Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Toward a Positive Vision of Liberal Christianity

Can the problems of the Episcopal Church be summed up with one silly t-shirt? That may be an overstatement, but New York Times columnist Ross Douthat got me thinking about it in his recent column, “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” Douthat argues that recent decades declines in mainline Protestant church membership and attendance is related to the church’s engagement in the divisive cultural debates of our day, principally but not exclusively the role of LGBT
people in society and the church.

Douthat cites two principal factors behind this. One is the influence of thinkers like retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose work eviscerates the core of orthodox Christian doctrine. The second is the failure of the church to articulate religious backing to its concern for social justice that in any way distinguishes the church from secular voices advocating similar positions. He's wrong on the first, and correct enough on the second that it's worth talking about. That's where the t-shirt comes in.

But let's deal with Spong first. I think Douthat vastly overestimates the influence of people like him within the church. Spong is not an instigator of where the Episcopal church finds itself today. His work is a last gasp of a line of inquiry that included Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God and Leslie Weatherhead’s The Christian Agnostic. The latter book concluded that it’s ok to be a Christian and deny the gospel miracles and the virgin birth, as long as you’re still on board with the physical resurrection of Jesus. Spong does Weatherhead one better and dispenses with the resurrection, too.
What all of these books have in common is a struggle to identify what is true about scripture and the creeds in the face of scientific discoveries about evolution, medicine, cosmology, and the like. Weatherhead’s book, alas, credulously relies on some junk science about spiritualism to support some of its conclusions. The debates contained in these books were perhaps necessary as the church grappled with the discovered world and chose not to be a faith that denies the facts in front of it. This is a good thing. But these authors erred in allowing discovery to constrain revelation, rather than expanding their understanding of revelation to accommodate discovery.

As quickly as I dismiss Spong and his intellectual forbears, I should acknowledge that the conversations they started opened up my own understanding of the claims of scripture and the creeds and gave me a vocabulary to express my own views. The idea of the virgin birth, the resurrection and second coming of Jesus, etc. do not require us to deny objective scientific reality, but they do live in tension with it. There is our daily lived reality, and a deeper real reality. We experience that real reality as if it is on the other side of a veil: close, but often invisible,
occasionally seen, only once in a great while truly breaking through. I cannot quantify how many other Episcopalians see things in this or a similar way, but I’d guess that it’s a greater proportion than those who say the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed. It’s also not a unique or new idea, as I recently learned when I chanced upon a fascinating lecture on Jewish scholar Franz Rosenweig while driving the other night, but it's one that members of the church may not feel comfortable articulating.

Douthat’s second critique – that Episcopalians have failed to articulate a religious reason for their positions is worth spending more time on. It’s easy to get defensive on this point, to say, as some have, that if Douthat comes to any Episcopal church on a Sunday, he’ll find a congregation at prayer as sincere as Douthat’s own Roman Catholic parish. One might also reasonably argue that there’s some heavy-duty theological work behind the rite for blessing same sex relationships approved at the recent General Convention. Both of these things are true.

But these objections do not negate Douthat’s observation. To experience the church as a praying community, one must first walk in the doors. There’s no question that in our denomination, though certainly not in every parish, over the last couple decades, more people have been walking out than in. Heavy duty theological discussion deep in the pages of the Blue Book may be wonderful, but it’s no good if few within the church can restate them. Indeed, in the House of Deputies at the recent General Convention, just about the only folks expected to read the many hundreds of pages of documentation underlying all manner of legislation, referenced theology and the Bible rarely enough to make much of the debate in the house indistinguishable from what might occur at any other organization of humanists unusually well-versed in parliamentary procedure.

(On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn't judge the deputies too harshly for this, because one alternative to the status quo is some horrific proof-texting extravaganza. But I digress.)
Moreover, the Episcopal church has a problem not just in stating its reasons grounded in faith for the prominent social stands it has taken in recent years. It also has difficulty defining its reason for being in terms that involve God, or for that matter, positive terms of any type.

Take, for instance, what is perhaps the Episcopal Church’s most visible vehicle for attracting believers, the “Top 10 Reasons to be anEpiscopalian” t-shirt. The reasons are apparently derived from a Robin Williams HBO special a decade or so ago. They are:

10. No snake handling.
9. You can believe in dinosaurs.
8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.
7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.
6. Pew aerobics.
5. Church year is color coded.
4. Free wine on Sunday.
3. All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.
2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.
1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian that agrees with you.
I’m going to set the question of whether t-shirts are an effective means of evangelism to one side (I think they can be helpful, but they shouldn’t be at the top of anyone’s list), and focus on whether this is really how we want to define ourselves as a church. Reasons 10, 9, 7, 3, and 2 all define the church in negative terms. Rather than saying what the Episcopal Church is, these reasons just define us in opposition to other Christians and they're smug to boot. Number 6 and number 5 don’t mean anything to outsiders. Number 3 and number 2 manage to demean what should be one of our top selling points, our sacramental life together. Number 2 further discredits immersion baptism, which is a perfectly valid and meaningful option. Number 1 simply reinforces the popular point that Episcopalians don’t really believe anything. Number 8 may be the only one worth saying in the
way it’s presented: it says something positive about our church and articulates a reason grounded in faith for it.

None of this is a judgment on Robin Williams’ comedy routine, by the way. I’ve never seen it; it may be very funny, though one certainly hopes there's more to it than these 10 lines. And there’s certainly no harm in making jokes about our church – that, too, is one of our selling points. But I emphatically do not think that these top 10 reasons should be adopted as any kind of official statement by the church, and the fact that these t-shirts were on sale at the national church’s booth at General Convention and are sold by a church affiliate certainly seems to indicate that they are.
I wouldn’t bother attacking this defenseless t-shirt if it were not broadly indicative of how we talk about ourselves as a church. We have a hard time saying who were are. Too often we define ourselves in the negative. It’s my bad habit, too. This is particularly perilous in a post-Christian culture. Trying to define ourselves this way implies that our evangelism strategy is to engage in a market share game, where we try to pick off converts from the Catholic church or our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters. Meanwhile the proportion of unchurched Americans is steadily rising, and we need to act as if we have something to offer those who do not yet believe. How do we tell our story?

To that end, the Bible study we undertook at the second evening gathering of the Acts 8 Moment (summarized here), is instructive. 30 or so people spent some time as a group reflecting on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from (you guessed it) the eighth chapter of Acts. Here it is:

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.)So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: 

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’ 

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. 

We talked about all kinds of aspects of this story (there's a whole lot in here -- what about that wilderness road?), but I just want to focus on one of them as a starting point. Philip's conversation with the eunuch starts not with the miracles, nor the virgin birth, nor the resurrection, nor the threat of the outer darkness, nor a liberal commitment to social justice, but with the profound mystery of the sacrifice of Jesus. He goes straight to the heart of God's compassion for creation, and builds from there. The foundation of our faith is that God became one with us in the person of Jesus, sacrificed himself for all of us, and gives us hope in the resurrection.

This is kind of heavy stuff, and it's a little weird. I've noted before how I never really got the resurrection (until I did), so the next task is to connect this foundational understanding to our personal stories and our collective actions as a church. This is far from a sufficient solution, but it is a starting point. It involves saying something positive about the God who grounds us, not putting other believers down.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Biblical support for pet funerals

I'm reluctant to contribute anything further to the debate about the Jay Akasie article about the General Convention in last week's Wall Street Journal, considering how easy it is to knock down his errors (see Scott Gunn's blog for a comprehensive list), but I can't stop myself from weighing in on the pet funerals question.
Let's be clear that the General Convention did not authorize pet funerals. It authorized a service of comfort for someone grieving at the loss of a pet. It's actually a lovely document, but compare it to the burial offices in the Book of Common Prayer and it's easy to spot that there is no equivalency here. This is a kind pastoral office, not a theological statement on the soul.
Still, would it be so wrong if it were? In one of tonight's Psalms for evening prayer, we come across this: "Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both man and beast, O Lord." (Ps. 36:6). I don't know about you, but this sounds like a virtual mandate for miniature caskets to me.

Friday, July 13, 2012

General Convention as Pilgrimage

Today I was back at work, and people remarked that I looked awfully poorly rested after a ten-day vacation. And I was. I worked long days...five hour morning shifts in the print shop followed by five hour evening shifts as a page in the House of Deputies. Then I came home and wrote this blog, or went to Acts 8 meetings, or went to July 4th barbeques, or who knows what else. I didn't sleep much.

So why on earth was I there? For me General Convention is a good example of a pilgrimage for a restless mind. A pilgrimage, as opposed to a mission, is an opportunity simply to renew one's faith. And while the usual picture of a pilgrimage is to the Holy Land or some cathedral or cave somewhere, the convention center did it for me. Each work session opened with prayer, and I occupied myself with simple tasks and attentiveness to the needs of others. I barely checked work e-mail, and was only distantly aware of the news. I spent a fair amount of time studying the Bible as I wrote this blog.

There were also lots of opportunities to connect with people in unusual ways. In the print shop in particular there were opportunities during downtime to share stories of faith and the communities we serve. I'm particularly grateful for the time I had to connect with other priests and laypeople within the Diocese of Indianapolis. While we have an annual diocesan convention, we wind up in busy, mostly meaningless legislative sessions and manufactured service projects with little time for personal connections. The ridiculous length of General Convention provides the breathing space for long conversations and relational development. As General Convention gets shorter, which it inevitably will, this is something I'll miss.

That said, in 2015, General Convention is getting longer. I kid you not. On the final day the House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops and bizarrely reinstated the 10-day long convention by passing A093. This is nuts. It may be subverted by the budget process. But for folks like me, who just want to get away from the world into an all-consuming parallel universe governed by parliamentary procedure and occasionally prayer, what's not to like?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

And on the eighth day...

It says something about our sense of self-importance that the General Convention lasts longer than God's creation of the world. And believe it or not, this is a shortened convention.

There's a packed legislative calendar today, but it's largely courtesy resolutions and pet projects. There's nothing on the table today either house actually cares about.

Except one thing - Open Communion (about which I've written elsewhere). That sort of passed the House of Deputies in a vote by orders yesterday, and will be considered by the Bishops today. The resolution that passed isn't open communion, but does crack the door a bit. I'll be surprised if it makes it through the Bishops. In any event, while I fall on the traditional side here, I can't work up much enthusiasm for this.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Where to start with Tuesday's Session?

When I started writing this blog as General Convention got going, I was optimistic and hopeful, then quickly soured as I despaired at the prospects of accomplishing any significant change through the unwieldy structures of the General Convention. I got particularly discouraged over the weekend as the business of the House of Deputies screeched to a halt in a parliamentary morass of amendments to amendments, re-referrals to various committees, and general lack of understanding on the part of some of the deputies about what was going on.

Oh me of little faith.

Things started clicking on Monday. And yesterday the institutional church took a huge leap forward. I might as well start with the obvious - the vote to authorize a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. I've already written about this elsewhere. Debate started at 5:00 and ended at a little after 5:30, after which opponents engaged in elaborate parliamentary maneuvering to try to maximize the chances of a vote that would force sending the measure back to the House of Bishops. Supporters fought back with equally wily deployment of the rules of order. It was like the dweebiest action movie ever. After 45 minutes of this, the vote was finally taken, and it passed overwhelmingly. Yes, I saw this coming from a mile away. Yes, I still fought back tears.

Ok, let's back up a little. The session started with a joint presentation of the budget to the bishops and the deputies. This was far better than I expected. As with any budget, everyone can find something to hate, but the budget takes steps to focus on growth and mission through creative block grants. I was also very pleased that the Presiding Bishop's proposal to divert $700,000 of funding from Episcopal Relief & Development was undone. There's a lot that needs to change in the national church. Episcopal Relief and Development isn't one of them. As usual, Tom Ferguson's analysis is superior to anything I can provide. This budget has not yet been passed, but it will be moving through the houses today and tomorrow.

The Rev. Susan Brown Snook was elected to the Executive Council. Woohoo! Susan is one of the minds behind the Acts 8 Moment, and is an innovative thinker about the future of the church.

The structure resolution unanimously passed without amendment. In general you can ignore unanimous votes at General Convention because it means we haven't committed ourselves to do anything meaningful. Example 1: Sunday we passed a resolution to "stand as one" with Haiti. Who's going to vote against that? But it obligates us to do what exactly? Example 2: Also Sunday, we passed a resolution commending the work of missionaries. This is barely better than the courtesy resolutions thanking convention staff and volunteers. Really, why bother? At least the deputies voted down establishing a lay ministry month, because...seriously.

The structure resolution is a whole other thing. It commits the whole church to change how it envisions itself and operates. It's going to require a huge amount of work not only from the task force it establishes, but they're not going to get anywhere without input fm the rest of us, especially where things are working. And remember that if we're going to change as a church, most of that change is actually going to be happening at the parish level. Don't get too comfortable.

So I'm feeling pretty good today, as we go into the penultimate legislative day. We've still got big stuff ahead of us - mainly the budget and the denominational health plan, but I'm going in feeling better than I have in days. Thanks be to God.

The Print Shop: Killing Trees for Jesus

The print shop is an interesting experiment in testing whether a church can manage simple assembly line tasks. Turns out that it can, though things are always a little creaky at the beginning of a shift.

The document boxes (aka honeycombs) have acquired names.

There's a lot of appetite for a paperless convention. That's easier said than done, but clearly we can be doing better in our stewardship of the earth. I suspect that this will be a shrinking operation over the next few conventions.

Keith Yamamoto (left) and Johnnie Newton (second from left) are our fearless coordinators. They exhibit unflappable cool under tight deadlines.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Parsing the A049 Vote

This afternoon was the most dramatic legislative session in the House of Deputies so far this convention, and I'm amazed at having the privilege of being there. Really big things got accomplished, but for now I want to focus in on one narrow aspect of the vote on A049, authorizing the provisional use of a rite blessing same sex unions.

The vote on this was done by orders, meaning that a majority of lay and clergy deputations had to vote for it in order for the resolution to pass. Most votes in the House of Deputies are taken by voice, and only the most contentious are done by orders. Likewise, yesterday's vote in full inclusion of transgendered people in the life of the church was also done by orders. So we have a fuller counting than usual.

While both measures passed by wide margins in both orders, the vote for full inclusion of transgendered people received greater support. 16 clergy deputations and 16 lay deputations opposed or were divided on D002, one of the two resolutions toward transgender equality. 26 clergy deputations and 24 lay deputations opposed or were divided on same sex unions.

I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that all the folks who opposed trans inclusion also opposed same sex unions. But that still leaves about 10 deputations in each order that supported trans inclusion but opposed same sex unions. I'm going to further infer that most of those folks are probably cool with LGBT people in the church, but remain uncomfortable with a rite that looks a lot like marriage.

I'm not going to speculate on their reasons here. I'm just going to encourage readers not to jump to conclusions about no voters. Remember that the next time someone tells you that they like gay people but have a problem with same sex marriage, it's not necessarily a cover for bigotry. They may be telling you the truth.

Here's the vote data:

D002 (via @dantetavolaro):

Lay 94 yes 11 no 5 divided
Clergy 95 yes 16 no 0 divided

A049 (via The Lead):

Lay 86 yes 19 no 5 divided
Clergy 85 yes 22 no 4 divided

Permit Me a Moment of Unabashed Sincerity

Yesterday in the course of my duties as a page in the House of Deputies, I had the good fortune to be in the room as the Episcopal church voted for full inclusion of our transgendered brothers and sisters in the life of the church.

As a further gift during the debate - I am frequently critical of progressive Christians for being almost afraid of the Bible. So I was pleased to see a deputy from Alabama read the following passage from Isaiah 56 in the course of his remarks in support:

For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, within my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them a name that shall not be cut off.

And as I was just typing the paragraph above, a young transgendered man sitting near me was on the phone with his father having the first nervous conversation with him since coming out a few weeks ago. He was so overjoyed that everything went fine he just spilled out the story to a random stranger eating a sandwich next to him.

Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, the House of Bishops voted to approve a rite for the blessing of same sex couples in an overwhelming majority. The legislation will be taken up by the House of Deputies at 5:00 today.

Finally, last night at the Integrity Eucharist, Bishop Gene Robinson reminded the congregation that we have gotten this far only because the LGBT people within the Episcopal church have believed that God is good and that God is on the side of inclusion of all people. All Episcopalians have the responsibility to give thanks for God's goodness, and the spread the word, because a lot of people are looking for what we offer but don't know we're here. We can't be shy about evangelism. This good news can't be our little secret.

The budget committee presents the proposed budget to a joint session of the deputies and the bishops at 2:15. I'll be the page wearing a bow tie up front. Can my sincere sense of optimism withstand a fight about money? We'll see.

News Flash: Spontaneous-ish Prayer Meeting at General Convention

Yesterday the folks behind The Acts 8 Moment organized a prayer flash mob. It was a pretty civilized afraid as flash mobs go - maybe two dozen people doing the service of noonday prayer on the second floor of the downtown Marriott, with special intention for the work of the committee on the structure of the church. It's all pretty unremarkable except for the part where it is remarkable. There's a whole lot of relying on ourselves going on at General Convention; it's good to spend some time relying on God.

In any event, to my view, the structure resolution that's come out of committee looks pretty good. I've reproduced it below, but I can't hope to compete with Tom Ferguson on analysis of this one, so just head right over to his blog.

Resolved, the House of ________ concurring, That this General Convention believes the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself, so that, grounded in our rich heritage and yet open to our creative future, we may more faithfully:

• Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• Teach, baptize and nurture new believers
• Respond to human need by loving service
• Seek to transform unjust structures of society
• Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth;
and be it further

Resolved, That this General Convention establish a Task Force under the Joint Rules of Order, whose purpose shall be to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration; and be it further
Resolved, That this Task Force shall be accountable directly to the General Convention, and independent of other governing structures, to maintain a high degree of autonomy; and be it further

Resolved, That the Task Force shall have as many as 24 members, appointed jointly by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies by September 30, 2012. The membership of the Task Force shall reflect the diversity of the Church, and shall include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership; and be it further

Resolved, That, in order to be informed by the wisdom, expertise, and commitment of the whole body of the Church, the Task Force shall gather information and ideas from congregations, dioceses and provinces, and other interested individuals and organizations, including those not often heard from; engage other resources to provide information and guidance, and shall invite all these constituencies to be joined in prayer as they engage in this common work of discernment; and be it further

Resolved, That the Task Force shall convene a special gathering to receive responses to the proposed recommendations to be brought forward to the 78th General convention, and shall invite to this gathering from each diocese at least a bishop, a lay deputy, a clerical deputy, and one person under the age of 35. It may also include representatives of institutions and communities (e.g., religious orders, seminaries, intentional communities); and be it further

Resolved, That the Task Force shall report to the whole Church frequently, and shall make its final report and recommendations to the Church by November 2014, along with the resolutions necessary to implement them, including proposed amendments to the Constitution and Canons of the Church; and be it further

Resolved, That the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider adding $400,000 to the 2013-2015 triennial budget, to enable this Resolution to be implemented energetically and successfully, “…for surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Liberals and Conservatives: the Value of Living Together

A decade or so ago, when All Saints was last searching for a rector, the search committee administered a parish survey as part of the process of building a profile. Among the questions was whether or not respondents thought it was acceptable to ordain gay clergy. One person responded no, but I was surprised we had even one, given that the prior two rectors had been gay men. I have no idea who it was who responded that way, but I was pleased that individual felt welcome at All Saints.

I thought of this today reading an article in Center Aisle, a daily opinion journal at General Convention that can usually be counted on as a voice of reason. In today's issue, The Very Rev. Ian Markham reflected on diversity in the church:

Living with disagreement is tricky. The desire to make the Church pure is so strong. We are so sure we are right that we don’t welcome conservatives. We are so sure that our progressive stance will be vindicated that we insist that those who want to “move less quickly” are ignorant appeasers.

Conservatives are important for two reasons. The first is that we need their voices. Conservatives keep asking the very basic question: Are we sure this is of God? A church is neither the “United Way at Prayer,” nor a social pressure group. Instead the Church is the Body of Christ and therefore the vehicle of God’s will in the world.

Everything we do should be tested by Scripture. We need to have our biblical reasons for the positions we take. If we lose this perspective, then we are just another dying cult that invites individuals to create whatever faith suits them.

The second reason is that there are many hurting conservatives who are feeling that this Church is not welcoming. Numerically the majority of the Episcopal Church is in the South. Many of the larger churches are evangelical. We need these conservative congregations and conservative dioceses. South Carolina is the only diocese that is growing: we need South Carolina to stay in.

An example of the value of conservative emerged yesterday in the House of Deputies, where the deputation from South Carolina helped strip down A089, which encourages holy habits of prayer and renewal of baptismal vows during the 50 days of Easter. So far, so good, but the second paragraph went on to mandate this:

Resolved, That the Office of Stewardship, The Episcopal Network for Stewardship, and the Standing Commission on Music and Liturgy develop a readily available liturgical resource that prayerfully invites Episcopalians to embrace the practice of holy habits to nourish and strengthen their vows in living out their baptismal covenant.

The argument from South Carolina was along the lines of: Really? What additional liturgical resources do we need besides the Daily Offices available in the Book of Common Prayer and the Lectionary? And shouldn't we be encouraging praying the offices and reading scripture year round anyway?

Leave it to South Carolina to bring us back to basics. The existing prayer book provides traditional language versions of the offices, modern language versions, simple versions, and also a simple outline so you can do it yourself. (Incidentally, I am not naive about South Carolina, as the parliamentary saga of A061 shows...more on that later. But that bit of sly trickery doesn't mean they're always wrong).

What are conservatives and liberals in the Epsicopal Church supposed to do together besides argue? The Rt. Rev. Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, has an idea:

Mission is a wonderful thing for many reasons. First, it is commanded by God, and thus to do it is to obey God. Second, it causes us to look outwards, away from those things that divide us, and to find ourselves shoulder to shoulder with others with whom we may disagree profoundly but with whom we share one unutterably precious thing — that we both love Jesus Christ and for His sake we are doing what we are doing.

Across the Anglican Communion, we are profoundly divided on many things, and yet at the same time there are links through diocesan and provincial partnerships. The more we are engaged in these works of mission, carrying in word and action the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world that is more and more in need of Him, the more we find ourselves regarding those with whom we disagree as fellow Christians, who may be wrong but with whom we are called to live, whose love we receive and to whom we owe such love.

Here in the Diocese of Indianapolis, we see that in our tri-party covenant with the dioceses of Bor and Brasilia. Bor in particular is no on board with us when it comes to ordaining women or considering gay people as full participants in the church. Yet we pray for each other and engage in joint mission.

In the national church, this may be embodied in no better way that Episcopal Relief and Development, which provides domestic support through disaster response, and international support through health, sanitation and economic development projects. The Episcopal Church's approach is notable in that we stay for the long term. A project to provide millions of mosquito nets to Africa to prevent malaria has lasted five years. And on disaster recovery, the church remains long after the cameras leave: I worked with the Episcopal Church in New Orleans 2 years after Katrina, and in Galveston a year after Ike, when many other relief agencies had already left.

These projects require dollars and hands, and neither the helpers nor those helped care whether the dollars or hands are liberal or conservative. A focus on mission can help us remain in conversation. We need not agree with each other to advance God's kingdom.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Unbaptized person eats entire loaf of consecrated Hawaiian King Bread, Llives

Early in my life as a believer, I attended two churches in Bloomington: Trinity Episcopal Church, and the now defunct ecumenical Center for University Ministry. The Center for University Ministry, which I started attending first, had communion once a month and practiced an open table, that is, not requiring a worshiper to be baptized before receiving communion.

At Trinity, the bulletin stated that communion was open to all baptized Christians. I clearly didn't meet that standard, so I did not take communion. My preparation for baptism included an explanation of the theology of baptism and the sacraments in the Episcopal Church. I never felt excluded.

I even considered not taking communion at the Center for University ministry. Instead, I ended up taking more of it. As I learned about the concept of the real presence of Christ in communion, I became increasingly troubled by the fact that whatever was left over of the bread at the Center for University Ministry ended up in the trash can.

Presbyterians have their own view about what communion is and isn't, I'm sure, but both then and now it offended by sensibilities that we adopted an item for a sacred purpose only to throw it away. So on the Sundays we had communion, I would volunteer to clean up afterwards, and sit in the church kitchen eating sometimes three-quarters of a loaf of Hawaiian King Bread. As an unbaptized person, did I do the right thing? I think so.

I find it hard to get too worked up about the communion without baptism debate in the Episcopal Church. Despite my experience, I tend to be a traditionalist. Our existing sacramental theology on these matters makes a lot of sense to me, and I see no need to change it. But I also know that The grace of God found in the sacraments isn't bound by our canons. Some rules are just made to be broken sometimes. I think this is one of them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Uh oh. Acts 8 isn't perfect.

Elizabeth Kaeton posts a critique of Acts 8 worth reading (read the whole thing here):

I'm not sure I understand it all, but that's the nature of other people's dreams. It doesn't always make sense to other people. What's important is that it makes sense to the dreamer.

What was interesting - and, admittedly very distressing - to me was that, while the age and gender demographic varied, the race, class and educational status didn't. Indeed, everyone - except for one person - was Caucasian, well educated, and middle class.

That one young woman said, "I dream of a church where I’m not one of two (African Americans) in a room.” Amen. And, include Hispanics, First People, Aboriginals, Pacific Islanders, etc., etc., etc.

It's important to dream dreams. Dreams are one of the favorite haunts of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, that's what an Acts 8 movement is all about. To allow the work of the Holy Spirit to be done and not playing into the negative, destructive bickering over structure and money which seems to have been the set up of the conversation initiated by the institutional church.

Again, I have to ask: Where's the content? What do these dreams look like in reality? The promise is that the organizers of Acts 8 are going to initiate another gathering to talk about how to transform the church and make our dreams become a reality. Probably two days before General Convention ends.

Then she backs up her challenge with action:

And thus it came to pass that, at 10 AM this very morning, my friend was baptized as the newest member in the Household of God in the Fountain between the Hyatt and the Westin in Indianapolis, IN.

So was I a fool for being there? Was it just, as one blog comment suggested, just "an AA meeting that could break into kumbaya next"? (I would remind the commenter to take care, because AA and related ministries are among the few ways our buildings contribute to external mission).

Kaeton's critique is correct insofar as Acts 8 is dissatisfying as a source for a legislative agenda. And in a single meeting, it's not even fully satisfying as something I can take back to my parish. But that's why we committed to getting together again on July 11. Who cares if it's 2 days before the end of convention? As a General Convention participant with neither vote nor voice (beyond what little I can manage out here in the blogosphere or on twitter), I can't get too worked up about its legislative meaning. I'm much more interested in parish renewal.

But Elizabeth Kaeton, I need something from you. You have an amazing excused absence from the community Eucharist this morning. I'm ready to move on to a less self-involved Christianity. I dream of a church where experienced hands can show young lay leaders the way.

Why the budget matters, part 2: iambic pentameter edition

So the budget committee has affirmed that on the income side of things, it will continue with the 19% ask. So much for this.

A hearing on the spending side of the equation was held tonight at 7:30. I was torn between this and the same sex blessing hearing starting tonight at 7:00, but ultimately dinner with my friend John won out. Sometimes friendship and a shared history win out over the machinations of church procedure. Imagine that. See The Lead to find out what happened. I have no idea.

A phrase from Psalm 4 has been rattling around in my head the last few days: "More than when grain and wine and oil increase." if it sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it's in the service of compline. I like it because it has a nice rhythm to it (it fits without too much forcing into iambic pentameter), lending itself to calming repetition. Also because it's a weird phrase - what's it about anyway?

The full phrase is: "You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase."

In an agrarian society, abundant grain and oil signify security and prosperity. Abundant wine can be viewed as either a blessing or a curse, depending in your predilections, but suffice to say that all three items indicate a closeness to the land that we seldom feel today.

I seldom quote Leviticus, but I looked at it today as I was considering the question of financial stewardship in the national church. Because let's be real: "grain and wine and oil" sounds poetic and has a nice rhythm what with it's evenly stressed syllables and all. But what do we care today? What would fill us with equivalent gladness? May I suggest cash money $$$?

So let's check Leviticus 23:9-11:

The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.

In other words, you make a sacrificial gift of the first fruits of your fields in honor of God who made it possible, without certainty of the rest of the harvest (you could always be hit by a hailstorm the next day and be totally screwed).

And actually, as Leviticus would have it, you would have no claim to your sacrifice come the hailstorm, and worse, even a generous priest couldn't give it back to you. Here's Leviticus 22:10-13:

No lay person shall eat of the sacred donations. No bound or hired servant of the priest shall eat of the sacred donations, but if a priest acquires someone by purchase, the person may eat of hem; and those in his house may eat of his food. If a priest's daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the offering of the sacred donations; but if a priest's daughter is widowed or divorced, without offspring, and returns to her father's house,as of youth, she may eat of her father's food. No lay person shall eat of it.

Here's the good news: if the last few decades of battles in he church have taught us anything, it's this: Jesus calls us to be better than Leviticus. The church takes our first fruits (mostly) in the form of cash money $$$, preferably but infrequently (according to the data) at the level of about 10% of our salaries.

The church of Jesus Christ, as opposed to the religion reflected in Leviticus, is aimed at the material and spiritual benefit of outsiders. Namely those who have not been baptized, those who have not entered our walls, those who have not heard of the good work we do and the good news we offer, or those disenchanted former believers whom we have failed. Our budget is called to emphasize a use of believers' sacrifice to reach those outside ourselves.

So I encourage the Program, Budget, and Finance Committee to look hard at the expenditures they recommend, seeking not to please constituencies, so much as please God.

The Levitical budget committees mandated giving the required 10th to God in the fire, and giving the rest to the priests. Psalm 51 tells us the God doesn't want our stinking burnt offering. He can feed himself just fine, thank you. We must deal with the pragmatic realities of funding what is actually needed to keep the ship afloat. But first, not last, we should determine who God calls us to serve, and what resources we will use to serve them. We should ask ourselves how we would deal with dollar bills if they were instead sheaves of wheat or jars of oil. With our grain, and wine, and oil, do we hire a development staff to get yet more, or having met our own needs, do we give it away in faith?

Friday, July 6, 2012

I Dream of a Church that...

Our church is notorious for defending itself from the charge that we don't know anything about the Bible by observing that major portions of the Book of Common Prayer are lifted directly from the Bible. That defense is true, by the way, and I always enjoy the startle of recognition when I run across a familiar phrase in the Bible.

But the scale of the mismatch is dramatic. Episcopalians often have vast portions of the prayer book memorized, but I'd venture to guess there's not a hafiz among us. And my good buddy Pastor Amy, whose pew I almost always sit in front of at mass because her great singing makes me think that mine is good as well, remarks not infrequently about the lack of Bibles in our pews. Not surprisingly, she's a former Baptist. She also has a point.

So it was a little unusual that the Acts 8 Moment gathering last night began with a Bible study. In this case, we used the method Grace Church Chicago uses at their Wednesday noon eucharists, reading the passage aloud multiple times, then doing an informal reflection on it together. In this case it was (surprise!), a selection from the eighth chapter of Acts:

That  day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the workd. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying out with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
It doesn't take much imagination to see the parallels between the first part of this passage and the issues facing the Episcopal church. Until the last couple of decades we were an establishment church with a headquarters in the center of power of our day. Today, we're aging and shrinking. We used to command a cultural influence disproportionate to our size. It is no longer clear that is the case.

The detail of the apostles staying in Jerusalem while everyone else scatters is all too easy to dwell on. After all, bishops today are seen as the spiritual descendants of the apostles. And in the face of a changing environment in Jerusalem, the apostles were unable or unwilling to adapt. At a place like General Convention, with its often low-stakes politics in a high-stakes environment, the temptation to blame can be irresistible. Just check the #gc77 hashtag on Twitter to see the snark directed at just about everyone.

Leave that aside. The cool part of this passage is that while church leaders dithered at 815...ahem, I mean, while the apostles buried their murdered brother Stephen in Jerusalem amid the ruins of the nascent church, the followers went out to the surrounding areas, not griping about how their dream was ruined, but proclaiming Jesus as messiah, and sharing news so good that the possessed were freed, and the sick were healed. And they did it on their own, not waiting for orders.

As one person at the gathering pointed out, this passage specifies that there was shrieking and who knows what manner of craziness going on in Samaria while this was happening. The people involved might have looked a little nuts.

What's clear from interpreting the current situation of the Episcopal Church through the lens of this package is that to a certain extent, what happens at General Convention doesn't matter to us today. Ask yourself what could possibly happen at this convention that would reverse the trends facing the church. Not much. I'm pounding the table for a decent budget at both the diocesan and national level. A well allocated budget can help us express our mission writ large. But ultimately misallocated resources at this level are mostly a drag on what happens at the parish level, not the root cause of the church's problems.

The legislation on the table this week regarding transgender inclusion, a repudiation of the odious doctrine of discovery, and authorizing same-sex blessings are all good things as far as they go. But the resolutions in question have no practical effect unless congregations take them seriously. Besides, two of the three can be accomplished without authorization from the convention at the discretion of the parish, and on the third (same-sex blessings), these have been occuring in defiance of, with the tacit approval of, or without the knowledge of bishops for decades.

If we're waiting around for General Convention to save us, we better get a comfortable chair (I like obscenely large sectional sofas). Alternatively, General Convention be damned, we can start doing this stuff ourselves. Watch the video below and hear the dreams of the church. Then list the ones that require the General Convention or your diocesan bishop, hell, even your rector, to make it happen. Trust me, it'll be a short list.

[As a final note...I've been harder on bishops in this post than they deserve. First, I counted four of them at the Acts 8 gathering last night. Second, I frame things this way in service of the larger point that lay people don't need to wait around for anyone. Bishops connect us back to the historical touch of Jesus, true, but that purple shirt doesn't make them the boss of us.]

Bishop Gene Robinson speaks, part 2 - the Confusing News

Confusion, Bishop Robinson told us speaking on the exhibition hall floor today, is a gift. Compared to previous General Conventions, this one is pretty light on hot button sexuality issues. Robinson notes that the authorization of a rite for same-sex blessings, the item at this convention likely to attract the most outside media attention, is regarded as a done deal even among the most conservative bishops in the church. Not sure when the vote is scheduled, but it's coming up.

Instead, at this convention we are dialing the temperature down and listening more to each other. The discussion of full transgender equality happening at this convention opens up a perhaps more detailed storytelling than has been required to discuss gay/straight issues.

That's where the confusion comes in. Though transgender people are the T in GLBT, for gay people generally have as steep a learning curve when it comes to fully welcoming trans people as straight people do. In the popular imagination, transgender conjures the notion of a person who desires gender reassignment surgery. And indeed that does reflect a portion of the transgender community. But transgender expression knows many forms, and defies easy categorization. It is confusing.

The confusion about transgender identity is a blessing because fully welcoming trans people requires truly listening to each individual's experience. Bishop Robinson used a young person in the audience who identifies as a gay trans man as an example of a person whose story needs to be fully heard. I agree. After all, I'm not fully certain I can tell you what identifying as a gay trans man means.

In fostering confusion, transgender people who long to be full participants in the church offer all of us a gift. Intentional welcome involves intentional listening. That is a transferable skill, something that can more fully enable us to welcome anyone who walks through our doors.

Bishop Gene Robinson Speaks, part 1 - the bad news

Speaking on the exhibition hall floor, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire reports that the House of Bishops is stripping nearly every resolution directing the budget committee (PB&F is the jargon if you're following this on Twitter) to fund something of that language requiring the the committee allocate funding. The effect of this action is to strip any resolution expressing the will of the church of teeth when it comes to actually providing resources.

To be fair, there is a legitimate tension here. The bishops see themselves as the adults in the room when it comes to budgeting. After all, the people proposing these resolutions aren't summing them all up to see if they're reasonable taken as a whole, given the resources available to the church. I don't necessarily see anything nefarious in the bishops' actions.

At the same time, this defangs the House of Deputies when it comes to exerting influence over the budget process, creating disproportionate power for both the budget committee and the bishops.

In my more volatile moods, I wonder if the HoD should just vote down any budget that fails to make a reasonable attempt to address the mission priorities it has expressed. The Act 8 Moment frankly acknowledges that nobody in the wider culture would notice if the Church Center were to shut down due to lack of a budget. For that matter, with the exception of very worthy ministries like Episcopal Relief and Development and the Navajoland Mission, probably nobody else in the church would notice much either.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Canned goods at Tiffany, or, How to Raise Half a Ton of Food in Your Jewelry Store

I ended up running into a variety of folks from St. Timothy's church on the south side of Indianapolis today. St. Timothy's is one of those parishes that has at times been on the edge, much like my beloved All Saints.

To a person, they all said to me how they responded to their financial difficulties by becoming more outward looking and focusing on the needs of their community. St. Timothy's is located in one of those areas where if you just drove through, you wouldn't really think there'd be a need for a food pantry. But as is increasingly the case in suburban America, hunger is a real issue, and St. Timothy's has found demand for their outreach ministries, serving 102 families totalling 270 people in May.

And parishioners are using this ministry to get the word out about their church. I spoke with Judy Champa, who was volunteering at the information desk today. She and her husband own Heirloom Classics, a bead and jewelry store in the Fountain Square neighborhood. To stock the pantry, she puts on a contest where her customers can vote for their favorite custom jewelry creation. But the ballots take the form of canned goods.

Over the two years Judy's been doing this, she's brought in 1,682 pounds of food to feed her community. Judy characterized St. Timothy's as a parish full of pit bulls. Sounds like these pit bulls have read Acts 8.

Why zeroing out the budget template is a good idea

Episcopal News Service reports that the budget committee (known as PBF in other sources, but I'm trying to avoid insider terms) will use the Presiding Bishop's alternative budget as its template. This is welcome news, since the appearance, if not the substance, of the alternative budget is much more mission-oriented. And if there's anything our church is called to be, it's mission oriented.

There is some minor controversy over whether the line items in the template should be zeroed out or not. From the Episcopal News Service report (read the whole thing here):

But, cautioned Diocese of Maine Bishop Steve Lane, PBF vice chair, “when the template comes, it’s not going to be full of zeroes; it’s going to have line items in it and then you are going to decide about those.”

“We’re not picking a budget, we’re picking a starting point,” said PBF member Steve Smith, a deputy from Vermont.

However, the Rev. Canon Mally Lloyd, Massachusetts deputy, called for the template to be zeroed out because using the numbers from either budget “gives too much weight to that particular budget.”

Lane said zeroing out the numbers in each line item or either budget would greatly increase the work of the committee’s subsections that will work in detail on different sections of the budget “rather than looking at it and making adjustments.”

Not zeroing out the budget is a terrible idea. In my professional life, I'm an investment analyst. My colleagues and I have been spending quite a bit of time over the last few years studying behavioral finance, specifically the psychological biases people bring with them when they look at numbers. The specific one I'm worried about here is anchoring.

Here's what I'm talking about (from youarenotsosmart.com)

In 1974, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a study asking a similar question.

They asked people to estimate how many African countries were part of the United Nations, but first they spun a wheel of fortune.

The wheel was painted with numbers from 0 to 100, but rigged to always land on 10 or 65. When the arrow stopped spinning, they asked the person in the experiment to say if they believed the percentage of countries was higher or lower than the number on the wheel.

They then asked people to estimate what they thought the actual percentage of nations was.

They found people who landed on 10 in the first half of the experiment guessed around 25 percent of Africa was part of the U.N. Those who landed on 65 said around 45 percent.

They had been locked in place by the anchoring effect.

The trick here is no one really knew what the answer was. They had to guess, yet it didn’t feel like a guess. As far as they knew, the wheel was a random number generator, but it produced something concrete to work from.

When they adjusted their estimates, they couldn’t avoid the anchor.

In other words, not zeroing out the budget line items will cause committee members to adjust line items higher or lower without considering whether the starting numbers make any sense at all. The probability is therefore high that we wind up with some moderate adjustment to the Presiding Bishop's budget, not the visionary document many of us are (perhaps unreasonably) hoping for.

So the budget line items committee members see on their templates may or may not be zeroed out. But the good news is that is takes nothing more powerful than a Sharpie or the delete key in Excel for them to zero it out themselves.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

More Things to Like about General Convention

When I was 13, Barbara Harris was the first woman to be consecrated a Bishop in the Anglican Communion. I didn't know anything about the Episcopal Church at the time, but judging from the fact that Bishop Harris was advised to wear a bulletproof vest at her consecration, I'm guessing it was a big deal. In any event, it's hard to believe it was only 23 years ago that this sign would simply have read "Bishops' Wives' Room".

Swag from Episcopal Relief and Development. The collapsible water cup is to remind you of their work in water delivery. The things that look like pens are actually hand sanitizers, representing their sanitation projects.

Episcopal Relief & Development is one of the best faces of the national church, and as much as I may be critical of many elements of the National Church, this is one of our treasures. They do extensive development work throughout the world, and have been involved in disaster relief in Haiti, New Orleans, Galveston, and most recently, Henryville, Indiana.

Why the budget matters, part 1

The national church (we're not supposed to call it that, but the alternative is to use insider terms like DFMS or 815, which is contrary to what I'm trying to accomplish here) derives its income from two sources: a draw from its endowment, and an ask from each diocese. The current ask is 19% of operating income. In unkind moments, some people might refer to the ask as a tax.

There are moves afoot to reduce the ask to 15%, though it is far too early to say how successful they will be. Read more about that here.

I want to focus for a moment on why you should care about a 4% tax cut. Like non-profits of all stripes, the budget of the Diocese of Indianapolis is under pressure. A draft 2013 budget was recently released, and in order to balance it, the current proposal countenances cutting support for the diocese's community ministries, things like a shelter for homeless families with children, an an AIDS service center, and other services, by approximately 2/3, or $100,000. I happen to think we're misplacing priorities here, but that's a discussion for another time.

For the Diocese of Indianapolis, the difference between a 19% ask and a 15% ask is approximately $150,000. Changing the ask wouldn't solve all of our diocese's financial issues by a long shot (Indianapolis is one of the most solvent dioceses, by the way), but it would make it easier for us to continue to provide support for homeless children and people living with AIDS. These are some of the most valuable things we as a church do. A reduced ask helps us focus on local ministry.

What the print shop is about

I worked in the print shop at the last General Convention, in Anaheim. While it lacks the dramatic potential of working as a page in the House of Deputies (interesting and entertaining) or House of Bishops (better for those who enjoy the subtle pleasures of parliamentary maneuvering), it has the satisfaction of producing a product and delivering it everywhere it needs to go.

And stuff has to go everywhere. The Episcopal Church has a bicameral legislature, and all legislation needs to be approved by both houses, so all 852 deputies, 175 bishops, 250 alternates, translators, and various staff with mysterious names get a copy of everything that gets printed. And we in the print shop deliver it, meaning we get cameo appearances in every part of the convention, and often get to go backstage. In Anaheim, the print shop was on the second floor while many of the deliveries were on the first floor. We got to use the freight elevators a lot. I love freight elevators. We're on the ground floor in Indy, sadly.

Being in the print shop gives you no special insight into the status of legislation. When a job comes in, it's all hands on deck to get it out as fast as possible. For us the important thing about a document is not what it is, but what color it is and how many pages it has. This morning we delivered a 9-page white document and a 19-page blue document. The first page of the white document involved AIDS ministries; the first page of the blue document involved the Revised Common Lectionary This afternoon we will deliver a yellow document and a white document. I don't know how many pages they have.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Things I Like About Episcopalooza

Things don't really get started till tomorrow, really not even till Thursday. This afternoon I was working in the print shop, which is where I'll be spending a lot of my time over the next week. It was slow.

So to start, I'm just going to post some things that caught my eye today.

Retro-cool document delivery.

Attention to detail making sure everyone feels welcome.

Introduction and Statement of Faith

Since I'm about the spam the newsfeeds of all the friends the Facebook algorithm sees fit with my comments from General Convention, it only seems fair that I say something about why this matters so much to me. To that end, four things are relevant: 1) why I'm a Christian; 2) why I belong to a church; 3) why I belong to an Episcopal church, 4) why the General Convention matters.

Why I'm a Christian

I was not raised in a particularly religious household. We were culturally Christian to the extent that we celebrated Christmas. At times we were faintly Quaker. But I was mostly atheist, sometimes emphatically so. My mother recalls me starting a conversation with my grandfather, a Lutheran minister, with the phrase, "If God exists...". I have no specific memory of that, but it's in character.

My atheism was pretty much intact until my junior year in college. My boyfriend, John, and I had driven from Indiana to Washington, DC for the final display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Among the events that weekend was a candlelight march from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Fred Phelps and his crew were stationed along the route. As we passed their contingent with the "God hates fags", etc. signs, I suddenly, intensely felt the love of God. It's hard to explain that experience, other than to say something broke into me, and I knew who it was.

I had never been able to make sense of Easter. As far as I was concerned, Jesus rising from the tomb held no more meaning than legions of monsters' surprise returns at the end of a horror movie. But I saw in his death and resurrection a reflection of my experience of coming out, still quite a fresh thing at that time in my life. For me coming out was not so much revealing myself as being made new. And I saw that in the resurrection, too.

In other words, I'm not a Christian despite being gay. I'm a Christian because I am gay.

Why I belong to a Church

In the beginning my motivations were simple. I needed someone to talk to about this. John was a sympathetic ear. He was a Catholic, with a somewhat specific obsession with the Latin mass. But we were both 20 or so. I was looking for a little more authority. I ended up finding that in two churches. I'll get to that later.

Over time my understanding has changed. As a new Christian, church was a resource to be able to put some words around what was going on. But why keep going? After you get the basics of the faith down, aren't you done?

It is hard to be a Christian alone. I was baptized in 1997, but from 2002-2005, I left the church. My career had gotten increasingly busy, I was doing night school to get my masters degree, and church was the thing to go. I didn't lose my faith, precisely, but it atrophied through inattention. I learned through this experience that with the rare exceptions of desert hermits and anchorites historically, and maybe the Carthusians today, we need each other to feed a spiritual life.

And finally we Christians need to do things together. We are told that the kingdom of God is near. The Revelation to John, despite its reputation as an account of the destruction of the earth, makes explicit near its conclusion that it is a renewal of the earth. The account in Revelation shows the descent of heaven to earth more or less as a deus ex machina event. But in the letter to the Hebrews we're told that we, the church, are the body of Christ. So if we're waiting around for God in heaven to fix things up, we're wasting our time. We might get the odd assist from on high, but God is here on earth in us.

And we have to do it together. Jesus is with us when two or three (or by extrapolation, more) are gathered in his name. Less so when we're alone. To put it another way, random acts of kindness ain't gonna cut it. Collective action is required.

That's why I belong to a church.

Why I Belong to the Episcopal Church

The Catholic church was a non-starter. The Quaker meeting in Bloomington was friendly, but I found it difficult to fit in there. I ended up really liking an ecumenical campus ministry. The ecumenical ministry was everything I could want. It had good music, a friendly congregation, and a freedom of inquiry that appealed to me. It was a model of a church accessible to newcomers.

By contrast the Episcopal Church in town was dark, had lurid blue carpet, multiple texts to juggle, people crossing themselves (which I'd never seen outside the Catholic church), and incomprehensible rules about when to stand, sit and kneel. I didn't like it very much my first time. But for some reason I went back. And then I went back again. And again. And again. Something about the ritual appealed to me

For some time I went to the 8am service at Trinity Episcopal Church and the 10am service at the Center for University Ministry. I don't really remember how it came up, but at some point one of my linguistics professors pointed out to me that the Episcopal church is one of only two churches named after its form of governance. Presbyterians are named after their governance by presbyteries (I'll confess to not being entirely certain what those are); Episcopalians are named after our governance by bishops.

I am generally quite cavelier about bishops. They are exactly like you and me. But in the Episcopal church as in the Catholic church and some other traditions, we have this concept called Apostolic Succession. Fancy words, but what it means is that Jesus laid his hands on his disciples in conferring their work in ministry, and then those disciples laid their hands on a next generation, and so continued passing the touch of Jesus down to our bishops today. There is something reassuring in that touch passed through time, ineffable but invaluable.

At the same time, the Episcopal church allows me to believe that the Apostolic Succession is valuable, there is a power-sharing arrangement between clergy and laity. In other words, bishops can confer the sacred touch of Jesus, and I can also still think they're wrong sometimes. Incidentally, bishops can think I'm wrong, too (and often, they're right).

I could go into lots of other details, but this is the basic character of the Episcopal church that I love: we can simultaneously hold both the mysterious blessings by which we're connected to Jesus without conflating the person who confers those blessings with Jesus himself.

Why General Convention Matters

Sometimes obviously important stuff happens at General Convention (or Episcopalooza, as my friend Amy lovingly calls it). This stuff about women in the clergy, or the role of gay people in the church, or name your hot-button issue, that all really matters. Some of these have been key issues in either drawing people to or pushing them from the Episcopal church.

We're not really dealing with any of those topics in a big way this year. There's a vote that will come up on same-sex unions that will probably get some attention, but that's not the big issue this time.

No, this year we're dealing with the wonky stuff of budgets and structure. And this is really important, because this goes back to my point about why I need to be in a church. There are some things we can only do together. Parishes and dioceses can take on projects of a certain size, but when it comes to really big stuff, well maybe it takes your whole damn denomination to do it.

Except that if you look at our budget today (as a national church, or to some extent the Diocese of Indianapolis), it looks more like we're trying to support a bureaucracy rather than the mission Jesus lays before us. And it's a big issue this year because the economy and the markets and demographics have not been kind. These realities are forcing us to change priorities. At the moment the instinct is to preserve the status quo, only a little less of it by making cuts to the budget.

But there's another way to look at this. "See, I am doing a new thing," says God to the prophet Isaiah. We can look at the numbers and be scared or look at the numbers and see a nudge from God.

That's why I'm excited about General Convention. Our resources are no longer sufficient to support the structure we have. So the old is being made new. Our church may not be on its best behavior over the next few days, because we're going to be arguing over money.

But we'll also be praying together every single day, celebrating communion in that weird ceremony where we say that bread and wine are actually as good as Jesus himself. So I have faith that as difficult as things might get, Jesus is with us as we work through this stuff. In my own small way, working in the convention print shop, I get to be part of that.