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?