherents to a particular religious belief alone, but rather for the benefit of all, it might fulfill the mandates of both to provide for the equality of access to all civil rights, benefits and religious autonomy without regard to the person's race, gender, cultural background, orientation, economic status or religious preference.

For Christians, that would mean the beginning of the realization of the kingdom of God, a place of peace, harmony and justice here and now, not later and somewhere far different. It won't be popular with the rich, the powerful and those at the top of the hierarchy who would need to give up some power, prestige and control. It would, in the long run, produce a true prosperity, not an economy based on the perception of limited resources when it comes to the good things in life. It would provide for a healthier earth too, which would be a good thing because humanity still needs a home planet, a place where they have to share the good and the bad, even with people who disagree with them.

Ultimately, though, it is a choice for all of us to make as to which path and which leaders to follow, which fear to feed and which to brush aside. Hopefully, we will make the wise choice.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Hidden in Plain Sight: Domestic Abuse and the Church

by Anne O. Weatherholt

She is sitting near you or singing in the choir, possibly in the pew or chair in front of or behind you. He is sitting across the aisle or maybe serving as an usher. She is economically well off or perhaps she earns an average income. Maybe this is you. He is a well-respected member of society or maybe he is your priest. There are victims of domestic abuse all around you in church. So when the sermon is about forgiveness, when the topic of the day is reconciliation or the sanctity of marriage or the family, and there is no mention of the reality of abuse, they do not hear “good news.” They only hear that they are to go back into the situation where they are battered—emotionally, financially, spiritually and maybe physically, and that the church they love is unaware of their pain.

It has taken a scandal rocking the world of professional football to peel back the thick layer of denial that stifles our awareness. We want everyone in church to be okay. We assume that, because they are in church, for the most part everyone IS okay. As the victims look around, they think they are alone, the only one who is afraid to go home. There is a conspiracy of silence that infects both church and society, and this silence amounts to complicity with those who are abusers, who use power and control in manipulative ways to dominate and intimidate their intimate partners. Three of every five persons around you have experienced domestic abuse, are in abusive situations, or have a family member being abused. They are hidden in plain sight.

220px-20081123120727-violencia-de-genero.jpgDomestic abuse is not new. It has been around since Cain killed Abel. It is in every society and culture in the world. It is across all economic and social layers. The Hebrew Scriptures have some particularly hair-raising “texts of terror” including the rape of Tamar (II Sam 13:1-22) and the abuse of the unnamed concubine (Judges 19). In this second narrative, the estranged husband vows to “speak tenderly to her and bring her back,” when she has taken refuge in her father’s house. The father delays their departure for five days. When they do set out one evening, they no sooner reach a city when Levite offers his concubine to a mob who beats and rapes her until she dies. So much for “speaking tenderly”!

For those who are familiar with the cycle of violence, this pattern is only too familiar. During the so-called “honeymoon” phase, which follows a critical incident, the abuser promises to reform, may even begin counseling, and is apparently sorry for the abuse. The victim, eager for a way out and intimidated or exhausted from trying to placate the abuser, is ready to believe that things could get better; only they seldom change. Most persons who finally leave an abusive relationship have tried to leave up to nine or more times. Leaving is a difficult option. It means economic hardship, facing the stigma of separation or divorce, difficult issues of child custody, and it is the point in the cycle when abusers become most violent. Women most often are murdered by their intimate partners just after they have left; some are run off the road, shot in parking lots or murdered leaving work. Just today three women in the United States will die at the hands of their intimate partner. Children are caught in this battleground, held as emotional or literal hostages, and a person leaving an abusive relationship may feel that there is no safe place to go. If the family is undocumented or there is any criminal record for a spouse, the barriers are even greater to finding safe refuge.

So what can the Church and faithful believers do? The simple answer is A LOT! Begin with a deliberate decision to break the silence. Provide education about domestic violence, especially about the myths that prevent action. There are resources listed below that provide a good place to begin. Contact your local provider for domestic abuse services (if you don’t know where to begin, try and form a partnership with a local shelter. Publish their hotline phone number in your bulletin or newsletter. Make sure to post it in bathrooms (yes, even in the men’s room) and on bulletin boards. Place literature about domestic violence in your church library and have pamphlets handy in tract racks or tables. Start a drive for supplies to donate to your local domestic violence shelter (ask your provider what they need). This has the dual result of helping those who are fleeing violent homes and signaling to everyone in your church that there is local assistance.

For clergy: Parse the words of your sermons carefully when referring to issues of forgiveness and domestic harmony. Those who study the totality of Scripture recognize that forgiveness must have an element of justice attached to it, as well as a link to the responsibility of the people who are citizens of God’s Kingdom to promote justice, mercy, and safety for all. Use qualifying phrases to let those experiencing abuse know that this is NOT God’s will for them and that help is available. If someone confides a situation of abuse, say you believe them. Refer, refer, refer. Seek a broad approach for support using local domestic violence agencies, law enforcement, school counselors, and websites. Observe Domestic Violence Awareness month in October, and use special prayers to remember victims. Educate your youth group about healthy dating and the cycle of abuse. Take advantage of the headlines about sports figures to begin a dialog about intimate partner violence and child abuse.

The door has been nudged open a crack, and who knows how long this news cycle will last? The silence surrounding domestic violence is a difficult wall of denial on the part of abusers and victims alike, and it is a subject that most people don’t want to talk about. But once the door is opened, be prepared for a flood of stories and the wonderful opportunity not just to help but to save lives.


National Network Against Domestic Violence provides a national emergency hotline, provides a list of local, state and territorial coalitions

Faith Trust Institute: resources, books, training materials, sermons, essays, videos. Faith Trust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.

Peace and safety in the Christian home: is a biblically based international network providing spiritual insights, practical resources and positive guidance to all who address domestic violence. Its outreach extends to victims, perpetrators, law enforcement, medical personnel, shelter workers, safe home providers, social workers, clergy, therapists and counselors. The primary emphasis is on God's pattern of peace and safety in the home and on the deterrence of domestic violence and abuse.

Anne Weatherholt is Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans, Boonsboro, MD, and has been writing about Churches and Domestic Violence education and prevention for over twenty years. She serves as a workshop leader to train clergy and laity in Domestic Violence prevention and serves on the local board of a Domestic Violence shelter. She and her husband, the Rev. F. Allan Weatherholt, serve as volunteer State Police Chaplains

Books and publications by Anne Weatherholt:
Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, 2008; available from Amazon, on Kindle and from Morehouse Publishing.

Eleven Little Lies about Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, Forward Movement.

"20081123120727-violencia-de-genero" by Concha García Hernández - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Reflections on the TREC report and meeting

by George Clifford

The rather lengthy September 2014 report (available here) from the Taskforce for Reimagining The Episcopal Church (TREC) contains an interesting mix of proposals. Unsurprisingly, the report has evoked a great deal of response, both pro and con, including from a recent Churchwide meeting (video available here). Here's my take.

TREC perceptively describes the need for and consequences of a new organizational paradigm in The Episcopal Church (TEC):

We live in an age of networks, yet our churchwide structure has not fully adapted to this organizational paradigm. The evolution from a bureaucratic/regulatory agency paradigm to a network will profoundly change the role, culture, decision making processes, and leadership paradigms of and within The Episcopal Church’s churchwide structures. This would not be unlike other significant evolutions that have occurred historically around our church’s governance and structures.

TREC also helpfully catalogues functions that central TEC structures and resources can provide to dioceses and congregations, i.e., they can be catalysts, connectors, capability builders, and conveners. However, not all of the TREC proposals appear likely to move TEC toward a new organizational paradigm or actualizing those functions.

Positive aspects of TREC's proposals include:

• Clarifying managerial and supervisory relationships. Excluding a CEO (there is no option: the CEO must report to some form of board or other group), groups are an inefficient and ineffective means of managing staff in any organization. When it works effectively, a group directly supervising staff does so because personalities click and not because of it is a sound managerial structure. Under TEC's current structure, responsibility for managing and supervising TEC staff is often unclear, nonexistent, overlapping, or resides with one or more committees, commissions, boards, etc. TREC may not have hit a homerun with respect to this issue but by tackling the problem has helpfully put it on TEC's agenda.
• Shortening General Convention (GC) and allowing legislation to die in committee. Few deputies (based on my interviews with dozens of them at three different GCs) have sufficient knowledge of most resolutions before GC to cast votes informed by reason, tradition, and scripture. As one might expect GC deputies tend to be more knowledgeable about issues before a committee of which the deputy is a member than the average deputy is. Allowing issues to die in committee will shorten GC agendas and eliminate numerous well-intentioned if uninformed votes. The twenty-first century TEC needs to develop an energized, engaged mission focus and face the reality that few of our remaining 1.9 million members care about the niceties of legislative process and administrative trivia.
• GC evolving in the direction of a General Missionary Convocation. Implementation of this recommendation would move TEC in the right direction. Implementation needs to be enthusiastic, expeditious, and expansive.

Worrying aspects of TREC's proposals include:

• Diminishing the size of both the Executive Council and especially that of GC. Diminishing the size of these groups will have the unintended effect of distancing both from Episcopalians in the pews. Sadly, most Episcopalians care little and know almost nothing about TEC and its structures (if in doubt, hazard a guess about the total readership of internet sites that concentrate on TEC related issues; if still in doubt, ask five people chosen at random the next time you worship with a TEC congregation). If TEC is to survive as a viable embodiment of one branch of Christ's Church, TEC must broaden participation and deepen feelings of ownership among its members, especially younger members, a move in the opposite direction of what TREC recommends. I'm guessing that fewer than 20,000 Episcopalians participate in diocesan, provincial, and national TEC affairs, i.e., less than one percent of TEC membership. Substantially increasing the level of participation and sense of ownership from among the 1.88 million non-involved Episcopalians requires enlisting them in meaningful and rewarding opportunities for worship and service. Current legislative and administrative agendas provide few such opportunities that most of the 1.88 million find attractive. I've not seen any report of the number of the people who participated in TREC's Churchwide meeting, but infer from the silence (always a dangerous way to draw a conclusion, no matter how tentative) that many fewer than 20,000 persons participated, either in person or via the internet.
• Outsourcing staff responsibilities. Poorly managed outsourcing can quickly become more costly than performing the work in-house. Outsourcing offers limited opportunities for ensuring that a contractor's employees earn living wages, enjoy decent benefits, can make individual choices about women's health, etc. That is, TEC may find itself in the awkward position of indirectly supporting labor practices that, from a Christian perspective, are unfair or antithetical to resolutions adopted by GC. TEC can hire staff for short periods, carefully and explicitly explaining both orally and in writing to prospective employees the position's limited duration. Other non-profits successfully use this model. Setting high expectations that require high levels of employee commitment often attracts extremely well qualified applicants who believe they are responding to God's call.
• Entrusting the Presiding Bishop (PB) and President of the House of Deputies (PHOD) to appoint TEC taskforces. I like and respect both the PB and PHOD. However, making the incumbents of those two positions responsible for these appointments presumes that future PBs and PHODs will always have a decent working relationship, have the time to sort through thousands (at least hundreds, hopefully) of applications, and will resist temptation to appoint only individuals that they (or a handful of trusted advisors) know personally. A nominating committee is not ideal, but like democracy as a form of government, may be preferable to all other options.
• Expanding the role of the PB as CEO responsible primarily to a smaller GC. This proposal evokes images of evangelical missionary organizations (e.g., the Billy Graham organization) in which a central figure has great latitude, is accountable to a small board, and receives funding from a broad base. A key obstacle to TEC adopting this model is that the base has no loyalty to the PB; the base's loyalty, albeit a diminishing loyalty, is to TEC itself. In other words, the proposed change moves TEC in the wrong direction; future TEC viability depends upon increasing the loyalty to TEC of the base, the 1.88 million Episcopalians who occasionally fill our pews but who have little demonstrable commitment to the denomination. Evangelical organizations whose funding is contingent upon popular loyalty to a charismatic founder generally experience greatly diminished income when the founder dies; the organization becomes a mere shadow of its former self, if it even manages to survive.

TREC has intentionally solicited and welcomed feedback. TREC also acknowledges that their proposals are works in progress and represent initial steps rather than a completed plan of action. TEC is not a nimble organization. Indeed, one of our strengths is that we value tradition, which in many respects is the opposite of being nimble. As TREC's letter notes, TEC is already in the process of change. TREC's diligent efforts and commendable proposals, widening conversation about those proposals within TEC, and a pervasive invitation to the Holy Spirit to continue breathing new life into the Church, to magnify TEC's ministry, and to enhance its unity are encouraging signs that God is not yet done with The Episcopal Church as a vehicle for ministry and mission.

George Clifford has an MBA, is an ethicist, and serves as Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Power and authority--at GTS and in the church

by Jesse Zink

On June 6, 1952, the trustees of the University of the South considered a report urging them to admit black students. By a vote of 45-12, they declined. On June 9, the dean of the School of Theology, Francis Craighill Brown, and seven other faculty members sent a letter to the trustees asking them to reconsider the decision. The letter included the sentence, that if the trustees did not change their position, "We are without exception prepared to resign our positions."

The trustees denied the request. The faculty resigned (though not until the end of the academic year).

As an historian, I am always looking for precedent and parallel for current events. The Sewanee example came to mind as I read of the awful conflict at The General Theological Seminary, if for no other reason than the numbers. Eight GTS faculty members have "been resigned" as part of a dispute with the dean and board.

Although I have no special knowledge of the GTS conflict beyond what everyone else is reading, it seems safe to say it involves at the least a breakdown in relationship between a dean and the faculty. But I think we can gain insight into the state of our church by a (no doubt premature and definitely imperfect) comparison between Sewanee 1952 and General 2014.

The Sewanee conflict revealed an obvious fault-line in the church over the issue of race. There are many other examples of such conflict in the church in that period. Like American society as a whole, church members were torn about how far and how fast to go with racial integration. (Lest we forget, two Episcopal bishops were among those who wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham in 1963, urging him to slow down. He responded with "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.")

So what fault-line does the General conflict reveal in the church? It seems to be part of a broader concern—anxiety even—about how Christians wield and exercise power, authority, and leadership in this day and age. The response to the recent report of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church was notable for the way it focused, in some quarters, on the amount of power given to the presiding bishop, as if the Task Force had talked about nothing else. Not long ago, the pastoral relationship between a bishop and his diocese completely broke down over the wielding of authority. Anecdotally, there are no shortage of stories of serious and sustained conflict in congregations. In the last decade, the church has invested huge energy in revising its disciplinary canons. Individually, there is good reason to focus on all of these issues. Taken together, they are an indication of where we are investing our energy.

The anxiety about power and authority comes at a time when these ideas are very much under stress in society at large. Congress, one major source of authority in this country, fails to function. Institutions with authority of various kinds—banks, sports leagues, municipal police forces—are all being revealed to have feet of clay. The organizations that do have authority—tech companies, advertising agencies, shadowy "Super PACs"—seem more like amorphous networks than formal institutions. Power is (at least appears to be) more diffuse than ever before. People feel like they have less control over their own lives.

These anxieties are particularly acute in mainline denominations, which are seeing a vast shrinking of our power and resources. (Most, if not all, of the Sewanee 8 were hired at other Episcopal seminaries. It's hard to see any seminary having the resources to hire the General faculty if they wanted to.) We have constantly tried to theologize this—the post-Constantanian church; the opportunities that come from being peripheral not central—and there is merit to this. But that doesn't address our uncertainty, nor does it address the fact that some kind of authority still needs to exercised. And then General happens—and the conflict over differing models of authority, leadership, and power is laid bare for all to see.

The thought I am left with in these last few days is that conflicts over power, authority, and leadership are signs of an institution in decline. (I don't mean General, per se; I mean the church as a whole.) This is not always the case, of course, but the trend lines seem clear: when an organization is growing and confident, there is more to share around; when not, not. It may be that some of our church institutions need to decline—but let’s talk about that openly, rather than launching hugely destructive battles with one another. (Again, I don’t mean General but the church as a whole.)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the General conflict (as I understand it) is its lack of theological edge. It appears to be entirely about authority and leadership. Imagine, for a moment, an explicitly theological conflict at General of the same intensity, say about the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Historically, these are the big questions seminaries fall apart over. (If you are having trouble imagining a genuinely theological conflict in the Episcopal Church, well, so am I. And we should think about what that says about the church.)

As a church, we are still looking for productive ways to acknowledge not only the opportunity the future holds for Christians—and I believe along with many others that the future holds great potential for the church—but also the very real anxiety many people have about how that future will unfold. One step in this direction would be to begin to talk about these issues in a genuinely theological way. What do Christians mean when we talk about authority? How (for instance) does the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection inform our understanding of Christian leadership? What does it mean to have power in the church? How is it wielded? When I served as a student representative on the board of an Episcopal seminary, we had lots of conversations about how the seminary needed to train “entrepreneurial leaders" for the future. We never once considered how leadership in the church might be different than leadership in the business world, the world with which so many of my fellow board members were familiar. The General conflict exploded into public view on the same weekend that Paul’s hymn to Christ’s kenosis (Philippians 2.1-13) was the Epistle reading in church. Surely we can find some wisdom there?

In the face of mounting pressure from across the church, within a year the trustees of the University of the South had changed their mind. The most embarrassing moment came when Jim Pike, then dean of St. John the Divine, refused an honorary degree. We can pray that the disaster at General may one day be a footnote in a fine institution’s history. In the meantime, I hope that it may be an opportunity at last for fruitful and honest conversations about how as Christians we confront the anxieties about power, authority, and leadership that exist in our church and in society at large.

(Too little about the Sewanee resignations is available online. My source was David Sumner's, The Episcopal Church's History 1945-1985, now sadly out of print.)

The Rev. Jesse Zink is a priest in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a doctoral student in African Christian history, and the author, most recently, of “Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.”

Leadership, community, and the current crisis at General Seminary

by Andrew Gerns

On Friday, the news broke that most of the faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City have decided to refrain from teaching classes, attending official seminary meetings, and attend Chapel services until they are able to sit down and have a conversation with the Board of Trustees.

Despite a follow up letter from the faculty to the students describing in more detail what it going on, there is still some question as to what is going on.

The conflict has nothing to do with pay, hours, job description, benefits, or perks. There is none of the traditional pocket-book labor issues at stake.

This is not a disagreement over the need for change to they way we do theological education or the way we prepare clergy for ministry. So the Wisdom Year (where in students spend their third year in parishes, particularly those that are small, in distressed communities, or who have lacked regular, full-time priestly ministry, doing and learning parish ministry in "a real-world setting") is not at issue. The faculty have been supportive of the concept both in theory and in substance.

As far as I can tell the real issues have to do with the leadership style of the dean and his tendency to "Lone Ranger" decisions--even correct ones, but also dubious ones--without debate, discussion or buy-in.

In speaking with, or reading things written by, various stakeholders--some who support the action and some who do not-- I have learned the following:

The main issue has to do with the relationship between the faculty and Dean & President especially the consequences of his style of leadership. In particular, those who chosen to take part in the job action cite the apparent tendency of the Dean to hear questions as dissent and to assign hostile intent to those who disagree with his approach.

Dunkle makes no secret of the fact that he is a person who does not believe in collaboration but rather that he prefers to be a leader who keeps and articulates the vision with the expectation that the leaders in the middle will use their talents and skills to carry out his central vision.

The line in the faculty statement about "maturity" has to do with the fact that the Dean has told the students that protest is a form of immaturity and that the problem is that the faculty will not do what they must do to accomplish the mission as he sees it.

So the Dean does not like to waste too much time in listening to or compromising with other stake holders. Especially when that dialogue might delay or temper his vision. He wants to dive right in and get on with it.

Related to this is the fact that he has gathered all authority to himself. So he has final say over both curriculum decisions as well as the conduct of worship in the chapel. The problem is that--like many Rectors who find themselves in trouble--he apparently has lost the balance in leadership between direction and influence that is essential to function effectively in an environment where checks and balances exist. In a parish, the Vestry holds the purse-strings. A priest can choose to make that relationship essentially adversarial or essentially collaborative. In a parish, congregants can come and go. A rector can choose to write off those who don't follow as recalcitrant folks who dislike change, or the rector can choose to work the process knowing that most will come along and some won't but that the community is working together for change--and this takes time, patience, and finesse.

This comes into play in the Dean's public discussions about the so-called "Wisdom Year." For him, "Wisdom" comes from the experience of enduring conflict. He has said that what students need to experience in the Wisdom Year is "being beat up." While he has publicly and repeatedly apologized for using that image, it reflects a bias that "wisdom comes through struggle."

Add to that the idea that theological knowledge is secondary to practical skills. He has also publicly told people in public forums that a priest's education is incomplete unless the cleric learns in the "real" world she or he must be able to "fix the toilet." His perspective is that unless the cleric learns practical considerations of institutional management, the priest will not be successful.

We in this see two different visions of theological education at odds with each other.

The tension comes when those practical considerations are cut loose from theological reflection. Basic questions about how the parishes that are supposed to benefit the most from the wisdom year--marginal, struggling and moribund congregations in various states of transition--can afford and pay for the seminarians sent to them for a year; of how those students will receive useful supervision, peer support, and theological reflection; and how the congregations will both get necessary sacramental ministry and live with the decisions these students make from year to year have not been effectively answered. In the haste to get this model up and running, fundamental questions of both process and mission are left unanswered.

A third perspective the Dean brings is that it appears that the success of the leader can be measured by the resistance he experiences from the system. From this stand-point, collaboration can be dangerous because it allows the leader to live at the mercy of the anxiety of those threatened by change. Again, I hear in his comments about wisdom coming from "being beat up" and protest arising out of "immaturity" as indicative of a perspective that assumes that when people are fighting back, the leaders must be doing something right.

Lastly, Dean Dunkle believes that the Seminary must align itself to be responsive to the general attitudes and trends of the church at large. To be relevant to the culture, the seminary must dare to jettison some long held traditions. So he has ended the practice of daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist in favor of a schedule of alternate morning prayers and Eucharists over a few days a week. He has removed some of the pews to make for a space for people to socialize after chapel. And he has discouraged the use of words like "Mass" in describing the Chapel Eucharist or "Solemn" in describing a sung liturgy (in favor of the friendlier "festival") because, in his view, that's not now the culture at large speaks about the liturgy.

In the process, the focus on worship that was once the hallmark of life at General changed. Because most parishes don't worship on a daily basis and most don't have daily Eucharist, and since the student body is more and more dispersed, the pattern of worship has been changed.

But with this decision, the idea that formation happens in community and that the rhythm of daily office and daily Eucharist anchors the common life of the seminary, even if only a minority of the community was present at any given time (because mandatory Chapel went away decades ago), has been eliminated. The idea at the heart of Hoffman's grand design of the Close was to combine academics with Chapel life in a way to intensely form priests. There is a reason that the buildings include living spaces and classrooms that center on the Chapel.

Now, this is not to say that worship is at the heart of the tensions with the faculty. The pinch comes when decisions about worship that have a significant impact on the fabric of the community are made by mere fiat. That's a recipe for turmoil.

There appears to be a profound lack of theological reflection in the process of change that the Dean has undertaken, which along with an impatience with relationship-building, that is strangely at odds with the mission of a seminary to form and prepare priests for mission in parish communities.

After a decade or more of financial instability that required the relief of accumulated debt--through the sale of significant chunks of property-- and after many false starts at realigning the mission of the seminary, I believe that the Trustees wanted a strong leader, a man of action, who willing to think outside of the proverbial box. It is entirely possible that the Board is completely sold on and committed to the direction and changes that the Dean has in mind.

I believe that the faculty were as anxious as the Trustees were to have in their Dean someone who was willing to take big risks and make bold moves. What no one expected is that this particular leader would not be at home with collaboration but is instead impatient to get going and get the job done.

The Trustees may have been told that they should expect resistance from the faculty and that this might be seen as a sign of success. They may not want to have any dialogue with the faculty because they feel that they must support the Dean and President no matter what. And they may believe that to mediate conflict or to develop processes to bring in key stake holders in the decision-cycle will de-rail the hard choices to come.

The Trustees, I think, must choose what they understand their primary function to be: let the vision and direction flow from the Dean and President or, alternatively, to be the ones who themselves take responsibility for developing a vision and direction for the seminary. Being an elected and appointed body that represents the wider church, alumni, faculty and students, this will by definition call for collaboration.

In my view, it is not the Dean and President who is in charge of developing the mission and direction of the Seminary, but the Board of Trustees and by extension the General Convention who, after all, "owns" the Seminary in a way that is unique to the seminaries of the Episcopal Church.

There is an interesting parallel process to the recent turmoil uptown at the Metropolitan Opera, who barely avoided a devastating lock-out and salvaged their season when the unions representing the choristers, stagehands, and orchestra wrung out of the Board and Peter Gelb, the artistic director, significant input into the artistic choices of the company, the use of resources to put on productions, and financial accountability.

In that instance, the take-it-or-leave-it style of leadership generated a crisis, perhaps in the hope that the management and board could win concessions and cost savings from the workers and artists who put on the productions. Instead, it alienated the people who made the Opera possible and, worst of all, drove away patrons and donors.

What is happening in Chelsea Square is similar in that the leadership is so intent on their goal and so committed to a single over-riding vision, that they appear to have forgotten who it is they serve, who it is that makes the mission happen and who must live with the decisions in the long run.

It is true that the tone of an organization--parish, seminary, opera company, manufacturer--emanates from the leaders. But it is easy to forget that an organization is organic. The effective leader listens to resistance--from within himself, from within the organization and from outside--because of it is usually sending a message. The leader must choose what stance he or she is going to take towards the people being led. This means choosing his or her approach to the necessary and predictable responses to even ordinary change. If one assumes that the people who are not buying into your vision are incompetent or fearful or wrong, or if people who have a different approach are either saboteurs or terrorists, then all the organization will experience is conflict. The measure of success will be "winning" rather than accomplishing the goal.

It is true that if a leader takes the approach of going along to get along and always accommodates unhappy people, then the organization falls into kind of chaos.

But what is strange here is that fight is among people who essentially agree-- but who bring to the table concerns or perspectives that seem distracting or irrelevant to the leader.

This is the second time in a year when a seminary of the Episcopal Church has been wracked by internal strife between administration and faculty. Tom Ehrich wrote about his seminary that he hoped that students would learn that this is not the way to handle conflict. In a similar vein, I hope that the current class of students of my alma mater will learn that visionary, risk-taking leadership is required for the church's future, but that perhaps this is not the way to go about it.

One may disagree with the approach the faculty has stay away from classes, meetings and chapel until they have a open and honest conversation with the Board...but after two attempts at mediation have failed--combined with the fact that it has only taken twelve months for this level of crisis to unfold--indicates that leadership has failed to build on the opportunities that their new found financial stability has brought them.

Instead of developing a shared vision, building relationships with all the stakeholders, a solution is imposed as a cure all with the promise that it will change the church. Perhaps that's the problem. We don't change the Church. The gathering of God's people, wherein the Holy Spirit dwells and which demonstrates the face of Christ, changes us.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog “Fun’n’Games in the Kingdom of God.”

Once Outside the Walls, What Shall We Say?

by Sam Laurent

Having read the latest dispatch from TREC, and several reactions to it, I am first reminded that, after the talk about the mission of the church and the call to “reimagine” how we function in the 21st century, the General Convention resolution that gave us TREC is primarily concerned with the governance structures of the church. So it is appropriate and reasonable that their letter focused on that area, with hints that the larger work will entail seriously examining the things we say about God and the way we say them. TREC is not meant to focus on our God-talk.

And yet, so much of the rhetoric around this reimagining has to do with getting “outside church walls,” pushing beyond the habitual confines of our church life and offering people a new paradigm of Christianity. We want to break free from the “chosen frozen” moniker and make it known that we are a passionate, thoughtful, committed people who take the task of following Jesus seriously. So we should get outside our increasingly empty pews and go talk with people.

But what shall we say to them?

Our heritage is that of an established church that became the church of the establishment in this country. We may feel squeamish about it, but secular positioning and a sense of social obligation have done a lot of our evangelizing for us, at least where church attendance is concerned. People came to us, perhaps yearning not for Jesus but for social standing, but still, they came.

As a cradle Episcopalian, active in the church all my life, I grew up in warm communities that nurtured me and mentored me and developed my leadership skills and self-confidence. Immeasurable gifts, for sure. And yet I couldn't have told a newcomer—much less someone who had not already bothered to come to my church—about who we are and how patterning our lives after Christ is at the center of our communal life. In fact, I was steeped in an ethos of being a bit sheepish about mentioning Jesus, lest I sound like a televangelist. There, I suspect, is the rub.

Consider a simple bit of logic: many of the people with whom I attended youth events (I am in my 30s, so I speak of the 1990s here) no longer attend church. That means their kids are not being raised in church. THAT means that if those kids, upon reaching adulthood, visit a church, we will not be able to rely on the heretofore reasonable assumption of a certain baseline familiarity with Christianity and its practices. Put simply, the newcomer of the future will be “newer” than the newcomer of the past, and less socially conditioned to go to church. That is, they will need more convincing of the value of our practices, and will be less familiar with what we might call the “fundamentals” of Episcopal faith. Our God-talk matters more with each passing year.

Another simple point: make a reference to “815” online and see how many people think it's an area code or a band or a typo. The decline in the number of communicants in Episcopal churches is, I must assume, not tightly linked to our national governance. Rather—and this is something I do not hear being said within the church—I think it is happening because the social expectation of church attendance has relaxed and people can now freely admit that they do not (and perhaps never did) believe all of the things that our churches proclaim. They did not feel what we had told them they'd feel, and they don't believe what we ask them to say they believe. They are not going to other churches. They are leaving religion.

One more obvious but necessary observation. These people I grew up with, the friends I've made more recently, these folks who were raised in churches and stopped going? They are exceedingly smart, thoughtful people. They are not superficial, they are not lazy, and their lives do not lack rigor. They are deeply committed to justice, to an ethos of love, and to helping their neighbor. But many of them were hurt by churches, and many others just found that the spiritual good of church attendance no longer outweighed the preponderance of dogma they couldn't accept. They find the spiritual good in other places. The people who are leaving the church are not faithless or shallow. I think we have spent far too little time sitting with the reality that our God-talk has chased people away.

It need not be so. While I do not advocate a cynical capitalist strategy of saying whatever it is that people want to hear, it seems altogether reasonable to think that we might find ways of proclaiming the Gospel that are both faithful to our spiritual inheritance and resonant in the world around us.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a theologian by training. Having grown up in the church, I learned to talk about Jesus in graduate school. I don't believe theology will magically solve the church's problems, but I also don't believe that they can be solved without theology. In the whirlwind of our times, God calls us to proclaim God's love in ways that require new words, new ideas, and a listening spirit. We need not—indeed, ought not--discard our tradition or the wisdom of Christians past, but we must ever strive to interpret God's revelation such that it speaks to our context. The truth of it is that we have room for improvement on this count.

Take atonement as an example. A doctrine that remains largely the domain of mystery, it fairly leaps at the newcomer, as they are told that Christ's blood was shed for them, that Jesus offered “a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” With some exegesis, some discussion of Anselm and of Girard, for starters, atonement becomes a vital point of grace and wonder right at the center of the Christian narrative and life. But at first encounter those words above, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, may not mean what we think they mean. Presented as though self-evident, our words get away from us. And so my discussions with catechumens spend a lot of time on the matter of atonement, and relatedly talking about theodicy. Right there, at the center of our worship, are phrases and images that need unpacking. Welcoming people into the Body of Christ (there's another less-than-obvious term) is as much a matter of teaching as of inviting.

But catechesis has, to be frank, not been a focus for quite some time. With social position in our favor and lex orandi, lex credendi on the tips of our tongues, we assumed that our liturgy was plenty formational, with some cursory inquirer's classes and six weeks or so of confirmation training filling out the syllabus. Book groups and Bible studies have long been elective courses.

Digging into the theology, the history, the biblical hermeneutics behind our language can open up once-imposing language so the wisdom of the centuries can be heard anew. I know that contemporary thinkers are engaging new philosophies, the sciences, and the changing flows of information to offer up fresh visions of divine activity and calling, and that these ideas matter. Our challenge is welcoming people into conversations, hearing their concerns, their doubts, their desires and their discomforts, and helping them experience the vast and expanding wealth of Christian theology as a guide for their own journey. Theology is not meted out to people, but is done alongside them, as prayer.

So the mission field of the 21st century as I see it is populated by informed, intelligent people without a church upbringing, with justifiable skepticism about organized religion. Most of them will not come to church. But the church that can speak to their intelligence, can honor their discomfort with some of the dogmatic formulations we merely roll our eyes at, and that resists the urge to assume that doubt resolves to faith is the church I want to be a part of. We are called to talk about God with them. This is core to the mission of the church, to the baptizing of people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

I do not believe that TREC is re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but I don't think their ultimate recommendations will address the crux of the church's decline. If we strive to be a church where each person can articulate their Christian vocation, we will be on to something. That will require a renewed commitment to adventurous theological education in our communities, and an admission that our catechesis has been lacking. The years to come will ask us to be bold, articulate, and compassionate proclaimers of the Gospel. I pray that the church governance, whatever shape it takes, challenges us to make sure our God-talk is up to the task.

Sam Laurent, Ph.D. is a layperson, theologian, and stay-at-home father in Durham, NC. He serves as Theologian In Residence at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC, where he preaches monthly. Most recently, Sam published an essay on John Coltrane and divine creativity in The Counter-Narratives of Radical Theology and Popular Music: Songs of Fear and Trembling, available from Palgrave Macmillan.

Beyond Cynicism: The Fault is in Our Stars

by Donald Schell

I enjoy reading movie reviews. I find them a good way to listen for themes and ideas in popular culture. Sometimes the best reviewers get me wondering about the philosophy (and even theology) of the moment – what it has to say to our proclamation of Gospel or what the Gospel we preach and mean to live might say to cultural perspectives we hear in the movie reviews. Reviews also help me decide whether to see or avoid a movie. Though occasionally it’s my argument with the reviewer rather than his/her endorsement that makes me eager to see the movie.

Fault_in_our_stars.jpgA couple of very good, dependable reviewers seemed to agree that it would unfair to expect “The Fault in our Stars,” the purportedly comic movie about young cancer patients in love, to escape being emotionally manipulative. Both offered a very guarded recommendation of the film “The Fault in our Stars.” They admitted they were reluctant to recommend the movie, because, though found it appealing – they agreed the script well-written and the film-making and acting were very good, but, they warned, since it ended more or less as we knew it had to, it would impossible for the movie not to be manipulative. Expect to find yourself crying, they said, though the film’s other rewards might make it worth putting up with that.

Tears? Manipulated to tears? This warning made the movie all the more appealing to me. Not because I look for tearjerkers, but because I mistrusted their fear of manipulation. Yes, I can feel manipulated, but I welcome a movie that can give me a moment of honest tears. I have a similar sensibility in liturgy. While I’m very suspicious of liturgical manipulation, I enjoy the moments in ordinary or extraordinary liturgy when tears come unsought. And I deeply appreciate Maggie Ross’s re-contextualizing tears as a Christian tradition in her book The Fountain and the Furnace, The Way of Tears and Fire. Our best thinking, whole person, wholly embodied thinking isn’t just rational – it united mind and heart. Or should I say, “Restores heart to mind?” Sentiment, feeling, and beauty meet skepticism and suspicion in some quarters of our culture and media, but without them we’re not fully alive.

So, reading between the lines of warning or cautions from reviewers we usually trust, my wife and I went to see “The Fault in our Stars.” We both enjoyed it a lot and talked about it for several days. Each of us noted that we had laughed at places we wouldn’t have expected to find ourselves laughing, cried a bit and welcomed that, and had been moved in deeper and quieter ways, sometimes in the parts where we guessed those reviewers were probably warning of manipulation. And we liked the movie enough to go on to read the John Green novel that the film had adapted.

I suspect that we need to be clear that there’s a difference between manipulation and invitation to feeling, between sentimentality and honest sentiment if we hope to speak Gospel in our post 9/11 world, politically polarized culture and context.

Our youngest son - a twenty-seven year old actor - and I have had some satisfying conversations about his generation’s version cynicism of our culture’s pervasive cynicism. He calls it “sarcasm” and thinks it partly stems from fear of seeming un-cool. One day at a time he persists in the holy, unpromising commitment to a life making art while he works a couple of day jobs to pay the bills. Feeling is at the heart of his work as an artist, being honestly present to his character, the other characters onstage and the whole weather system of feeling that brings any scene from a play to particular life. And giving real voice and embodiment to characters’ feelings touches the feelings of the audience. Rehearsing and performing a part in a good play invites substantial exploration of the psyche, the actor’s own psyche, the character’s psyche, the playwrights’, and the audiences’.

Recently our actor son performed at San Francisco Playhouse, a theater that says of itself,

“Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters.”

Part of what we do together liturgically invites taking the same risks.

Seeing my actor’s commitment to compassion practice in his art, I’m fascinated at what he has discovered and come to love in classic and popular culture from the past. I introduced him to Ella Fitzgerald, and he became an enthusiastic listener until he found Billie Holliday. “Don’t you think Ella’s voice is beautiful?” I asked him. “It is, dad,” he says, “but there’s something in Billie Holiday’s singing that I crave.” He doesn’t go to church any more, but his description of what he looks for in a theater ensemble working with a director and with other actors and the audience sounds to me a lot like a movement of the Spirit. And when I tell them that, he gets it. He also believes deeply in love, in fairness, in honesty, and (it’s important not to miss this one) in beauty.
So when I asked him about his generation’s version of cultural cynicism he recognized it immediately. “Dad, people my age don’t have a lot of hope,” he said. “Don’t forget that we’re the first generation in human history to know humanity could be extinguished from the earth in our lifetime.” He was surprised to learn that many people my age (including me) had our own expectations of a secular apocalypse as we lived through the Cuban Missile crisis and all the nuclear saber-rattling of the 1950's and 60’s. I told him the Summer of Love was another response to the prospect of imminent annihilation. “Wear some flowers in your hair” and ultimately my generation’s version of cynicism came from the seeming certainty that we’d see the end of it all. I told him about the assassinations of leaders who carried different kinds of hope - Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, JFK, RFK, reminded him of Kent State and Johnson’s escalating the Viet Nam War and suggested that perhaps by the time Nixon ended it my generation had exhausted its hope.

How do we renew our willingness to risk feeling? In addition to church, I go to a lot of theater and a good selection of movies. In fact my wife and I see plays about as often as we go to church. And my average church attendance is definitely more than once weekly. When I go to theater or the movies, I’m usually looking for something SF Playhouse’s “empathy gym.” Yes, I do go occasionally for simple pleasure and escape, but even then, I’m looking for artists risking a trustworthy integration of human story and Spirit, a storytelling that can see all that threatens us and all the ways we threaten each other, and still risks hope, still takes the care to draw the contours of love.
I don’t expect the reviewers of “The Fault in our Stars” are listening, but I do encourage readers of Episcopal Café to see the movie. Watch it and see where and how it engages feeling? Ask if it’s trustworthy. My actor son and I have often talked about plays and movies that risk imagining that love is possible, the big risks that’s well worth taking. We’re inspired by the courage of artists who don’t flinch from ugliness but also aren’t afraid to offer and celebrate beauty, fragile as it is. Dostoyevsky said beauty would save the world. Beauty connects something real in us to something real at the heart of existence, the territory where faith meets the hidden work of the Spirit, and there’s ultimately no beauty without compassion and forgiveness.

“The Fault in our Stars” is a movie worth seeing. Augustus and Hazel Grace, the young couple that meet in the cancer support group, have more questions than answers and struggle deeply with hope. They’re believable as adolescents in love. A lot turns from them on the one deeply cynical character in the movie, and in his encounters with them his cynicism remains brutally intact. There are some telling moments of a church worker leading a support group (in an Episcopal church) – he offers impossibly facile answers to kids with cancer. Both the cynical character and the over-eager apologist felt real, and their voices confirmed the bigger picture are larger hopes John Green and his central characters showed us.

As a pastor, as a writer, and as a person who has seen friends go through some terrible losses, “The Fault in our Stars” rang true. I’m grateful to a young writer, young director, and young actors for giving witness to tough Good News, offering us desperately mortal young people un-resigned to cynicism, staring death in the face, and gambling that love is stronger the death.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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