The elephant in the room

There is an elephant in the room at General Convention!  No, it is not one of Kathy Copas’  innovative hospitality center decorations. Nor a mascot for an exhibitor or some advocacy group..  It is an issue that seems to loom in the background of most every discussion and resolution.

The issue is HOW do we re-structure (or even DO WE restructure) the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church program budget, and General Convention for more efficiency and greater flexibility?  There is some movement in  that direction.

The issue of restructure was identified by several speakers as “the elephant in the room”  in the discussion at the House of Bishops on Friday.  While in the House of Deputies that House voted to sell the Episcopal Church Center (815 Second Avenue) in New York city. An action that has been studied and talked about for several decades that I recall. It is now up to the House of Bishops to vote on the resolution to see if has concurrence – meaning it will really happen.

A great deal has been written about the need to restructure. With changing demographics and contribution patterns some sort of response is needed. The problem is not the issue – the problem lies in the perception of the solution.  In parishes, for example, it is usually rather easy to get people to agree that “we don’t sing enough of our favorite hymns”.  Agreement on the negative is the easy part. But usually when we begin to list the favorite hymns we want sung we discover that we don’t have the same list.  Likewise, in seeing the solution as restructuring, there is great diversity of opinion as to how that new structure might look.

The difficulty I see, as I have heard and read opinions from different viewpoints, is that we do not have unanimity on what we see see as the core purpose of the Episcopal Church’s national structure.  Some see it as primarily a resource for dioceses, congregations, clergy, programs units and lay leaders.  Others reflect on the corporate name of our national church “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and say our core purpose is direct service in the mission field at home and abroad.  And there are those who want to see as little as possible of a national structure at all (“tea party Episcopalians” was the name one deputy gave to this latter group).

So what is the purpose of the national expression and structure of our church?  The Domestic and Foreign Mission Society was formed in 1820 to allow congregations and the constituent dioceses to have an organized and cooperative mission strategy in the new frontier areas expanding the work of the church. What do we need in 2012 and beyond?

An agreement on the core purpose of the national structure is needed before we begin to make decisions about it will be. That is the dialogue that so far has been missing. But it will come, hopefully sooner than later after other decisions have already been made.

A mentor of mine, Bp Dan Corrigan told me that enacting legislation in the Episcopal Church is like sausage making. It is a messy process you don’t want to watch too closely. But when it is done right it produces a product that is good and valuable. Doing it right will require time spent coming to a united vision of the purpose of the nation church or else the end product will not serve well.

As a non-voter observer at this convention it is not a simple either / or. We need to have resources for dioceses, congregations and Episcopalians to assist them in their work and ministry. We also need an entity that can do work that we are not able to do on the local or diocesan level. The frontiers are no longer away from here, out there somewhere. The mission frontier is as much around the corner and on the web as around the world. We need to have people able to show us a larger vision of the church than we can see from the front step of our buildings. It will not be an easy conversation to have and we will have to make compromises to get to it. But if we don’t do it the elephant will be there in 2015, 2018 and beyond.


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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