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Treasures in earthen vessels

Treasures in earthen vessels

by George Clifford

Paul wrote in II Corinthians, “… we have this treasure in clay jars.” The context supports the common interpretation that clay jars connotes the human body. However, the context, written in the plural first person, also permits understanding clay jars as a metaphor for the Church, the body of Christ.

What treasure do the Episcopal Church’s clay jars contain? And what are the Episcopal Church’s clay jars?

Unlike some doomsayers who predict inevitable demise, I remain convinced that the Episcopal Church has treasure that the much of the rest of the world needs and wants.

The Book of Common Prayer is obviously not our treasure. We have revised the Prayer Book several times during the last two centuries and will surely do so again. Nor is our treasure the Bible, not even the King James Version, now badly dated. And our treasure is certainly not our polity, with its complicated governance structures and bureaucratic procedures filled with checks and balances.

Our treasure is relational and experiential, relationships with God, God’s people, and creation experienced in the light of God’s grace and love. We proclaim a message of radical hospitality that welcomes everybody; following Jesus, we seek to incarnate sacrificial love and work to bring life to a dying world (food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, healing to the sick, etc.). We also place distinctive emphases on pastoral care, diversity, and ambiguity.

Everything else, no matter how cherished, is a clay jar, useful only as an earthen vessel for a heavenly treasure. Unlike many treasures, the more we share this treasure, the more it increases (remember Jesus’ parables about yeast, mustard seeds, and faithful stewards).

The lack of comment in response to my last two posts at the Daily Episcopalian (Rethinking Episcopal Church Structure Part 1 and Part 2) disappointed but did not surprise me. Two of the three comments concurred that building relationships was more important than any business transacted at General Convention (one deputy wanted to maintain the status quo to preserve the opportunity to cultivate those relationships). The third comment was from an appointed missionary, who defended the importance of international missionaries representing the national church (even if a congregation, diocese, or province provided the funding, the national church could still appoint all international missionaries).

The proposals I offered (transacting national church business electronically, devolving many national programs to provinces, dioceses, or congregations, and creating a regular, church-wide mega-gathering of 50,000 or more Episcopalians) are not ukases. My proposals may even be completely unhelpful. However, merely updating structure (e.g., Bishop Sauls’ proposals), even if it achieves a major reduction in the percentage of income spent on governance and administrative costs (e.g., from 50% to 20%), will not revitalize the Church and reverse its numerical decline. His proposals, which are gathering some support (e.g., from the dioceses of Iowa and Oregon), at best, will retard the rate of decline. This may delay the inevitable or, God willing, allow the Church to replace its timeworn clay jars with new ones better suited to the twenty-first century.

The Episcopal Church needs a structure that is inexpensive to maintain/operate, engages a substantial portion of the Church (not just a couple of dozen people per diocese), and, most importantly, flexibly focuses on ministry and mission rather than institutional maintenance. My goal in proposing a radically revised Church structure was to ignite a conversation within the Church that would lead to genuine reform, breaking old clay jars and replacing them with new ones, jars better suited to our flattened and electronically connected world.

Too often, individuals and organizations prefer focusing on smaller, tactical questions (e.g., who appoints missionaries) than addressing broad, strategic questions. The Episcopal Church is plainly in numerical decline. Even as our physical bodies wear out, so do the clay jars of Church structure. If continuing business as usual – preserving the clay jars of our polity – could reverse the decline, the decline would have ended before now. Assuredly, we, individually and collectively, are not committed to ecclesial decline. Therefore, the difficult conversation about how we replace our clay jars to make our treasure more accessible to more people is our most urgent imperative – if the Episcopal Church is ever again to be a vital, vibrant, and growing part of the body of Christ.

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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings (


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Josh Magda

TEC has six treasures that are precious to me, which I believe represent an extremely relevant and vital contribution to the Church universal.

1.) Perhaps most important of all, its principal treasure is its deeply sacramental Eucharist, yet with open communion- unique in the Church.

2.) Its deep commitment to faith as a common journey in liturgy, prayer, formation, outreach, and theology, a clear example of an approach to Christianity that follows Jesus in pursuing collective salvation, where individuals are “saved” by joining themselves to the larger work God is doing in community, not vice versa.

3.) Its openness, tolerance, and welcome, where faith is first and foremost about who you belong to rather than what you believe.

4.) Its unwavering commitment to beauty in worship, education, and public arts, increasing its sacramental witness to the goodness of God and Creation.

5.) Its increasingly prophetic voice for inclusion and justice, at great personal cost to itself, yet of tremendous import to Catholics and Protestants alike.

6.) Its increasing embrace of the contemplative dimension of the Christian faith, in practices such as centering prayer, Taize worship, the labyrinth, retreat and pilgrimage, Celtic spirituality, Benedictinism, and more.

Together these treasures comprise a transformative faith that is worth preserving. TEC need not look or sound the same as it does now in order to be vibrant in the future; indeed, its liturgical forms must change, and it must come to greater terms with its own immense privilege and continue to channel this in kenotic ways. I agree with Matt Fox that the church must travel much lighter in the future, and am excited to see what this might look like in TEC.

I will elaborate on these in greater detail if needs be, but hope to just get the ball rolling here.

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