by George Clifford
Part 2 (Part 1)
Presume, even if just for a couple of moments, that the prophets of doom are correct in predicting that denominations – including The Episcopal Church (TEC) – are living dinosaurs, anachronisms from a bygone era that will soon die off completely. If accurate, those predictions invite, perhaps demand, a radical rather than incremental re-imagining of TEC because we have little to lose. Post-radical reimagining, the worst possible scenario is that we have inadvertently hastened TEC’s demise as a denominational force. However, the best possible scenario is that radical reimagining reinvents and reinvigorates TEC as a twenty-first century missional force united by common prayer. Here are two proposals.
First, TEC might replace its formal, bicameral, hierarchical approach to governance with highly decentralized, ad hoc, multiple open channels that social media makes possible at little or no cost (imagine shattering rice bowls!). In this new inclusive approach, dynamic, self-organizing groups with open membership would convene around a task or shared interest. Groups would form, subdivide, multiply, and dissolve when and as members deemed appropriate, superseding the existing permanent agglomeration of TEC commissions, committees, and boards. Virtual meetings, online polling (direct democracy displacing representative democracy), and other electronic communication would advantageously eliminate most of the overhead costs associated with our current approach to governance.
For example, instead of only one group studying the theology of marriage, TEC could capture the energy the subject generates and allow any number of self-selected groups to grapple with the theology of marriage. The groups could all publish their reports; the initial reports might approach a consensus opinion (surely an indicator that the Spirit was at work!), a new group or groups might form to develop a comprehensive report, people might be comfortable with plural views, or a completely unexpected development might occur. An open-ended, decentralized process creates space and time for discerning the Spirit in ways that formal structures and tidy processes make difficult and improbable. Having only one group study a subject, report its findings, and then General Convention act decisively on that report perpetuates a chimera of common belief better suited to the Christendom of yore than the post-modern individualism of the twenty-first century.
TEC might discover that the majority of contemporary Episcopalians regard the elections, legislative processes, and budget debates in which we now invest considerable time and money as unimportant and irrelevant. (As an experiment, ask some Episcopalians what occurred in the last General Convention or Executive Council meeting, or to name three key TEC mission programs.)
Attempts to justify the importance of formal structures are both dated and circular. TEC requires minimal structure to comply with state and federal law. Nor do our Constitution and Canons interpose insurmountable obstacles. Eliminating most elected positions will minimize the need for elections; we can conduct any necessary elections electronically. Legislative processes are inherently exclusive, costly, and self-perpetuating; most TEC members are neither engaged nor invested in TEC’s ministry or mission. Finally, the next proposal replaces centralized finance and budgeting and with an entrepreneurial approach designed to promote involvement and ownership. In sum, focusing our common life and endeavors around celebratory worship, building community, spiritual formation, and shared mission endeavors will achieve more for God than the status quo does.
An open structure maximizes breadth and expansiveness (no limit on participation), honors an incarnational view of life (the Spirit can move through all Episcopalians, not just elected representatives), and is continuous with the past (retaining democratic discernment of the God’s leading) while changing with the times (a flat structure congruent with post-modernism). An open structure also coheres well with TEC’s theology that in Baptism God calls all Christians to ministry; the other orders of ministry connote particular functions within the body that an open structure respects.
Second, TEC might replace its reliance on diocesan financial commitments with endowment income, crowdsourcing, and outsourcing. TEC’s endowment is sufficient to fund the Presiding Bishop, Anglican and ecumenical relations, and a small program. Crowdsourcing might fund some of TEC’s ministry and mission, i.e., direct giving from multiple dioceses, congregations, and individuals to particular ministries or missions of their choice. People and groups give enthusiastically of time, talent, and treasure when they believe in the program or cause to which they are donating.
TEC could also outsource some of its ministries and missions to dioceses, congregations, or groups willing to take responsibility for a particular ministry or mission. TEC did this, in effect, decades ago with theological education, outsourcing responsibility for funding and operating clergy education to seminaries that, in spite of their links to TEC, now are largely autonomous. (That model worked well, though the failure of seminaries to adapt to our post-modern, post-Christendom world suggests that significant changes are in their future.) A diocese with a large military population might fund and support the Office for Federal Ministries, paying the salary for the Bishop for Federal Ministries who would remain a Suffragan to the Presiding Bishop. Another diocese (or group of dioceses) might take responsibility for youth ministry, or new church starts, etc. Several dioceses are moving in this direction, establishing local programs for clergy education. Outsourcing would both cohere with TREC’s key themes and encourage dioceses and congregations to expand their view of ministry and mission from the local to the national or international.
Ministries and missions not funded through endowment income, crowdsourcing, or outsourcing would end. Any expectation that the current flow of funds from congregations to TEC via dioceses gives the original donor a feeling of ownership or participation in the ministry or mission of TEC seems erroneous, perhaps naïve. The present approach of centralized decision making and assessments better suited a pre-Information Age Church that depended upon printing to disseminate information. In today’s world, General Convention and Executive Council approving TEC budgets paternalistically presumes that those bodies can more faithfully discern God’s leading than can the rest of the Church. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing eliminate that presumption, a presumption at odds with TREC’s key themes of breadth/expansiveness, incarnational theology, and social engagement/prophetic dissent. Moreover, this approach would foster entrepreneurialism, encouraging new ministries and missions for which dioceses, congregations, or ad hoc groups hear a call and have a passion.
Some entities, like an army, require strong, hierarchical, organization and structure. But TEC is not an army. And although strong, clear structure and governance provide some benefits, they can actually impede rather than promote ministry and mission. Sometimes, a flat, loosely connected organization can best leverage people’s gifts and passions, quickly adapt to new opportunities, and create community while preserving individuality.
Advantageously, radically reimagining TEC’s structure and finances may create new centripetal forces to hold us together as a Church united in common prayer. Involving more people – lay and ordained – in the Church’s larger mission may be the best option for helping a highly individualized, denominationally disengaged constituency to value our connectional polity. Engaging people in the Church’s ministry and mission, creating linkages that transcend geography by finding common theological and liturgical ground, will both promote common prayer and common forms of prayer.
The two proposals outlined above, admittedly short on specifics, suggest one possible way to reimagine TEC. Surely other options for radically reimagining TEC exist. Reform is not the answer. TEC is dramatically out of step with social changes and appears headed toward oblivion unless it successfully reimagines itself. Fewer Episcopalians are giving their time to support TEC ministries and missions; dioceses are increasingly reluctant to fund TEC. Radical reimagining offers hope for preserving TEC’s distinctive liturgical and theological identity as a church united in common prayer while adapting our structure, governance, and funding to the exigencies of twenty-first century life.
Part 1 is here.
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.