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Every March and every September, the bishops of the Episcopal Church (virtually all the active ones, and a few of the retired ones, at any rate) gather for a regular meeting of the House of Bishops. (The September meeting is dispensed with in General Convention years.) Later this month, the House will convene … in Taiwan. I will not be there. It seems appropriate to offer an explanation. Indeed, my colleague bishops and the clergy and faithful of the Diocese of Springfield deserve an explanation.
The Episcopal Church has, since 1835, been coterminous with an entity called the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). Indeed, all Episcopalians are presumed to be members of the DFMS, which is conceptually a very good thing, I would say; the community of the baptized is intrinsically a missionary community. As members of the DFMS, Episcopalians participated in the burgeoning missionary activity from North America and Europe to Africa, Asia, and Latin America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were giants and heroes in those days, and some of them now populate our calendar of saints.
As part of this general missionary effort, Episcopalians were among those who introduced Anglican Christianity in China. After the communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, many Chinese Anglicans escaped to Taiwan, and, in 1954, the Diocese of Taiwan was organized, and admitted into union with General Convention the following year, which felt like a logical move, since they already had so many close ties with Americans. So, even though it is almost completely on the other side of the world, the Diocese of Taiwan remains to this day part of the Episcopal Church. We also have dioceses in Central and South America and in the Caribbean, but these are virtually in the shadow of the Mother Ship. There is also a small convocation of Episcopal churches in Europe, which exist for a variety of historical reasons. But Taiwan is by far a geographic outlier.
The Bishop of Taiwan, the Rt Revd David Lai, invited the House to meet in his diocese, and the Presiding Bishop, presumably in consultation with her Council of Advice, accepted the invitation on behalf of the House. We have known about it for at least the last year and a half. I have attended every meeting of the House since March 2011, the very month of my consecration. I have blogged every day of every meeting, right here at this site. (Indeed, I am acutely aware that this post is the first since the spring meeting six months ago; I hope to remedy that pattern!) I enjoy the camaraderie with other bishops. Valuable things happen at those occasions. Nonetheless, after extended thought and prayer, I made a decision not to attend this Fall 2014 meeting. Here’s why:
It would not be good stewardship of the financial resources of the Diocese of Springfield. I have no doubt that the Treasurer and the Standing Committee and the Diocesan Council would have accepted the news of my intention to attend this meeting with no detectable degree of pushback. It’s not like we’re just too poor for me to go. But it would be considerably more expensive than last year’s Fall meeting, which was in a hotel near the airport in Nashville, and the one three years ago (2012 was a General Convention year), which was in Quito, Ecuador. While we are not presently an impoverished diocese, neither are we a wealthy one. It would feel inappropriately extravagant for me to requisition checks to cover airfare and lodging for me to spend a week in Taiwan at this point in the life of the diocese.
The optics are bad. The Episcopal Church is flourishing in a handful of demographic/geographic pockets. In most places, we are slowly dying, like California nut trees in the midst of the extended drought. Dioceses are downsizing their staffing. At least three dioceses have part-time bishops. The median age of our communicants continues to creep upward. There is real doubt as to whether we will be able to sustain ministry in rural areas very much longer. Our infrastructure at a churchwide level is likely to be significantly smaller following the next General Convention. And now, against such a backdrop, nearly a hundred bishops (some with spouses, but, in any case, considerably fewer than would normally attend a regular meeting) are jetting off to Asia for a meeting that could have been held much, much less expensively in any number of locations, both domestic and foreign. It just doesn’t look good.
It would abet a polemical narrative about the character of the Episcopal Church. “The Episcopal Church,” is, in fact, an alias, a shorthand for the more unwieldy Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The dioceses that originally confederated to form PECUSA were all in areas that were part of the USA. Only a few decades ago, what is now styled the Executive Council was known as the National Council. Despite regular admonitions from certain quarters not to do so, at a local level, Episcopalians still routinely refer to the “national church” in casual parlance. In many of our liturgical forms, we pray regularly for “the President of the United States.” Anglicans in other lands are wont to speak of “the American church” when they actually mean TEC. Of course, because Americans once tended to congregate in expatriate enclaves while living in Europe for business or personal reasons, chapels were established in various countries there. Many of those congregations perdure, and are no longer merely serving expatriates, but include many natives of the countries where they are located. Because of our DFMS efforts, we planted churches in Latin America, Haiti, and the Caribbean. The result is that the Episcopal Church is present in some 26 countries (one of which is Taiwan).
This is not the fruit of some grand missionary strategy; it just happened that way. But lately there has been an effort to make political hay out of happenstance. From at least 2006 (I can’t remember whether it goes back further), the dais in the House of Deputies at General Convention has been decorated with the flags of all 26 countries where TEC has a presence. In conversation at official levels, the use of the expression “national church” is vociferously discouraged. In the same time frame, the conflict level among (and within) the 39 member provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion has risen markedly. TEC has found itself increasingly at odds with provinces representing an overwhelming majority of the world’s Anglicans. I have no direct knowledge of any conspiracy toward this end, but one cannot help but make speculative inferences from the available information, to the effect that there are those who wish to foster a narrative that TEC is indeed, intrinsically and inherently, an “international” church, with the not-quite-implied but deftly suggested corollary that we are somehow thereby less in need of our relationship with the Anglican Communion, that we have the capacity, if circumstances warrant, to become a rival thereto.
As I have said, I have no idea whether there’s someone masterminding the construction of this narrative, but I do know that, whether it’s accidental or intentional, I cannot in good conscience assist in propping it up. One of the ways the Taiwan meeting was “sold” to the House of Bishops was that, by gathering there, we would be shining a light on the international character of our church. I nearly made my decision on the matter in that moment. We are an American church. That we have foreign dioceses in our own hemisphere is testimony to the missionary zeal of our forebears, but the final stage of a responsible missionary strategy is always to spin off such churches as they mature into self-sustainability. We have already done so with Mexico and Brazil, for example. Rather than exploiting our Latin American dioceses for purposes of TEC branding, we should be focusing on helping them reach the point where they can form a new autonomous (but interdependent, of course) Anglican province. The number of flags on the dais should not be a point of boasting, but a source a mild embarrassment that we haven’t done a better job in bringing the missionary cycle to an organic conclusion.
My feelings about missing the meeting are not unalloyed. While I do not relish trans-Pacific air travel in economy class (having once done Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok and back all in a middle seat), I’m sure it would be interesting to see the land, the people, and the church in Taiwan. I will very much miss the interaction with my colleagues, especially my Class of 2011 friends. And I’m facing in the direction of paranoia that, just because I’m not there, something crucial to my interests, or the interests of my diocese, will come up, and my voice will not be heard. There are no doubt those who will judge me pejoratively for not being there, or for the reasons here articulated why I am not there. So there are risks in my decision, and my eyes are open about those risks. Perhaps I err. But, as they say nowadays, it is what it is. I do hope those who attend have a good meeting. I will be holding them in my prayers.
Two years from now, in 2016, God willing, I will have served the Diocese of Springfield for five years, and will therefore be due for a three-month sabbatical, an opportunity to regroup and recharge away from the pressure of the daily demands of ministry. I haven’t made any firm decisions yet, but one possibility I’m looking at very seriously is to spend about half of that time as a pilgrim, walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient and still very well-traveled pilgrimage route that traverses nearly 600 miles across northern Spain.
When I mentioned this to the Standing Committee, which serves as my council of advice, an interesting discussion ensued about the necessity to be very careful about what I take with me, because anything I take I will need to carry on my person for the entire journey. There’s no checking luggage in the morning and having it delivered to wherever a pilgrim is going to spend the next night. Some very critical and difficult decisions need to be made about what items are essential, what is potentially useful, and what is merely frivolous or an indulgence. A pilgrim must travel light.
The metaphor of pilgrimage is deeply rooted in scripture and in the vocabulary of our tradition. The patriarch Abraham became a pilgrim when he answered God’s call to move his household to a far away land, sight unseen. His descendants became pilgrims when they followed Moses from Egypt back to that same land that had been given to Abraham. Centuries later, the exiled Jews living in Babylon set off as pilgrims to reinhabit and rebuild Jerusalem. On the mount of the Transfiguration, our Lord Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah about “his exodus, which he would accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31), and the remainder of Luke’s gospel is, in effect, a travelogue narrating Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Holy City, where he would suffer, die, and rise in glory. Along the way, “the Son of Man [had] no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). He was a pilgrim. He traveled light.
In my study at home hangs a framed print of a painting, something I acquired very cheaply at a flea market in a Mexican border town many years ago. It depicts people from all walks of life–royalty, commoners, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, even a bishop and other clergy–at various points on a road, on a journey. In the distance gleams the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, the image of the Kingdom of God come to fruition, all wrongs put right, all tears wiped away. (For the record, the picture also shows people headed in another direction, but that’s not germane to my present purpose!) One of the strong secondary images associated with the sacrament of Holy Baptism is that it marks the point of one’s embarkation on a pilgrimage that will last the rest of this life and beyond. John Milton’s great seventeenth century poetic saga, The Pilgrim’s Progress, develops this notion. All Christian disciples, individually, are pilgrims, and the Church, collectively, is a pilgrim people.
This is not immediately self-evident to most people, even most Christians. Our primary experience of the Church is of an institution–an institution that is ancient and venerable, an institution that has seen challenges come and go, and remained intact and operational, an institution that is as permanent and stable as the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. Institutions don’t travel, so they don’t have to travel light. They bear within themselves the full accumulated weight of their history–the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Institutions are solid, not easily moved.
When a pilgrim people settles down, its life becomes institutionalized. When Abraham reached Canaan, he stopped travelling, He put down roots and bought property. He became an institution. When the Israelites returned there from Egypt, after wandering for a generation in the Sinai desert, they eventually set up a nation-state, with an institutional hereditary monarchy. When the post-exilic Jews arrived in Jerusalem, they rebuilt the temple and returned that very complex institution to full operational status. When Jesus completed his pilgrimage from Galilee and finally got to Jerusalem, what needed to get accomplished there got accomplished.
So it runs in cycles. There are times when God’s people are called to be on the move, wearing out their sandals and traveling light. There are times when they are called to put down roots, to erect institutional structures that protect them, make their lives secure and fruitful, and become the channels through which God blesses the world. And then there are times when, having grown accustomed to stability, the pilgrim people of God are called to pack up–lightly!–and hit the road toward … wherever God leads.
Would it be presumptuous of me to say that, for the pilgrim people of the Diocese of Springfield, this is one of those times? We are accustomed to stability; indeed, quite attached to stability, and we have a great deal of accumulated detritus that bears testimony to our attachment: church buildings, stained glass windows, historic artifacts, fine musical instruments, lovely vestments, a venerable constitution and set of canons, deaneries led by Very Reverend rural deans, and more. We have our well-defined opinions about what a “proper” church looks like and how the furniture should be arranged. We enjoy the “look and feel” of “church as we know it.”
At the same time, there are about half as many of us as there were a generation ago, and the median age of those who remain is a lot older than it was then. We are a dying breed–not just figuratively, but, in many of our smaller communities, quite literally. The institutional aspects of our common life that once served us very well are not all necessarily very well configured to the new realities. Our buildings are, in many places, not well-suited to these new realities. Many that were once well-located are now poorly-located, and many areas where there was once little or no need for a church are now burgeoning but unserved. Is it a good idea for a worshiping community of a dozen souls to try and sing four or five hymns each week that were written with the setting of an English cathedral in mind? Do our celebrations of the Eucharist shout “God’s people gathered at God’s table,” or do we just proceed with what we think we “should” be doing, as if on autopilot? Why do we persist in thinking and acting as though the solution to all our problems as a church lies in enticing more of “them” (whoever “they” are–the unchurched, the dechurched, the differently-churched) to come through our pretty red doors, rather than “us” camping out on “their” front porches and earning the privilege of introducing them to Jesus?
I’m fairly certain that we’ve reached the point in the cycle when we need to be lightening our institutional load and crowdsourcing ideas for the best walking shoes. I can’t give you a precise catalogue of how this will look in each part of the diocese, and it’s not my place to dictate such things anyway. I do suspect that, over the course, of time, we will let go of more of our buildings. I suspect we will be in locations not presently served, but probably in rented facilities that do not look necessarily “churchy” (I recently visited a parish in the Seattle area that rents space in a business park). A lot of the governance infrastructure of the diocese will be gone with the wind in the next revision of our constitution and canons. In some of our smaller communities, many of the trappings of liturgical grandiosity will be laid aside to make room for worship that is better thought-through and therefore more authentic and vital. Most importantly, we will be much more loosely attached to some of the reassuring physical symbols of stable place and status, enabling us to be more limber and responsive to the world that it is our mission to serve by announcing the good news of God in Jesus Christ.
As your bishop, I am with you in this–with you in grieving the need to let go of much that is comfortably familiar, with you in frustration at the difficulty of sorting that which is essential from that which merely weighs us down, with you in fear at the prospect of rejection and failure, and with you in confidence that God supplies us with every need for the journey of a pilgrim people.