by George Clifford
Part 1 of this essay reviewed historical trends effecting TEC. Part 2 extended the analysis by examining two broad social trends (growing apathy to hierarchy and disengagement from traditional forms of organized community) that bode ill for denominations, TEC included. Part 2 also presented the first two of the four steps that TEC can take to once again become a vital missionary organization (focus resources on congregations positioned for growth and review our ecclesiology). Part 3, which concludes the post, presents the other two steps that TEC can take for renewal.
(3) We need new wineskins (i.e., we must revise our liturgy) because the old ones have cracked and no longer preserve the wine. Music is essential. Is congregational singing essential or is it a burdensome and unnecessary historical legacy from a time in which people had music only if they made it themselves? If congregational singing is important, how does TEC become a subculture (or, if you prefer, a counter-culture) that forms people so that they enjoy making music (instead of our current presumption that everyone wants to sing)? What music should we sing?
Scripture is also essential. We do not include Bible readings in our liturgy to afford people an opportunity for private reflection. Biblical allusions should enrich rather than impoverish our liturgy. How do we increase the attention hearers pay to Bible readings? How do we improve their understanding of what they hear? A sermon longer than 10-12 minutes is impossible in a worship service scheduled for an hour (or, more realistically in many places, 75 minutes) that also includes Holy Communion. How do we create a biblically literate community without the aid of a culture, schools, and other institutions upon which previous generations who lived in Christendom relied?
TEC is in the throes of developing a much needed liturgy for the blessing of same sex marriages/relationships (choose your own term; I prefer marriage, but want to avoid that debate in this essay). Assume that 20% of TEC and the population at large are LGBT (I have intentionally chosen an unrealistically high percentage). Even if those numbers are high by a factor of two or three, the need for the new liturgy is plain.
Meanwhile, what are we doing to revise our liturgy to reach the much larger number of people who are biblically illiterate and not attracted by our music? The number of biblically illiterate grows significantly every year; similarly, the cultural trend away from making one’s own music becomes more deeply entrenched each year. Personal preference is irrelevant. The Church exists to minister to the world, not cater to its members.
Legacy services using current liturgical forms will continue for decades, in some places even attracting additional worshipers, as occurred in the transition from the 1928 to 1979 Book of Common Prayer. However, the transition to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has become irreversible. In many places, Rite 1 services are now a genuine rarity. Similarly, we may lament biblical illiteracy and rue the lack of interest in hymnody, but that will not alter either. The Church needs to theorize about, design, test, and revise new liturgical forms appropriate to this technological era with its widespread biblical illiteracy and fondness for listening to rather than making music.
(4) We need to enhance and to expand our organizational capacity, by (a) reconnecting individual Episcopalians and congregations with diocesan and national structures and by (b) streamlining the organization and reducing overhead.
Ship captains tend to guard their individual independence and prerogatives. Yet the victor in war at sea was almost invariably the side whose ship movements and actions were best coordinated in strategy and tactics. Consequently, as monarchs and others acquired fleets of ships, they appointed admirals to command ship captains. Today, U.S. Navy admirals outnumber the Navy’s ships. The Navy bureaucracy, like all bureaucracy, is self-perpetuating and has multiplied command echelons to justify its own expansion.
TEC has had a similar expansion of its bureaucracy. Dioceses vary widely not only in geographic area but also in the number of communicants and congregations served. Patterns of organization and structure once useful may have become impediments in an era of flatter organizations and new forms of community. Tellingly, I have never encountered a TEC congregation that enthusiastically made funding the diocesan asking or assessment its top fiscal priority. Indeed, the prevailing attitude seems to be the exact opposite, frequently bordering on resenting what they perceive as diocesan taxation of the congregation’s monies.
The TREC survey similarly reported a disconnect between existing TEC structures and people in the pews, underscoring the need to reconnect structures with the broader TEC constituency, highlighting the benefits that streamlined, minimal cost structures provide.
For example, must the Church always gather physically or can it also gather virtually, something inconceivable until just before the beginning of the twenty-first century? Some TEC and diocesan committees, commissions, and boards now meet virtually. How far and fast can we shift the paradigm toward virtual meetings, electronic voting, and other high-tech, lost-cost, flatter structures? TREC, in their December 2013 letter, wrote, “Imagine that each triennium we come together in a “General Mission Convocation” where participants from all over the Church immerse themselves in mission learning, sharing, decision making and celebration.”
During a recent meeting of the TEC Executive Council, a friend emailed me. He noted that the Council that could have conducted all of the business that it transacted electronically, saving the travel expenses for forty people to attend a three-day meeting and perhaps substantially reducing the amount of time the meeting’s length.
TEC lacks organizational capacity, i.e., the will or ability to perform multiple concurrent tasks. For example, the Standing Commission on Liturgy is busy with issues linked to same sex marriage, so other issues sit on the table unaddressed. They are not alone. The same observation applies to most elements of our national and diocesan structures. Sometimes the urgent has pushed aside the truly important. Other times, the group has difficulty in setting and adhering to reasonable priorities. Most fundamentally, we lack organizational capacity in large measure because people have disengaged from diocesan and national structures, disengaged from organized religion, and we pursue the wrong priorities.
TREC is moving in the right directions with respect to enhancing and expanding TEC organizational capacity. Their agenda for improving our organizational efficiency, setting out an agenda of needed changes, and proposals for implementing those changes will hopefully result in suggestions regarding:
1) The role and mechanics of General Convention;
2) Roles and accountability of the Presiding Officers and of the Executive Council–particularly as related to Church wide staff;
3) Breadth of CCABs (Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards) and the creation of alternative, fresh, and creative models for Church wide collaboration;
4) Number of dioceses;
5) Capacity and leadership development.
TREC has stated that restructuring is not a cure for decline and that TEC needs to recover a missionary orientation. Nevertheless, TREC’s work can easily resemble that of marine engineers designing new sails and rigging for the JAMES BAINES. Radical thinking is required. Radical obedience to the gospel is even more essential. Letting go of old forms can occasion grief; we commonly cling to the familiar for security and fear the new. Yet the currents of change are sweeping away the old even now. Will we become a remnant? Alternatively, will we hear the new song that God is singing, and, following the example of Abraham, Moses, and Mary dare to journey into the unknown, confident that God is leading the way?
One clear indicator of TEC’s future will be the number of individuals who engage with TREC. If TREC and restructuring remain the province of the relatively few clergy and laity currently involved with TEC’s national organization, then TEC seems headed for oblivion. Alternatively, if TREC can become the catalyst by which the Holy Spirit brings a new missionary impulse to TEC, energizing tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of God’s people to engage with TEC congregations, dioceses, and our national structure, then we will hear God’s new song, loudly and clearly.
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.