By Tom Ehrich
I wanted so much to applaud the final report issued yesterday by the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church.
They are good people, they worked hard, and even though they were given an impossible assignment, they seem to have tried for fresh thinking about decline in the Episcopal Church.
As I read the report, I saw glimpses of fresh ideas. But in their actual recommendations, the task force took the easy road: they recommended structural and procedural changes for what are, essentially, not structural or procedural shortcomings. They have answered the wrong question.
In their call for a unicameral General Convention, for example, they raised an interesting model, and by limiting the bishops’ participation to active bishops, they addressed a longstanding sore point.
But I find it difficult to imagine how a more efficient triennial convention could breathe life into the Episcopal Church. Same with their other recommendations for managing national church affairs.
The problem, you see, isn’t organizational structure. Nor is it stated vision, quality of seminary education, or even quality of clergy and episcopal leadership.
The problem, to paraphrase Pogo, is us. We know what to do. We know how to do it. Or we can learn. I can diagram a church-revitalization strategy on a cocktail napkin. But that strategy always comes down to what people in our churches are willing to do. And that is where it founders.
At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, here are three issues the task force either didn’t see or didn’t have the heart to name.
We focus on Sunday worship. Or we give up on Sunday worship and focus on something else, like mission work or Sunday evening dinner church. But we focus, we compartmentalize, we say, in effect, that our faith life will be acted out on a small, single-shot platform, disconnected from the rest of our lives.
Episcopalians treasure what we have inherited and feel duty-bound to perpetuate it.
Not only did we inherit facilities, some quite grand, but we inherited an attitude about those facilities that treats space as sacred, rather than functional, and therefore locked into past usage patterns. We also inherited traditions and rituals that we can’t allow ourselves to question no matter how much the needs of the world have changed.
Episcopalians want church to be comfortable.
We work hard in our daily lives. We want church to be a respite. We want to be fed there, encouraged, pastored, stroked, and hugged. We didn’t sign on for political organizing, standing up to our employers, standing apart from our social circles, forging alliances with others seeking liberation.
Those are three issues I see — not in everyone, but in enough of us to notice. There could be other issues. Maybe we are just plain lazy. Maybe we are self-serving. Maybe we are nasty. I don’t think so. But the point remains: the fault lies not in our structures, but in ourselves.
I wish the task force had said, “Folks, our church is a mess because we are a mess. Let’s change our lives.”
Anything else is just kicking the can down the road.
(You can read the task force report here. You can read a seminary dean’s response here.)