Apparently the United Thank Offering (UTO) / Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) / Executive Council committee to revise the preposed revised version of the previously Executive Council approved bylaws will bring their work to Executive Council meeting in Maryland beginning tomorrow (February 5, 2014). (Did you follow all this?)
The whole thing reminds me of Pong, the first video game our son Matthew and I played many years ago at the Deer Park in Newark, Delaware. In Pong the ball is paddled back and forth, as in ping pong. It was for its day an electronic marvel. Matthew usually won.
In the current PONG battle over the content of the bylaws and memorandum of agreement between the UTO and the DFMS it is unclear just who will win or what winning would look like.
It's not as if one group was enemy to the other. Indeed all the players are convinced Christians of the same religious community (Episcopalians) who love their church enough to care enough to even ping and pong through it all. As with my match with my son, the PONG game now under way is among members of the family.
I have seen what is apparently proposed as the new bylaws. It seems to me they are an improvement on both the previous proposal that emanated primarily from Church Center concerns. I think they may be an improvement on the initial bylaws approved by UTO and Executive Council some two years ago, which I had a hand in crafting. Certainly they are shorter. Perhaps too they are clearer.
On one subject they are particularly clear: UTO is to be understood as an integral part of the machinery of the General Convention / DFMS / Executive Council grab bag of Commissions, Committees, Agencies and Boards (CCAB's) and is therefore in the last analysis a creature of the DFMS and guided by the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.
OK. Got it. Actually that was a primary point of the original bylaws which for the first time specified that UTO was indeed a part of The Episcopal Church.
For some reasons that did not satisfy. I suspect it was unsatisfactory because the definition of what a "board" is in Episcopal Church Canons is a bit unclear as regards the extent of autonomous action it may take in furthering board goals and the board mission. UTO's autonomy in making decisions has been muddled and a concern for years.
There are all sorts of reasons why the UTO's relation to the DFMS and Church Center has been muddled in the past, but at the core those reasons rested on three powerfully difficult problems. (i) Women in The Episcopal Church had until the 1970's a separate and unequal voice in the governance of the Church and at the same time a mighty passion for the Church's missionary life, (ii) laity in the Church (women being I suspect a majority party in the same) continue to have unequal voice in the governance of the Church, and (iii) most funding in TEC relies upon the commitment of laity to the Church's mission, or as now is stated more precisely, to the God's mission for the baptized.
That muddle, in its current incarnation in the PONG match between UTO and DFMS, is about just how The Episcopal Church intends to carry out its response to God's mission, as it understands it.
Is the understanding of God's mission for TEC something guided primarily by insights of the center - the center being the organized staff generally lumped under and paid by the DFMS (including the Presiding Bishop) and General Convention officers, or is it by a wider more defused and horizontal community of organizations and structures (the wide variety of organizations and agencies related to TEC, the dioceses, the seminaries, etc, including UTO?
At the core the issue is about just where mission initiative arises. Who determines just what pertains to God's mission and call to us as Episcopalians? And who really speaks for The Episcopal Church?
I am proud to know the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. They are both faithful and clear in their efforts to speak the mind of the Church in discerning God's mission for The Episcopal Church. They are very good at what they do. But they are not alone.
Indeed without the clarity of work done by CCAB's by General Convention Deputies, by staff people, by Bishops, and independent groups, and, in this case UTO, their work would be impossible.
All of which is to say UTO speaks at various times and places for The Episcopal Church. Often it speaks without words. Indeed, having stood in many buildings in various parts of the Anglican Communion built with monies raised with considerable theological and spiritual purity of heart, as a thanksgiving response. I believe UTO has spoken clearly for The Episcopal Church in ways that belie the distance of women and lay people through the years from the centers of "power" in the Church.
So to return to the revision of the revision of the bylaws. It seems to me it is time to turn from attention to the bylaws and return again to the matter of discerning God's mission for this Church. Bylaws are not a little thing, but they are not the core either.
UTO is about prayer and response. If it is clear about that it cannot go wrong.
If its work is too controlled by leadership from "on high," it will cease to be a voice from the horizon of faith and commitment. If that happens UTO will fade, but in its place there will always be new mission initiative from "the horizon," that is from the mass of prayer and offering of people not at the center of anything. The power of the widow's mite may be mightier than even that of sword or pen.
But I don't believe that UTO will fade. There will continue to be "power struggles," and the continuing demands of fiduciary responsibility and various legal matters to concern leadership. But no one, as far as I know, is opposed having those who pray and offer having a large part in determining the direction of such prayer and offering.
Perhaps it is time to let matters rest a bit. The worry about bylaws can finally be a distraction from attention to mission.
And, perhaps it is time also to be watchful, just in case there are wild beasts lurking about in the wings. Who said attention to mission meant no longer posting guards on the watch tower?
Prayers for Executive Council and its Presiding Officers this week as they work, for the UTO leadership as it seeks to get about its mission, and for all of us who must work at being innocent as doves and wise as serpents.
Being an Episcopalian is not for the faint of heart.