Bring back the Church Congress Movement!

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.

“If you are not baptized, please sit down”

I was recently looking through my notes from my trip a year ago to China and I found this story I had forgotten.

One Sunday I visited one of the major, sanctioned Protestant churches in Beijing. The congregation stood while the pastor prayed over the communion elements. Then, just before the distribution, the pastor made an announcement. “If you are not baptized, please sit down.” About a third of the congregation did so. They watched while the rest of us received communion that was passed through the pews. None who sat down seemed offended. No one stormed out in a huff. This was how things were. They were not baptized yet but looked forward to the day when they were.

So what’s the difference between this church in Beijing and your average Episcopal congregation, where I can never imagine something like this happening?

One difference—and there are many—is that folks are beating down the door of this church in Beijing. I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into that service. The sanctuary could probably hold 1000 people and it was standing room only that morning. In the Episcopal Church, perhaps, we’re so desperate for folks to come in, we don’t want to do anything that will turn people away.

I’ve written before about how the “open communion” conversation in the Episcopal Church is about much more than the relationship between communion and baptism. However that may be, I was struck to find this story in notes this morning.

What would we think about an Episcopal rector saying the same thing on a Sunday morning?

Praying before arguing, Or, a modest proposal for General Convention

Not long ago, I expressed the hope that the Episcopal Church’s conversation on the relationship between communion and baptism could be an example to the world of how the church argues with itself. I asked what would happen if opponents on this issue got together for prayer (first) instead of debate. These questions, I hope it is clear, apply to all kinds of issues facing the church at the moment, including church structure.

Now, there’s a very thoughtful post mortem from the United Methodist General Conference that is chock full of wisdom:

As I watched General Conference (thankfully not a delegate), I was keenly aware of both sides of most positions. I could see the value in both sides (and often the theological basis for both sides). What I couldn’t see very often was the willingness of the “poles”—or those who argued most vehemently for a position—to listen and, perhaps, even change their minds. Or at the very least, nuance their position.

…Our church, as it currently exists, seems unwilling to compromise, to listen, to track the Spirit’s movement. We are in a rowboat on a turbulent sea, and find ourselves unwilling to row together toward a distant horizon. So we go in circles. Or drift backwards. Hopefully, Jesus is in prayer on the shore and will soon come walking toward us on these same waters.

…We do have worship at General Conference, sometimes very meaningful worship. I wonder what might happen, though, if we spent the first 24 hours gathered in prayer, silent prayer especially, and listening for God? No politicking or maneuvering allowed! Can we expect holy conferencing to be holy if we haven’t quieted ourselves to listen for God?

Read the whole thing.

The author’s proposal, for a period of sustained prayer and reflection before the proceedings begin, echoes the structure of the 2008 Lambeth Conference, which had a multi-day retreat before the actual conference began. It’s much too late to suggest this, of course, but I’d like to heartily endorse the author’s proposal for a period of prayer and retreat before this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church. At a time when the church is only shaving days from its meetings to save dollars, it is unlikely, of course, that the idea will ever take off.

But I did find myself wondering: will this summer’s General Convention give rise to similar feelings as this author identifies? Are people already composing similar post mortem articles? One hopes not, but given the fever pitch which has already taken over, it seems, sadly, more likely than not.

The distinctiveness of the Episcopal Church

Samuel Seabury asked a question on Twitter recently:

(Isn’t Twitter wonderful? Dead Episcopal bishops tweeting. Seabury’s old foe William White is online as well.)

I think Seabury asks a good question here. If I remember my history correctly, at the time the Episcopal Church was being born, there were no other churches in the new United States of America that had bishops. Congregationalists, Methodists, Quakers all stressed local governance.

In this context, naming the church “Episcopal” is something a bold move. “Look at us,” it says, “we have bishops and we are connected to the historic, true church. We are distinctive.”

So as the Episcopal Church once again struggles to find its way in a changing world, I wonder if asking Seabury’s question again is helpful: in the current religious marketplace, what makes the Episcopal Church distinctive?

Relatedly, is highlighting our distinctiveness the way to go? Or should we be stressing what we have in common, not only with other Christians but with all folks everywhere?

Beyond “open communion”

As if the current raft of controversies isn’t enough, the Episcopal Church is moving towards open debate about the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism. The other weekend, I attended a gathering in the Diocese of Connecticut on this issue.

What struck me at the gathering was not so much the arguments about the issue at hand (which I’m not going to rehash here, although I do find that this article has a helpful new take on old questions) but that each speaker acknowledged in one way or another that the questions raised by this debate go much deeper than the relationship between the Eucharist and baptism.

I think this is right. This conversation is bubbling up in the church at this particular time not so much because of a sudden, pressing need to re-evaluate the church’s historic teachings on baptism and the Eucharist but because it is a useful proxy issue for countless other conversations the church needs to be having.

As I see it, the debate about baptism and the Eucharist is also about the following (and this is a non-exhaustive list):

  • What is the church’s relationship with the culture in which we find ourselves? One way of asking this is to wonder about the relationship between the claim to “radical hospitality” and “anything goes” nature of our world.
  • People are wounded. The way the world works exacts a huge cost on people. I think of this anytime I hear people preach a theological anthropology that stresses the goodness of people—we are all “magnificent creations of the divine” as I heard recently. Rather than stressing the way in which Jesus brings about change in our lives, the church is in a position of preaching that we are all really just OK and we can all be “radically included.” We preach that because so much of the world says otherwise.
  • Relatedly, what do we do not want in church? As one of the speakers at the event said, “If you ran a church that was ‘radically inclusive,’ you’d probably be in jail.” How do we say “no” in the church?
  • I have a hard time imagining that we would be having this debate if church attendance was growing. In this light, proposals for open communion can look like a desperate attempt to get people to stay in church, out of fear that if we tell them they need to be baptized first they’ll never come back. How do we avoid approaching ministry from a position of fear about church decline?
  • Do we value theological coherence in the church? If we do, I have a hard time seeing how we can square the baptismal ecclesiology that has been so prevalent recently with open communion. I suspect we don’t value coherence so much as we value “bums in pews”… and we’re willing to do anything we can to get them there. What would an ecclesiology that takes no account of church size look like?
  • How is our liturgy related to our witness to the world? Do we have to have Eucharist at virtually every service (“Eucharistic inflation” as I’ve heard it called)?

Whatever the outcome of the various resolutions that are pending on this question, it seems unlikely that there will be much change in practice. Those who do now give communion to those who are not baptized will likely not change. If the canons are changed, it seems unlikely that congregations supporting the traditional teaching of the church will change either.

But what could change is that the church could have a larger conversation about some of these larger questions. Rather than getting lost in a welter of confusion over a question that really isn’t going to change much, maybe we could start addressing some of the serious underlying issues.

What other questions does this issue raise for you? And what else would you like to see the church discuss?