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Opportunity and Challenge: Being Episcopal in the 21st Century

Opportunity and Challenge: Being Episcopal in the 21st Century




by Eric Bonetti


One of the great things about being a lifelong Episcopalian is the opportunity to look back. To look back on the church as it was. To consider how past conflict has affected us as a denomination. And to think about what the future holds.

My conclusion: We’re in the midst of a mighty change, but one that will be for the better. A true rebirth, a fresh start, a resurrection morning.

Growing up in the 70’s, one of my vivid memories was moving to a new town. It wasn’t a major move, but I did wind up in a new school. In many cases, the first question other kids would ask is, “What church do you go to?” Not only was church membership normative, but it provided a ready way to size up those around you, for it was all too easy to surmise where someone lived, their family education level, and more just from their denominational affiliation. Doctors and lawyers were Episcopal or Presbyterian, while persons of less fortunate background belonged to other Protestant denominations. Police officers and firefighters were Roman Catholic, and evangelicals, to the extent that they existed at all, didn’t really occupy suburbia.

As we moved into the70’s and 80’s, one saw the rise of neo-conservative evangelical denominations. Perhaps this was a response to the lethargy in many mainline denominations, for it was increasingly rare to be asked where one attended church. Yet being Christian was still sufficiently normative that one rarely met Muslims or others of differing traditions, and kids who didn’t attend church might still be the subject of nasty rumors as a result.

At the same time, the Episcopal Church moved into a period of change and conflict. Revisions to the Book of Common Prayer were the subject of intense controversy, and the ordination of women loomed large. Looking back, it’s hard to see why these changes caused so much consternation. But some of the damage lives on, and there is a breakaway congregation near me that, to this day, proudly proclaims on its roadside sign that it uses the 1928 prayer book. Forget poverty, hunger, social injustice—its big issue is making sure it uses the old prayer book. In retrospect, much of the conflict we experienced was not only a tempest in a teapot, but it was also indicative of our former insularity as the quasi-state church and our angst over our changing role in society.

Yet it is also far too easy to forget how hard many fought for change and social justice within the church. Even in the 80’s, many dioceses had few female clergy, and those that did often regarded women as the boots on ground for parishes that were too rural, or too troubled, to warrant a “real” priest. (I well remember a bishop saying loudly to members of one mission, “I understand that you don’t want a woman, but as long as I’m paying the bills that’s what you’re going to get.” Ironically, I doubt the church in question had any objection to female clergy—the real issue was the bishop’s high-handed manner.)

Similarly, in those days Integrity, the LGBT advocacy group, struggled to get a toehold in many areas. Even in dioceses where the bishop was known to be supportive, things were usually kept relatively quiet, and circumspection was the rule. Indeed, one parish near me, now largely defunct, was for many years proud to be the only parish around that allowed Integrity to meet. As a result, the church has, to this day, an Integrity processional banner, although a group hasn’t met locally in many years.

The reason? Few local parishes now have an issue with LGBT persons, and many, even conservative parishes, have openly LGBT members or clergy. As a result, Integrity is an often overlooked resource.

Within the Anglican Communion, it appears that things are following a similar trajectory. The present turmoil over social issues will, 40 years from now, seem distant and somewhat curious. Those younger than us will look back and marvel that issues like same-sex marriage loomed so large, while forgetting the price that many had to pay to achieve inclusion.

Other mostly positive changes also appear to be looming, often under the guise of bad news.

For example, declining attendance at all mainline denominations suggests that a lot of church real estate will hit the market in the coming 20 years, and that probably is a good thing. Freed of the gargantuan energy bills and maintenance costs of some of our creaky old real estate, The Episcopal Church will be free to devote resources to social justice and empowering those in need. And fewer church buildings is not an unworkable paradigm; our LDS sisters and brothers accept, as a matter of course, that several wards (equivalent to parishes) will occupy one building, with activities and worship scheduled around one another. As a result, LDS churches experience much heavier usage than do most Episcopal churches, yet thanks to shared costs and generous giving, Mormon buildings usually are well maintained. Thus, if we accept that it is neither necessary nor desirable to maintain all our real estate, we can let go of outdated notions that equate a church with its real estate.

Similarly, it seems a given that the role of clergy will continue to morph over time. Gone are the days when every parish can or should have a full-time priest. Just as in colonial times churches often shared clergy, so too will we increasingly revert to this pattern. This in turn will require that we revisit the generous compensation packages that clergy in well-established Episcopal churches often enjoy. And with CBS reporting that the average American vacation now lasts just four days, and 15 percent of American workers take no annual leave at all, leave arrangements under many existing letters of agreement will become increasingly unsustainable in the years to come.

The challenge in this space will be to maintain our Episcopal identity, while recognizing the changing role of our hierarchy. All too often, the great flood barriers that hold back the seas of change are our dioceses, which mandate certain levels of clergy compensation, leave and benefits. Yet Episcopalians, like other Americans, are increasingly distrustful of authority, and unwilling to subsidize entities with which they have little direct connection. Thus, bishops whose primary role is to show up once a year, celebrate Holy Eucharist, and murmur, “Interesting. Tell me more,” at coffee hour will become increasingly anachronistic.

At the same time, our diocesan structures can and do play an important role in the life of the church. While it seems a given that bi-vocational and non-stipendiary clergy will be increasingly common, few would argue that we should not strive for just employment practices whenever possible.

In this space, we still face major challenges. For example, female clergy nationwide earn just 76 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts—far worse than the national pay gap of 83 cents. And far too few full-time rector positions are occupied by women in The Episcopal Church.

Consider: Here in the diocese of Virginia, women clergy are paid $.77 to every male clergy’s $1.00. Women constitute 44% of the 178 actively serving parish priests in the diocese, and yet are 34% of rectors and 61% of associates. Meanwhile, only one woman is rector of a parish among the top 10% of parishes in the Diocese, as measured by budget, and only two women are rectors of parishes among the top 10% of parishes in the Diocese, as measured by ASA. Yet in true Episcopal fashion, the related resolution before our diocesan annual council has been watered down, with some saying that the issue is “complex” and requires study. But systemic injustice is, by definition, complex, and women have been struggling for pay parity in the workplace for more than 40 years. Surely enough studies have been done in that time.

Meanwhile, we have a great deal of unfinished business when it comes to race. While the election of Michael Curry is a welcome development, the fact remains that the typical Episcopal parish has few, if any, African-American members.

For these reasons, our dioceses must continue to set the rules of the road. Diminished resources require smarter use of those resources, and dioceses must set and enforce standards for financial accountability/transparency, ethical employment practices, fair treatment of volunteers, and other aspects of good governance.

The issue of extending protections to our volunteers will be especially important as parishes and dioceses alike increasingly turn to unpaid personnel to take on financial, clerical, and maintenance tasks. Many of these volunteers will expect the same protections as those available through their paid positions, and good governance requires that we protect and empower vestry members and others in fiduciary roles.

At the same time, effective management of volunteers will require that we revisit many current practices. For example, younger parents today are often very willing to serve on an as-needed/as-available basis for food pantries and other social services. Yet the notion of a three- or four-year stint on a vestry is daunting, and inconsistent with the mobility and time constraints of modern society.

Will these changes be easy? Of course not. Change is unsettling under the best of circumstances, and church membership invokes a complex set of emotions, memories and shared experiences. But if we take a deep breath, pray, and trust to the mighty workings of the Holy Spirit, we will find that there indeed is rebirth and resurrection in our future.


Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor

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Eric Bonetti

This piece was written prior to the passage, at Saturday’s diocesan convention here in Virginia, of a resolution that does, in fact, call for more than study of the issue of gender-based pay disparity among clergy. While I wish the measure had gone further, it’s a step in the right direction and much needed. Kudos to all who worked for passage!

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