The TREC rubber hits the TEC road

600426_573991912619954_1695884243_nTwo years ago, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed—unanimously!—a resolution to establish a “super-committee” to propose changes to the structure of the church. There was so much enthusiasm about the idea the passage of the resolution that at one point it was greeted with song.

Remember that?

At the time, I wrote:

The way ahead for this super committee is hugely difficult. Committee members…have to learn the ins and outs of the current governance structure to figure out what to change or whether and how to start over. They’ll need to think and dream about what is needed from a national church structure in the twenty-first century. And they have to do all this (and much more) in just under two years, with uncertain staff support and while all of them have jobs and lives elsewhere that are competing for their attention.

At the same time, the hundreds of deputies who passed this resolution will be headed home. The enthusiasm will naturally dissipate as they re-engage with the work of ministry in their local contexts. When actual changes begin to be proposed, there will no doubt be stout opposition from defenders of the status quo.

Some of those predictions now seem to be coming true. The energy of that unanimous resolution seems to have rapidly dissipated. The super-committee, now acronymized as TREC, has gone about its work, issuing letters and now beginning to unveil its proposals. The most recent effort is a letter this week laying out in broad detail some of what it hopes it can accomplish.

I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about the ins-and-outs of the workings of the governance of the Episcopal Church and I think there is more thought and energy behind these letters than TREC is often given credit for. Lots of other people have written about TREC. I am no expert. But I do care about the future of the church so, in the spirit of continuing the conversation, here are three points I haven’t seen elsewhere and that I think could usefully broaden some of TREC’s proposals.

Separate the ministry of primacy from the governance of the church. In the Church of England, Lambeth Palace (the home of the archbishop of Canterbury) and Church House (the home of the executive functions of the church) are on opposite banks of the Thames River. Other provinces of the Anglican Communion might combine these functions in the same building but still make a distinction between the primate and the organs that are needed for the functioning of the church. This is not to say that there is not cross-over and staff jointly appointed but I think the Episcopal Church needs a clearer separation then we currently have.

On the one hand, it would allow the church to think about what we want out of a presiding bishop—a prayerful leader, a charismatic prophet, or a gifted administrator; a free-ranging bishop without a diocese or a senior diocesan bishop—and allow him or her to shape the office to his or her gifts, rather than imposing certain (onerous) governance requirements up front. On the other, it would also allow the church to think clearly about what we want (and can afford) a central church office to do, independent of the aims and agendas of any particular individual. It would also address concerns about democracy in church governance.

Sure, separating the presiding bishop and church governance is messy—the relationship between Church House and Lambeth Palace is not always easy—but it means there’s no overwhelming centre of power in one person. The head of the central church governance—call him or her the provincial secretary, as so many other Anglican provinces do—could come from any order of ministry and be hired in such a way that the presiding bishop has a voice but not the only one.

Separate the work of governance from evangelism and mission. Earlier this year, I spoke at the Diocese of Connecticut’s annual mission conference. I’m pretty sure that not a single member of Connecticut’s General Convention delegation was there. I don’t say that to fault them or pick on anyone. Saturdays are busy days for every one. I simply want to point out that the evangelists and missionaries in a church are not always the people who feel called to the work of church governance. This is pure body of Christ theology here. Gifts are distributed differently.

The TREC letter, building on ideas previously proposed by member Dwight Zscheile, calls for the convening of a churchwide “missionary convocation” in tandem with or possibly in place of a General Convention. I’m just not convinced that this works. The people who are elected as General Convention delegates—largely those with experience, who can take time off during the summer, have few child-care needs, etc., etc.—are not necessarily the same people who could make a missionary convocation a truly thriving event. Again, this is not a criticism. We need governance. We need resources for evangelism and mission. Those are not the same thing.  (True, sometimes there is overlap.)

I’m all in favour of a both/and event—governance and mission/evangelism convocation at the same time—but some dioceses have a hard enough time sending a full deputation as it is. Part of the reality that TREC is dealing with is that the church is no longer in a both/and situation. Instead of beginning with a churchwide missionary convocation, I’d like to see more focused, regional events, whether those organized by congregations/dioceses/provinces or those by para-church organizations, such as the really successful series of conferences organized by the Global Episcopal Mission Network in recent years.

Listen to other churches. To date, I don’t see any acknowledgement in the TREC material that they have studied parallel process of re-structuring that are taking place or have taken place elsewhere. The United Methodists have debated similar issues in recent years, as has, in the Anglican Communion, the Church in Wales, which issued an incisive report (from a committee of three) not long after TREC was created. I have written about—and critiqued—that report in other places. But I always remember one comment in it:

A number of people have said to us that the Church in Wales is still characterised by a culture of deference and dependence…. What this means in practice is that people look to the Bishops and clergy to take initiatives and it has been suggested to us that nothing much happens without this. (p. 6)

Beyond issues of structure, there are issues of culture that the Episcopal Church is going to have to tackle as it moves into a new future. Aside from whatever canonical and constitutional proposals it will make, I think the most important legacy of TREC—as it hints in this recent letter—may well be the areas it highlights for further conversation in the church: number of dioceses, formation for ministry, etc. Among those, I hope, are issues of the culture of the church and how it conditions our work. It is these conversations—already happening all over the church—that will do much to determine how we move into the future to which God is calling us.

TREC is inviting dialogue with church members. I’ll be sending these thoughts to them at I hope you engage with them as well.

Can a Starbucks barista find a place in the Episcopal Church?

Number 41 is an Episcopalian

It’s no secret that the Episcopal Church has historically been associated with a particular stratum of society—white, educated, socially connected, middle- to upper-class. The Presiding Bishop used to live in Greenwich, Connecticut—and now lives (or could live) in a Manhattan penthouse. We are a church that can count the number of presidents who have been members and can cite the large number of elected officials who belong. There has always been a number of African-Americans in the Episcopal Church but by and large in majority-black congregations. Power—thanks to the church’s abysmal history of race relations—has remained with the church’s white (and usually male) members.

In recent years and decades, this has begun to change. There are now several African-American bishops, including two of dioceses south of the Mason-Dixon line. There is a growing interest in Spanish-language ministry. We ordain priests from immigrant and Native American communities. Above all, there is the recognition that simply being the church of the white elite is no longer an option—not if we are serious about thriving in the wonderful hetereogeneity of 21st-century America nor, for that matter, if we are serious about being the body of Christ.

At the same time, the church has come to be dominated by a theology that centres on the “mission of God.” There is much to admire about this emphasis—indeed, I wrote a book about it. But I want to highlight one aspect of this emphasis. In the current theology of the church, the word mission is, as I have written at length elsewhere, often associated with a constellation of other words: task, job, do, work, labour, obligation. I once called this the Nike theology of mission: just do it. Get out there and do the work of God.

It is a truism that all theology is contextual and emerges from a particular community. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders found a powerful parallel in Exodus and God’s deliverance from oppression. During a catastrophic civil war in southern Sudan, it is not surprising that people were drawn to Christianity in part because of the promise of eternal life. When your friends are dying, you begin to think about what comes after life.

The current emphasis on mission in the Episcopal Church can be seen in a similar way. It may not always feel like this but Episcopalians are, by and large, people who tend to have disposable time and disposable income. When we hear calls to volunteer at soup kitchens, start homeless shelters, donate to food banks, or whatever, it is not unreasonable for us to think about responding. In my experience of the Episcopal Church, Episcopalians are people who come from an action-oriented stratum of society that is used to exercising its own agency. When we hear calls to “mend the world,” we might think it’s a tall order but we might also think it’s not unreasonable to start making plans.

Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church
Spotted from time to time in an Episcopal church

All of this came to mind while reading a lengthy investigation in the New York Times recently about modern labour practices. The article focused on a young, single-mother who has no certainty in her work schedule from Starbucks and so ends up living a life of constant chaos, torn between child care, work, transit between the two, and with barely any time for any of her major life goals, like education or a driver’s license.

The article doesn’t say but I’d guess that this young woman is not a member of the Episcopal church. She may not be a member of any church, in fact. But let’s imagine she walks into her local Episcopal church on a Sunday morning and hears a sermon exhorting her to join in the mission of God, to get out there and build the kingdom, to do, to labour, to work. It’s not unreasonable to think that her response might be, “I can barely keep my head above water as it is. Why would I want to join a church that tells me I need to do more work?”

IMG_1768There’s a picture I once took on a weekday afternoon in a Nigerian church. There was a young woman, praying with her head bowed in a side pew. Over her was a sign that read, “The steadfastness of the Lord never ceaseth.” I was reminded in that moment of the deep well that is Christian theology with its themes of mercy, reconciliation, peace, redemption, truth, and so much more. This woman (I’m guessing) found her faith expressed at a moment of Christian consolation. You don’t have to do anything—just dwell in the love of God.

(As I write this, I am recalling a sermon I once preached on Matthew 11.28-30—”come to me, all you that are weary…”—and focused on how we were being called to take up the yoke of mission. All work, little consolation.)

The truth is, I can only tell you about what draws me to Christianity and to the Episcopal Church in particular. I can’t see inside the head of a Starbucks barista or a Nigerian church-goer. It is decidedly not the case that people from a lower socioeconomic background cannot mend the world or that they don’t want to try. Mission theology is not inherently misguided. But mission theology is, as all theologies are, particular to a particular community.

As Episcopalians think about our future as a church, one common theme seems to be that the main problem we face is that our message is not being heard broadly enough. We need to be better at evangelism, at church planting, and at communicating in the fractured media world of this era. All true. (And all steps that are action-oriented.) But I wonder if we might not stop and question not just how we communicate but what we communicate as well.

As Episcopalians look to transcend our historic membership patterns, we need also to think about the theology—or, more likely, theologies—that will be at the root of our new, broader community.

“So, Lord, please keep things broadly the same / Frankly, revival would drive me insane”

The Archbishop of the Church in Wales, Barry Morgan, last weekend addressed the Church’s Governing Body about the recent review the church commissioned to review its structure.

The actual review—which came out in July—is more detailed than the Archbishop’s speech. I looked at the review in July and had several thoughts on it then so I won’t write about it again.

But I did want to post the poem that the Archbishop ends with:

Lord, won’t ya keep things broadly the same

Frankly, revival would drive me insane

I’m busy, I’m tired so I’ll ask you again

Lord, won’t ya keep things broadly the same.


Lord, keep us from the unknown

I know that I’m damaged, but I’ll leave it alone

I’m busy, I’m tired and I’m injury prone

But Lord, please keep us from the unknown.


Lord, won’t ya keep us quite uninspired

At least, please wait till we’re all retired

I’m busy, I’m tired, to be quite so fired

So Lord, please keep us quite uninspired.


When we said ‘Lord, have your way

and change us so we follow’

Can’t you see it was irony

That’s now gone rather hollow.


So, Lord, please keep things broadly the same

Frankly, revival would drive me insane

I’m busy, I’m tired, so I’ll ask you again

Lord, please keep things broadly the same.

And then the Archbishop says:

And Jesus’ response to that is quite simple: “If you would be my followers, that just isn’t possible”.


“Progressive Evangelism” and proclaiming the Gospel afresh in every generation

I was once in the customs and immigration line at Heathrow airport with the Rev. Otis Gaddis and watched as he struck up a conversation about faith with two other people in line. It was a sight to behold and I was filled with admiration for how skillfully he was able to do so. So it is no surprise that Otis—and several other of my former classmates—are among those profiled in a recent article about “progressive evangelists” in the Episcopal News Service.

“It [progressive evangelism] assumes that Christ is already present,” Gaddis said during a recent telephone interview. “The goal is not to bring people to church but to reveal the presence of church between you and the person you’re talking to.”

This line from Otis reminded me of something Max Warren, the former general secretary of the Church Missionary Society (and no “progressive” about evangelism or much of anything else) once said. He noted that the first thing a missionary should do when arriving in a new place is remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground. That is, wherever we go, God has been there before us.

It reminds me also of Stephen Bayne, the first executive officer of the Anglican Communion, who once told a group of missionaries: “missionaries do not go out into the world to introduce the world to God or He to it. He is already there; He has been there from the beginning; He is standing waist deep in history, calling us to join Him. For the mission is His and not ours.”

I love that image of God being “waist deep in history.” God is already out there. We are going to join in. The progressive evangelists profiled in this story remind us that as much as we’d like we can’t do so on our own terms.

The ENS article provoked this comment from a Tom Swift:

Neither Jesus (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) nor Paul (“I preach Christ and him crucified”) would recognize this as evangelism. Christian evangelism is sharing the good news that sin and death have been overcome by the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Changing peoples’ minds and belief systems” is exactly the point! Such good news must be spoken with great love and respect for the other person’s values and beliefs, but it must be spoken to be evangelism.

This critique, I think, is helpful. I am reminded of Desmond Tutu’s line about the need to “share grace gracefully.” Particularly for Episcopalians—who have long made central our membership in the catholic church—a conversation about faith is not enough. A line like this

Progressive evangelism is not, however, about converting or getting people to church, he said.

can be a little worrisome, if you think about it. On some level, we believe that the grace that is in the sacraments needs to be shared broadly. Evangelism, at some point, has to be about “getting people to church.” (Or, even better, “converting” them.)

One of my favourite churchy slogans is “Proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” The generation of which people like Otis and Adrian and Matthew and I and so many others are a part of bears this burden like every other generation prior to ours.

What’s interesting is the way in which the conversation started by evangelists in this article focuses so much on method: how do we proclaim? In this case, the answer seems to be by showing up in places where folks don’t expect the church to be. It’s also defined negatively, as in, not like those other, more conservative denominations.

I think what is missing from the conversation in the church these days is a focus on the third word in this slogan: Gospel. What is the Gospel we have to proclaim? What is the good news that people need to hear in this world? In what particular form does the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection need to be proclaimed? What is the kerygma—to use the word Paul uses—that we want to share?

These are the questions that still need to be addressed.

Flexibility and change in the Episcopal Church: The Commemoration of William Reed Huntington

In the debate over a potential covenant for the Anglican Communion, you might see mentioned from time to time the idea that Anglicans already have a covenant of sorts: the so-called Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1886/1888. You can read all about it in your Book of Common Prayer (p. 876) but it has four elements:

  • Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation;
  • The creeds as a sufficient statement of the faith;
  • Dominical sacraments (baptism and Eucharist) rightly administered;
  • Historic episcopate locally adapted.

The man behind the Quadrilateral was William Reed Huntington, whom the Episcopal Church commemorates today. Huntington was a parish priest, long-time deputy to General Convention, and advocate for ecumenical reunion in the United States. In fact, it was his desire to see the church united that led to the Quadrilateral. These were the elements Episcopalians had to see in another church to be reunited with them. The Quadrilateral remains a factor today, explaining why the Episcopal Church can be in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America but not, say, the Presbyterians, who have a much different understanding of the ministry of the episcope. (Huntington was also a priest for many years in Worcester, Massachusetts. Although the Diocese of Western Massachusetts didn’t exist then, it’s more proof that it may be a small diocese but still one that punches above its weight.)

Efforts to use the Quadrilateral as the basis for intra-Anglican unity are a category mistake. The Quadrilateral is about ecumenical relations. And there’s good reason for this. If we say that the Quadrilateral is essentially a proto-Anglican Covenant, then we’re saying that our relations with the Anglican Church of Southern Africa or the Anglican Church of Canada are no different than our relationship with the ELCA or the Moravians. We may sometimes feel that way but the whole idea of the Anglican Communion, as I interpret it, is that those churches that have a historic relationship have some sort of special relationship that is distinct from that shared with other members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Now you may think, as I largely do, that the proposed Anglican Covenant is unnecessary. But don’t say that Anglicans already have a covenant. Huntington had something entirely else in mind when he was devising the Quadrilateral.

Sometimes the Quadrilateral is seen as a bit too firm and an obstacle to reunion, particularly the part about bishops. But what I like about Huntington was his advocacy for  flexibility and change in other parts of the church’s life to facilitate ecumenical reunion. He thought, for instance, the church could be a bit more open to liturgical change. To this end, he spent a lot of time on prayer book revision.

Huntington’s commemoration, then, poses several questions to the church in this time of change: what do we think is worth preserving about our church? What can we more readily compromise on?

Lessons from the Church in Wales

The meeting was notable for the number of contributions from members with a common message: “The Church cannot go on doing the same things in the same way; some things need to change and we are open to – and indeed encourage – that possibility.

Sound like a familiar sentiment? But rather than being from the just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the sentence is how the new Review of the Church in Wales begins. The Welsh church commissioned the report two years ago and it was released earlier this week.

On the assumption that the Episcopal Church—which just created a super-committee to consider restructuring—has something to learn from our Welsh sisters and brothers, I had a look through the report.

The report spends a lot of time calling for larger Ministry Areas—something like deaneries, though it is careful not to call them that—in which the lead pastors would be both ordained and lay. “A radical change of perspective is needed,” the authors write, “from parish to a much larger area, and from a single priest, to a team with different gifts.” (p. 8) I think the report is to be commended for so highlighting the role of lay people in ministry. The call to move to the larger Ministry Areas is a sign of the straits the church is in that it feels it can’t keep the close connection to communities the parish system gives it.

Given the recent focus of this blog, the report’s commentary on ordination training was interesting, particularly the way in which it upholds residential training as a part of such training, even if combined with non-residential portions (p. 14). The report also acknowledges the increased need for non-stipendiary clergy (p. 17). We call them “bivocational” clergy in the U.S. but the idea is the same. Clergy need to start thinking about income sources independent of the church. The report suggests the church in a few years think about moving from six dioceses to three (p. 19). Since you need to have four dioceses to stay a province of the Anglican Communion, I’m not quite sure what that would mean for the Church in Wales status but that doesn’t seem to have been considered by the authors. (Perhaps Wales could get around that by having some missionary areas?)

The most interesting aspect of the report is its identification of a problem in the culture of the Church in Wales: “namely the respect in which the office of Bishop is held in the Church in Wales and the authority which he wields by virtue of his office.” The authors write:

A number of people have said to us that the Church in Wales is still characterised by a culture of deference and dependence. This is a model of leadership that is carried over into the parishes, where so often the complaint has been that it is all about the clergy, that there is a culture of “Father knows best”. What this means in practice is that people look to the Bishops and clergy to take initiatives and it has been suggested to us that nothing much happens without this. (p. 6)

I’d say there’s an element of this in the American church as well, though less than there used to be, perhaps, and less so than there is in Wales. Moreover, I think many bishops in both Wales and the U.S. would be happy to give up some of this authority if only we’d take it from them. I hope that this Review, as well as whatever process the Episcopal super-committee goes through, can start a conversation on what we expect of bishops and how we remain true to our Anglican tradition while remaining able to relate to the challenges of our time.

One thing that is clear, however, is that no structural change can change this cultural situation the Review identifies. And so what I think this report reveals most fundamentally is that we can tinker—even quite dramatically—with the structure of the church but it all means nothing if the people in the church don’t change as well. It’s one thing to (unanimously) establish a committee to investigate church structure (and sing it into being). It’s quite another to look in the mirror and ask how—independent of any structural concerns—each member of the church can become a more missional follower of God in Christ.

And that, I think, is the ultimate disappointment of this Review. It doesn’t go far enough. Perhaps that’s what you get when your committee is composed of three well-connected church personages. I get the sense that the report’s authors simply decided to shrink and combine the church’s functions in response to its diminished financial position. The Review does a good job at the beginning and the end of identifying what the purpose of church is —”to proclaim the Gospel and draw people into the life of Christ” (p. 37)—but sometimes I struggle to see how that goal is connected to some of its recommendations.

The annex of this Review is fascinating: a summary of all the other structure reports in the last generation in the Church in Wales. And yet here is the church, again calling for review and reform. Will this report end up on a similar list at some point in the future? It might, if we put all our energy into changing structure and none into changing the disciples we are forming.

Thinking about changing The Process

In two previous posts, we’ve seen the ways in which the education seminaries provide is vital for the formation of clergy. And we’ve seen how the so-called problems of the seminaries are overblown and that, in fact, Episcopal seminaries continue to provide the vast majority of clergy active in the church. This is not to say, however, that the current system of choosing and educating priests is perfect. What needs to change?

The first thing is, I think, that we need fewer priests. Since the late 1960s, Episcopal Church membership has been on a fairly steady decline. At the same time, however, the number of clergy ordained per year has, with some blips up and down, stayed fairly steady. That means the Church now has a higher clergy-to-lay ratio than it did back in its “glory days.” (That this should have happened in the same generation in which the “ministry of all the baptized” has become a central part of the church’s teaching is particularly ironic.)

I think it is no accident that the late 1960s and early 1970s is the period when the church changed its ordination process to add commissions on ministry, parish discernment committees, and all the accoutrement that now go with what is called in seminary “The Process” (capital T, capital P). The church largely relies on its future clergy to self-select themselves and then “tests” that call in The Process. I don’t think, however, that God is calling more priests per layperson now than God called before The Process was devised. In some ways, I think, The Process, by distributing authority has made it more difficult to say a flat “no” to people (though this does happen). It is easier to pass the buck on making the decision farther and farther along until it becomes practically impossible to do anything but ordain the person.

Moreover, all those sundry committees are supposed to be helping people discern ministry in general, not just ordained ministry. In practice, however, many of these committees focus only on ordained ministry and have little ability, if they say “no” to someone, to help them discern a calling to lay ministry. (That the church does so little to honour lay ministry is a problem for another post.)

The major hurdle in The Process is becoming a postulant. This is the stage at which the prospective priest is allowed to begin seminary. For all the reasons I mentioned earlier, seminary should be a huge part of the discernment process. It’s when people who think they are called to the priesthood actually get to try out what it feels like to be a priest. The diocese gets to see how the ordinand is doing and re-evaluate their earlier judgement. Theoretically, there are later points at which a diocese can decide a person is not called to be a priest. But in practice, they are rarely taken. Because the church provides essentially no financial support for its ordinands, ordinands pay out of pocket for seminary. Once they’ve sunk money into the experience like that, it can seem awfully churlish for the diocese to turn them down.

What that effectively means, however, is that the three years of seminary education are not a meaningful part of the discernment process, even though they should be its core. It also means that the General Ordination Exams, taken in the third year of seminary and supposedly one of the big hurdles to ordination become merely a rite of passage. In my experience, it is exceptionally rare for a diocese to decline to ordain someone—whether because of performance on the GOEs or a report from seminary—once it has made him or her a postulant.

Fewer priests means fewer students for seminaries, which will likely mean fewer seminaries, which is not the end of the world. The United States is blessed with a huge expanse of territory but its seminaries are concentrated on the east coast. This can create huge hardships for people who have to uproot their families to go to seminary. I know many people who have sacrificed an incredible amount to attend seminary. Although I know that each situation is different, I think we should be suspicious of potential priests who are unwilling to travel to pursue that call. Fewer and fewer priests end up going back to their sponsoring diocese. Going off to seminary is the first step of following God on this new journey of ordination.

Obviously, what I have outlined here cannot apply to everyone. For small, rural, distant, poor dioceses, sending a single ordinand to seminary is a huge hardship. Because our church has so come to value the Eucharist as the principal Sunday morning service, there is a need for a priest every Sunday, even in the smallest of churches. Sometimes, local ordination can be a helpful solution for priests who help maintain congregations as they are. (Whether we should be keeping those congregations open is another matter entirely.) But I would hate for the church to conclude that this should be the way a majority of it clergy are trained. Seminary education remains at the core of the future of the church and deserves only to be strengthened and improved.

Rarely is the question asked: is our priests learning? Part II

In the last post, we thought about one set of objections to the current system of seminary education: why do priests need to learn all that stuff anyway? But there are other criticisms you hear as well, and they are of a more practical nature. They go something like this: it is unreasonable to expect people to uproot themselves to go to seminary; seminaries are too expensive and leave priests saddled with debt; no one goes to seminary anymore.

What we’ve learned in our work on the Berkeley Board of Trustees is that many of these views are, well, simply wrong. The seminary deans commissioned a study from the Church Pension Group to see how many priests currently active in the church went to seminary. The answer? Well over half. A significant percentage of the rest went to a non-Episcopal seminary. Locally (i.e. non-seminary) -trained clergy were a small minority. More significantly, of those priests who were in full-time parish ministry more than five years after graduation almost eighty percent went to an Episcopal seminary. Seminary-trained clergy are at the heart of the church’s presbyterate. The idea that “most priests don’t go to seminary any more” is a canard. (You’re going to have to trust me on this figures, as the presentation is not online.)

True, many seminaries have experienced periods of financial difficulty in recent years, leading to mergers and the possibility of closure. Such things have happened in the past, of course. Seabury-Western, one of the seminaries that merged, used to be two schools. (No prizes for guessing what the names of the two schools were.) Moreover, the idea that General Convention can somehow reduce the number of seminaries (as has been proposed) is silly. Virtually all Episcopal seminaries (unlike those of other denominations) have no formal link with the churchwide structure. We have a system in which seminaries will rise and fall on their own (financial) merits, as they have in the past. This has led to major changes in recent years but as Joe Britton, dean of Berkeley and convener of the Episcopal Council of Deans, said in an article in Episcopal Journal (which doesn’t post individual articles so I can’t link to it) a year ago, “Reports of the death of the seminaries are greatly exaggerated. We have good news from the Episcopal seminaries.”

One issue that recurs in conversations about seminary is that of debt. The line of thinking is that it doesn’t make sense to send priests off for formal professional training that costs so much they’ll be paying off loans for the rest of their career. This is a really important issue, particularly the less-talked about issue of older students who liquidate assets to finance their education and then don’t have money for retirement. To an extent, this conversation is based on a misconception that seminary is expensive. It is, but there’s often financial aid to help out. (Berkeley, for instance, off-sets on average 86% of the cost of tuition per student.)

More importantly, the seminarian debt “crisis” is a result of the Church’s abysmal failure to invest in its future clergy. Our sister denominations give lots of money to their seminarians (as I enviously learned at my ecumenical seminary). The Church of England pays tuition for their ordinands and gives them a living stipend. You only have to read information from the Society for the Increase of Ministry to know that the debt “crisis” could be solved with an increase in small donations from a small number of Episcopalians. Those who point the finger at a debt “crisis” should be asking themselves what role they may have had in creating it.

Between this post and the last post, the image of seminary critics I’m gathering is something like the anti-government wing of the Republican party: anti-intellectual, critical of institutions they claim no one uses (contrary to fact), and determined not to fund something and then claiming it’s too expensive when the expense was created by the lack of funding.

Although I’m convinced seminaries are important, I’m not convinced that they’re perfect. In the final post in this series, we’ll look at some of the ways they might need to change.

Rarely is the question asked: Is our priests learning? Or, In defense of seminary education

What kind of priests does the church need in the 21st-century?

For the last two years, I’ve been a member of the Berkeley Divinity School Board of Trustees, where this question has consumed much attention and conversation. As well it should. Although lay people are the backbone of the church, it is priests in parishes across the country who are, in large measure, responsible for leading the people of God in their daily lives. We want to make sure we’re putting the right kind of people in those leadership roles at this point in the church’s life.

As this conversation takes place, it seems there’s this widely-held belief that the seminary system is broken and that most priests don’t go to seminary anymore. (This view wasn’t helped by the current Presiding Bishop, who once said something like “The three year M.Div. is dead.”) I see this online and hear it in conversation. Why do we people need to study Greek when there are so many more pressing issues for the church to confront? How will studying the early church help a priest fight injustice? The Episcopal Church has (sadly) always had a bit of an anti-intellectual streak so these comments are not terribly surprising. But they are disappointing. Here’s why.

I hope I don’t need to defend the value of education and education for its own sake. (As a former Classics major, however, I am well-practiced at making this case.) History repeats itself. I think the Donatist heresy of the fourth- and fifth centuries is hugely relevant to debates on a huge number of issues in the church today. The church today debates the nature of Jesus—son of God? really cool dude?—in the way early Christians did (with different language). I’m convinced that a huge division between camps in the church has to do with theological anthropology: are people basically good or are they bound by sin? This deserves another post but you see this division in a variety of issues. Doesn’t it make sense to know what folks in the past have said about who we are in the eyes of God?

(I’ve visited several seminaries in other parts of the Anglican Communion and am always impressed by how much students there want to learn everything they can about the faith. In South Sudan, for instance, where there are a huge array of complex and pressing problems that have nothing—ostensibly—to do with theology, I was blown away by the commitment of students to learning about the inheritance of faith. This article from Ellen Davis about teaching Hebrew to southern Sudanese makes this same point. In this context, it seems especially offensive to insist that theological education is somehow a waste of time.)

Moreover, I’m convinced that lay people in the church want to learn. There’s a lot of great research being put in practice at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL that concludes that people come to church because they want to grow spiritually, and that one of the best ways to help people grow spiritually is by teaching, particularly the Bible. I am stunned at how positive the response is when I conduct a Bible study or preach a sermon that helps give context, background, and meaning to the passage under consideration, rather than letting things meander off into conversation that may or may not be linked to the text. If you read the priestly ordination service, you’ll see just how many times some variation of the word “teach” is used. Doesn’t it make sense that our priests know something about the Bible (and lots of other stuff) so they can teach others about it?

The priesthood is a profession, like it or not. Priests are going to be ministering to congregations full of other professionals—doctors, lawyers, business people, etc.—and the fact that the priests are professionally-educated is, I think, important in the way it puts them on a level with these professionals. (Of course, many members of churches are not professionals and clergy need to relate to all members of their congregation. This is one of the joys and challenges of the ministry.) I don’t think we want church members to feel when they go to church that they somehow have to lower their intellectual and professional standards because it’s church.

True, much of this learning can happen by reading books, online, or other non-seminary forms of education. The key thing about seminary, however, is the way in which the education takes place in a community setting. The Gospel is fundamentally about community. The seminary environment is a place in which people not only learn facts and values but (try to) live them in their daily life. This is a hard case to make for folks who haven’t experienced the seminary environment but it is clear to me that there is simply nothing that compares to sustained, prolonged learning in community.

One of the recurring themes you see when you read mission history, as I have, is the push to “proclaim the Gospel afresh in every generation.” There’s the kergyma or proclamation of good news that is at the centre of the Bible but the form it takes in each generation and culture needs to be discerned by people in that generation. In order to do that, we need to learn how the good news has been discerned by generations past. There’s no better place to do that than in a community of people from a range of backgrounds seeking to do the same thing.

This is the first post in what became a three-post series. Part II about more practical objections to the seminary system is here; and part III about redesigning The Process is here.

(And for a clip of the line referenced in the title of this post, look here.)

Church structure reform: now the work really begins

For decades, Alaskan politicians have been looking for a way to develop the state’s natural gas resources on the North Slope. In 2007, the state legislature passed a piece of legislation called AGIA (the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act) that, it was believed, would at last lead to the building of the gas pipeline to transport the gas to market.

I can’t remember if I was in the legislative gallery at the time or not (I think not) but I do remember the palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm that surrounded AGIA. Of the 60 lawmakers in the House and Senate, exactly one voted in opposition.

I’ve been thinking about AGIA in the wake of the General Convention’s unanimous approval of a resolution that creates a committee to overhaul the structure of the church. There is that same sense of excitement and enthusiasm that I remember from AGIA. People want change and they are pinning their hopes on this committee to bring it.

So perhaps it is time for a dose of reality: the way ahead for this super committee is hugely difficult. Committee members (whomever they may end up being) have a huge amount of work to do. They have to learn the ins and outs of the current governance structure to figure out what to change or whether and how to start over. It surely makes sense that committee members also explore how other denominations govern themselves. They’ll need to think and dream about what is needed from a national church structure in the twenty-first century. And they have to do all this (and much more) in just under two years, with uncertain staff support and while all of them have jobs and lives elsewhere that are competing for their attention.

At the same time, the hundreds of deputies who passed this resolution will be headed home. The enthusiasm will naturally dissipate as they re-engage with the work of ministry in their local contexts. When actual changes begin to be proposed, there will no doubt be stout opposition from defenders of the status quo. This could be difficult to overcome if people are no longer paying close attention.

Moreover, we can’t “save” the church simply by changing its structure. We need church members who are continually open to the transforming work of God in Christ upon them, people who are agents of God’s mission in the world, people open to following in the sacrificial way of Christ. If we don’t have that—and we don’t take our focus off it—the work of the super-committee will be moot.

All of this is to say that the resolution passed by this General Convention is not the end of anything: it is the beginning of what I hope is a process that transforms the church. While leadership of that process is about to be passed to a super-committee, the process itself  needs the continued care, support, and guidance of the whole church. That’s why a group like Acts 8 is so interesting. At their meeting last night, they talked about ways to spread this passion for church reform to all levels of the church.

All that enthusiasm for AGIA? It soon passed. Before too many months, those who had voted for it were running for office against it. Mutual recrimination followed. Alaska is no closer to a natural gas pipeline than it was before AGIA passed.

Let’s make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with this resolution. Let’s stay interested and engaged in this process, in the hope that the holy way of doing business so clearly exemplified by this Convention can be carried into the important work of the next three years.