In our modern, connected world stories rise like rockets and quickly traverse the media sky and what seemed to generate so much light and noise in the immediate experience quickly fade from our attention. Sometimes, these stories speak to deeper happenings in the life of the body (and sometimes not) but here are some thoughts on the Church in the year just passed.
General Convention this year didn’t feel as fraught as some other recent gatherings, and yet important changes were wrought. Of course, the election of the first African-American Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, was an historic step. But we also saw changes in the marriage canon and rites in support of marriage equality and a stated expectation that all Episcopalians would have access to these rites. The implementation of those expectations is ongoing and not always smooth, but it feels like an important point was reached and a corner turned that can’t be undone.
Though we entered into GC with much talk of reorganization and repurposing, no real sweeping changes to our church-wide structures came to pass. The general consensus on the official change effort (the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church – TREC) was disappointment and potential wasted. But a small group’ offering of a Memorial to the Church for resurrection caught the imagination of many and several of their suggested changes were implemented.
This grass roots effort coupled with the rise of the “House of Twitter” may portend a more democratic and widespread church that will drive the changes which will be the next phase in the life of the church.
And for the Café, this was the first GC where we had a dedicated reporter on-site and we hope, also a sign of things to come.
As already mentioned, the changes to the marriage canon and marriage rites were passed by large margins at GC this year. This brought comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury about how the decision made his job more difficult;
“While recognising the prerogative of The Episcopal Church to address issues appropriate to its own context, Archbishop Justin Welby said that its decision will cause distress for some and have ramifications for the Anglican Communion as a whole, as well as for its ecumenical and interfaith relationships.”
These changes also generated a “minority report” from a small group of conservative bishops who, despite their opposition are committed to the life of the Episcopal Church.
“Welcome one another . . . just as Christ has welcomed [us]” (Rom. 15:7). Our commitment to the Church includes a commitment to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We will walk with them, pray with and for them, and seek ways to engage in pastoral conversation. We rejoice that Jesus’ embrace includes all of us.”
However, a number of the dissenting bishops have gone on to make it as difficult as possible to implement in their dioceses, though it should be noted that some who voted against have made generous provision within their dioceses.
The apparent implosion of General Seminary dominated our headlines late in 2014 and early in 2015 when 8 faculty members made their disagreements with the Dean public, leading to the Board declaring that they had “resigned.” The seminary has since found new faculty and worked in earnest to restore support amongst alumni and donors. Time will tell how GTS weathers this storm (or not).
But GTS was not the only Episcopal seminary facing significant questions of sustainability. Episcopal Divinity School’s President and Dean the Very Rev Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, stepped down in January after a tumultuous term and Bexley-Seabury ended their 17 year relationship with Trinity Lutheran Seminary; deciding to close their residential campus in Columbus, OH and consolidate operations in Chicago. Bexley’s Dean, the Very Rev Tom Ferguson, has also decided to step down and take on a position as Rector of a parish (though he will continue to teach as an adjunct faculty member).
And though not an Episcopal seminary, Andover Newton, the oldest independent protestant seminary in the nation has decided to close their campus completely and become part of Yale Divinity School.
It is clear that the assumptions and foundations of theological education are in flux. And though this is generating great creativity, the real question is whether or not these institutions are able to meet the church’s needs into the future.
Aside from being the first African-American Presiding Bishop, Bishop Curry seems to embody a kind of evangelical enthusiasm that has not been prevalent in the leadership of the church before. There was palpable excitement over his election at General Convention and in the enthusiastic response of Episcopalians all over the church to his election.
His leadership seems to be being tested right from the get-go though as he felt it necessary to suspend three top executives, including COO Bishop Stacy Sauls and call in an independent investigation into what are identified as serious allegations of “misconduct.”
“I need to inform you that on Wednesday I placed on administrative leave Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer, Samuel McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Director of Mission, and Alex Baumgarten, Director of Public Engagement. This is a result of concerns that have been raised about possible misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.
It seems clear that the institutions which together have comprised “the Episcopal Church” are no longer as effective as they once were and that there is flagging support for them. How they will be re-shaped, reformed or even whether they will continue is still very much up in the air. Christianity (and religion generally) faces significant cultural headwinds and the Episcopal Church is not immune to that. On top of that, the Church faces internal problems of its own in how it identifies, resources and carries out its mission. At the same time there are centers of excellence, places that are thriving and important ministries being carried out all over. Unlike dodo’s it seems unlikely that someday there will be one last lonely Episcopalian wandering around. So long as there are people willing to work together in Christ’s name who value the inclusive and curious tradition of Anglicanism, there will be an Episcopal Church.
2015 showed us, perhaps more than ever before, a glimpse of what this church to be might be like. More inclusive, more democratic, less structured and more creative – thanks be to God!
Best wishes for the year to come to you and to all