NINE YEARS AGO, NINE YEARS FROM NOW

The list of nominees for Presiding Bishop (PB) of The Episcopal Church was just published.  (Or click here.)  The current person in the job is the Most Reverend – so, right there, being PB gives you a bump in adjectives – Katharine Jefferts Schori. She’s served for nine years and even though she’s young enough to have stood for election again she said, and I summarize, “No way!”

The Most Rev’d Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

A Presiding Bishop is the bishop who is elected by the other bishops for a nine year term as the presider, the President and convener of the assembly (House) of bishops.  She or he has to be nine years younger than the mandatory retirement age (72).  It used to be the bishop with the longest tenure, the senior-most bishop in the House of Bishops, and only in the last century did the Presiding Bishop have to relinquish his – it was all him’s back then – diocese and serve in a new job. During this summer’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, the bishops will go away to a nearby church; they will pray and sing and cast votes. The one with the majority is the winner.  The House of Deputies, meanwhile, has to and will in all likelihood consent to the election. Later this year, the newly elected PB will be seated at the Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Presiding Bishop, and he or she will move into the penthouse apartment at The Episcopal Church Center in New York – a posh pad where, I imagine, the PB will probably only occasionally sleep and probably seldom, if ever, actually get to just ‘hang out’ because s/he will, very likely, become much more acquainted with airports and life on the move over the next nine years than his or her own home. And we wonder why Bishop Katharine is willing to let someone else take the job?

I’m not going to add to what, it seems, we all think the Presiding Bishop should do or be. That’s already been written, and we’re going to be talking a lot about the future of the PB’s role at this summer’s General Convention in the conversations about restructuring the church; just Google “Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” or TREC.  It’s obvious that the next PB needs to have a real knack at administration and preaching and motivation and change. The candidate needs to be strongly rooted in Christ and fearless and adaptive and you can add to this list any other quality that goes along with being a faithful disciple of Jesus and, for that matter, any other buzzword we like to toss about – entrepreneurial being one I hope will quickly come to see its end. Also, and let me vent for a moment, the job qualifications have already been published in a profile and via a search committee, the purpose and role of which, I’ll be honest, I have no clue as to why they even exist, let alone are funded to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars: the only people voting on this job are already bishops and they all pretty much know each other. End of rant.

What I want to share, however, is that I am going to pray for these nominees and, in so doing, pray for the ongoing renewal of this church. I ask you, too, to pray that our staid and steady institution will continue – and I mean continue – to become more and more like the Body of Christ, serving this world boldly because we have a bold message, and less and less like a fearful, former-Forbes 500 company.

Because nine years is a long time.

Nine years.

Just think of where you were, personally, professionally, vocationally, in your walk with Christ nine years ago. Nine years is a long time.

For me, I was in a different city, in a different place, a very different chapter in my life. I had darker glasses and darker hair. (I still see brown hair on top of my head; it’s just the person I see in pictures of me has a lot more gray!) Nine years ago, I was not married nor was I, yet, a father. I wasn’t on Facebook, and I’m not sure I knew anyone who was. Some of my friends had joined this new thing called Netflix but I still walked to my local video store. Nine years ago, I had only one email address. I hadn’t heard of Twitter, and a hashtag probably sounded like something I’d order for breakfast.

1970’s “Runaway Besteller”!

Nine years ago I thought of The Episcopal Church as an institution, something kind of like the company for which I work and if I worked hard enough and played the company game I would find my way on to a happy and successful career. I thought I could venture from job to job, from ministry to ministry, from curacy to rectorate, from smaller church to bigger church and onward. I hadn’t yet accepted a call to Valley Lee, to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to the Diocese of Washington.  Nine years ago, I was serving in a very impactful and formational curacy in the Diocese of Chicago.

Nine years is also a long time in the life of an institution. In 2006, the year Presiding Bishop Katharine was elected, the Episcopal Church had 7,095 parishes and missions; in 2013 (the last numbers on record) that number dropped to 6,622, a 6% drop. Nearly 300,000 active baptized members dropped off in those seven years; from 2,154,572 (2006) to 1,866,758 (2013), a 13% loss. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), the only number that actually means anything, plummeted 18%; from 2006’s 765,326 to 2013’s 623,691. (Just look at how the minimal decline in parishes compares with the significant decline in people. To me, it says we are much quicker to save institutions than focus on the people.) The percentage of congregations with an ASA of less than 100 increased from 63% in 2006 to 69% in 2013 whereas the percentage of congregations with ASA of 300 or more decreased from 6% to 4% in that same time period.

In nine years the world changed. Society has been shaped more significantly and at a faster pace than in the nine years prior to this past near-decade, and that trend will only continue. I don’t blame Bishop Katharine or the leadership of the Episcopal Church, even though I am unafraid to call out failures. It’s that a lot of changes have happened and will happen and only more rapidly continue to happen nine-years after nine-years after nine-years.

What matters, what makes the difference, I’d say, is who we are as we stand in the midst of these changes, and where our values lead us. Standby, because I’m getting to some good news.

The most transformative and abundant change in my life in the last nine years has been fatherhood. There’s something about fatherhood, parenthood, family that tethers you in a profound and lasting way to this world. Some months ago, I heard a father interviewed and he described the moment he saw his son as the moment in which he became, he said, “hostage to the world.” It’s a phrase that struck me, pierced my heart and not in a negative way. Fatherhood means that you’re in it, for life. What a gift to be all in.

Nine years ago I’m not so sure I was all in in my own personal and vocational life, and not completely in my professional life, either. Nine years ago, I’m not so sure The Episcopal Church was all in, either. We didn’t seem completely in on our message of healing a broken world, of being a voice for the voiceless and, quite literally, becoming the kind of body that lives and breathes reconciliation.

We’ve had some hard fights these past nine years, and they only appear to be about about property and money and who owns what. Those are just symptoms. The root issue is whether we, as an institution, are all in in becoming the Body of Christ – whether we are prepared to put our resources and our substance and our physical presence, including our legacies and our histories and our money, into becoming the kind of people and the kinds of communities in which all are welcome and where Christ, in so doing, is made known.

I’ve learned this message and, to some degree, I’ve had to learn it the hard way. I’ve learned the most important thing is that my life is always, already wrapped up in Christ’s, and that if I have anything I have integrity and wellness. I’ve learned how important it is to be a good father to my daughter and a broken-yet-redeemed person of God. I’ve learned that honesty and vulnerability are so much more important than keeping up appearances in the world. I’ve had to learn that it is better to remain rooted in a community than keep thinking – and worrying – about the future. I’ve had to learn that it is my integrity in the here and now that makes a difference, and that our lives preach greater sermons than our words. I’ve learned through practice and I’ve learned through trial that I am invited, daily, to plant myself deeply, firmly in Christ. And, in fact, I’ve learned how much God transforms my simple gifts, say, a few loaves and some fish — but that God in Christ only does so when I’ve made that first step to pay attention and be still, when I’ve come to know that nothing, nothing can shake me from expecting God to do what God has said God would.

Nine years ago, St. George’s, Valley Lee was fearful and broken and scattered and uncertain. Nine years ago, this church didn’t know it had much of a future, and they really weren’t all in, either. And God brought us together. God didn’t bring me, the rector, to change and grow this institution. God brought me to a place which needed to learn new things and become a new body, so that I, myself, could also learn new things and become a new body, and that both of us, together, would grow in Him.

The numbers don’t show this growth; not yet, at least. The numbers currently show the opposite of growth. But anecdotally, which I know is not data, and across social media, which I didn’t even have nine years ago, I sense that a tide is shifting, the church is turning, and the Gospel is picking up momentum. I sense that more Valley Lee’s are coming online, more risks are being taken, and Christ is being incarnated in even more special and remarkable ways, ways we haven’t yet seen. Ever. And I expect or, at least, hope that over the next nine years we will be even more all in.

BY SCHISMS RENT ASUNDER AND HERESIES DISTRESSED

Perhaps it’s an issue between South Carolinians – a vocal progressive minority in the Episcopal diocese and their theologically conservative bishop and, let’s be honest, most likely the bulk of that diocese.  In October 2012, after the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence (SC) had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church,” Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry.  Immediately, the South Carolina Standing Committee announced that that action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”  On Nov. 15, the Presiding Bishop offered a pastoral letter to the faithful in South Carolina who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church, a letter which affirmed our much-treasured Anglican comprehensiveness and offered a compelling vision of the contested core at the center of our lively tradition.  That being said, the Bishop of Springfield is also correct to assert that Jefferts Shori offered a fairly one-note legalistic document when a message of nuance and grace and love was best intended. And on Nov. 17, the majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina voted to affirm the actions of their bishop and diocesan leadership and disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church.

BISHOP MARK LAWRENCE
of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The issue, as I’m sure it’ll be reported, is going to be about yet another fight between a liberal Episcopal Church and conservative Diocese of South Carolina, or between a left-leaning bunch in the diocese and their right-wing bishop, or between those who uphold biblical faith and others who are theological revisionists.  Yet not one of those interpretations would really get to the core of the issue.

This is about the Christian faith as it’s been received and practiced in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church — and not the ways in which it’s been twisted and perverted by those who talk more often about catholic faith and orthodox theology.

This is about schism — breaking away and setting yourself apart — which in the early church was considered a grave sin and was not at all distinct from heresy; in fact, schism was a vastly more important issue than the latter.  In recent years, I recall the 2008 conversation in the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (IL) when that diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.  The Dean of the Cathedral, which was the single-largest congregation, making up 22% of membership in the diocese, educated the cathedral congregation about the misdirected motives of what he called the ultra-conversative diocesan leadership as well as the benefits of staying, even if one disagrees with the majority, and the spiritual disadvantages of schism. From the Episcopal News Service article of 3 December 2008: The Very Rev’d Robert Dedmon (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Peoria) “beseeched the synod ‘not to further divide the body of Christ’ by what he termed an ‘impossible and compulsive pursuit’ for a perfect situation. ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners,’ said Dedmon. ‘Heresy can be remediated, people can change their minds, but schism, once it occurs formally, is never reconciled.'”  In a comment on Kendall Harmon’s blog in Nov. 2011, Dedmon poignantly quipped: “As a Quincy Episcopalian, I can only say, once again, schism breeds more schism, until at last we are all alone.”

From the Greek, schisma, meaning to tear, shism is an intentional separation from the body.  The New Testament records the apparent tendency of some believers to focus on particular theological sticking-points and isolate those issues as the issue — in turn, establishing that those who disagree with them are the false believers.  That’s why there’s no biblical distinction between schism and heresy.  The Greek verb ‘aireomai (from ‘airesis, heresy) means to choose or to prefer, a tendency in theology, according to Karl Rahner, of taking “a truth out of the organic whole which is the faith and, because [one] looks at it in isolation, [one] misunderstands it.”  There is no right theology without right relationship or, in hip seminary-speak, no such thing as orthodoxy without orthopraxis.  That so-called ‘false brethren’ were separating themselves from the body and setting up churches and interpretations of their own in early Christianity seemed an established fact (Acts 20:30, Col. 2:18), and Jesus himself predicted that that would happen (Mark 13:6, Matthew 24:39).  Moreover, the vast majority of New Testament literature is concerned with community formation and ensuring that churches stay together, no matter what, and only when significant brokeness is at hand and the offender is unrepentant shall the bonds of fidelity be severed.  This is a constant theme in the letters of Paul, whose own ministry was constantly undermined by those who came in after he left and un-did what he worked so hard to build, and the Gospel of Matthew, in particular; see Matthew’s entire 18th chapter about community norms and, with specific reference to a process by which offenders should be heard and tried, Mt. 18:15-20.

Outside of the New Testament, the technical term, schism, first emerges in Irenaeus’ c.180 CE polemic, Adversus Haereses, written against the popular gnostic heresy.  “Schism” shows up in book IV, chapter 33.7, and yet that entire chapter is a case-in-point of this larger issue — namely, that relationship with the whole body, no matter whether you may disagree about particular points of interpretation, is an essential ingredient to right belief.  Needing a better editor, the chapter is entitled: “Whosoever confesses that one God is the author of both testaments, and diligently reads the scriptures in company with the presbyters of the church, is a true spiritual disciple; and he will rightly understand and interpret all that the prophets have declared respecting Christ and the liberty of the New Testament.”  Section 7 continues: “[The true spiritual disciple] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, — men who prate of preace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism.”

Although some will argue, today, that schism and heresy are two quite different things — heresy having to do with issues of doctrine and schism having to do with relationships — that distinction is nowhere found in early Christian literature.  Further, I’m not certain how that distinction can be maintained with theological integrity, even today.  In the modern era, we’ve seen the Roman Church try to do so with a certain, um, clunky-ness.  The Vatican II document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offered a well-intentioned olive branch to the Eastern churches and Anglican Communion, trying to straddle a fine line between welcoming them, even accepting them, but not accepting that they are fully members: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”  In this painstaking attempt to distinguish between heresy and schism, I have to say I’m even more confused about my standing in their eyes: I suppose I’m one of their brothers, though an imperfect one.  (Once, I flippantly said to a member of the Roman church, “I guess to you all we’re a bunch of heretics,” to which he replied: “No, you’re just schismatics.”  Honestly, I don’t know which one is worse and neither ‘welcome’ is better.)

The irony in this, for some, is that I, an Episcopal priest and, therefore, schismatic, am writing about the sin of schism.  But my own faith journey led me to accept my Protestant heritage and yet seek Communion in apostolic, catholic Christianity.  For me, it was the Episcopal Church which helped me find a voice and a home in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  It could’ve been the Roman Church, I suppose, but in the course of my desire to connect my life to an apostolic, catholic body the real issue I confronted was what issues I wanted to struggle with over the course of my life and ministry.  As a Roman Catholic, I suppose, I would struggle with issues of theological exclusion and doctrinal uniformity.  As an Episcopalian, I would struggle with conflicts caused by being too inclusive and, sometimes, doctrinal sloppy-ness.

It really comes down to which issues one wants to struggle with because there is, simply, no one perfect church.  Again, Dean Dedmon of Peoria’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, said it well: ‘Those who seek moral superiority and doctrinal perfection, like the Pharisees, are going to be deeply disappointed because they are not available to us sinners.”  All churches, as all communities of ordinary people, are the places where we work out our relationship with God in Christ by striving for charity and clarity in our relationships with one another and our own self.  Failing to do so and breaking relationships — becoming a schismatic by willful choice — is, then, now and has always been a sad state and, I’d say, a sin.

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 chuch 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?