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Change and the Episcopal Church: putting God in a box

Change and the Episcopal Church: putting God in a box

by Eric Bonetti

The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

As we work to re-imagine the future of The Episcopal Church, the only thing on which there is universal agreement is that change is coming. Whether one looks at finances, membership, our role in society, or our relationship with the other provinces of the Anglican Communion, it is clear that the future will be different than the past.

Some dread change. Others fear it. Many avoid it. A few embrace it. But regardless of one’s approach, it is interesting to ask the question, “How open are we to change?” Do we welcome the workings of the Holy Spirit? Do we know the Holy Spirit when we see its handiwork? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit as we discuss the future of The Episcopal Church?

I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions, and these are complex questions, not amenable to a quick and easy answer.

But as I watch the discussion about the future of The Episcopal Church play out, I increasingly suspect we put God — and particularly the Holy Spirit — in a box far more often than we realize.

Of course, we have a quirky relationship with the Holy Spirit to begin with. Talk too much about the Holy Spirit, and some will conclude that one is a Pentecostal, or charismatic. Other times, we don’t really seem to know what to make of the Holy Spirit. We know it’s out there, and we move quickly to the next topic when someone mentions the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, we hear the mighty rush of wind and, being Episcopalians, we refer the matter to a committee. In such cases, the wind still blows, but instead of being a hurricane-like blast, we corral the wind, until it hums along like the quiet sound of air conditioning in a four-star hotel. Barely perceptible, if at all, but comfortable, pleasant, and reassuring, and easy to ignore.

Many examples of this paradigm exist. Consider, for example, the promise of full inclusion in the life of the church for our GLBT sisters and brothers. We passed legislation more than 30 years ago calling addressing the issue, but for years did little to bring about meaningful change. Today, I suspect the Holy Spirit largely has done an end-run around us, and the mighty winds of change are moving not through The Episcopal Church on the issue of marriage equality, but rather through the courts and legislatures. We see ourselves as being on the leading edge of the issue, but rather than a hurricane, we bring a quiet air conditioning unit to the table.

Similarly, on the parish and diocesan level, we are good at stomping down change. How often have we heard, “But that’s not how we do things at St. Fill-in-the-Blank?” To which I am too often tempted to reply, “Really? Says who?”

In other cases, our efforts to limit the working of the Holy Spirit are more frantic. Instead of building a box from the bricks of governance, we hear the mighty rush of the wind and jump up to bar the door. Much like riding out a hurricane, we pull down the storm shutters, while piling heavy furniture, lumber and more in front of the door, all in the name of keeping the wind out of our home.

Need an example? There are many. Whether it’s the passionate opposition to the ordination of women or GLBT clergy, we’ve had more than our fair share of bar-the-door moments.

But perhaps the most pernicious is a very special box that we build for the Holy Spirit. This box is hard to see, but it’s bullet-proof and blast proof, and my bet is that it could ride out a nuclear war, largely unscathed. Tougher than tacks, more impregnable than Fort Knox, and able to resist the most determined intruder, even this hardened box is not enough to contain the Holy Spirit–but it does a remarkable job of slowing things down.

What is this box? It’s the box formed by the limits of our imaginations.

Right now, we are at an inflection point, where we are called to dream about, to re-imagine, and to build the future of The Episcopal Church. All about us, we see signs of the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit, leveling barriers, opening doors, swirling about steeples, blasting down hallways. But even when we welcome and embrace this tremendous force, we just can’t imagine it’s doing anything good.

Instead of seeing a call towards rebirth and a resurrection moment, we lament the impending demise of the church. We focus on declining membership, sluggish giving, and we respond by trying to contrive ways to return to the church of the fifties–a literal “faith of our fathers,” in which life is comfortable, cash plentiful, there are no women serving as clergy, and the most upsetting thing that happens is when the flowers don’t show up in time for Sunday services. In short, our imagination calls us to the past, not the future.

Just how far-reaching are the effects of the limits of our imagination? The answer, I suspect, is staggering.

Consider the discussion about the future of church headquarters, often referred to as “815.” The most recent general convention authorized sale of the building–a possible move that has met with stiff opposition by some members of the hierarchy. Others support the sale of the building, and a relocation to another site, such as the National Cathedral. Others treat the issue as a red herring and say that we have bigger fish to fry.

But almost nowhere have we asked the underlying question, “Do we even need a headquarters building?” As a denomination, we examine the issue, think about the need for phones, faxes, meeting space, file cabinets, and other infrastructure, and we respond by saying, “Of course we do. We just need to figure out where to put it.”

Sometimes, we get so far down the road that we trot out marriage equality, proximity to transportation, and more in support of this knee-jerk reaction, all the while ignoring the possibility that we perhaps neither need nor want an old style, Madmen-style quasi-corporate headquarters.

Far-fetched? Not at all. Some major corporations have as much as 40 percent of their workforce working on a virtual basis. Such an approach is green, as it can reduce the costs and environmental impact of commuting. And if implemented correctly, telecommuting can greatly increase the quality of life for employees.

Worried about marriage equality? Staff affected by this issue could reside in the community of their choice.

Need to see the whites of their eyes to know what staff is up to? Good supervisors focus on outcomes, not physical visibility.

Phones, faxes and record storage? Hosted, redundant, secure solutions are available for all of these.

Need a place to hole up? Plenty of parishes and cathedrals would be willing to play host, and would no doubt welcome a cost-sharing arrangement.

Meeting space? Plenty of that to go around, both in New York and elsewhere.

Missional issues? Spread the joy in places besides Manhattan.

Collaboration? WebEx.

What about the cost? The numbers are compelling. With roughly 120 employees at church headquarters, supplying each employee with home broadband, a computer, a hosted collaboration solution, and a voice over IP-based phone could easily be done for under $500 per employee per month. That comes to $60,000 a month, or $720,000 a year–a vast improvement over the current cost structure of our headquarters, which totals roughly $3.3 million annually.

In short, it’s not implausible that we are called not to move our headquarters, but to eliminate it altogether. But on the whole, we just can’t imagine that there really is a potentially better solution out there. Instead, we’ve gotten caught up in the goofy loop of conclusions based on unexamined assumptions.

My point here is not primarily about the future of church headquarters. Indeed, using this as an example comes with a built-in downside, which is that folks may get so caught up in the specifics of the issue as to miss the larger point. To borrow an advertising phrase from the last days of the old, pre-merger AT&T, the real question is one of “boundless opportunity” for the church as a whole, versus the pros and cons of any particular approach to our headquarters building.

I am not a pessimist about the future of the church. Indeed, I believe that the future is bright for our denomination. All around us, there are signs of the mighty workings of the Holy Spirit as the winds of change move about. Sometimes a hurricane, sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes a gentle hum akin to an air conditioning unit–there is movement all about us, driving us towards resurrection and rebirth.

But if I am wrong, and we indeed are looking at the imminent demise of The Episcopal Church, my bet is that it will be the limits of our own collective imagination, coupled with a lack of joy as we survey the wondrous change around us, that built the box that smothered the church.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

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Troy Haliwell

I could not agree with Eric more. We are not a Northeast church anymore, but a national one. Anything save for "pressing the flesh" can be done through online conferences, conference calls, email, instant messaging, as well as other internet based possibilities now and in the future for much less cost than maintaining a building that the majority of us will never see, never really interact with.

One example is how my priest and I communicate--mostly through email except for Sundays or an occasional drop in by me after a rosary devotion.

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A Facebook User

I am concerned - but not fearful - that our most recent adventure into change is yet another example of our propensity to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic. I do not believe we are dying, but we are being fundamentally transformed. But one caution - no particular thing will save us - Not technology, not

geographical location, not the best intentions of youth. We must return to a dwelling in the heart of Jesus and not be embarrassed that Jesus truly is Lord.

(Note The Cafe requires comments include your name. Thanks. - eds.)

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EH Culver

Eric Bonetti writes, "Similarly, on the parish and diocesan level, we are good at stomping down change. How often have we heard, "But that's not how we do things at St. Fill-in-the-Blank?"

Dorothy Sayers calls "We have always done it this way" the Seven Last Words of the Church.

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EH Culver

I don't hear it talked about much, but age also seems to be a factor in ordination these days. According to an informed source of mine, the Episcopal Church has come full circle from wanting young priests, to wanting priests with more age and life experience, to wanting young priests again. Changes in the hierarchy are coming, and I don't think they'll be limited to gender and orientation.

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Mike S

Um, Mary, did you read the article? I think he expressly says he does not believe that we are looking at the imminent demise of the church.

Mike Smith

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