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AWAY WITH THE PB

No, I’m not attacking the PB. Calm down. I am advocating the transformation of the office the PB holds from that of Chief Executive to that of Chief Pastor.  I I realize that my proposal argues against even the original intent behind creating the office of Presiding Bishop. To my mind it was flawed from the outset. In the midst of political aversion to monarchy the founders of TEC were faced with what would replace archbishops, and by ‘archbishop’ they meant the form that office had taken in Georgian England. To the Founders an archbishop was a political appointee, reflecting either Whig or Tory ascendency, a figure entrusted with an Erastian view of the church as a department of the state.

So the Founders created a position with minimal power, who remained a diocesan bishop, was appointed because of seniority in years as a diocesan bishop, whose major role was to be Speaker of a house of General Convention and, as a survival of archiepiscopal status, would be the chief consecrator of bishops and have the right to make visitations to dioceses. What a visitation meant was not determined. Over the years the concept of a presider morphed into that of chief executive, a bishop without jurisdiction, involved in church government and in concert with a committee, making sure that the policies adopted by a democratic majority in a convention were put into force. Rather like the President of the USA, the Presiding Bishop became the Chief executive who apart from consecrating bishops lacked pastoral and spiritual opportunity. So for years now the PB has been primarily a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative’, a leader of a faction.

TEC needs pastoral leadership. It needs a Chief Pastor whose role is to unify the church. Involved in such a role would be the pastoral care of bishops and their families, a voice to elevate loyalty to the church, its doctrine, discipline and worship, a motivating, calming, impartial presence chosen on the basis of spirituality, theological acuity and a track record of being a bishop for all people in their diocese.

I would replace the PB’s role as chair of the HoB with an elected chair, preserving th right of the Primate to address General Convention, lead the joint worship of both Houses. I would also be inclined to give the Primate the chair of a constitutional court entrusted with making sure that the Canons were interpreted correctly and in a neutral fashion. Visitation rights should be described and limited, providing the Primate with the opportunity to meet with clergy and laity during extended visitations.

I would advocate the creatio of a small diocese, the seat of the Primate, in which she or he would exercise ordinary jurisdiction, baptize, confirm, ordain and in short remain connected to the pat oral role of a diocesan bishop.

The present executive authority of the PB would be shared between departmental heads and perhaps by a chief executive officer with firmly described and limited authority. The title “Presiding Bishop” should lapse or be retained for historical reasons with out a job description. The chief Bishop should be titled Primate and Chief Pastor.

Our church desperately needs a non-political, theologically astute, pastorally talented focus of unity. I realize that such a transformation is unlikely, but we may all dream.

BREAKING THE HABIT

I’ve been co-opted to a group charged with implementing our bishop’s vision to turn the diocese towards outreach and re-birth as eucharistic communities in mission. Implicit in this challenge is a return to an older pattern of identity, although a modernized version of that identity. The Canons (rules) of the Episcopal Church recognize that our definition of the word “parish” is territorial. The church buildings, those who worship therein and the clergy who serve are charged with the care of civil communities or areas and to bringing the wholeness of the Gospel, ‘the saving of souls and the care for people in “their daily life and work” to all who respond to the church’s mission until “the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our Lord Christ”..

 

It is clear that the greatest obstacle to embarking on such a project is the present understanding our parishioners have of what the local church is, and what it exists for. During the last two hundred years, since the church was disestablished in many of the former colonies, the local Episcopalian community has transformed itself from a territorial entity into a membership entity. The very term “membership”, although not without biblical antecedence as in 1 Cor. 12, that is to say connected parts of a body, organic unity, nowadays implies joining something and is loaded with secular ideas about dues and board meetings, mission statements and all the descriptions used by service organizations, including the sort of rivalry one expects to find in choosing to join the Rotary Club rather than the Lions or the Oddfellows. In short Episcopalians have turned inwards and the horizons set have been largely centered on programs, services and activities provided by and for members. A product of this has been the transformation of the role and identity of clergy from that of parish priest to that of chaplain to those who belong and with that transformation has come a list of demands made of “members’ towards their chaplains which consume most of the time and energy of clergy and which hang over clergy as a list of expectations to be satisfied.

 

It is this paradigm which must be broken if we are to realize mission as being something other than the task of recruiting new members to ensure the viability and “success” of a congregation. The bewildering variety of Christian bodies in America have for centuries relied on brand loyalty, attractive worship and program and a sufficient pool of disaffected Christians ‘in search of a church’. If this has become an enormous burden on congregations, it has had a crippling effect on clergy, upon whom the expectations of congregations has settled as the person largely charged with ‘attracting new members.’ Even when a more healthy vision of the ministry of the laity has developed, the basic pattern remains, that of communities of faith finding ways to make themselves attractive and lively and appealing. Now of course Christian corporate life is supposed to be all that. But the consumerist, shopping mall method is centered on making what happens within the community assembled in its buildings appealing to others. Rather like a shopping mall, each store has its brand identity and struggles to portray itself in an attractive manner. Success is measured by sales. Many of the self-help solutions pedaled by church growth organizations, center their task around teaching “members’ how to welcome new visitors or shoppers, how to get them to return, and how to persuade those attracted through the front doors to come back.

 

I have already written at length about the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are now ‘shopping’ for what is offered by competing stores, ‘denomination’ – the very name denotes a brand identity – and that in an unclubbable age, in which fewer and fewer people join service clubs and associations, the churches experience the same identity crisis. Nothing is more dispiriting than to labor long and hard to peddle a product which few think they need, which provides no buyers’ thrill, let alone remorse, particularly in the case of smaller local churches whose resources are utterly consumed in the upkeep of buildings and paying the salary of staff. But while there is considerable frustration and even depression in our eucharistic communities, there’s no real understanding that the model is broken irreparably and must be replaced if the life of local churches is to survive and experience new life. In short the first task the churches have is to understand, as if their life depends on it, is that the model we have used, once successfully, is as dead as the proverbial dodo. And if this is true at the basic local level, it is equally true at diocesan and national church levels.

 

One of the obstacles to understanding this to be true, is the continued relative success of larger congregations and the ever present presence of so called ‘mega churches’ upon whom Episcopalians pour scorn while secretly yearning for the success these congregations explore. For laying aside the problem of the longevity of such congregations over the long term, what is not understood is that their success is rooted in their ability to create alternative community life, albeit at some price to those who join, in a world in which the old glues of society, the extended family, community identity is disappearing. Indeed the church has always, at its best, constituted an alternative culture, even when that culture was roughly coterminous with that of secular society. Those who propose a form of Christianity largely informed by secular cultural mores, one which fits in with contemporary culture are yearning for a survival of religion which reflects the life-style, music, literature and lifestyles of those around them. If that form of culture seems to be hostile, the temptation is to withdraw and build safe places for the elect. It is no accident that the success of evangelical churches in large part is identified with their existing in communities which retain vestiges of popular Christian lifestyles, or they survive where pockets of such a memory exist in sufficient strength to continue to create a pool of likely converts. If this is true of the evangelical churches, it is equally true in the case of successful progressive churches, which are planted in areas where there are pockets of progressive thought, susceptible to the claims of religious groups which bless their concerns.

 

For the most part, Episcopal parishes, outside big cities or suburbs, largely located on the East and West Coasts of America, exist where neither pool of likely customers dwell. They exist in places where the general public pass our buildings daily without seeing them, where people ignore the church pages in newspapers and don’t feel drawn to surf the internet in search of ‘a church home’. As I have remarked before at length, a growing constituency of people around our churches have little or no idea of what we do inside our red doors, have no belief that whatever goes on has any impact on the complexity of modern living or thinking or experiencing life and are impervious to our usual ‘sales pitch’. I hasten to add that God’s mission is to add to the church “those who shall be saved”, for it is God’s mission. But resting on that fact is a cop out. We are called to be the agents of God’s mission. If God had intended to do it apart from the church, the church would not exist. Given these extraordinary facts it is easy for us to say with the disciples, “Will God, when He comes, find faith on earth?’  That the church is growing apace in Africa and Asia means nothing to us, conditioned as we are to believe that such foreigners have yet to catch up with the modern world, poor things.

 

These thoughts press hard on me as I prepare for the Celebration of a New Ministry for my two tiny congregations in Southern Illinois, and for myself, a seventy-two year old, who perhaps should be retired and is linked to the past glories of Anglicanism by upbringing and sentiment. I have now lived in Glen Carbon, Illinois for just over a month. Glen Carbon is a village, something rather quaint in a country of ‘cities’. Just over twelve thousand people live within the borders of this village. The Christian community is served by half a dozen or so churches, reflecting the usual brand names, of which the tiny Episcopal church ‘attracts’ just over forty people. The village consists of a former coal mining community, its inhabitants a mixture of the descendants of those who came from Great Britain and Slovakia at the turn of the last century and a newer community of retirees, those who work at the local university or who work in larger surrounding communities or in St. Louis, scarcely half an hour away across the Mississippi. Part of Glen Carbon now encompasses the larger stores which have spilled out of Edwardsville, such as Walmart and some restaurants. Thus Glen Carbon is divided between those who live inwardly struggling to preserve some sort of community identity and those who look to Edwardsville and beyond.

 

As I encounter local residents, I’m armed with three weapons. My English accent makes people stop me and ask me what accent I have and questions about why I am here at all!  I carry a stick, to hold me erect, one with interesting carvings on it which similarly invites questions. When I wear my uniform, other questions arise. “Are you Catholic?” When I say I am their Episcopal priest, more often than not I am met with instant incomprehension. A few ask whether that is the “gay church”. Young people seem glad that I chat, welcome me when we meet again, but that has much to do with my being a foreigner or my doing a rather odd job. I was trained to always reach out to the people I meet when I’m wearing my dog collar. One never knows what reaction I will meet. If I bring up the fact that I am the pastor at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, most have no idea where that church is hidden, for hidden it is nowadays by new buildings, let alone what it exists for. At least I have somewhere to begin contact, something I shall have to be patient in working on. I also know that those who will be with me on Saturday when I become official have none of my ‘talking points’ available, and have been taught not to share their faith, but to rely on the building, the sign, occasional advertisements in the local newspapers and community letters, and the cache of being Episcopalians. They do so with the added burden that our Episcopal faith has but a tenuous existence in this part of the world, and the movers and shakers in the community who built the church for themselves and their miners are long gone.

 

It is true that my parishioners and their co-religionists in an even small church in nearby Granite City have fewer resources than those in larger communities, but across this diocese the story is roughly the same. Our congregations at best are stable but aging and at worst are dying out. If we are to be faithful to the Great Commission, we must break the mold brutally. Our addiction  to things as they have been is terminal unless we embrace our addiction and seek a cure. That the old pattern of denominational consumerism is dying is, after all, a good thing. It has enabled us to concentrate on the incidentals of brand religion while ignoring the purpose and work for which our Lord created his Church. Thus bound up with our seeking a cure for our chronic addiction is a willingness to re-learn the basic truths of Christian Faith and practice. Only then may we begin to tackle the task of offering Christ to a hungry and perplexed secular world.

“HOLY WOMEN HOLY MEN”

“Holy Women: Holy Men” is the name given to a book of collects and lessons provided to enable congregations to commemorate those who the church singles out as “lights of the world in their several generations”. We used to term such people “saints”. The word “saint” is a variant on the term “holy” and holiness in the Scriptures applies to all the baptized and is rooted in the concept that in baptism we are all incorporated into “a Royal Priesthood, a holy nation” or if you will the Church. From very early times the Church has singled out particular ‘saints’ and designated them as Saints, people whose lives are, if you will, extraordinary examples of Christian virtue. Someone once suggested that a saint is an ordinary Christian who lives an ordinary life extraordinarily well. It was obvious that such a title be afforded to the Apostles and Mary Mother of Jesus and some of the women who were Jesus’ disciples. By extension this was also applied to apostolic people like Timothy, Titus, Barnabas and others who figure in the Church’s first history book, the Acts of the Apostles. As Christians ‘never die’ and thus never cease to love and pray, they formed what the Creeds term “The Communion of Saints” who though not living continue to invigorate the Church by their presence and prayers. We acknowledge this reality when we pray the words, “joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to the glory of your name.” We are reminded that we are never alone and that our prayers and lives are lived in communion with those whom we love yet see no more and particularly with those whose lives serve as an example to us as we seek to be a holy people.

The root of the word holy is in the concept of being chosen by God, called out to serve God, not because we are good, or clever, or have done wonderful things, but because God loves us, and has redeemed us, and adopted us as sons and daughters.

From very early days local communities identified such people, and particularly those who gave their lives for Christ, the martyrs, realizing that ‘martyr’ has its roots in another word which means “life-giver”, whether by dying for Christ or simply making Christ He to whom we give our lives and service. In reaction to what was thought to be an abuse of the practice of invoking the saints, our Reformers drastically culled those who were so honored in the Calendar. Our Reformers were so fixed on the concept of prayer as being asking for salvation,that they created a barrier between the Church militant here on earth and the Church in Eternity and thus seemed to deny that those who have gone before us have an interest in our lives and pilgrimage of faith, or at least a love and concern which matters.When the 1662 Prayer Book was adopted, a few pre-Reformation saints were restored, and one post-Reformation person, Charles, King and Martyr added. After the Tractarian Revival in the 19th Century, many began to add, without official sanction, the saints appearing in the Roman Catholic Calendar, or saints of the early days of British Christianity. In the 20th Century Provinces of the Anglican Communion began to adopt official local calendars, honoring more recent heroes whose lives figured in local churches or in the Anglican Communion at large. In the USA a book was endorsed by the Episcopal Church called “Lesser Feasts and Fasts” which gave sanction for the inclusion of specific holy women and men to be remembered on specific days in the Christian years. Each new edition added more names. Lesser Feasts and Fasts has been replaced by a volume entitled “Holy Women, Holy Men”. Indeed this new volume threatens to provide us with as many “saints” as one may find in the Calendars of the Orthodox Churches. However as the 1979 BCP forbids us to observe saints on Sundays, except for a patronal saint, the saint whose patronage is given to a parish church, and the Feast of All Saints if it falls on a Sunday, this multitude of saints remains largely ignored unless a parish has a daily Eucharist or the Offices are said in public. These saints are therefore relegated to personal and private devotion, at least for the most part.

The new approved Calendar has a number of glaring weaknesses, most of which have been noted elsewhere. The texts of many of the prayers no longer identify specifically Christian virtues for emulation. In that a good number of those identified in Holy Women, Holy Men have tenuous links to the Church Universal or local, if any, what seems to have replaced ‘holiness’ as a virtue, is the concept that people who have done notable things should be honored. While there is no harm and perhaps much good in recognizing those who have discovered things which benefit humanity or have championed good causes, these people are not saints as we have used the title thus far. The title of the new volume is therefore ironic. The term ‘holy’ is being defined not as a Christian virtue but in terms of fame. The secular world has its heroes. Nations honor their leaders who have gained fame in being examples of national honor. Again there’s no harm in such a practice. But now our church blurs the distinction between famous people and Christian saints.

It would be good if those responsible for nominating saints to our Calendar let us know what definition they embrace in making their choices. There is of course another practical problem. If our General Convention were to debate each name so nominated and included in an official liturgical observance, there would be no time to debate anything else.

The Roman Catholic Church has a complex method of canonizing holy women and men. Until now our church followed an older practice in seeking to identify people whose lives have inspired local devotion, one worthy of observance by the wider community. It is impossible to know whether many included in Holy Women, Holy Men, have such local followings or have been included in local devotion or in the Calendars of other Anglican Provinces or by other churches with whom we share ecumenical fellowship. This whole process needs to be brought into daylight. We need to know how the Standing Committee of Liturgy etc decides on its choices, in what manner ‘holiness” or even practiced Christian faith is discovered in the lives identified, in what manner such people have become focuses of local devotion and in some cases why they replace those whose days have been observed hitherto. It seems to me that a theological definition of holiness and heroic virtue is being replaced by a concept of admiration for the things some have done whether they were Christians or not. In short how may we have any confidence that such honored people are members of the “Communion of Saints” who continue to share with the Church on earth their virtue, love and prayers?

SYSTEM REFORM

I highly recommend the suggestions the Bishop of Springfield puts forth in the following blog:http://cariocaconfessions.blogspot.com/2012/06/toward-general-convention-polity.html