Who Will Shape Our Future?

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Voice of Integrity 3.4 (Fall 1993): 38-39.

© 1993, 2004 by Louie Crew

The promotional brochure beckoned: "Learn what God is saying to the Church." More than a thousand Episcopalians from 96 of the church's 117 dioceses came to the St. Louis Convention Center for a symposium billed as "A Grassroots Forum on Episcopal Structures."

Responding to a sense of alarm and angst over the decline of the Episcopal Church's membership in the past 25 years, planners of the July 12-15 symposium, sponsored by the Diocese of East Tennessee, argued that the church needed to consider significant changes in its institutional life--and that it would benefit from "a gathering of the family where the concerns of the legislative process do not hinder the dialogue."

In the opening plenary presentation, the Rev. Loren Mead, founder and president of Washington's Alban Institute, described the Episcopal Church as a ship tossed on the turbulent waves of a stormy sea.

The storm, according to Mead, was the quickening pace of change loose in the world. "Structural problems are bigger than we are," he said. "They are related to something about what God is doing in the world." Citing the turmoil in the former Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia, as well as in corporations and in a host of other institutions, Mead said that "the issue is how to be in community together."

Drawing on the story of Christ's walking on the water, Mead urged the symposium's participants to "step into the water," set their sights on the mission of the church and then adapt the structures to meet the challenges of the vision. "Structure flows from what we understand our mission to be," he said.

Asking the wrong questions

The Rev. Nan Peete, Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Atlanta, was the only plenary speaker to name justice as an issue facing the church. "From my perspective," Canon Peete continued, "we are asking the wrong questions, or rather the questions may be premature. We should ask not what the structures should be, but rather what the mission should be. Structure should follow mission, not other way round."

Canon Peete, one of the few African Americans at the symposium, sounded a warning: "I am not clear about what they mean about changing the structure of the church. "A grassroots forum"? Grassroots are people who are without power. Among those attending this conference are many who are in decision-making positions--bishops, deans, General Convention deputies...... If we are the grassroots, who are the leaders?

"It's a scandal that two-thirds of the symposium left her `plenary' session to hear the rabbi talk more about Magellan!" commented Jesse Milan, Jr., a layman from the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Inspiration

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, noted author and family therapist, held a plenary just before Canon Peete's, and continued it for a second hour as an option to hers.

Rabbi Friedman suggested that much of American society is "stuck" in outmoded institutional forms because it is not asking new and innovative questions. He asserted that institutions spend too much time tinkering with ways to change old structures when they should risk "a sense of adventure" and rethink basic assumptions in the light of mission. Friedman said that the most important thing for religious leaders is to concentrate on vision. "A sailor without a destination cannot distinguish a good wind from an ill wind," he said, quoting the philosopher Seneca.

Friedman added that, as society becomes more anxious, people will seek groups "that provide an easy certitude." The best advice he could give, Friedman said, was that religious leaders continue to keep their eyes fixed on the vision and not get caught up in the anxiety of losing members. "Don't worry about the future," he charged, "God will take care of it."

Bishop Robert Tharp echoed similar concerns. In a press conference he said, "Turning this church around is not my phrase. That is Jon Shuler's phrase, and for months it has been forbidden in my office. We disagree on that one!"

For much of the symposium specific agendas for restructuring the church stayed primarily in workshops and other smaller groups. The Rev. Jon Shuler is executive director of the East Tennessee Initiative--the organization that planned the symposium. Bishop Tharp is his bishop.

Ministry considered in forums and workshops

In nearly two dozen small-group workshops and forums, participants were challenged to think about the broad dimensions of the church's ministry and to identify where the structures support or hinder those ministries. Topics ranged from the role of bishops in the 21st century to strengthening lay ministry, improving youth ministry, supporting inclusivity in the church and altering the structure of the General Convention.

In addition, participants themselves were given an opportunity to lead sessions on subjects about which they were passionate. No fewer that 36 separate meetings were convened for such topics as "How to start new congregations," "Supporting inner-city ministries," "How can we support parish libraries?" "Does the church need deacons?" and "User-friendly Eucharistic worship--should we always use the Book of Common Prayer?"

Driving our people away

In a session on "How to make the General Convention more representative," more than 40 participants wrangled over ideas to alter the process of presenting resolutions to the convention and the possibility of decreasing the size of the House of Deputies.

"It's an imperfect system," Bishop Gethin Hughes of San Diego said of the General Convention, "but it's the only one we've got." Hughes, one of the 33 bishops or bishops-elect who attended the symposium, said that there were many valuable suggestions about how to improve the convention--such as streamlining the process for considering resolutions. However, he contended that his overall concern was the convention's "lack of focus on the mission of the church and it overemphasis on nonessential issues."

Some persons insisted, however, that the real problem with the church was that the General Convention adopted resolutions at odds "with the majority of people in the pews. If the convention were truly representative, that would not happen," one person said.

"Yes, we should set policy in a convention like this," said one participant; "we're much more democratic." "Yes," others echoed, "General Convention is driving our people away." When asked, few of the critics in this session said they were deputies, though many others who were deputies, listened wide-eyed.

No one elected anyone who came to St. Louis. They represented no one but themselves. Only slightly over half (55%) were laity, most of whom, unlike the clergy, could not tap church discretionary funds to help fund their travel. Very few were black; fewer still were Hispanic or Asian--yet Canon Peete reminded us that African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are the groups with greatest population growth in the U.S.A.

The same person who complained that General Convention is driving people away noted that General Convention can neither change God's word nor grant people salvation. He complained that the President of the House of Deputies had guaranteed appointments to Integrity members but had not reserved him an appointment as a British immigrant to the United States.

I identified myself as the founder of Integrity and pointed out that President Chinnis did not suggest she would stack committees, but said instead that the structure will be open to lesbigays, who have been heretofore excluded. I noted that I would never ask General Convention to grant me salvation, that I have it already, from Calvary.

"No, you don't!" he shouted. "You have to repent first!"

An aborted coup

In one forum, the Rev. Jon Shuler, executive director of the East Tennessee Initiative, called for a constitutional convention to restructure the church. Jon Shuler has been a priest for 20 years, much of that as the cardinal rector of a huge parish. Next year he will serve for the first time as a deputy to General Convention. He wants to change it all before he even gets there.

Shuler proposes constitutional changes that would limit General Convention to meeting no more than once every five years, instead of every three. He wants to require each bishop to be located in a specific local congregation. He wants to alter the provincial structure of the church to reflect census realities rather than state boundaries.

On one of the few official press releases of the weekend, using the symposium's logo, the headline announced

"CALL FOR CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION
IS SOUNDED AT EPISCOPAL SYMPOSIUM"

The symposium did not extend such top billing even to all plenary speakers. Shuler's was a much smaller forum, attended by only 117 persons (ca. 10% of those at the symposium). Eleven other forums scheduled at the same time.

"Symposium press staff were at complete liberty to report what they thought important," Shuler explained to me the week after the symposium. "I had nothing to do with their choices."

Nevertheless, before the entire symposium Shuler apologized, but only a handful understood what he was talking about. His own press staff told me that probably he was apologizing for a Newsweek article published before the symposium. Clearly he had not communicated his concerns to those who wrote the document. Most people who heard him apologize had never seen the offending press release.

"I just wanted to walk on water," he told them.

Hidden agendas

Shuler's call for the Constitutional Convention centers on three questions:
  1. Is Jesus Lord of this Church?
  2. Does Holy Scripture have authority among us?
  3. What do we believe?
"Are you calling for an end to usury, or a return to biblical authority about divorce and remarriage or a literal reading of the biblical strictures against polyester....?" I asked Jon Shuler after I read his document.

"I am not a fundamentalist!" he exclaimed.

I cannot not determine which scriptures Father Shuler wants to give authority over our lives, but anyone can see which crowd is pleased with calls for scriptural authority. Shuler has agreed to speak on the meaning of the symposium to the national convention of Episcopalians United next summer, a group vehemently opposed to lesbigay Christians.

"Would you be willing to speak to an Integrity gathering about the meaning of St. Louis?" I asked. "Yes!" he replied.

"Why did you not choose a single out lesbigay Christian to conduct one the more than 30 planned sessions of the symposium?" I asked.

Shuler replied: "I don't know the sexuality of any of the speakers! We chose no one to fit categories of race or gender.... If a gay person had written a book on church structure, the person's sexual orientation would not have been a bar to an invitation."

Few of the speakers at the symposium have written books on church structure. Throughout the symposium, leaders touted the diversity of presenters and participants.

Shuler stressed to me that he heard at the symposium "permission to be in a state of disagreement and still to be working together.... If I turn and devour my brother, I forsake the call of God. I find liberation personally in the notion of not winning the fight but sharing the common vision."

"If you are chosen to edit the papers of the symposium, will you call attention to your call for a constitutional convention in the introduction to the volume as one of the major initiatives to come out of the symposium?" I asked.

"No, that would not be fair," he replied, "though I might include my proposal farther back with other papers at the event."

The symposium also set in motion a series of special task forces, for which 280 persons signed up, titled "Communications," "Governing," "The Episcopate," "Leadership Training," "Lay Ministry," and "Funding." A week after we left St. Louis, symposium leaders had no idea yet how these groups will function. If persons fear the argument unleased by resolutions passed by General Convention, closely monitored by everyone, imagine the consternation possible if these task forces, responsible to none of the 1,000 assembled, publish documents billed as official statements growing out of the symposium.

The pb race

Three bishops rumored to be front runners to replace Most Rev. Edmond Browning as Presiding Bishop were conspicuous at the symposium: The Bishop of Virginia, Peter Lee; The Bishop of Milwaukee, Roger White; and The Bishop of Central Florida, John Howe.

Halls were abuzz about Virginia's plans to have FAX machines and electronic mail in every parish soon. Bishop Lee's own emphasis was far more spiritual in his forum "A Bishop's Ministry for Today and Tomorrow."

"A bishop personifies apostolic succession, not as a wooden idol, but as a personal representative of the Christ's love," Lee said. "That vertical ministry is imperiled when the ministry becomes beholden to meet everyone's claim as the culture; nor should the bishop be the micromanager."

I suggested to Bishop Lee that the Episcopal Church might grow lean enough, Gideon-style, to respond to human need before, not after we have paid elaborate museum costs and elaborate episcopal and other salaries, i.e., to say with our money what we preach with our lips.

Bishop White spoke on "New Millennium/New Church", also the title of a recent book of which he is the co-author. In the discussion which followed, a man on my row pointed his hand at me and suggested, "Integrity types are rumored to be driving away lay people."

Silently Bishop White moved to our row, stood close by me, and said, "Nothing that anyone can say at this entire symposium can take away one word of our Lord's command that we welcome absolutely everybody into this church."

Bishop Howe preached at one service and did noonday prayers at another. He too was friendly, as we each congratulated the other own his losing weight since we met last in Phoenix during General Convention.

Does the presiding officer have to be a bishop?

George Lockwood, currently writing A Critical Look at the Future of the Episcopal Church, asked, "How can we keep bishops out of the way of laity doing their work and still honor their apostolic succession? We now see that they are much more administrators, and we need to free them from too much horizontal stuff and need to have them in a vertical dimension much more."

Jon Shuler had echoed a similar concern in a pre-symposium interview with me: "We need to honor what we've been praying since 1976 about the ministry of all persons, not just ordained persons.

Lockwood stressed, "We need to recruit a wider body of people in our decision making process.... If we indeed want leadership, does the presiding Episcopalian have to be a bishop?"

General Convention in Indianapolis (1994) will choose the nominating committee that will choose the slate for Presiding officer of the Episcopal Church, and the election will occur in 1997.

At Lockwood's workshop, Charles Crump, Esq., chair of the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church, pointed out that in the nominations toward the election of Bishop Browning in 1985, laity did look at the pool of 150 bishops and then recommended four.

A compassionate nudge

In the closing plenary, Bishop Tharp said that the symposium was not about "giving a shove to the church, but a loving and compassionate nudge."

Tharp was not the only person who challenged the church to remain calm amid the storms. In a closing sermon, Bishop Edward Salmon of South Carolina suggested that God has provided a storm as a means to a more genuine community. "Maybe the storm we are in is God's way of bringing us to our knees so that he can work out his purposes," Salmon said. The storm, he observed, might be "God's way of getting us to think again."

In obvious reference to attempts by the House of Bishops to move toward a less confrontational style, Salmon said that the church must find new ways to weather the storms over particular issues and find a sense of community that is not based on win-lose scenarios. He called on the church to focus on "the power of Christ's solidarity with victims and forgiveness of oppressors" as a means to unity and calm amid the storms.

Salmon made reference to every plenary speaker except Canon Peete.

Accountability

Before the conclusion of the meeting a member of the steering committee solicited help from participants to close a shortfall of nearly $350,000 in the $725,000 budget for the symposium. By the next week, contributors had reduced the deficit to $250.

Leaders had hoped for a crowd three times the thousand who came. They fell far short of the 1,500 persons needed for free access to the Convention Center, add enormous to the expense of the symposium.

Those who proposed the symposium had complained about the fiscal irresponsibilities of current Episcopal structures. Some even suggested that General Convention ought to meet on a college campus. The initiative would have been much less in debt had planners heeded this advice for the symposium. The symposium did not need its own logo and expensive transparent paper in the fancy service booklets. We who came did not require shuttle busses around the clock when we might have easily walked the few short blocks to the hotels, as we do at General Convention.

George Lockwood reminded us that the Church Congress, which Phillips Brooks founded as a forum for discussion, ran for sixty years, into the 1930's. "I hope that this symposium is a beginning of another church congress, to challenge us and to plant seeds out of which will come some of the legislation."

Peace, or peace with oppression?

"How can I support the less confrontational style, which I surely would welcome, and still make no peace with oppression?" I asked Jon Shuler and numerous other folks in St. Louis.

I still don't have an answer.

What would win/win look like?

In lieu of a divisive vote, for example, is our church, prepared to name openly and bless the local option now de facto regarding lesbigay ordination and the blessing of lesbigay unions?

How long will the Episcopal Church underwrite the current lawlessness regarding the canon which approves the ordination of women?

Are we really concerned about a loss of members, or about a loss or the "right kind of members"? Are we concerned lovingly and compassionately to hold the keys to the kingdom, or are we concerned to recover the keys to the country club which we held in the peek of our growth, in the 1950's?

At a session on lay ministry I complained when persons talked about how important it is to get Jesus into the world. "I find when I get into my world, Jesus has already been there, but those whose faces he uses don't know his name and have every reason to despise the church, which drives them away. In what other community of the world do folks disco till three in the morning and then go clean up vomit in an AIDS hospice? God assures us that when we don't do God's work, God will use the very stones to do it."

I felt like a homeless intruder at a suburban coffee hour.

Waiting for the harvest

Millions wait huddled for the church to live out its promise on billboards all over the country: "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."

Those gathered in St. Louis did not manifest much diversity. Few wore the faces of groups systematically ignored or bashed by the church.

Is the bid for a less confrontational approach genuine? We will know by its fruits. If the bid yields more of the love and affirmation Bishop Tharp and Bishop White talked about, it will also need to yield more of the hard justice that Canon Peete talked about.

I was not put off by the 1,000+ vs. the 3000 initially expected. One thousand Episcopalians turning out for any reason in the heat of the summer is not a small achievement. It was a mistake to expect more.

"I'm not usually around this many centrists" I told Bishop Tharp; provincialism is not a nice word in my dictionary. I came here with circumspect hope, edged with fear. But I will go home with less dis-ease."

Bishop Tharp quoted my last sentence with thanks at the last plenary of the symposium. Back home in Knoxville, he stressed: "The Church needs to stop arguing issues and start loving the world!"

Hallelujah if but a tenth of us in St. Louis go home to live into this mission.


I acknowledge Jeffrey Penn of Episcopal News Service for his substantial contributions to this article. -- Louie Crew


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