What is Church, anyway? White & Seabury

On 14 Nov. 1784, Samuel Seabury, an American, was consecrated as a bishop in Aberdeen, Scotland by three other bishops, making him the first American consecrated a (Anglican) bishop in the apostolic succession and historic episcopate and all that important stuff.  It’s a big day for the Episcopal Church, as it was back then, and we mark it on our church calendars and celebrate it, maybe some of us with specially-baked purple cakes.

All component pieces of American culture, obviously, had problems once the continental leadership declared revolution on the Mother Country.  For the American priests and lay persons who worshipped in what was once called the Church of England – or most likely what they called, simply, ‘the church’ – there was not only an identity crisis but a real debate about  the meaning and substance of church.  Not all Americans supported the idea of revolution; most ardent supporters of the Crown left for Canada or across the pond, and many who remained began to reconsider their understanding of human civilization and the call of Jesus, alongside those who spoke with more political impact of the concepts of liberty and justice for all.  But not all Americans were willing to re-consider the whole enterprise, nor were they willing to leave their home country and go elsewhere: Seabury, himself, served as a chaplain to British troops during the conflict, drew maps for His Majesty’s troops of the hill country of New York, and even collected a pension from Great Britain.

Yes, it was marvelous that Seabury was made a bishop and, yes, it’s an important mark of our episcopal heritage that we not only maintain the historic three orders of ministry (bishops, priests, deacons) but we do so according to apostolic tradition and freely take on the weight of catholic Christianity.  But I’m not so sure that bishops make a church.

In the 1780s, as the Episcopal Church was reorganizing itself and, in fact, determining that it would use the name ‘Episcopal’ (coupled with ‘Protestant’) – the former, a term favored by the party in seventeenth-century England which affirmed the role of bishops  – everyone thought that bishops were essential.  Those who didn’t were already something else, and by the end of that decade Wesley and Asbury and the Methodists had broken ties with their own mother church.

Everyone in the Episcopal Church was working to get American bishops consecrated. The only question, then, was what kind of ‘Anglican’ church would be imagined and planted on American soil:  one which featured old world organizational theory (bishops at the top, clergy deployed from them, and lay people as recipients, hardly participants), or a more representative church which featured republican ideals and was democratically organized – a church which dared to uphold catholic practice and act like Americans, with that messy concept of democracy and collective discernment through representative gatherings. The latter had never before been developed and Seabury opposed it and worked very hard against it.  Even though he and others from New England participated in early organizational conversations, they were inherently skeptical of the 1782 pamphlet produced by William White, a priest in Philadelphia, which seemed to argue, Seabury contended, for nothing more than congregational polity and gave too much power – most of which was reserved to bishops in the Church of England – to the laity.  Once consecrated, Seabury refused to participate in the General Conventions organized by White and others.  Further, he signed his early letters as ‘Bishop of All America’ and even reached into other dioceses’ territory and ordained priests from there.

The organization of the Episcopal Church around something like a representative form of governance has much more to do with William White than Samuel Seabury.  White pleaded with England for the consecration of bishops but – in the clear absence of a man in purple – he and others began to organize the church, anyway.  They imagined a General Convention (initially proposed in 1784 as a unicameral body of clergy and lay) and dioceses that would adhere to state boundaries.  They spoke openly of lay participation, and I think the Prayer Book’s 1979 addition of one more order of ministry – namely, the laity – is in perfect keeping with this early vision of an American Anglicanism.  White and others proposed one bishop for each diocese and dreamed of an Episcopal Church that would be interdependent – one diocese to another, as well as one new American church to its Mother Church in England.


Seabury, meanwhile, organized a clergy-led, bishop-centered, non-representative governance in his diocese.  The bishop taught the clergy, the clergy taught the people, and the people did as they were told.  Obviously, I’m biased and I’m sure that shows, so I’ll note, at least, that Seabury was affirming an age-old tradition of episcopal leadership and church organization, albeit (for me) an age-old tradition that had no relevance in the new world, neither the 18th century version nor, let me add, this 21st century edition.

Things were getting heated, and the 1786 General Convention (which Seabury didn’t attend, anyway) passed resolutions denying the authority of Seabury’s consecration and, by implication, any clergy he ordained.  By the middle-half of the 1780’s there were three competing Anglicanisms: one, the churches led by Seabury in New England; another, Wesley’s Methodist Episcopalians (who went their own way when he appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as superintendents in 1784); a third, led by White (PA), Samuel Provoost (NY), James Madison (VA), and Thomas Claggett (MD) in the southern and central states.

Even though he had his own opinions about things it was, again, William White who paved the way for reunification and opened the compromise which led to the Episcopal Church we have today.  In 1789, White – who was, in 1787, consecrated in the English line – led that year’s General Convention to reach out to Seabury: they affirmed the validity of Seabury’s orders, created a bi-cameral General Convention with a separate House of Bishops, and amended the 1786 Constitution to make lay Deputy participation optional. These things met most of Seabury’s objections. The olive branch being offered, Seabury began to conference, then, with the other bishops and the division between the northern and southern versions of the Episcopal Church began to be healed. Before his death in 1796, Seabury participated in one consecration – Claggett’s (MD) in 1792, the first consecration of an American bishop on American soil.

I find myself hoping and praying, today, for someone like William White.  I do this for at least two reasons.  First, I’m drawn to those, like White, who are so comfortable with their traditions and heritage that they see no conflict, no irony in exploring new ways to be who they know themselves to be, already, in Christ.  That’s courageous, to me, and I think the world is desperate to hear not pre-canned voices and opinions but people who love Jesus and follow him through the ministry of His Body, the church, of their own free volition and at the same time are entreprenuerial, adventurous, open to new possibilities, and talk openly of being disciples in new and, perhaps, different ways.

And, second, I’m drawn to William White because he also set aside his own thinking and brought in Seabury, intentionally reaching out to a man who, according to many of White’s own friends and colleagues, was making too much noise, acting like a jerk, and was as arrogant as the day is long.  White reached out to Seabury and encouraged others to do so, as well, and they even modified and amended their own belief system, established earlier, so as to make room for the one who was previously a contender, now a partner and brother in Christ.  We have competing Anglicanisms today – just look at what’s going on in the Diocese of South Carolina – and yet I cannot, at the end of the day, establish with certainty that one is necessarily better or more righteous than another.

No, I said that wrong: For those Anglicanisms who express themselves in generous conversations, commitment to a common life, mutual support of the whole through prayer and giving, and are unafraid to affirm their views, even if they may differ from the more vocal majority, I see no reason to part ways, and only great sadness if this should end up in divorce.  But for those who say it’s ‘my way or the highway’ or those who think of democracy and shared discernment as weak or ineffectual, and those who think a church needs to have baseline agreement on issues of discipline and order, I am sad to say this but there isn’t communion there, already, and it would only make sense for us to go our separate way.

Because at the end of the day I am proud to serve in a church that is not perfect – by no means – but one whose imperfections I can clearly love, and seek to live with.  For the imperfections of the Episcopal Church are also our greatest blessing – a commitment to apostolic truth and order; catholic worship and substance; one another and those net yet amongst us; justice and the dignity of all persons; and the ways in which we work this out, in fear and trembling, by being the church, together.  Bishops, then, were never the core of the issue, not historically, not today.  Bishops convene and call forth and lead, through relationships of love and support, this disparate and wildly divergent group of people who follow Jesus in the Episcopal Way – forward in the work of ministry, which requires the participation of all the orders of ministry: bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people.

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.

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?