Saturday, December 08, 2007


We just had a new roof on our house. We are about to have a new furnace installed as well. Money is going to be tight around Ockham Manor for a while. Part of home ownership is that you have to deal with these issues from time to time. When you own your own home, you also have to deal with maintenance. One day this coming week, we will be in the yard cutting back some plants that have grown to close to our gutters.

One of the religious cliches of our time is the use of the phrase 'church home'. The idea is a fairly positive one. If one church is your church home, that is where you are comfortable. That is where you can rest and recuperate.

But churches, like houses, need maintenance. Every church vestry is well aware of how expensive a new roof can be. Or a new furnace. But homes, even church homes are not just about physical objects. Homes involve people. And where you have people, you have relationships.

I'm no expert in relationships. In our marriage, so far we've managed to get by. We've had some good times and we've definitely had some rough times. Mostly we've improvised as trouble crops up and that seems to have worked.

Churches involve many people, which can mean that the relationships get complex. Also, it is very rare for a church relationship to be anyone's primary relationship. So that if there is trouble with your son and trouble at the church, the church gets what time and attention you have left over after your son.

All of this blindingly obvious, but where trouble creeps in is with conflict resolution. In a marriage, how a couple deals with conflict is one of the keys to whether the relationship works or doesn't. And every couple knows that fights are inevitable. Some couples fight more than others. Some seem to do it on a schedule. But we all do it and trying to avoid a fight generally seems to make things worse.

Most churches I know deal with conflict by avoidance. Because we all think we have enough conflict in our lives, when it comes to non-primary relationships the desire to place potential conflicts on the back burner is very hard to resist.

The Episcopal church has definitely been avoiding trouble. I've been reading reports from the recent round of diocesan conventions. My diocese, the diocese of Atlanta, is probably fairly typical of those. The Bishop here spent more time discussing the current dissension than most.

Here is what he said:

"Before concluding this address, I would like to make a few comments concerning the state of affairs in The Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. As you know, in September the House of Bishops met in New Orleans for its annual fall meeting. The Archbishop of Canterbury accepted our invitation to be present with us and we were joined by members of the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Consultative Council and the Primates of the Anglican Communion. The conversations were frank and clarifying, but gracious and productive. A spirit of goodwill pervaded the meeting.

After two days of conversation with our guests, and a workday in New Orleans to clear our heads, the bishops set about the task of responding to the requests of the Primates of the Anglican Communion expressed in the communiqué from their meeting last spring in Dar es Salaam. It is important to note that, although the Primates’ communiqué has been read by some as an ultimatum, our guests from around the Communion made it abundantly clear that they did not understand it that way. Nonetheless, in a spirit of generosity and humility, your bishops decided that we would try to respond faithfully to their requests, to the degree that we could, fully recognizing that we could speak only as the bishops of this church and that we could not speak definitively for our church apart from the General Convention. Naturally, there are those who believe the bishops wimped out and should have responded more forcefully. There are others who clearly believe that the bishops overstepped our authority. Frankly, I believe both such viewpoints are quite simply incorrect. The bishops were asked to clarify the meaning of the actions of the 2006 General Convention in response to the Windsor Report. We did exactly and only that. We declared absolutely nothing that was not already established, explicitly or implicitly, by the actions of the last General Convention. Many in the church are at odds with the decisions of the last convention with respect to the Windsor Report. Some believe the Convention went too far, others believe the convention did not go far enough. But, either way, I believe the bishops’ response to the Primates is an accurate reflection of where we are as a church at this time, as painful as that place may be for many of our people. Here it is important to note that, unlike most communications from the House of Bishops, which are termed “mind of the House resolutions,” we intentionally did not call our response a “mind of the House.” Your bishops are not of one mind on the church’s response to the Windsor Report any more than the church is of one mind. What we were able to do is to describe where we believe our church is at the present time. It is not a comfortable place for many of us and it is almost surely not the place to which the church will eventually land, but it is the place we find ourselves at this time. What is important for you to know is that by near-unanimous consent – with one dissenting and audible voice-- your bishops were able to agree, not on the issues, but on a response to the Primates of the Communion, a response that provides a clear and honest picture of where we are.

What concerns me is that much of the conversation seems to be framed in either-or categories and language. Needless to say, that’s not a very Anglican way of thinking! There are those who insist that the church plow full-speed ahead on any and all issues that can possibly be framed in gospel-justice terms and let the unity of the church be damned. The opposing position is just as clear: preserve the unity of the church and our participation in the Anglican Communion at all costs, even at the risk of losing our soul.

The problem is that polar thinking is always shallow thinking. Polar positions are always as weak as they are strong. The truth, dear friends, is we have a moral obligation to pursue both – justice and unity – and to pursue both of them boldly, faithfully and tirelessly. Justice without care for the unity of the church will be selfish, shortsighted, and shallow. Unity without justice is a sham, a shame, and a sin.

Finally, I want to tell you how distressed I am about the proposals before the conventions of three or four sister dioceses of our church that seek to amend their diocesan constitution and canons purportedly to make it possible for them to disregard the actions of the General Convention and to position themselves for realignment with a foreign prelate. In our church and in our Anglican tradition, not to mention the apostolic and catholic tradition of the whole church, a parish exists because it is in communion with its bishop as part of the bishop’s diocese geographically defined. In like manner, a diocese cannot exist apart from its establishment by the General Convention. Passing vestry resolutions to the contrary, or amending diocesan canons, does not change these ancient and well-worn ecclesial principles: Parishes are part of dioceses and dioceses are part of the church. That’s the way it works in the Episcopal Church. That’s the way it works in Anglicanism. That’s the way apostolic faith and order work.

Long before you called me to be your bishop, I understood that a large part of what a bishop does is to be a connector: to connect clergy and people with each other so that their experience of church is always larger than their local parish, to connect dioceses to other dioceses so that their experience of church is always larger than the local church, and to connect the church with the Anglican Communion and the ecumenical church catholic so that our experience of church is always as whole and as far-reaching as possible. To put it another way, we expect our bishops to be for us signs of unity toward which Christ calls his church by the power of the Spirit. So you can see why it would trouble my soul when I see some of my brother bishops who seem to be working against the unity of the church and plotting its destruction. I believe that as a bishop I have every right to my convictions, to argue my positions, to declare my loyalties, and when necessary, to be difficult to live with. But I also have a solemn obligation to stay at the table no matter how unpleasant the company, to live within the discipline of this church, and to do everything in my power to build up the family of God no matter how difficult that might be on some days. It breaks my heart to see bishops of this church, who took the same ordination vows I did, disregard their solemn obligations to our common life.

Deep in the psyche of Anglicanism is a profound respect for the conscience of an individual before God. I will honor, I will respect, and I will defend anyone – layperson, priest, bishop, or deacon – who for reasons of his or her own conscience cannot stay in communion with us. That’s a long held and deeply honored Anglican position. But no one, no one has the right – no bishop or priest, in particular – to let their conscience in any matter lord it over their parish, their diocese, or their church. I can easily imagine, friends, multiple lists of things that our church could do that would make me unhappy. I’ll fuss, I’ll whine, and I’ll be cantankerous, but I shall also be obedient. I find it hard to imagine that the church would ever do something that would so trouble my conscience that I could no longer find some way, however tenuous, to stay in the family. I can’t think of anything that would ever keep me away from the table of God’s generosity. Being a faithful bishop means leading the people committed to your care toward the fullness of the church, toward the richness of the tradition, toward that deeper unity that comes only from the Spirit of the Risen Christ. It never means pulling them apart or leading them away no matter what troubles you. "

What strikes me is how he totally avoids mentioning what the actual issues are. He uses process language to describe what happened without dealing with any actual content. Underlying the whole passage is the idea of pluriform and relative truth. That no one way is ever the right way. Not only is that patently false, it means that conflict never gets addressed and thus resolved.

The last three paragraphs describe his notion of what a bishop is. Nowhere is there leadership. Because a leader, leads. It's the root of the word. And to effectively lead a people, you have to have some idea of where it is you are going, whether it be Canaan or Atlanta. If anyone can tell me how a church can be led “toward the fullness of the church, the richness of the tradition”, I'd love to hear it. The processes described lead the churches he is in charge of towards avoidance of conflict, and nowhere else.

Avoiding conflict can result in a very peaceful church. After a while that sort of church usually begins to resemble another quiet place, a graveyard. More to the point, the best and brightest of a church, the ones who care about what church is truly about will not stick around for eternal process. In such situations Bishop Alexander wins by default.

That is exactly what has happened in the diocese of Atlanta. He became bishop in 2001. In 2001, the diocese had an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 19,113. In 2006, ASA was 17,792, for a decline of -7%. To put things even further in perspective, in 2001 the population of Metro Atlanta (roughly contiguous with the diocese) was 4,187,003. In 2006 the population was 5,240,531, for a growth of 25%. In 2001, active Episcopalians comprised .46% of the population. Today, active Episcopalians are .34% of the metro population.

I do not have any numbers on how many are going to Anglican alternative churches. I do know that such churches have proliferated, going from two in 1986 to more than twenty in north Georgia. One such church, founded in 1987 (Church of the Apostles), reports 3,000 members. I do not know how that correlates to ASA or, indeed, how accurate the number is.

I think I know what is keeping the new migrants away from the Episcopal church. The diocese does not know what it is about. The diocese does not know what it is about because there is no discussion of ideas, only processes. And the discussion is restricted to process because the bishop does not want conflict. Very few people are attracted to a church that is committed to stasis.

I've seen the video for the Pittsburgh and the Fort Worth diocesan conventions. What struck me most was how un-Episcopalian the bishops were. They both discussed content. Of course, they framed the discussion in the best light possible, but even so, ideas were actually discussed. I suspect that the same will hold true today in San Joaquin.

I have also been struck by how accommodating the three bishops have been to dissenters. This is in stark contrast to the other bishops. Which leads me to an uncomfortable conclusion. If what you are about is the Truth, then you can let dissidents keep the property, because while it is material, it is irrelevant to what you are about. If you do not know the Truth, then the material becomes paramount, because that is all you are left with.

I do not like that conclusion. But my unease convinces me that it is likely true.

Note: This is a rough draft. I'm intending to flesh it out a bit more. I'm posting it in the hopes of getting some criticism. Either comment here or email me at mousestalker (replace the -at- with @).

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Interesting thoughts.

On of the questions that has puzzled me is where this discussion fits with the three precepts of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

To my mind, these three concepts are the framework of the Episcopal Church. Ignoring one is a mistake, ignoring two, irrational, and ignoring all three makes me wonder why they bother calling themselves Episcopalians?

Yet the Radical Liberals led by PB Schori do seem to ignore all three precepts. They have certainly thrown Tradition out the window. They pick and choose from Scripture like from a cafe menu. And they rarely choose to show Reason in their beliefs, preferring instead to use emotion and a vague call for 'Truth'.