by Br Richard Helmer
I came to General Convention ready to “blow things up and start over.” In a world of floundering and often inept institutions, re-starts seem to be the only way forward. So I was anxious to attend the church structure hearing on Thursday night, expecting a host of brilliant ideas and strategies to come from the grassroots of our Church; hoping to come away with a sense that we have the raw material to build a new, nimble institution from the rubble of a sclerotic corporate structure that is a throwback to the 1950’s.
After listening to an hour-and-a-half of impassioned testimony, however, I came away more puzzled than heartened. I heard a great deal of high philosophical talk and theologizing and spiritualizing assertion, but no memorable substance for the direction we ought to take in re-organizing our Church. The most helpful remark of the evening for me was a deputy pointing out that we are now in that no-man’s land between knowing we need to change but not knowing how we ought to change.
I find myself, surprisingly, turning back to the structures I thought we were here to blow up: the familiar grind of legislative process; the faithful, if often tedious work of committees pouring over proposals and debating the finer points of language for prayer, for funding, and for organizing ministry. Maybe, as the old saying goes, it is better to dance with the devil you know than the devil you don’t.
But then, my whole tone here reflects the tendency of our wider cultural tendency these days to be down on the hard, messy work of democratic process and to be down on our leaders granted the authority to faithfully shepherd it along. In the structure meeting the other night, one speaker said that it was time to “sacrifice the old.” That left me with two uncomfortable questions: Who or what are we sacrificing exactly, and on what altar? It is also our tendency these days to sacrifice the old on the altar of the new. It is our tendency to pull down and undermine leadership when it fails to meet our expectations of perfection. Maybe these tendencies are all one in the same, reflecting a perverse infidelity that has always haunted the Church: the assertion in deed, if not word, that Jesus’ sacrifice was not sufficient. We continue to search for a scapegoat for our collective woes. Yet the heart of our tradition holds that the cross was meant to bring that search to an end.
In contrast to this was the extraordinary conversation in the House of Deputies yesterday morning, where our eloquent Youth Presence made an impassioned plea to keep the Episcopal Youth Event part of our church-wide budget. In the same hour, as we reviewed legislation to formulate a whole new host of resources and programs for ministering to older people, our elders in the House pointedly reminded us not to patronize them. The piece of legislation to fund EYE passed. The other piece to “minister to” our older members in the church appropriately failed.
I was reminded of Jesus’ words: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
Whatever restructuring we undertake as a church in the next several years, it will require living into this teaching, remembering that what is old can be just as valuable as what is new, and much wisdom resides in discerning what we need from both. Our greatest treasure as a Church right now perhaps resides in two of our constituencies most easily marginalized, used, and abused by the world: the passion of our young people and the experience of our elders. Bringing them together may be just what the Spirit is calling us to do, and if our structural reform accomplishes this alone, we will move far.
There’s always rumbling of one sort or another at General Convention. This year, we’ve been infected somewhat by the Tea Party atmosphere of the wider culture. Some bishops are reportedly caucusing and employing parliamentary maneuvers to sink block after block of legislation with any revenue requests attached. Moreover, we have a number of wealthy dioceses paying far less than the “asking” – the diocesan financial commitment that funds the work and ministries of the Episcopal Church Center and our church-wide missional bodies. One of the more inflammatory mutterings is that the wealthy dioceses are using the struggling dioceses as a fig-leaf. To wit: If the struggling dioceses aren’t paying their fair share, why should we? It’s astonishingly familiar rhetoric.
For my own perspective, I decided to do the math. To get a thumbnail idea of just how much we each contribute to the church-wide budget, I turned to the most recent numbers I have available in the Blue Book (page 89). In 2010, operating revenues for The Episcopal Church as a whole, combining all of our congregations and institutions, totaled in round figures a breathtaking $1.6 billion.
The Presiding Bishop’s budget proposal, which has become something of a template for the budgetary work of General Convention this year, projects annual revenues raised from the diocesan commitments of $24.5 million (annualized from page 1 line 2). Sounds like a lot, but after accounting for all those zeros, it turns out that for every $100 the average member of our congregation gives, only $1.50 ends up in the church-wide budget. That means over 98% of our local revenue goes to local ministry in our congregations and dioceses, and our local partnerships with ministry elsewhere in the world.
It strikes me as a startlingly small piece of the ecclesiastical financial pie to be battling over, and it reminds me that, for all of the talk about the need to “flatten” the structures of The Episcopal Church, we’re pretty flat already, at least in dollar terms.
The real danger at this General Convention and in the wider church is not badly-behaved institutional structures, although they will never be perfect and are always in need of reform. The real danger is falling into the distortions of fear that always attend a time of change. Jesus admonished the Pharisees for straining gnats while swallowing camels. We should be just as mindful.
Doubtless, changes are coming and are already upon us. Now public is the push to sell the financial millstone of the Episcopal Church Center (“815”) building and to move the center while organizing and resourcing the related staff in less expensive ways. I would, however, remind readers of the Café that this possibility has been discussed for at least a generation, if not longer. Moreover, we are talking about significantly affecting the lives of not a bunch of “paper-pushing” bureaucrats, but a group of faithful people who, with pared-to-the-bone staff support and budgets, spend a huge amount of time on the road working to nurture our international and ecumenical relationships, and help our missions, dioceses, and congregations flourish. Is this a needful adaptive change? Quite probably. But should we sniff at the lives of our sisters and brothers in Christ most closely affected? Never.
In her sermon in Friday’s Eucharist, Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies – in the context of a liturgy that simultaneously reflected the witness of John Hus and the moving plight and faith of the Hmong people – reminded us all of the virtue of courage. She then demonstrated to us this virtue in a day for her marked with personal and parliamentary mishaps. Like all leaders, she is under enormous pressure these days. And courage is perhaps the greatest gift the Spirit can offer us in the face of challenging times and the challenging – and imperfect – choices before us.
Maybe courage is a place, caught as we are between conservative tea partying and liberal cynicism, to stand in faith.
The Rev. Br. Richard E. Helmer is rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA, and a novice in the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. He is an alternate deputy to General Convention and secretary of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of California. His sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs occasionally at Caught by the Light.