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Restructuring principles for the church Part 2

Restructuring principles for the church Part 2

by George Clifford

Part 1 enumerated the first six principles. This post presents the remaining four principles, summarizes all ten, and briefly illustrates the importance of articulating principles before tackling the tough issues of restructuring.

Seventh, form should follow function. Given the paucity of scriptural principles for shaping ecclesial organizations, TEC can shed, freely and guiltlessly, any anachronistic policies, rules or structures that no longer fit today’s context, detract from community or mission, or are unnecessarily convoluted. Concurrently, TEC can create any new policies, rules, or structures that seem likely to aid in being God’s twenty-first century people (community) and doing God’s work today (mission). I’m tempted to enumerate my candidates for elimination, but want to focus the initial conversation on the ten principles rather than specific recommendations!

Eighth, incorporating a system of checks and balances into TEC’s structure will help to avoid future power imbalances in and between the denomination’s various constituent members, components, and orders of ministry. The blurred lines between the executive (denominational leadership and staff/agency management), judicial (trial courts for bishops and clergy), and legislative (includes all bishops, and many lay/clergy who also have executive or judicial roles) functions makes adequate checks and balances essential.

Separation of function is not the answer. Thankfully, TEC has few judicial tasks. Generally, the pastoral should take priority over the legal, even though this adds complexity and potential role confusion. Similarly, strongly differentiating between the Presiding Bishop (PB) and other bishops could draw a clean line between executive and legislative functions, but at the potential price of moving toward more authoritarian PBs emerging in the future. In short, blurred lines between the functions are an inescapable consequence of an ecclesial structure defined by principles of representative democracy, mission, and collegiality.

Ninth, TEC’s structure should exhibit transparency and accountability. The Church has nothing to hide and practicing transparency – apart from sensitive personnel issues – with its constituents, stakeholders, and even the public will assist TEC in sustaining its focus on mission and community. Transparency (open meetings, full reporting) is the most important element of good organizational accountability. Other aspects of accountability include mandating prudential fiscal management (full financial reporting; regular and thorough audits; etc.), open elections that encourage multiple candidates for each vacancy, and opportunities for input to representative bodies from their constituents.

Tenth, technology increasingly poses a greater challenge for preserving unity through common prayer than theological differences do. Our secular culture is moving away from the printed page and toward video and electronic communications. This advantageously permits greater local adaptation to better suit particular situations and audiences but at the price of introducing added liturgical diversity. The variations allowed in the provisional rites for blessing same sex relationships represent part of the leading edge of this shift, as do some of the optional Enriching Our Worship liturgies utilized in some congregations in some dioceses. TEC will probably never again publish a paper hymnal. Instead, congregations will draw their music from increasingly diverse sources. The move away from the printed page is irreversible.

Restructuring affords TEC an excellent opportunity to adopt structures that link people together in worship in spite of this trend, e.g., emphasizing structures that offer worship and fellowship opportunities and minimize/streamline governance (cf. my earlier Daily Episcopalian posts Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part I and Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part II).

In sum, the ten principles proposed for guiding TEC’s restructuring are:

1. Preserve the four historic orders of ministry

2. TEC’s structure should emphasize both community and mission

3. Preserve governance premised on discerning God’s leading through representative democratic processes

4. Practice subsidiarity

5. Adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses

6. Aim for simplicity of structure

7. Form should follow function

8. Incorporate a structural system of checks and balances

9. TEC’s structure should exhibit transparency and accountability

10. Take advantage of the opportunities for new forms of community and structure that technology has made possible, while seeking to avoid or minimize any adverse consequences

One of the major questions that the task force on structure will assuredly address is whether to recommend that TEC adopt a unicameral legislative structure or retain its bicameral structure. I’ve not directly addressed that question. Instead, I’ve offered a framework of principles for shaping consideration of that and other questions by the task force and others.

In particular, several of the ten principles enumerated above are relevant. Will a unicameral or bicameral legislature best focus our communal and missional concerns and efforts? Which structure is most congruent with the principles of representative democracy, subsidiarity, simplicity, ensuring adequate checks and balances, and affording the best opportunity to preserve denominational unity?

Reasonable, godly people can and will disagree about the answers to those questions. But establishing a set of guiding principles to shape the debate will help to preserve Christian civility premised on the belief that all participants want to seek both the mind of Christ and what is best for TEC. Reliance on explicitly identified principles will also help TEC to avoid polarity and a gridlock similar to that which bedevils our politicians.

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.


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One suggestion I have is: more dioceses. I think the suburban churches in particular are poorly represented, and are left in the middle of the urban/suburban (left/right) divide. My diocese, a large one of almost 200 parishes, could easily be two or three…and I would think the added diversity and accountability would make the church more responsive to deanery and parochial needs, and more representative of the laity and their parish bodies. This would have, in my view, a beneficial result for the Episcopal church and for those of us who are members of it.

[Bluestateman – comments need to be signed to be published – please. Thx ~ed.]

Clint Davis

I think that as society moves further from paper and ink books and materials, they will remain as a fixture in church because they are different, timeless and require nothing but the thing itself. If the lights go out, you still have a prayer book, hymnal, bible, candles, communion ware, bread and wine, water. There’s something to be said for this that is in goodly accord with religion in general, a deep connection with the past that isn’t just in the realm of thought and belief but also tangible, touchable things that you can hold and play with and make holy in ways that electrons and displays just can’t match, and never will.

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