New Wine, New Wineskins

You may be aware that there is a working group, under the leadership of Diocesan Chancellor Kevin Babb, trying to rather thoroughly rewrite the canons of the Diocese of Springfield. This is in follow-up to their effort in the months prior to last October’s annual synod to revise our constitution. Their proposed draft, with some minor tweaks from the floor, was approved on first reading last year in Jacksonville last year and will be taken up again for a second reading, and definitive action, later this year when we gather in Edwardsville. So, less than a year from now, there is a good chance that we will be operating on an entirely new set of constitution and canons.

The working group, representing a broad cross-section of laity and clergy in the diocese, is laboring with great dedication. It is a demanding task. What I have asked them to do, with respect to both the constitution and the canons, is to not simply make piecemeal changes to what we already have, but to start–mentally, at least–from scratch, and use as a reference point the mission strategy vision that has resourced virtually all of our programmatic efforts for nearly the last five years:

The Diocese of Springfield in one church, organized for mission into geographic parishes, manifested in eucharistic communities and communities-in-formation, with a goal of being concretely incarnate in all of the 60 counties of central and southern Illinois.

This is an audacious vision, and from a purely human perspective, actually quite impossible. But I believe that God never calls his people to work for which he does not also provide the resources, so if this is really a “God thing,” it will happen. But it will not happen by our holding onto business-as-usual. The first, and possibly the biggest, challenge that we face is not financial or technical, but mental. We are accustomed to asking questions like, What can we do to make St Swithun’s more attractive to visitors and newcomers? How can we improve our facilities, or change our worship or other parish programs, or strengthen our publicity, so as to entice and persuade “them … out there” to come through our doors on Sunday morning and become part of “us … in here.” That is a strategy that may have been appropriate in an era when not everybody went to church, but most everybody had a particular church that they didn’t go to, an era when most people in our culture had at least a fuzzy understanding of what Christianity is about.

We no longer live in that world. So we need to change our attitude to one of “us in here” going to “them out there,” alongside them in their world, on their turf, and earning the privilege of talking to them about Jesus, and inviting them to baptism and discipleship … and at the end of the process, including them in our eucharistic community (or, better yet, working with them to start a new one). This is a huge mental shift for Episcopalians. It is not something we have any idea how to do. There are no “best practices” to guide us.

We need to change a great many things about our behavior in order to engage this work. But I would suggest that the “one thing needful” as we are still pretty much at the beginning of this journey, is to change the way we talk, the language we use about our life together in the diocese. We can all probably cite experiences in our lives when a change in vocabulary has resulted in a change in thinking, which, in turn, results in a change in behavior. So, in my interactions with the constitution and canons working group, we have devoted a great deal of energy trying to come up with the sort of vocabulary and technical language that can become part of our routine discourse and then have a leavening effect on the ways we think about the work that lies before us as a diocese, and, ultimately, force us to not simply do things right, but to do the right things.

Familiar words like “parish” and “mission” may turn out to carry distinctly different meanings than they currently do. Some expressions like “Eucharistic Community” and “Mission Leadership Team” and “Annual Parish Mission Strategy Report,” which now feel strange and unfamiliar, may become everyday expressions. Some might argue that this is all too complicated and traumatic, and that we should hang on to the familiar terms that have served us in the past, and simply try to change our behavior with respect to the missional challenges that we confront. We could possibly follow that path, and maybe even enjoy some success. But, as Our Lord taught in a parable, new wine deserves new wineskins. Put new wine into old wineskins, and they will burst. Provide new wineskins for the new wine, and both the wine and its containers will mature together. The work in front of us certainly calls for new wine–thinking of ourselves as missionaries rather than guardians of an institution. Are the old wineskins–the technical vocabulary of our present constitution and canons–up to that task? I can’t say with certainty, but my strong suspicion is that we would be best served by selecting new wineskins that are best suited to the new wine. I invite you all to respond with faith and courage.


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