The Episcopal Church: The Diocese of Texas of the Anglican Communion

Without much surprise, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention today passed its budget for the next three years. And, as presented on Tuesday, the budget sharply cuts funding for the church’s connection to the Anglican Communion.

While I find the decision disappointing—as I have noted here and here—it was not surprising. What was heartening was that the cuts to funding the Anglican Communion Office were so notably criticized on the floor of the House of Deputies. (I missed the budget debate in the House of Bishops.) I heard one delegate make the point I have made before, namely that how can we expect dioceses to give the full asking to the churchwide budget, when the church doesn’t give the full asking to the Anglican Communion Office?

I’ve heard a couple of figures on this but it seems like the Episcopal Church is currently giving between a third and a half of the asking to the ACO. That puts the church in Diocese of Texas territory: wealthy, well-resourced (comparatively) but unwilling to share any of those resources with the other institutions of the church to which it belongs. There’s been a lot of talk at Convention about the hierarchical nature of the church: as far as General Convention is concerned, the hierarchy stops with it. You give us your money, it says to the dioceses, but we’ll keep it for ourselves. Can you blame other dioceses for saying the same thing to the church?

When we start squabbling over resources like this—pointing out how much some dioceses give but not others, arguing over apportionments, etc.—it’s a sure sign of an institution in decline. If we can no longer meet our commitments, something needs to change. I, for one, am hopeful that the new structure super-committee that has been created by this Convention can discern ways for the church to remain a full, active, and engaged member of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church around the world to which we belong.

Small enough to drown in a bathtub

The anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has often been quoted as saying that his goal is to get government small enough “so that it can be drowned in a bathtub.” He—like many other ideological conservatives—have a common strategy in Washington: de-fund a program/agency/department, watch it falter because of the de-funding, and then use that as proof that it doesn’t work and needs to be eliminated.

I thought of that this evening as I reflected on the Episcopal Church’s proposed budget and its cuts to Anglican Communion programs. Places like the Anglican Communion Office are sponsoring really important work for the world church: the Continuing Indaba, for instance, or the Bible in the Life of the Church project. Repeatedly, however, the Episcopal Church has turned its back on these programs and deemed them not worthy of being funded. As a result, the staff of the ACO valiantly struggle along, doing their best on the barest of shoestring budgets. Because these projects are so under-resourced, they fail to have the full impact they could. People then say they’re not working and further cuts are made.

General Convention today passed a resolution piously spouting off about its commitment to the Anglican Communion. Really, though, it seems like it wants to drown the Communion in a bathtub.

Putting your money where your mouth is… or not

The Program, Budget and Finance committee released its proposed budget for the Episcopal Church for the next three years. The combined effect of its funding decisions will be to significantly weaken the church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion.

In line 193, there is the not unexpected slashing of the support given to the Anglican Communion Office. I’ve written before about what a bad idea this is so I won’t repeat it here. Deputies have been complaining all Convention about dioceses that don’t pay the full asking to the churchwide budget. What about provinces of the Communion that don’t pay the full asking to the Communion-wide budget?

The budget also cuts more of the (very modest) funding given as support to other provinces of the Anglican Communion while maintaining or increasing the funding given to Province IX (quite dramatically) or domestic dioceses.

In budget times as tough as the church is facing right now, any new line item is worthy of particular scrutiny. In line 251, PB&F proposes funding the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (at almost half of what was cut from the Anglican Communion Office). CUAC is a fine organization. But what makes it so worthy of funding from the Episcopal Church when so many other places are being cut. My guess? CUAC has a pretty good lobbyist at General Convention and the ACO, sadly, does not.

It seems there is a very easy amendment to make to this budget to cut the new funding for CUAC in order for the church to move closer to its ACO obligations.

The budget slashes funding for the ministry of communication. Episcopal News Service is heavily cut. It looks like there’s a lot less money for web sites and the like. I find this tragic. Communication is what keeps us one body in Christ in this age of mass media. If you don’t have a good web site in this day and age, you’re nothing. Cutting this funding will only further balkanize and divide the church. (It’s instructive that on line 10 the budget dramatically reduces what it expects to earn in income from ads on the ENS web site. Perhaps if we had more reporters, more people would go to the web site, we’d get more advertisers, and the income would go up?)

The thing is, there’s plenty of “news” out there about the Episcopal Church in the form of virulent “news” outlets like Virtue Online (which was called out by Gene Robinson the other day). By choosing not to engage in this ministry, the church is ceding the discourse to organizations like Virtue Online, which are, sadly, too influential in the Anglican Communion.

Finally, it is interesting that in line 36, the budget asserts that the presiding bishop’s assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs can be eliminated (excuse me, “sunsetted”) “in light of normalized relations within the Anglican Communion.” It’s an interesting comment on where budget-planners think the state of the Anglican Communion is and perhaps explains some of these mistaken decisions.

The budget was released on the same day the House of Deputies passed resolution D008 which “commits” the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion. Just so long as we don’t have to spend money on it, it seems.

If the Episcopal Church doesn’t want to be part of the Anglican Communion, I wish it would just say it, rather than speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

Committing to the Anglican Communion

It seems pretty clear that the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant will not be approved by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer. Having been rejected in Scotland, stymied in England, turned down by more conservative provinces, and approved by only a handful of churches around the world, the Covenant has had a tough row to hoe. It’s demise, I think, will be little lamented.

Several of the Convention resolutions concerning the Covenant politely turn it down but then use some sort of language about “committing” to the Anglican Communion. No one, it seems, wants the American church’s rejection of the Covenant to be interpreted as a step back from the Communion.

Actions speak louder than words, however, so here’s the question: what steps can this General Convention take to make it clear that its commitment to the Anglican Communion is more than nice words on a piece of paper?

Here’s a short list of ideas:

Fully fund the Anglican Communion Office. Congregations pay money to support the work of their dioceses because they are committed to work in their region. Dioceses pay money to the national church because they see that it does important work. National churches (or provinces of the Anglican Communion) should pay money to the international body that, on a bare shoestring, provides some sort of organization to the Communion and facilitates important projects like the Continuing Indaba or the Bible in the Life of the Church. The first head of the ACO (though it wasn’t called that at the time) was an American bishop named Stephen Bayne. Full disclosure, he is one of my Anglican heroes (yes I have those) and I think his legacy and his vision deserve all the support we can give them.

The budgets that have been proposed for Convention both slash (yet further) the Episcopal Church’s contribution to the ACO. I’m not sure how Episcopalians can gripe about dioceses that don’t pay the full asking when we don’t pay the full asking to the ACO. Other Episcopalians complain the ACO doesn’t do what we want, much in the way that Republicans in Congress are continually threatening to cut off funding to the UN when it “steps out of line.” Fully fund the organization and let it do its job.

Provide increased funding for the networks of the Anglican Communion. These are organizations, like the Anglican Indigenous Network or the Anglican Health Network, that bring together Anglicans from around the world to work on issues that are not, blessedly, the issues that have consumed the Communion for the last decade and more. Networks are important not only for the work they do but for the way they represent an effort to change the discourse in the Communion. The Episcopal Church used to contribute money to some of these networks as a way of bringing people together from different backgrounds to talk about important issues. That money is now gone. (Disclosure: I’ve been involved with the Anglican Peace and Justice Network.)

Challenge dioceses to be involved in at least one companion relationship. Many American dioceses, happily, have overseas partner dioceses. The companion diocese idea (which came out of work done by the Anglican Communion Office, incidentally, way back when) has been an important tool for building relationships across the Communion and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But not all dioceses have companion relationships. Some dioceses have relationships that need to be reinvigourated. We can challenge parishes to have web sites (Resolution A025); why not challenge every diocese to have a companion? (Or two: some of the most exciting companion relationships involve three dioceses.) Companion relationships challenge the dominant Anglican narrative of fissure with one of relationship across reconciled difference.

(Convention has passed resolutions in the past encouraging companion diocese relationships but to the best of my searching has not passed one establishing an expectation that every diocese have a companion.)

Encourage the companion idea to spread to parishes. The budget of many dioceses around the world is equivalent (or smaller than) the budget of a good-sized parish in the U.S. What if, in addition to diocese-to-diocese relationships, there were parish-to-diocese relationships? (We’d have to think about how these relationships might be complementary or competing in a diocese.) There are hundreds of Anglican dioceses around the world, many eager for companions, as I have learned. There’s no reason large, mission-minded parishes can’t take the lead in partnering with them. (The Diocese of Virginia has done some exciting things around this idea.)

Encourage better communications. Communications in the Anglican Communion is abysmal. As I have found in my travels around the Communion, there is exciting work being done in so many parts of the world that few people know about because no one tells anyone else about it. Instead, the dominant communications medium in the church is something like Virtue Online, a polemical, often-false source of “news” that drives a narrative of fracture and decline. This needs to be matched with, well, facts. Solving the communications problem in the Communion is not something Convention alone can do. It can, however, take steps in that direction, like increasing funding for the Episcopal News Service so that the organization can broaden its horizons and get more Anglicans talking to one another. Right now, Anglican Journal, the newspaper of the (smaller and poorer) Canadian church does a better job covering the Communion than ENS does.

Many of these ideas cost money (not much) but, again, actions speak louder than words. If we mean what we say in these resolutions, we need to back it up. These are some of my ideas to do so. Yours?

“God is the interesting thing about religion.”

The Episcopal/Anglican world commemorates Eveyln Underhill today, a noted author and proponent of contemplative prayer and the importance of the spiritual life. Her book Mysticism, now more than a century old, is still an important reference on that topic.

Recent graduates of Berkeley Divinity School likely know Underhill better for a letter she wrote to then-archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in 1930. Our dean was fond of quoting one bit: “God is the interesting thing about religion.”

Odd as it may seem, It is very easy, for those involved in the life of the church, to lose sight of this basic fact. In seminary, we can get distracted by the shiniest new theological idea,  debates about theologies of ordination, or whatever. In the governance of the church, we get distracted by the particulars of resolutions and committees. In the day-to-day life of congregations, we get distracted by the pressures of keeping the lights on, the church clean, and the brass polished.

All of these things are important, of course, but they can tend to obscure our focus on what Underhill puts, self-evidently, at the center of religion: God. To my way of thinking, Underhill’s comments give added impetus to my earlier proposal for this summer’s General Convention: begin the thing with a retreat. The complete text of Underhill’s letter is online and I think it has important reminders for the church, particularly in a season of contentious conventions and governance meetings.

The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made…. God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest.

Read the whole thing (it’s a page and a half). In an age of managerial rectors, is the answer to church decline more “theocentric” souls? And is that an issue that can be addressed by a Convention resolution?

Forming and choosing new priests

I sit on the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and we’ve devoted considerable time in recent meetings to the question of what kind of priests the church needs in this era of its life. This is of more than a little interest to me as, God willing, I may one day be one of those priests.

So I found the resolutions submitted to this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church interesting in this regard. By my count, there are two that propose changing what candidates for the priesthood should be trained in. (You can see the text of these on this page.)

  • A071 changes the language regarding inter-cultural training. I’m not sure I see the force of this resolution other than to specify what groups priests should know about. (The resolution does seem to leave in place the implicit assumption that priests will be white Americans and they need to know about these “other” groups.) The explanatory text says seminarians aren’t receiving enough training in this area (which is likely true) but the solution to that is more money for seminaries, I think, not changed wording. Berkeley sends lots of people overseas and into other inter-cultural settings. The school needs more money to make sure everyone has that opportunity.
  • A072 adds a requirement that new priests be trained in “the practice of ministry development and evangelism.” The resolution makes no reference to the existing (and, in my experience, neglected) canon that requires training in “missiology and mission theology” (III.5.g.3), which seems to be of at least overlapping interest. The resolution also crams in as many popular buzzwords as possible—”storytelling” “building capacity” “engaging God’s mission”—and, in its list of resources for evangelism fails to mention the Bible.
If the Episcopal Church—and mainline Protestantism in general—is, as we continually hear, truly at a point in which everything needs to be re-considered as we build the church of the future, surely that includes the priesthood as well. Just as we are (hopefully) considering church structure from the bottom up, I think we should be considering the formation of new priests in the same way.

This seems to be what resolution A148 accomplishes when it calls for establishing “a committee to initiate and coordinate a Churchwide conversation regarding what essential learnings (knowledge and skills) The Episcopal Church expects its candidates for priest and deacon to have at the time of ordination.” Although I have a default suspicion of committees and commissions, I find this to be a pretty good idea, particularly if it succeedes in initiating a truly churchwide conversation.

But I think A148 doesn’t go far enough. When we talk about the future priests of the church, I hope we talk about how they are chosen as well, not just how they are trained. The current system of picking priests begins when people decide they are called to be a priest. There is then a lengthy process of testing that call within the church. One result of this is that since the 1970s, when the current ordination process really came into being, the number of priests ordained each year has stayed steady even as the number of Episcopalians has declined precipitously.

What if we began the process of choosing priests not by letting applicants initiate the process but by actively recruiting those we thought had the gifts the church needed? To some extent this is true already: I wouldn’t be a deacon were it not for people who actively encouraged me to go to seminary and enter a diocesan discernment process. But I think we can go farther in this direction. Rather than making priests of people who say, simply, “I feel called to be a priest,” I hope we can shift the conversation in the direction of “The church is need of these particular talents/gifts/experiences and I believe I can provide them because close friends/mentors/advisers have told me so.”

It is clear that the choosing and training of the church’s ordained leadership is as much in need of review as the church’s structure. I hope A148 passes and I look forward to the fruits of its labours.