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.