I wrote a blog a while back called “Is Mainline Leadership Killing the Church?’ In it, I recommended that it be made canon law that all Episcopal Bishops take communion from a child once a year, that this act may bring some humility to at least Episcopal leadership and remind them whom they serve. (To his credit, one of my Bishops does take communion from a child once a year.) I stand by that statement. I want, however, in this blog to revisit the main question of the previous one with an answer I’ve become fairly confident about: mainline leadership is killing the church. To be more specific, Episcopal leadership is killing the Episcopal church.
The reason I bring this point up today is the following. I am a vestry member in my congregation (for those of you unfamiliar with Episcopalese, it means something like a board of Deacons), and we had our monthly meeting yesterday. Toward the end of it, our rector brought up the fact that the Diocese of Los Angeles has been pestering parishes to contribute to our new Bishops’ ordination ceremony coming up this May. Why? Because they want to have the “proper vestments” (including robes and rings), entertainment, and arena (we’ve rented the Long Beach Arena) for the occasion. Among other thoughts, I wondered for a moment if our leadership was stealing from the playbook of either Michael Steele or Lloyd Blankfein.
All of us were annoyed by this strong request; like many congregations, ours is running a deficit right now which we are only able to cover based on church investments…investments, mind you, that will be gone within a year. In fact, what such requests signify to me is that the leadership in the Episcopal church (and this may or may not stand with other mainline churches) is clueless. At a time the church is beginning to cave in on itself, they want to spend money on pomp and circumstance. Of course, such a move is, (to be rather explicit), rather masturbatory and self-congratulatory. After all, the church is relatively irrelevant as it stands in most other parts of today’s social fabric, meaning, the church won’t receive any congratulation except from itself. Forget, then, about spending money on proactive ministries like planting new churches and supporting a vibrant college ministry (ministries that could help to make the church, even if not the Episcopal, more relevant again) when we can have a party.
So, dear Episcopal leadership, allow me to remind you of some of the basics of which I, a parishoner and vestry-member, would expect you to have some cognizance.
1. We are all currently in a financial crisis, and we already give you 12% of our church income right now for, in my mind, blessing oil and water that God can probably manage to bless without you. Such insensitivity to the needs of your parishes signifies that you’re uninterested in your parishes. This just might be a problem since most people under the age of fifty stay in the Episcopal church, not because they received Bishop-blessed oil on their foreheads on special occasions, but because their parishes are filled with good, loving, Christian people.
2. In a similar manner, most persons within the Episcopal church (again, usually under fifty) have absolutely no a priori commitment to the Episcopal church as the Episcopal church. Again, these people are here because (1) they are committed to a stance of faith and (2) desire to enact those stances within particular congregations and parishes they find life in. Of course, that’s not to say that log-books of Bishops “proving” Apostolic lineage aren’t important; they are at a (purely) symbolic level. It’s just to say that they are not and cannot be the priority.
3. On top of all of this, I would like to remind the Bishops of their actual place in the church. You are pastors–or really pastors of pastors (2 Timothy 2:1-7). Nothing more; nothing less. In this regard, too, I would remind you that your sole purpose is to serve the rectors who serve the concrete parishes, that is, the parishes where the true life of the church manifests itself. If you don’t believe me, just look in the Book of Common Prayer and the order of who’s named last in the ordination ceremonies. Also, (God forbid this), you might look in the scriptures.
4. Finally, and with reference to this thought of looking in scriptures, I might remind you that, in our beginnings, we decided that the only compulsory acts we engage in are those found in scripture, though we’re certainly free to add any niceties, including robes and rings, if and only if we so desire and are able. When you are ordained for this position, then, you deserve the laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:22…depending on the version you read). However, you by no means deserve a ceremony that will come one step closer to breaking the bank of your flock.
With all that in mind, some of you might be wondering why I would desire to be a part of the Episcopal church. And it’s a fair enough question (as, certainly, right now, I sound far more on the emergent side of things). The truth is that I, too, have no a priori commitment to this ‘brand’ of church, even if I am firm in my faith and promise to serve in some congregation. However, I do think that the Episcopal church has something important to offer if it would open its eyes and ears to the truth of its own identity. That is, the Episcopal church, in continuity with its Anglican upbringing, has no absolute creedal code (the thirty-nine articles no longer function in this manner); rather, the church is held together, most obviously, through a commitment to a common liturgy. But what this lack of commitment to an exact creedal code need not signify is a dearth of intellectual movement (which is, unfortunately, where much, though certainly not all, of our current leadership is caught). Just the opposite…it can be a vibrant commitment to engage in open dialogue about the meaning of our a priori commitments to Christ (the sine qua non I’ve already expressed in a prior blog), all of which are brought together in a common liturgy where we worship with one another. In many ways, the insights of many emergent thinkers and more recent movements toward “big tent” Christianity are already nascently presupposed in the Episcopal identity.
Too bad we’ve focused on the Bishops.