by Leng Leroy Lim
What does it look like when democratic governance fails in the nation and in the church?
The current presidential primary is instructive here. Different segments of American society no longer see themselves as respected opponents within one demos, one loosely unified body politic, but as mortal enemies. The result looks more like a battle between competitors determined to wipe one another out than the sane electoral process proper to a coherent democratic society.
In a functional democracy winning power should be seen as service to the common good, and not as the triumph of individuals or factions determined to serve their own interests. A true “common-wealth” can only exist when all members, and especially those in power, accept the responsibility to care for and share with one other, including their opponents. Judged by this standard, our democracy is in trouble.
The trouble I have in mind today, however, is not that faced by American society, but that which faces The Episcopal Church USA. On this day (March 25) in 1783, (coincidentally Good Friday this year), orphaned Anglican clergy elected Samuel Seabury the first American Bishop – the first time a bishop had been elected in the history of Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church would be catholic, protestant and Anglican all at once, but without the interference of either monarch or pope.
Thus was birthed an American idea for Christendom: a democratic and self-governing church. Its bishops would be elected and watched over by the people in local conventions, and its doctrines and disciplines discerned by elected representatives at its General Convention.
In good economic times, when Americans attended church regularly, The Episcopal Church counted the upper echelons of US elites among its membership – including families like the Vanderbilts and the Morgans who built magnificent church buildings, including the largest cathedral in the US and fifth largest in the world: St. John the Divine in New York City. A more striking testament to the wealth, prestige and confidence of this national Church would be hard to find.
Today St. John’s is an empty and unkempt shell. The National Cathedral in Washington DC, another grand edifice, cannot raise enough funds for repairs needed after an earthquake. Around the country, countless parishes struggle with funding. How is The Episcopal Church dealing with the slow-burning crises facing it?
For the last three years, I was a member of the select Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC). Our mandate was to help the church reform its administration, governance and structures, and to re-imagine its future.
The General Convention, which received our findings last July, proved visionary enough to elect the first African American Presiding Bishop; however, it was unable to solve basic problems of governance.
I saw first-hand how the bi-cameral Church legislature, consisting of the House of Deputies, representing clergy and laity, and House of Bishops hurled insults at each other. Playing a small game in a time of crisis, the Bishops refused to grant a salary to the leader of the Deputies, while the Deputies demeaned the bishops with the epithet of Junior House. Lay and clergy leaders attacked any proposal to extend the Bishops’ powers, and democratic processes were used to attack and defend, rather than to consult and collaborate.
In the process, $3m worth of resources donated by the team who made up the TREC were wasted. No major restructuring occurred because each faction, sometimes comprising just a few members, defended their sacrosanct “right” to representation. The General Convention culminated in a resolution that literally proclaimed that there was no resolution.
Such failures of vision and courage are easily buried in an uncritical devotion to democratic process. It may sound democratic to insist that each church entity be responsible for its own future, but this has become a defense against cooperation and consolidation. This small church of 1.8 million people has 110 dioceses and 6000 plus parishes, which all swim and sink on their own. It has 11 seminaries, which are unable to consolidate because they are unable to collaborate. The Episcopal Church is less a Titanic than a flotilla of disparate ships, some strong, many leaky, all left to row on their own. The strong hoard their wealth, the weak eat into theirs. Meanwhile, the whole flotilla drifts towards the iceberg.
This doomed flotilla is governed through “democratic” structures that include over 300 bishops and 800 Deputies. In between Conventions, the Executive Council made up of 38 persons representing the American version of demographic diversity, but consisting of sharply differing abilities, more or less “supervises” the Church. “Unwieldy” would be a mild word to describe a governance system that allows responsibility and accountability to be shuffled around endlessly and ultimately avoided. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible.
A Church, structured to be a government—a left-over mindset from Western history —-and enthralled with retaining the stature of such a pompous construction, will find its members acting in irresistible opposition and competition to each other. Because such competition is regarded as “democracy” in action, a pious legitimacy is granted to its continuing dysfunction, factional self-interest and incompetence.
The results of this “democratic” dysfunction are seen in the crumbling walls of St John the Divine. They are also seen in the failure of the church to organize effectively within, so that its vast resources are available for ministry without. The most striking example of this was the convention’s allocation of a paltry $10,000 to domestic violence prevention.
Perhaps the most functional system within the entire church is the Pension Fund which, through its very efficiency, encourages clergy to avoid change and hang on until their well-funded retirement. It becomes tempting for democratically elected leaders to make pious, prophetic-sounding noises, without ever sacrificing self-interest. (On the other hand, lay leaders, who have no investments in the Pension Fund, find themselves invested in traditions and political positions that grant stature, but which stymie change.)
The Episcopal Church has made an enormous contribution to American society. Its culturally literate, socially progressive and intellectually vibrant version of Christianity has shaped the nation’s conscience and underpinned many of our most important advances – same-sex marriage being the most recent example. Its continuing decline is a national and spiritual tragedy, and yet those who could facilitate renewal and transformation are stymied by the church’s own systems – or they are in thrall to them.
In this presidential primary season where the democratic process has been hijacked, it is ever more crucial that The Episcopal Church recovers—for itself and the nation— the point and purpose of democratic governance. It is not a winner takes all competition, a cover for vested interests, a game to avoid radical change, or the excuse of plausible deniability. Rather, it is a system that is meant to serve all, in the name of all. St. Paul knew this two millennia ago when he insisted that the Church one body—the Body of Christ.
On this Good Friday, when we are eloquently reminded of loving sacrifice, we Episcopalians need to reflect on the sacrifices that will be needed if our Church is to share in the Resurrection.
Leng Leroy Lim is a leadership and management consultant who works with senior corporate leaders in three continents. He is a partner at The ClearLake Group and The MindKind Institute. He was invited to serve on The TREC as a person with “critical distance” from the workings of the Church. An Episcopal priest, he earned business (MBA) and theology (MDiv.) degrees from Harvard. He and his husband live with the sisters of Bluestone Farm, Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster New York.