September 21, 2013

(Inter)National House

This is not about the W.C. Fields film of that name, but the recent struggles in the Episcopal Church over possible name change for the staff at The Episcopal Church Center to become "The Missionary Society."

 There is nothing new about struggle or tension between the three (or four) entities that serve The Episcopal Church: the General Convention (GC), the Executive (formerly the "National") Council (EC), and the "staff" whether at 281 Park Avenue South ("Church Missions House") or 815 Second Ave ("The Episcopal Church Center", aka ECC). I served in the press and communications office at "815" beginning in the days of John Maury Allin. He always described it as a "service center" there to serve the needs of the church in supporting "SWEEP" — Stewardship, Worship, Education, Evangelism, and Pastoral Care; and of course national and international mission, for which a handy acronym wasn't, well, handy. There was also a finance department to keep those wheels greased, and a communication office (where I served) to support all of the rest in producing resources, print and video. The staff structure was ordered along those lines, and each week the PB would meet with the department heads of each of the "units." The notion seems a bit quaint now, but it seemed to have worked relatively well.

In addition to, and contrasting with this relative clarity, there was significant question as to "whose" staff the staff were: were they the staff of the "National/Executive" Council, or of the PB? This was and is a lively tension; exacerbated by the fact that the General Convention also had offices in the building, but were not "staff" to either the PB or the Council. On that wing of the triangle, there was always some tension between GC and EC as to who was doing what and when.

The Browning years brought a massive combined simplification and complexification to the staff structure, with both consolidation and more levels of hierarchy — including "senior" executives in a whole new — and very well remunerated — level separating the PB from the people actually in charge of the various areas of work. In spite of the evident problems to which this led, it remains more or less the same, with clusters instead of units, and changes in terminology.

Add to the existing tensions between the three structures, the now emerging tensions with DFMS (short for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America) -- previously a more or less silent partner (due to the overreach of the 19th century urge to make everyone a missionary without asking them first -- a noble gesture but prone to fail as many a noble gesture does). In latter days DFMS primarily served as the skeleton and support for fiscal operations, with very little involvement in the actual program or mission.

The real question that rarely gets asked -- and I do believe the aptly acronym’d "revisioning" task force, TREC, is asking it -- is why a church that functions mostly at the local or regional level needs such a complex entanglement of (inter)national structures? I leave it to others to do the math, but if one looks at the Gross Episcopal Product (for example the total receipts for all parishes in 2008 was over $2 billion... and that doesn't count foundations and auxiliary bodies) and compares it with the relatively small budgets of the GC and EC and ECC (as it was) one begins to wonder if all the turmoil at the (inter)national level is really worth it, and that a radical revisioning as a network isn't the best idea.

As to ECC being known as "815" -- "branding" isn't going to change it. Trying to "create" the next meme isn't going to work. Things catch on because they are catchy, and "The Missionary Society" -- as important (and misunderstood) as mission is -- ain’t. I can recall when someone in the staff there even made a tee-shirt for the Episcopal Church Center (ECC), "815" -- emblazoned with the text of Ecc. 8:15. Look it up, it's quite amusing...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 18, 2013

Vive la difference

One of the things the anti-same-sex marriage wing whinges on about is the lack of "difference" that they think essentially constitutive of marriage. The problem is that, as with race, the differences between members of the same sex is often greater than the difference between idealized abstractions of the sexes. A man might be mistaken for a woman at a distance, but no one would mistake Joel Grey for Orson Welles.

Each person is different from every other person. That's what "other" means.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 7, 2013

Untied Thank Offering

There has been a lot of tooing and froing about the fate and future of the United Thank Offering (UTO), and whether or not it should be untied from the structures of the Episcopal Corporation (DFMS), or more closely united to it. You can read all the background as helpfully provided by the Presiding Bishop.

Just this morning, though, I was thinking, "Wouldn't it be simplest for the UTO to incorporate as a 501(c)3 entity, just as did Episcopal Relief and Development?" Then I discovered this had been part of the discussions some years ago, but was nixed, or advised against, by some advisors. To the point of advice, I'm not sure the UTO is bound to follow it. There seems to me to be nothing to stop UTO from incorporating, and there is no need that I can see for Executive Council to "approve" such a movement, since UTO was never formally a part of the institutional structure of DFMS, but an auxiliary entity that functioned, and functioned quite well, primarily as a ministry of and by women (when they were prevented from a large sector of possible ministries in the church). The UTO always worked in cooperation with the existing structures of the church and the Episcopal Church Women, from the parish on up through the dioceses and provinces; and at the national level through the Triennial. It could still continue to do that, but with the financial donations coming directly to UTO (instead of through the parish mechanisms) and grants being made autonomously by their own duly elected board.

When in The Episcopal Church we hear talk of restructuring for greater flexibility and decentralization on one hand, and then moves that seem to be trending towards holding UTO ever closer to the institutional structure, I have to wonder if an important opportunity hasn't been missed.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 6, 2013

Decline: Causes and Circumstances

Over at Facebook someone has posted a link to a year old article blaming "progressives" for the decline of the Episcopal Church. And just about every other decline, including the decline in numbers of Roman Catholic nuns.

Well, I'm rather familiar with both subjects. Let's address the nuns first. The real "progressive" move that had major impact on religious communities was the shift in teaching regarding the superiority of celibacy over marriage. The latter, for over a millennium point five, was officially seen as a concession to weakness, and a necessity to keep the world (and the church) going; but if you really wanted to be an earnest Christian, you'd best be a nun or a priest. (This took rather seriously the Gospel passage we will hear this coming Sunday, by the way, about what it takes to be "a disciple.")

When in mid-20th-century terms the issue was reexamined, the teaching was nudged to place marriage on an equal, if not even slightly higher, plane. (This is when we started seeing misguided efforts to liken a married couple to the "image of God.") This move, hardly "progressive," had impact on women religious in particular, where the "bride of Christ" analogy had been played for all it was worth. I recall hearing from one late-middle-aged nun, the angry recrimination, "You mean I gave up my life and now you're telling me it's all the same!"

A similar shift in emphasis came with lightening the strict observance of Sundays and Days of Obligation, which — I can recall from childhood in pre-Vatican II circumstances — were held over our heads with dire threat of serious sin. As soon as you lighten the leash that has been held firmly in place, the critter will try to run free. Again, I would hardly call this "progressive."

When it comes to the Episcopal Church, the author does not present a terrifically accurate portrait, at its writing in 2012 or now. Decline in the Mainstream Churches has little to do with progressive / conservative issues. It has to do with a shift in the culture away from "church-going" as the primary focus for one's spiritual life. The 50s were anomalous in terms of the "institutional church" — a boom period connected to post-war and cold war angst (that certainly fueled the Merton-led phenomenon of young folks flocking to religion) and a culture of conformity and propriety. When the post-war fervor faded, distrust with "institutions" of all sorts evolved post-Vietnam, the door to the monasteries was found to swing both ways, and the kids (whose parents diligently forced them to attend) forsook "organized" religion when they reached adulthood in the 70s and 80s. They are not visiting the requirement of religious conformity on their children.

The world caught on, of course, and around the same time started doing things on the formerly sacrosanct sabbath — the Blue Laws have faded to pale grey, like parish records kept in fugitive ink. I can recall the announcement when Macys first said they'd be open on Sunday. Gimbels soon followed. Now even liquor stores are open on Sunday in some places, schools plan major sporting events on Sunday morning, and people have found they have better things to do with their time than attend worship which, as C S Lewis once quipped, makes it seem that "God is a nice old man who likes to be read to." If they are going to read, it will be in bed with the Sunday Times.

What's new attracts — for a time. But even the megachurches are seeing declines, as the novelty wears off. Churches that put on a good show — whether Rock or Roccoco, praise band or plainchant — still "draw" and likely have a future. Good preaching, good fellowship, a sense of identity and mission — these all help. But the days when the culture simply "expected" people to be church-goers is gone, and it isn't coming back.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

September 1, 2013

The Price of Folly

There was a story on NPR this morning (9/1/13) about a Texas megachurch that is the epicenter of a measles outbreak in part because leadership there has spoken against vaccination in the past. I was astounded by the current pastor addressing the issue with this statement: "Facts are the facts, but then we know that the truth always overcomes facts."

I have always believed that facts — while not the whole Truth (which St Paul tells us in unknowable) — at least place limits on the truth. While it is important to have our facts straight, surely no "truth" can stand against a demonstrable fact that contradicts it.

I believe, on the contrary to this pastor, that Facts are the outward surface of Truth. They do not tell us everything, but they tell us something. There are also, I believe, some true things that cannot be established by facts, but surely anything that contradicts the facts cannot be true.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG