The Akasie Screen – and, at last, a Conversation

Look, that whole Jay Akasie Wall Street Journal-thing was a screen, an offensive blocking move which freed up others to make more substantive arguments or — sticking with basketball — shots.  And you, church, fell for it!

The thought struck me at lunch the other day with a colleague.  I’m not that interested in people’s conclusions — whether they come out theologically conservative or progressive, whether they vote Republican, Democrat or who cares what.  No, I’m more interested in the methods by which folks arrive at their conclusion; whether she’s aware of the sources; whether he’s checked his assumptions at the door and, at least, is pretty darn clear about the baggage he’s bringing into the conversation.  Part of it, for me, is the happy fruit of ministry formation in an academic divinity school.

I don’t care about General Convention resolutions or the reasons why breakaway Anglicans are breaking away.  I don’t care when the Wall Street Journal makes mistakes about the Presiding Bishop’s staff or how much money the Bishop of Eastern Swizzlestick spent on wine and fancy dinners.  Nor do I care that the Bishop of the Lower Heartland ate only $5 footlongs from Subway every day of General Convention, and divided them evenly between breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I just don’t care.  I want to know if the church is having a genuine, authentic conversation.  I care whether we’ve been courageous enough to be a community of “inquiring and discerning hearts,” to quote the Prayer Book.

The short answer is: we haven’t.  In fact, we’ve been downright terrible about having a real conversation, respecting differences enough to listen, being bold in our faith claims to speak of how we know God to be acting in Christ.

And yet – poof! – out of the blue comes a genuine conversation.  Lots of folks missed it because they got all bent out of shape by Jay Akasie’s silly opinion piece, but here is an actual theological conversation, transpiring in the public realm.  How cool!

Kicking it off, on July 14, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wondered “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”  Responding to what he opined has been going on in the Episcopal Church — and, in particular, the 2012 General Convention — Douthat argued that so long as organizations such as the Episcopal Church continue their progressive trends they will only appear to the world as increasingly secular institutions and, in turn, lose members until they ultimately die.  Agree or disagree, I don’t care.  It’s a solid argument.

Of course no card-carrying liberal Christian is going to take that sitting down.  Plenty of snarkyness roiled on social media, but it took Diana Butler Bass’ comprehensive July 15 Huffington Post article to present a compelling counter-argument.  Bass’ “Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat,” maintained that – one – declining church membership is neither a conservative nor liberal issue, everyone’s struggling with loss; and – two – since liberal Christianity had to wrestle with decline for a longer period of time than other Christian traditions, it might hold out promise for the entire bunch, re-invigorating Christianity by returning us all to a balance between orthodox faith and social responsibility.  Bass concluded: “So, Mr. Douthat asks, ‘Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?’ But I wonder: Can Liberal Churches Save Christianity?”

After that, opening Facebook or Twitter was what I could imagine being in a crowd at a so-called professional wrestling match would feel like — no one was saying much of substance but everyone was making plenty of noise, that’s what it meant to be part of the game in the first place.  Blogs were posted like pamphlets of old, as if the thing spoke for itself and summarized everything:  Diana Butler Bass (yay! … hiss!)  Andrew Douthat / Jay Akasie (boo! … yay!).  I still can’t believe so many bloggers took such enormous time to refute the Akasie claims, one by one, and I thank God there was some humor in some of them, lest we, Episcopalians, be rightfully accused of failing to actually read those parts of the bible about how taking prophetic stances isn’t a good first step to making friends in high places!

Arguments of substance were starting to appear more frequently, though.  Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Chief Operating Officer for the Episcopal Church, weighed in in response to Akasie’s Wall Street Journal piece, and went beyond the tit-for-tat that dominated the blogosphere.  Like a fast break, Sauls concisely asserted that the Church has been “radically faithful” to scripture, tradition, and reason.  Slam dunk.

Taking on Bass, The Living Church ran a July 16 piece by Thomas Kincaid, asserting that she simply “doesn’t get it.”  Kincaid presented a solidly argued conservative theological criticism of liberal Christianity: it’s about salvation, after all, and what liberal Christianity doesn’t get is that the Savior role has already been taken by one Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Christ.  Like his conclusions or not, Kincaid raises a solid argument, not to mention another point that’s stopped me in my haughty tracks — factoring out immigration from Latin America when determining the numbers of Roman Catholics in this country borders dangerously on racism, if only elitism.

Back to the original players, Ross Douthat blogged a response to Bass on July 25.  Unfortunately, most of Douthat’s “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” is another tit-for-tat, this time quoting whole chunks of Bass’ claim in order to disagree, but he does get around to offering an intriguing counter-argument: Isn’t much of the searching Bass calls “neo-liberalism” happening as (Douthat:) “individuals, rather than as members of the liberal churches and congregations that keep trying to roll out a welcome mat for them”?  So we’re still talking about a decline in religious institutions, and that’s happening at a faster pace in liberal churches than conservative ones.

I want to play coach for a moment, and suggest future moves.  There are several:

One, admit that we are, in fact, talking about the decline, death, and substantial changing of religious institutions, social institutions that are not that old in the first place.  Frankly, this needs to be said — and has been astonishingly mute among neo-liberal voices.  Even our most mission-minded church leaders are still afraid of saying that the conversation we have embarked on will, ultimately, mean the ending of the diocesan/deanery/parochial system.  Say it anyway.

Two, admit that we need to learn from the conservative movement of the 1970’s and 80’s that bypassed denominations and, instead, focused on building a community from motivated individual seekers.  Douthat’s right: we can’t compare liberal and conservative denominations when the dramatic rise in conservative Christianity happened in from dynamic leaders leading much-hyped congregations, not because a denomination said so.  Admit that we liberals / neo-liberals / mainliners / deadliners / whoever we are suck at evangelism, and we’ve got to learn new skills and learn them fast.

But do not admit that we are anything but deeply Christian.  And remind the world that we […if you can’t tell by now, my conclusions line up with a fairly progressive Christian stance] are motivated to make these stands because we spend our days rooted in the tradition, the scriptures, and the gift of reason.

And stop getting hung up on the non-substantive conclusions — whether they like us, understand us, respect us, or know why our Presiding Bishop carries the stick she carries.  That doesn’t matter.  Engage the deeper, more important conversation about they ways we know God in Christ to be active in this world through the Holy Spirit.  And show how you get there by reading the scriptures, living with the tradition, and responding to ever-opening vistas of grace.  That, I’ll say, is the only conversation that has the power to save people’s souls.

Praying the Fullness of Life

An Episcopal nun once told me about the time she served at St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.  St. Paul’s is across the street from the World Trade Center, and they opened their doors during those weeks following as a place of refuge, rest, and prayer.

One thing that stood out, for her, was that she learned “to pray while on my feet,” she told me once.  That’s an odd thing for a religious, for their day is structured by the ringing of a bell that calls them to pray the Offices, at which they are to drop whatever they are doing and get on their way to chapel.  They pray in chapel multiple times throughout the course of each day, and they pray on their feet (singing and praising), on their knees (confessing), on their seats (hearing).  But not in motion; not while tending the sick, offering words to a bereaved, hugging a first responder, extending water to one who is thirsty and covered in soot.

This may sound odd to us, for we are people of the world. We are busy people who lead demanding lives and are very important individuals, if you ask us.  Even when we’re not busy, our minds are.  We’re thinking ahead about all the other things we must be doing and should be doing and will be, just as soon as we can get going and get busy.  No, we don’t pray so very well, not all of us, anyway.  We don’t pray our way through our day and bells don’t interrupt our schedules.  No, we’re not so good about praying our days, but leave that to the monks and nuns.


Watch what Jesus does.  After he’s sent his disciples out, they return and tell him about the healings and words they’ve spoken, about the lives they’ve touched.  He says, “Now let’s get away, just you and me, by ourselves for a while. I know just the place; it’s entirely deserted.  Get a boat, and let’s go.”  Jesus hops in the boat with the twelve.  But the locals – being watermen, themselves – know the winds and see the boat tacking and know precisely where it’s headed.  At once, the Galilean grapevine kicks into high gear, such that by the time Jesus gets to that quiet, serene place it’s not at all deserted; in fact, it’s packed with thousands of people, all clamoring for his attention and power.

Watch what Jesus does or, rather, what he does not do.  He doesn’t get back in the boat, doesn’t leave the people and stick stubbornly with his intended retreat plans.  We wouldn’t blame him if he did, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he ministers to the people gathered, responds to their needs, heals the lame and sick, and extends the Kingdom into their very midst.

Jesus responds in this way because this is the nature of God.  It is God’s nature to receive all of God’s creation, especially all of our humanity in its depth and breadth and dysfunction and sickness.  It is God’s nature to receive so that it may be redeemed, loved into still greater holiness.  It is not God’s nature to reject or ignore.  No, start from this other premise: God is.  God is … in the fullness of all that is, whether it be good or bad, peaceful or chaotic, deserted and calm or packed and noisy, loss or gain, death or life.  God is.  God receives all that is and gives freely, vulnerably; hence the reason Jesus receives the throngs when he steps on Gennesaret’s shore, and gives them new life; hence the reason a religious gives of herself and her once-sacred hours of prayer, and gives even small tastes of genuine compassion to a broken world.

And yet we only scratch at the surface of this truth, for even our deeply religious sometimes have difficulty finding God in the dust and grime and pain and evil of September 11th, rather would they be in their chapel with their prescribed liturgies.  For many people, God is best kept in a box or, at least, a container smaller than that labeled “the whole and fullness of our lives.”  Many of us are so quick to show God and one another the parts of our lives we like, are pleased with, consider successful and well-off, and find happiness in.  Few of us are able to show our warts and the stains of sin, not only to God and one another but, I’ll say personally, even to ourselves.

God wants the fullness of our lives, and wants to be found in the wholeness of it all – not just the quiet moments of prescribed, liturgical prayer but the busy-ness and disquietude, the anxiety and the dread.  God wants all of it because all of it is redeemable, and none of it is foreign to Him.


A slogan of the ancient Christian church, first attributed to the fifth century writer, Prosper of Aquitaine, became much in vogue in the liturgical renewal movement of the 20th century.  Lex orandi, lex credendi translates from the Latin to mean something like “the law of praying is the law of believing.”  Or in more common parlance: the way we pray is the way we believe.  Ask an Episcopalian what she believes, and she’ll talk about the Book of Common Prayer, which is designed to have us pray the whole of our lives.

Even those things that happen in life, as things inevitably do, which are not already covered in the index of the Prayer Book, we can learn to pray well, having trained ourselves in this school called ‘church’ faithfully and regularly beforehand.  When we talk about grounding our church in prayer, we are talking about a community of women and men who are willing to pray their lives, or what the Apostle Paul called praying “without ceasing.”  Sometimes that prayer takes the form of words and expressions, beautiful, measured, time-crafted language that resonates with the sound of churchy-ness.  At still other times, that prayer is nothing more than a breath, a deep breath; or a frustration, echoed in God’s direction; or quietness, nice but not a prerequisite; or stillness in your heart while you dash about in the marketplace of the world.  Praying our lives requires the fullness of our lives because God wants it all redeemed, and wants to be found amidst it all, in the first place.


after the July 20, 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado

I say these things because I believe they deeply matter, not just theologically but also how we live, and how we live wholly and well.  Honestly, I fear those Christian traditions which emphasize perfection over reality, which stress rules before relationships, which talk about who we should be before coming to understand who we are.  Having been raised with such messages, I find that those traditions (in many cases implicitly) teach people to present only those sides of themselves that are well-rounded, worked on, and nearing perfection, leaving a lot of in the dark shadows, leaving a lot of it there permanently and festering.  Darkness is darkness, obviously; it’s the stuff that’s not yet redeemed.  But that’s not to say it’s unredeemable.  “Darkness is not dark to you, O Lord,” the Psalmist beautifully wrote, after all.

If we cannot pray the whole of our lives from the fullness of our lives to the God who wants to redeem all of our life, how then do we live?  And how do we learn to live well?  Sure, we can give thanks and rejoice during those times that are truly, definitively happy.  I’m not talking about that, though.  What do we do in the face of evil, suffering?  Following 9/11, a terrible event, we rallied as a nation, but we also rallied against a common enemy; namely, Osama bin Laden, Al Quaeda, and Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.  I’ve been thinking about that these past several days because it’s quite different from responding to and living with the events that happened this past Friday evening [Friday, July 20, 2012] in which innocent victims were gunned down at a midnight showing of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado?  How do we live and strive to live well in a world in which the faces of evil are not villainous villains, such as Joker or the Riddler, but, instead, a 24-year-old man who is probably deranged and sick?  How do we live well in a world in which people who go out for a late-night movie might not make it home, and for no reason but an expression of senseless, banal violence?  How do we live, and strive to live well in that world?

Pray it all, using words from time to time but other expressions, as well.  Pray it all, the good and bad, the quiet and noisy, the frightening and peaceful.  Pray it all, every last bit, to the God who redeems it all and wants very much to.  Pray it openly, vulnerably, and without editorial comment so God will love it into holiness.



Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 22 July 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be found here.

Putting back together a once-shattered world

Take apart the word ‘remember’ and it literally means to put back together, to re – member.  It implies that something is broken.  It carries with it associations of gentleness, tenderness; that which was once destroyed is re – assembled, re – membered.

Mark spends nearly 400 of the 11,000 words in his terse gospel describing the violent death of John the baptizer.  The events are eerily similar to Jesus’: both are executed by officers of the state who would like to let them live; both are killed for reasons which are downright silly and, for that reason, all the more awful; both are brutally murdered because of the assaults of mad people.  Also, in both stories, the followers do not retaliate; instead, they take the bodies, wrap them in cloths, and lay them in a proper burial.  The followers re – member their beloved leader – returning love for love once shown, and demonstrating to the authorities through acts of gentleness that those in power have already brought judgment upon themselves.

The similarity also carried into the lives of those first century Christians who received this story called ‘good news.’  They, too, were suffering their own passion-tides simply because they practiced unconditional communitarian love, worshipped a universal God, and followed the Way of Jesus.  They, too, are victims of violent people who exact dehumanizing torture and death in a sick, mad world.  You know very well what it means to live – and strive to live well and whole – in a violent world run by deranged people.

We cannot control this world, or stop violence.  We re – member, the gospel tells us, so the better angels of our nature will grow.  We re – member, as well, so the nastier demons of our nature will not take root, lest we, too, become yet another fatality to the starving madness of this broken and sinful world.  That is why we remember.

I’ve had two experiences which remind me of this truth.

Dec. 1, 1976 – Oct. 12, 1998

In 2002, I helped lead a group of high school Episcopalians to the Episcopal Youth Event (EYE), held that summer at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming.  Four years earlier, Matthew Shephard, a young gay student at the university, was tortured and murdered by two local Laramie men.  They robbed, pistol-whipped and tortured Matthew, tying his near-lifeless body to a fence in a remote field.  A cyclist found his blood-soaked body 18 hours later, thinking at first it was a scarecrow tied to the fence.  This horrifying case brought national and international attention to hate crimes, and continues to be a sobering example of the violence we can do to one another.

There is no memorial in Laramie to Matthew Shepard.  In town, one afternoon, one of those with us got a cold shoulder when she asked a local man where the farm was where Matthew lay dying.  I’ve learned that that struggle is ongoing: yes, in 1998, community leaders expressed appropriate sadness and disgust about the murder, but the town has resisted establishing a memorial.  Local residents successfully petitioned the city to change the street names leading to the field where Matthew was beaten, hoping that people would go away.  The summer I was there, a local man pointed out to us the general area of the field.  All I remember seeing was a long stretch of fields and a fence line in the vast distance.  Laramie did not feel, to me, like a healed place.  Our nation, likewise, isn’t healed, and I honestly fear that vicious hate crimes against gay and lesbian people will be met, in some cases, with some people, by indifference, ignorance or, worse, endorsement and support.

How have we re – membered Matthew Shepard?  How have we, as a people, looked upon something that is truly horrible and taken the body down from that fence, wrapped it in love, and shown to a world which feeds on violence that, according to our good news, love defeats hatred, gentleness trumps ignorance, and care establishes justice?  The answer, in this case, is we have not.

My second experience was a time in which I saw my father cry.  When I was 15 years old, I came out East for a family wedding.  The day after the wedding, we visited some of the memorials in Washington, DC, in particular the Vietnam Memorial.  At the deepest part of the wall, I was next to my father, running my hand over some of the names, thinking about who they were, when I turned to continue down the line and saw tears on his face.  It is a powerful memorial.  It was good for my dad to cry, as countless others have at that wall, because these were his friends and promising young men from his generation.  I’ll bet they were also tears of exhaustion, of being given the opportunity at long last to grieve a particularly painful moment in his adult formation, for at the very moment he was becoming an adult – getting a job, getting married, starting a family – this country was being torn apart, relationships chosen or broken on the basis of ideological stances, a people ripped apart from its insides.  There has been much healing since the Vietnam Conflict, evidenced by the ways in which we unambiguously support our troops in the current conflicts.  I would suspect that that wall has had a lot to do with that healing.

Terrible events happen in the world, and we are powerless over systemic hatred, bigotry, and injustice.  But we are not powerless over the ways in which we respond, and in that response lies the only hope of an emergent, profound Kingdom that is not of this world but is, rather, God’s.  And that is why we remember.  That is why we take the body that was abused, pistol-whipped, beheaded, suffocated on a cross, or broken by words or threats and wrap it gently and lay it in a place we will remember and visit again, even if it is a memory we don’t like to face, especially because it is.

On a night seething with violence, He did it himself, after all – washing feet, embodying servanthood, expressing kindness, demonstrating love, taking bread, pouring wine and saying “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Put back together that which was broken, or soon will be, and He will be there, mending those once-shattered shards, healing the world from within.


Taken from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, 15 July 2012.  The full text of the sermon can be downloaded here.

A Church, not a Denomination

When my sister and her family moved to their new house they were faced with one more challenge: finding a new church. She was at home in the Reformed tradition — we spent high school and she spent her college years in that tradition — and their first house was across the street from a really dynamic Reformed church.  Then they moved too far away to drive back on Sunday mornings.  Over time, she church-shopped and was drawn to a nearby Methodist church, which she and her family currently attend.  I remember one of her early questions: “What do Methodists believe?”

I remember her asking because that’s never been a leading question for me.  I’m not saying it’s unimportant, but I – and, I’d say, my sister and her family and most likely a whole lot of people today – aren’t looking, first, for what a church believes, but who they are — how they live together, what they do together, how vibrant their common life is, how comfortable they are talking and praying about Jesus and what God is doing in their lives and this world.  Growing up, my parents took us to the local, neighborhood church that was reported to be good with families and kids and had good things going on.  It just so happened to be loosely identified with the Congregationalist Church, which meant that, officially, we were part of a denomination that considers itself the descendants of the Puritan, later Congregationalist tradition but the denomination, itself, is small (they didn’t merge to become the UCC in the late ’50s) and — being Congregationalists! — are pretty  disconnected and, well, congregationalist.  It was a good church, but once you moved out of the neighborhood you were pretty much on your own.

In my own search for a Christian, spiritual home I resisted thinking in denominational terms.  (That was a particularly pronounced issue when I was a ministry student at an academic divinity school in which most of my friends were coming from some denominational background and, at least in broad terms, thinking of serving that denomination in the future.)  Many of my friends at the Divinity School were Episcopalians and my best friend growing up was a member of that church — although I thought “liturgy” was a bad word, and they seemed awfully “catholic”, another bad word for Congregationalists.  But as much as I was drawn to them they seemed to take their denomination too darn seriously.  At least they liked to talk about being Episcopalian a whole lot.  That was, to me, then, a turnoff.

from the Brent House Facebook page

Fast forward through a lot of stuff that will surface in future posts … One day I walked in and experienced The Episcopal Church through the ministry of Brent House, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Chicago.  A stately Georgian mansion sitting on a tree-lined street, Brent House is not a red-doored, neo-Gothic Episcopal Cathedral.  It’s wonderfully unassuming.  I went with friends to Sunday evening worship and ate a meal afterward, enjoyed conversation and, best of all, met interesting people with whom I had something in common, something deeply in common.  The chapel’s in the basement.  It’s clean and painted and in its simplicity (pipes running overhead, whitewashed walls, battleship gray floor, industrial chairs…) there is a profound beauty unlike that of many liturgical spaces I’ve experienced.  Perhaps because it places the attention on the quietude of prayer, the simple majesty of an ancient liturgy, timely and prayerfully offered, and the funky and diverse selection of women and men gathered.  Here were people from this amazing University (people a whole lot smarter than me and who, I’m still amazed, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend and get to know), people who were or would soon be at the top of their careers — medical doctors, philosophers, future Nobel laureates, anthropologists, biologists, and inventors of the next great thing — who said the name Jesus and meant it as God, who gathered around a simple table to receive His Body and Blood, who sang God’s praise, who were unafraid to pray, and who gave Christ’s Peace as if they really knew it or wanted it.

I also worshiped in the neighborhood Episcopal parish, and found the same mixture of people there.  I went to one of the smells and bells Anglo-Catholic parishes on Chicago’s northside (what doesn’t get a Protestant kid buzzing but Evensong & Benediction?).  Even there, through the cloud of incense, I had the same experience as in a basement chapel on Woodlawn Avenue.  Wherever I went in the Episcopal Church, I continued to find the same, strange, funky, mixture of folks — people who, if they were forced to take a poll, probably disagreed politically or theologically or philosophically or about the nature of everything under the sun but who, together, were at home with God in Christ in this timeless, holy liturgy that was more an experience of the divine than recitations from a cookbook of prayers.

That’s the moment I knew I had already become an Episcopalian.  While I thought they were using the term Episcopalian as a denominational catch-phrase, what they really meant is Christian, and it was the only word they had to call themselves a Christian and mean it in the most catholic — the broadest, most universal sense of that term.  They were not a denomination and, now I can say, we are not a denomination when we’re at our best.  We’re a church, and there’s a world of difference between a church and a denomination.

And that difference, I’ll say, is what makes all the difference in the world.


What, precisely, the difference is between a church and a denomination will be the subject of Part 2 of this post, coming later or soon or whenever.  I’ve been thinking about the 77th General Convention of our Episcopal Church which just wrapped up in Indianapolis.  Lots of good stuff came out of the convention, and I’m not only talking about legislation and resolutions; in fact, I’m probably not thinking, first of all, about that official stuff.  I’m talking about reflections in the Twitterverse or on Facebook, interesting and challenging blogs, insightful ruminations by bishops, other clergy, and lay leaders as they make their way home to Olympia or Springfield or South Carolina or Chicago or Alexandria or Washington, DC.  I’m going to read and re-read and ask myself, again, whether we’re remaining a church … or whether we’re becoming a denomination.

For what it’s worth, here’s what’s got me thinking and what I’m reading…

  • The official statements and what I’d call the majority reports and statements of those who consider themselves in the minority are pretty well summarized on Episcopal Cafe or the Episcopal News Service.
  • Bishop Daniel Martins of Springfield regularly offers insightful posts, especially this one.
  • Fr. Anthony Clavier, also, is a good one to follow, and this post  of his got me thinking.
  • Or what I thought was a genuine and courageous point raised by The Very Rev’d Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Seminary, in July 9th’s Center Aisle: General Convention Needs Genuine Diversity.

When the Mind of the House is more like … Nevermind

Mom and Dad had an argument again — we all know it but give ’em credit; they’re doing their best to rise above the fray.  It took closed-door conversations over several days in the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to release what really comes down to putting on a happy face while, underneath, they’ve agreed to disagree.  Episcopal Cafe and the Episcopal News Service reported what came out of the conversation about the hierarchical nature of the church, a conversation requested by the bishops of Fort Worth and Quincy who are feeling undermined and want some help from their friends.  The “mind of the house” resolution said “good job, kiddos” to the hearty remnants and, by the way, here’s a list of who we think the bishops are.

But what about that argument, and the lingering disagreement?  The provisional bishop of Quincy said as much to the ENS: “[I] told the house I am grateful for the support and help the resolution provides, but it’s not what I asked for. I asked for clarification around the hierarchical character of our church.”  Oops.

They’re a bunch of really smart people — theologians, historians, parliamentarians, and statesmen — but the bishops disagree because the canonical and historical evidence of the hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church is murky, the past experience is inconclusive, and they’re all (just like the rest of us) pretty much running on individual agendas which come down to protecting their turf and making sure bad stuff doesn’t happen on their watch.

Add to that the heat of this peculiarly litigious moment in The Episcopal Church, and it’s downright impossible to have a real conversation about what’s really going on … and why we can’t say the things that need to be said.  Here are the two things that need to be said to break the stalemate in our church.  Just hop back to the 19th century.

Missionary Bishop of nearly everything west of the Appalachians!

ONE: IT’S NOT A NEW IDEA TO ARGUE THAT GENERAL CONVENTION HAS SUPERSEDED DIOCESES.  Ever since the General Convention of 1835 — when Bishop McIlvaine’s (Ohio) proposal to make the entire church the “Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society” (DFMS) was officially adopted — the General Convention has seen its role as coordinating, overseeing, and compelling the missionary activity of the church.  That same 1835 Convention, in fact, authorized the consecration of  new bishops for the unsettled frontier; Jackson Kemper’s missonary district of Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin being the first.  This was in line with the teaching of the catholic wing of the church, which saw nothing wrong (and everything right) with sending a bishop to a place where there were not yet formal churches, a diocese, or for that matter Episcopalians!  No, the General Convention didn’t create new dioceses, necessarily, and maybe you can say that they put the cart too far in front of the horse.  But we can say that General Convention has acted in ways that seem to supersede dioceses and, in some cases, they dreamed up dioceses that didn’t possible exist and wouldn’t necessarily exist for years to come.

TWO: PEOPLE ARE OKAY WITH GENERAL CONVENTION HAVING A LOT OF POWER WHEN THEY KNOW IT’S A BALANCED BUNCH.  In the 19th century, it was the evangelical and catholic camps; today, it’s liberal and conservative.  In the 19th century, the church sought and maintained a balance — they divvied up the missionary activity, for instance; catholics did the domestic stuff (hence the reason there’s such a catholic twist to many Midwestern dioceses) and evangelicals focused on overseas activity.  Bishop McIlvaine, an evangelical, took the lead in striking this consensus because he seemed to believe in a more robust and balanced Episcopal Church, and that required a diverse and balanced General Convention.  I don’t miss the recent days of Duncan and Iker stirring the pot — and I wouldn’t say they were without blemish — but the Episcopal Church is bereft of once-valued Anglican comprehensiveness and truly radical inclusivity.  We’ve become a fairly one-sided, monolithic group.  People who articulate theology and politics that, at best, would be considered centrist in other bodies are, in the Episcopal Church, our conservative faction.  I, for one, am excited about our church’s vision, but the last thing I’d call us is “big tent”.

Which brings us back full circle: If the House of Bishops can’t agree on the fundamental principles empowering the General Convention and the hierarchical nature of the church, then what real strength does a “mind of the house” resolution drafted at General Convention carry anyway?  Oye vay.

Trying to figure out why we’re having this conversation

Last week, I was getting really excited — the General Convention of the Episcopal Church was kicking off in Indianapolis; Independence Day was coming up; I was getting together with Episcopal church leaders from southern Maryland to be more strategic about re-imagining the church in our region; and on Thursday evening, I was hosting a focus group in which someone from our diocese was coming down to hear from a diverse group of St. Georgians about the ordination process and what ordinary folks thought about the state of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Sounds like a full week.  It was, but I’m afraid I justify my sense of busy-ness by, well, being busy.  That’s not necessarily the same as productive or meaningful or, in the end, making much of a difference, let alone much sense.

Take the Thursday night focus group, for instance:  I was supposed to get 8 to 10 people to come so I invited twice as many, thinking because it was July — and because it was an invitation to talk about the ordination process in the Diocese of Washington — most people would say something like, “Actually, Greg, my dog’s been needing a bath…”  Or “That sounds interesting, but I promised myself I’d avoid church conversations on Thursdays…” Or a simple: “No.”  In fact, everyone I invited said they were interested in coming, and all but two came.  Wow, I thought, what a moment for the Episcopal Church.  That moment didn’t last long.  About an hour into the conversation, I noticed some folks had grown quiet, whereas others were speaking up repeatedly.  You know that moment in a large group conversation that’s as if we all, suddenly, forgot why we came?

I’m sure much good will come from that conversation once the feedback is processed.  But I’m not talking about that meta stuff.  I’m talking about the impact such conversations have on those who gathered — the ones who make a choice to worship God in Christ on (most) Sunday mornings, a choice that’s different from some of their neighbors and friends who are, otherwise, sleeping in, reading the Washington Post, or on a bike ride.

That next Sunday, after the 8am Mass, in a quiet moment over coffee, two of those who were present on Thursday night asked me how I thought it went.  I think I said much of what I wrote, above, but something else was behind the question.  “I was trying to figure out why we were having this conversation,” one said.  Without prompting, he rattled off the institutional reasons we cited (because the bishop has placed a moratorium) as well as theological (because the church is dynamic) and business-based reasons (because we need more creative, entrepreneurial leaders).  But those straightforward reasons didn’t answer his question:  “I’m trying to figure out why we’re having this conversation.”  That’s a really good and a really deep question, and I’d like to think it’s one that will haunt us for a long time to come.

Look at the General Convention in Indianapolis, and ask that question.  When so much excitement is around the structure and process and decisions about the next triennial budget for the Episcopal Church, something’s going on.  I don’t disagree that we’re at a ripe time in our institutional church.  And I don’t disagree that conversations about budgets and committees and process and structure are not, in fact, moral, missional, and theological conversations.  I just wonder if we’re talking in ways and with such a trunkful of assumptions that we’re leaving countless people trying to figure out why, in the first place, we’re having this conversation, and what in the world we’re trying to say.  And I’m not just thinking about the people in our very last pew, but those who are sitting at home on Sunday morning, enjoying  a quiet cup of tea and the New York Times, reading about Episcopalians or Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics talking about what we talk about.

I’m talking about what is discernably and actually alive and real, what 1 Tim. 6:19 calls “the life that is truly life.”  When are we going to get to have that conversation?

Communication & Brushing Teeth

Communication is a science or maybe an art form.  Whatever it is, I’m still working on it.  I know this because it keeps coming up in my life and ministry, though never directly and never, in fact, with reference to any particular group or situation.  Just: “We need to communicate better.”  Or: “This should have been communicated.”  Still yet: “Remember what we said at the Vestry retreat of [enter any year here]; we’ve got to work on communication.”  Thinking about it, “communication” might be the most often used piece of passive-aggressive advice the church tosses around.

Look, I know little about communication, but I do know one thing — it’s about speaking and listening.  No, wait a minute, I know a great deal about communication; I’m the father of a three-year-old daughter.  Take, for instance, the twice-daily ritual of brushing the teeth (and, yes, somedays it’s a ritual, not necessarily following the exacting orders of a pediatric dentist who, I’m still convinced, has not yet parented an actual, flesh-and-blood child who is not otherwise frightened to be sitting in that chair.  But I digress…)

I’ve tried everything when it comes to communication about brushing teeth.

I’ve tried speaking unilaterally:  “Carter, brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  [Insert moment for child in question to notice repetition and be so overcome by its rhetorical sweep that she starts brushing her teeth.  Resume…] Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.”  And so on and so forth.  This has limited success, but sometimes it makes you feel like you are, actually, communicating.  (Hint: you’re not.)

I’ve tried listening and, based on what I hear, negotiating:  “Daddy, first I have to kiss and hug Phoebe [the dog], then I have to place my stuffed animal on the pillow, then I have to cover the baby doll, then I have to…”  And so on and so forth.  This has even more limited success than speaking unilaterally, above, and you will feel like you are being driven crazy, especially when you say to your daughter, “You’re driving me crazy!” which, it seems, you say to her so often that she chuckles and parrots your “driven crazy” voice in a way that actually resembles you.

I’ve tried reinforcing good behavior (brushing the teeth, duh!)  with rewards.  I’ve tried punishing with timeout the bad behavior (hugging the dog, harrassing the cats … I’ll admit, the list is amazingly long for a child only three years on this planet!), and that also comes with limited results.  Most parenting resources I’ve found are not concerned so much with the well-being of the child in question but, rather, building up the damaged ego of the 30-year-old, and restoring to him / her a sense of agency and meaning after crushing defeat by an honestly beautiful child, flesh-of-my-flesh, yeah, yeah.  Come to think of it, most congregational growth and development literature (lots of words better than ‘literature’ should be inserted here) has this same focus on the practitioner, and restoring a sense of activity and power to the one person who is, sometimes, vulnerable, broken, open, and, well, Christ-like in the system.  Those adjectives are not altogether bad.  And sometimes they are genuinely holy, beautiful, and lasting, and can pave the way to even greater holiness.

That’s why I started this blog.  I am committed to communicating better, but I also came to terms, long ago, with the reality that I’ve got no power over that.  Sometimes someone has to shut up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person’s me.  Sometimes someone has to speak up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person is decidedly not me.   But whatever it is, an art form or science, we’ve got to continue to find that balance between listening and speaking, and that’s the delicate thread of communication.  We can’t get it through bulletin announcements, website updates, or Facebook status checks, although those are helpful.  We also don’t communicate by endless announcements in church, Vestry meetings that drag on, or a sermon that’s pushing 15 minutes, although those are not without their merits (except for the sermon which exceeds normal expectations).  No, communication is something else entirely, something deep and, I think, pretty darn inarticulate.

As for me, I’ll continue to speak, lots, and listen, tons.  I’ll try to be the conduit between the meta-church and what I call the real church — gathered right here in funky Valley Lee, Maryland — but I’m not going to expect that because we say something we’ve communicated it, or because we’ve listened to one group we’ve heard them.  I’ll keep an eye out for the Holy Spirit, who strikes us on the heart and says “listen…”  And in that moment it doesn’t matter how we define the word, but we have been communicated, and that’s all that matters.