I had the chance (and the bandwidth) late last week to view the presentation by the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Stacy Sauls, concerning the restructuring of the church, and "becoming" a Domestic and Foreign Missiionary Society. I have a couple of thoughts on its strengths, possibilities and weaknesses.
I applaud the effort to look at changes to the structure of the church to empower mission. That includes streamlining, reallocating, and so on. I think a lot of change is needed, and have my own ideas about where that could happen.
But I think there were gaps in the presentation that need to be filled, as well as more of the clarity in distinguishing which structures we are talking about. The General Convention and its interim bodies, and the staff at 815 Second Avenue and in other satellite locations, are not the same thing; and the mission of the church is broader still. The Episcopal Church is not one monolithic, unified structure, and portraying it as a pyramid with General Convention at the top is hardly an accurate picture. It might be true in terms of governance, but clearly not in terms of mission. And I don't think that is a bad thing.
First and foremost, the idea of organizing the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society was not to found a centrally based or governed mission agency, but on the contrary precisely to empower every member of the church as a missionary in person. I have never thought of General Convention as "missionary" -- any more than I would think of Congress as "military" -- General Convention is there to govern the church, and to direct and serve the mission; as is the staff at 815 (what PB John Maury Allin called and modeled as a "service center"); and all those interim bodies are there to do the same. But the mission is primarily carried out by the members of the church working as individuals and in coordination with others in their parishes and dioceses. (Just as the army carries out the policies of the government but is distinct from the government.)
Second, we need to be very clear about what we mean by mission. The BCP has a definition of mission, summed up in three questions and answers on page 855.
Q. What is the mission of the Church?These answers do a number of things. The first places mission in a theological as well as a human context. That is, it is about people, but it is also about God. The second prevents us thinking that worship and proclamation are not just as much mission as the soup kitchen is. The third makes it clear that all of the members of the church are called and equipped to carry forward this mission.
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.
It seems, therefore, odd to talk, as the presentation does, primarily about the national budget, while ignoring the billions of dollars raised and spent by the parishes -- only alluded to in the presentation -- when talking about the proportion of money spent on mission. The proportion of our "Gross Episcopal Product" spent on mission is substantial -- as we have to include the salaries of the missioners, the maintenance of the places in which we worship, and so on. It is deadly dangerous, and verges on a kind of missionary gnosticism, to forget that the cost of running a parish is a crucial part of its mission. Seek economies, by all means, but let us not say to the foot, I have no need of you!
One of the major problems in how people think of mission, it seems to me, is revealed in the commonly inverted understanding of Matthew 25 -- as if the mission of the church was identical with the works of mercy described there (which is not to say the church shouldn't do them, under the Golden Rule). But the text is not about the ministry or mission of the disciples, but about ministries performed (or not) to the disciples by those to whom the disciples went on mission. Matthew meant this passage as a comfort to the disciples as they were sent on their way to the "nations" -- not as a job description for the disciples' task, but as a comfort to them and a warning to those who would be on the receiving end of their mission to "baptize all nations" --- and let us remember that was the ultimate "mission of God." (It is odd in our present day that some are second guessing the importance of baptism as the essential and first sacramental mission of the church, leaping right to communion as if the radically transforming death to self in baptism were not essential in order fully to share in the communion Christ desires for us -- the accomplishment of the mission.)
In other words, the mission of the church is about much more than ministries of social service -- which is not to denigrate social service, but to see that it grows out of, but is not identical to, the unifying mission of the church. I have known congregations that become "doughnut churches" where much energy is spent on outreach, but there is no center or heart, and the energy is quickly expended and the parish is on the verge of collapse. Ultimately, the Matthew passage raises another important distinction: that between mission and ministry. They are related, but they are not the same. Much of what is done by the staff of the Episcopal Church Center is service; ministry rather than mission.
In the long run I think the PB and Bishop Sauls are onto some good things, but I fear that the focus on GC and 815 -- important as that is -- misses where the mission is most ably happening. I would like to see GC and 815 leaner and more effective in serving that mission, and to the extent that this is their aim, Amen, and again I say, Amen!
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG