Proposals are flying around to restructure the Episcopal Church and it’s clear that the make-up of the church’s governing body, General Convention, is on the table. The bishop of Long Island wants to combine its houses. The bishop of Arizona wants to shrink it substantially. It has already, due to budgetary constraints, been shortened in recent years, though with no apparent reduction in workload. That, in turn, has led to calls for certain items—like resolutions calling for the government to do (or not do) something—to be jettisoned from Convention’s agenda. Across the board, there are calls for more collaboration across the church with more “sharing of resources.”
So here’s an idea—building on that same proposal from the bishop of Arizona: what if we brought back the Church Congress Movement?
The Church Congress Movement (about which there is no Wikipedia article so you know it’s really obscure; you get a whopping eight Google entries when you search for it) flourished in the Episcopal Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was back when the Episcopal Church had pretensions to grandeur and thought it had something to say to the world around it (and that people were listening). Folks came together to debate the issues of the day in the world and in the church.
Why might this be a good thing to consider reviving?
- General Convention is awfully focused on doing stuff: passing a budget, authorizing liturgies, etc. The Church Congress can be focused on exactly the kind of consensus-building and resource-sharing we need in the church—without getting distracted by the pressure of having to take care of the business of the church.
- The Church Congress was an early example of what we now take for granted: networking. This is what makes the world go ’round (however you may feel about it) and a lot of it seems to happen at Convention. Why not de-emphasize Convention, though, where the focus is on the folks who happened to get elected as deputies, and open the door to a broader-based conversation with less hierarchy and more open participation.
- The Church Congress separates the important business of governing our church from the equally important (but I think slightly different) business of figuring out where the church is going and what it should be. Let’s be clear about what’s important for governance and what’s important for the church as a whole.
- The Church Congress is open to all comers, not just the kind of people who stand for and get elected as deputies to General Convention. As a result, there’s a wider slice of the church represented.
There are already plenty of signs of movement in the direction of a Church Congress-like organization. Gathering 2013 or the Gathering of Leaders are both groups that do similar sorts of things to what I’m describing here (with the important distinction that both are clergy-only affairs). But I think there’s something to be said for scale and regularity. The Church Congress was an event in a way that neither of these two Gatherings are.
The major obstacle, of course, is financial. We can barely fund General Convention. How can we fund another big meeting? In the twentieth century there were three Anglican Congresses that brought together Anglicans from all over the world. (Once we’ve brought back Church Congress, let’s bring back the Anglican Congress!) The Lambeth 2008 design team wanted to have an Anglican Congress but scrapped it for lack of money. I’m not sure I have an easy answer to the financial question, though a much-reduced Convention should help, nor am I going to let that stand in the way of an idea.
There’s one thing I’m not telling you about the Church Congresses: they actually represented a church faction (the broad church types) and so were not truly an equal meeting ground for all. Moreover, the movement foundered when consensus (in this case, over the creeds) began to break down in the church. The meetings were an expression of a consensus in the church rather than a tool for creating consensus. I’m not sure how that would translate to today’s church.
Still, the idea remains. De-emphasize the governing of the church and emphasize the being of the church. A movement like the Church Congress could be egalitarian, broader-based, and feature the kind of networking that leads to change.
Sounds a lot like the world around us that the church is so often encouraged to learn from and emulate.