Barely more than three weeks from the time I sit down to write this (less than two weeks away for those of you who are seeing this in print form rather than on the web), I will have joined our four lay and four clergy Deputies, as well as Deputies and Bishops from 108 other dioceses, for the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which will take place in Salt Lake City.
While I might be tempted to give you a rundown of the various issues facing this convention, I will let you track the information down on your own. There is a more than adequate number of good sources available online, and I intend to be blogging every day from convention, as has been my custom since I first did so in 2006.
Rather, I would like to take this opportunity to see our church from a more elevated view. What are my hopes–or wishes, perhaps, might actually be more accurate–for the Episcopal Church as we face our future together? I wish we, as the Episcopal Church, would be …
Episcopalians are accustomed to thinking we’re “all that and a bag of chips.” We’re not. We never were, actually, but given how we’ve been represented in the White House and in Congress over the last 200 years, one might be forgiven for coming to such a conclusion. But we still act, corporately, while gathered in General Convention, like we’re a “player,” and pass all manner of resolutions presuming to instruct elected officials on matters of public policy about which there is no consensus even among our own members. I wish we wouldn’t do that. It’s distracting, and adds to an atmosphere of conflict.
I’m also concerned about an apparent rising investment on the part of many in the “brand” of the Episcopal Church, with an implied assumption that God himself is similarly invested. Ironically, this is happening at the same time as there are calls from all directions to become more networked and relational and less monolithic and hierarchical. Yet, there is a growing trend in some dioceses, particularly ones that happen to be contiguous with an entire state, to just drop the word diocese and style themselves “The Episcopal Church in XYZ,” as if they were a mere regional subdivision of something like “TEC, Inc.” As a matter of history and theology, however, the dioceses are not creatures of the “national church,” but, rather the other way around–General Convention is a creature of the several dioceses. That this is even a controverted point–and it is–is in itself remarkable.
The Episcopal Church is not special. It is not essential to the future of Christianity. To the extent that we are Anglican, the only thing unique about us is that there is nothing unique about us. A while ago, there was a book written by one of my colleague bishops entitled Unabashedly Episcopalian. That expression makes me uncomfortable. I would rather be unabashedly Christian and modestly Episcopalian. It’s not all about us.
Along with pride (that is, inadequate humility) comes a tendency for communities to lose their sense of identity and their awareness of the larger context in which they operate. When the Episcopal Church invented itself in the 1780s, it chose, very deliberately, to … well, not invent itself. We saw ourselves not as something created out of whole cloth, but as a continuation of the presence of the Church of England, only under drastically changed secular political circumstances. We may be constitutionally and canonically self-referential, but we are morally accountable to something that came before us. And the Church of England itself was not simply confected in 1532, or whenever, but has always seen itself as the continuation into time of the ancient Catholic Church in the British Isles. We don’t make up the faith; we don’t make up the gospel. We receive what has been handed along to us, and we practice that faith in such a way that we pass it along to succeeding generations.
I fear that many Episcopalians have become unmindful of that facet of our identity. As we respond to the rapidly changing social context in which we find ourselves, we tend not to think theologically and be informed by our historic Catholic identity. Rather, we default to patterns of behavior that are driven by feelings, passions, and ordered by the realm of politics. We run the risk of falling into collective amnesia.
I don’t mean evangelical–not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not what I mean here–but that our primary obsession, after worshiping the Holy Trinity in spirit and in truth, is the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ and the making of disciples who make disciples. There’s no shortage of talk these days in Episcopal circles about mission. But I’m afraid there’s a great deal of confusion about what mission actually is.
The Church’s presence in society should “make the world a better place” (hungry fed, sick cared for, naked clothed, prisoners visited), but making the world a better place is not the Church’s mission. The influence of the Church should result in a more just society, but building a just society is not the Church’s mission. The practice of Christian faith and the experience of Christian community should make people feel better about themselves, but the mission of the Church is not to make people feel better about themselves.
The mission of the Church is reconciliation … in Christ. Reconciliation of all people with God … in Christ … and reconciliation of all people with one another … in Christ. St Paul puts it this way in writing to the Ephesians: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (Eph. 2:14-16) If we are not busy calling all people everywhere–starting with those among whom we live, among whom our churches are placed–to repentance, faith, baptism, eucharist, and discipleship, then we are not doing our job, we are not fulfilling our mission. It we are doing those things, we are being faithful to the mission God has given us. It’s just that simple.
Until the Episcopal Church gets institutionally clear about that, we will continue to squander resources, quarrel amongst ourselves, and wander aimlessly in a society in which we are exponentially less relevant by the second.
I look forward to talking with you about these things as I visit throughout the diocese. And I will doubtless have more to say on the other side of convention.