Further responses to the letter from TREC: one pro-ish, one con

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The Rev. Keith Voets, who blogs at The Young Curmudgeon Priest has read the recent open letter from the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church and is hopeful about TREC’s direction


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The task force imagines a Church built on networks and areas of practice, a stream-lined General Convention, the elimination of Standing Commissions and clarification around the roles of the Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies and Executive Council. TREC did not help its cause by releasing such a confusing letter and I hope that future communications will be a bit more clear, however I believe what they are proposing is worth a try.

I don’t mind a Presiding Bishop with authority. Someone has to mind the shop. While the DMFS should not be in the business of micromanaging the work of dioceses and parishes, there are certain functions of a central office that needs to be managed and the PB is the logical one to be doing this work. I would say however, that we will need to revisit the election process of the PB if that office is to take on extra responsibility. ….

Most of the negative reaction I have seen about the elimination of Standing Commissions and CCAB’s have come from those who have themselves a cozy seat on those commissions and seem unwilling to relinquish their power. Power in our Church does not rest primarily in those with purple shirts but in those who shape legislation for General Convention. It appears as if a number of those commission members who have being shaping policy and theology over the past few decades were imagining more power and authority given to them when they voted to empower TREC, not less, and they are indeed scared of what is about to happen.

The Rev. Paul Bagshaw, a priest in the Church of England, is less hopeful about the kind of church the letter describes. He shared the following reflection on the letter with colleagues on the No Anglican Covenant group and gave us permission to reprint it here. He writes:

I read the TEC re-organization Letter with interest but I have no standing in TEC and in any case I don’t know the context, never mind reading the report itself.

But that never stopped me before. And a little bit of me misses the blogging, so I offer you my thoughts below.

________

It was the “tough tradeoffs” that caught my eye. A quick search showed three all of which include the word ‘bold’ (7 uses in total):

“They [churchwide structures and governance processes] are often too slow and confusing to deal decisively with tough and urgent tradeoffs or to pursue bold directions that must be set at the churchwide level.”

making tough tradeoffs, setting bold direction, or driving accountability of churchwide staff to local needs

“At the churchwide level, we must select and fully empower clear and effective leadership to define agendas, set direction, develop expertise around complex issues and their implications, make tough choices, and pursue bold and disruptive ideas where appropriate.”

I visualised square-jawed men and women in understated suits stood around office tables and staring at bewildering flow-charts. How else to cope with complexity but to cut through it?

The Letter expresses the conclusions of people deeply immersed in the issues and swallowed into a certain group-think. Their analysis has convinced them of certain conclusions – and they know these will be unpalatable to a great many people. When persuasion fails, shout louder!

The whole tone is imperative, virile, urgent, demanding: there were 13 occasions of “must” (in the imperative sense). Such language suggests the authors themselves know they are not going to succeed by persuasion and rational argument.

But they will not succeed for another reason. Running beneath the text is an ideal model of an organization which is incompatible with the life of a Church.

The ideal seems to be marked by clear (10 uses – with clarity in the appended prayer) decision making and allocation of responsibilities, effective (15 uses) and efficient (3 uses) decision making, focused (8 uses) with accountability (7 uses). It is implicitly a business model, albeit a not-for-profit business.

I do not doubt the need for change – every living organization can only survive by changing – and as an outsider I cannot comment on the detail. But churches are inherently political organizations. (Curiously ‘political’ appears just once, and refers to the background context, not the Church itself.)

A political (as opposed to bureaucratic, business, functional) understanding of the Church would, I suggest, take somewhat different approach to organizational change. It would presume disagreement and the need to court participants, drawing them into the processes of change. It would discuss the distribution of power across the Church. (power appears once, with negative connotations: ‘Power struggles emerge,’. ’empower’ appears twice, both in contexts which seem to imply its opposite.)

It is implicit in this Letter that the central organs of the Church ought to be accountable to the local (13 uses, most of which identify too great a disconnect between the two). Yet the recommendations do not set out how that accountability would work, nor who in the local church would be the judge (‘local’ is undefined).

In fact the clearest use of accountability in the Letter sees it not as an essential part of the political process but as a bureaucratic device: “We must create accountability in our churchwide structure so that we are able to measure whether that structure is following the direction that has been set, ensuring a high quality of work, and driving efficiency.” (emphasis added.) this suggests at least a limited understanding of the nature and value of accountability.

A more optimistic political understanding of the task would lead to differing starting points, emphases and therefore conclusions. It would recognise that central structures are themselves inherently political and this feeds (and is fed by) an extra-organizational dynamic between central and local expressions of church.

A more political approach would perhaps focus on how groups are better involved in decision making, on subsidiarity in decision making, on sideways communications between local groups, on the ways geographic diversity (and diversity within localities) can contribute to and enrich the whole, and on how to safely include the recalcitrant outliers who ground their stance on explicitly apolitical foundations – like God, Faith, Prophecy, Scripture, Apostolicity.

Tough and urgent tradeoffs are the life-blood of politics, not the problem. Such moments mix reality with aspiration, they expose the underlying priorities and hopes of the participants, they can reveal both the best and the worst of participants. (And it’s interesting how few turn out to be urgent though they may be important; they are all liable to be complex or they would have been sorted years ago.)

And also a more political approach might also mention money, which doesn’t seem to be in the Letter at all.

Have you read TREC’s letter yet? What are your thoughts? What do you think of these commentaries?

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Very interesting and cogent analysis by Paul Bagshaw. And he is right that money is not in the letter at all. I have blogged previously, noting that TREC's recommendations so far make little or no difference to the money we are spending. Yet I believe it was our finances that first set us on fire about restructuring - the growing realization that our church-wide structure was created in an era of top-down corporate hierarchy that is no longer appropriate in a networked era, and spends proportionally far more on administration and less on "mission" than we would like to see. And it has been money over the past several triennia that has forced restructuring, whether we liked it or not, in the form of church-wide staff cuts and reorganizations. "Follow the money," said Deep Throat in Watergate days. I persist in believing that what we do with our money shows what our true priorities are. I am hoping that, whatever TREC accomplishes (or doesn't), that we can find ways to use our resources that are mission-driven and leave more resources in local hands, where most mission actually happens.

Susan Brown Snook

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