Why Reimaging the Church is so difficult: thinking about Transformation and Transfiguration

The TREC folk, those on the Task Force to Re-Image the Episcopal Church, have put out Study Paper #2, "on Reform to Church Wide Governance and Administration."  

I have read and reread the paper and have come away mostly unmoved.  Why?  I think the members of this Task Force are doing good work, are responsible to their charge and have some good suggestions. I've also got some practical questions and a few tweaks to suggest. But I remain mostly unmoved by even my own response.  

What is going on here? Why is that?

After preaching on the last Sunday after Epiphany I have been mulling over an idea I tried to bring out in the sermon, namely that there is a difference between "transformation" and "transfiguration."  The first concerns becoming, the second being. I think that difference is relevant to the problem I am having with TREC.

I think my dissatisfaction with the whole TREC effort as to do with the difference between (i) the desire to see incremental change in an organization concerned to "most faithfully and effectively proclaim the gospel of Christ and participate in God's mission in our contemporary cultural context" (from the paper)  and (ii) the desire to love the church as the Body of Christ, unconditionally.

Or perhaps another way to put it: the difference is between seeing the Church as ecclesia (gathering or assembly) and Church as koinonia (community, conspiracy or companionship).  

It is almost impossible in a not-yet post-modern conversation to think of reimaging in any but transformational terms. The temptation is to believe that changes in the way the church organizes, does its work, responds to a sense of God's mission for the church, etc, will make it BETTER.  And the temptation exists because on an ecclesial level that is precisely true. Changes, even small incremental ones, can make the church more nimble, responsive, even relevant. 

It is not particularly a progressive agenda, but it is an agenda that suggests that one can progress from one level of engagement with God's mission to another.  Belief in transformation, like belief in reformation, is not assigned solely to one party or another in the churches. 

But on another level TREC and all such efforts cannot make this or any Church any more or any less than it already is - the outer shell of a deeper reality, the reality of God's beloved community, a body of which Christ is the head and we are all members. (This is true even if the members are at war with one another.) Realizing the "full potential" of the church, on this level, is not like participating in transformational exercises. Rather it is like having a transfiguration experience.  

On this second level, what is needed for the life of any particular church, including The Episcopal Church, is for us to see the particular church transfigured.  What is needed is for us to have so clear a vision of God's beloved community that we see God's blinding love shining through all the nonsense of this or that church and know we are in the presence of the holy, and because we are participants in it, holy as well.

Now to be fair it is hard to envision the holy while at the same time re-imaging the church on that transformational level.  But what if we really saw "re-imaging" as a product of our vision, not the church's structure? That is, what if we began by thinking of the church as a person loved, not as an institution used to some other end; as a sacramental entity, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace?  

The Catechism says about the Church:

"The Church is the community of the New Covenant. The Church is described as the Body 
of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members." 

Just to be clear - the Catechism proposes that The Church is not The Episcopal Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the New Hope Missionary Alliance, or the Anglican Church of North America, or any other expression of the church. The Church is understood as a Body.

So TREC is commissioned by this peculiar expression of the Church called The Episcopal Church to re-image itself.  TREC seems to be asking questions as if The Episcopal Church were THE CHURCH, rather than a peculiar visible sign of that inward grace which is life in Christ.

My sense is that TREC is working through a process of reforming and transforming The Episcopal Church, and doing a pretty good job of it.

It is less able, equipped, or interested (perhaps) in taking on a different sort of question, namely, to what extent is The Episcopal Church able to contribute to the whole, to the Body of Christ, so that the Glory we see in the Whole is seen even in this small part.

My disappointment then is that TREC is at work fixing something that it is not sure it loves. It is looking at guts, the machine, the mechanics, and not the Glory. It is operating on the patient, but not so clearly living into a vision.

Well, all that is a bit airy.

Here is how it works out in practice.

In the introductory section, the writers suggest that "structural reform will not save the church or do the work of reaching out to the world in new ways with the transforming good news of the gospel."  The writers have caught the same bug that has infected ACNA, whose banner proclaims, "reaching North America with the transforming love of Jesus Christ." The mission seems to be to transform. 

This is significantly different from the mission defined in the Catechism to "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ."  In one the mission is to restore us to a previous condition, in the other the mission is to transform.  There is a difference, yes?

They then move to General Convention Reforms making a variety of suggested changes, supposedly to make the church better able engaged its transforming mission.  

The big idea that General Convention be jointly an occasion for a seven day legislative session AND a "vibrant, inspiring, mission-driven convocation that connects, builds up, and empowers leaders at all levels for spreading the Gospel in new and innovative ways."

The problem is that the details do not give us any sense that the number of people at a General Convention or the length of time the gathering takes would be reduced. Indeed, under item 3, the writers suggest that "If the primary focus of General Convention is to be a Missionary Convocation that draws people broadly form around the church with less time devoted to legislation, then total participation can increase even as the total number of both legislative houses decreases."

So the argument then is that General Convention should be both a legislative gathering and a Missionary Convocation. Seven days are held for legislation. We might assume that overlaying the Missionary Convocation on this time might mean the seven days are even more packed than they are now and the networking / convocation function meaning that elected deputies and bishops would have to chose to attend legislative sessions (which they are required to attend) rather than engage with other leaders in the convocation functions.  If they do not overlap too seriously does that mean even more time for General Convention.

Having cleaned house, is the last state worse than the first? 

The specific suggestions - limiting legislative resolutions, broadening networking, reducing deputation size, doing some of the business of General Convention prior to the actual meeting of General Convention, reducing the number of legislative committees, reducing the budget assessment to "something closer to the biblical tithe," and having virtual meetings of legislative committees prior to Convention - are of varying merit.  But if General Convention is joined with a missionary convocation, they do not on the face of it imply a less expensive, shorter, or more efficient General Convention.
No where is there a suggestion that a shorter, more streamlined General Convention might be held in some other sequence than every three years, and a separate Missionary Convocation be held in alternate years.  The first, the legislative gathering, might be informed by the second, the missionary convocation, thereby making the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society responsive to wider networking in the church.  

But in any event there is no hint that all this effort might serve to give us a sense of God's glory in our midst. Rather it is all done that we might be better agents of transformation.

The next section, on Executive Council and Church Center Administration, is a can of worms. Various scenarios are presented, most of them as bad as the current setup. 

The most interesting of these is Alternative III, which proposes a General Secretary. That person would be hired, not elected. The General Secretary model serves other Provinces in the Anglican Communion well and it might do so here.  At least it would clear up some of the messiness we have now.

The one concern I have here is that TREC suggests that the Executive Committee of Executive Council be made "stronger and more effective" and that the membership in Executive Council be reduced to 21 persons. 

This is not seen as an either / or proposition. Council could stay the same size or not, but either way TREC apparently believes the Executive Committee needs to be stronger.

Why?  My sense from six years on council was that the introduction of an Executive Committee served primarily to limit access to conversation on crucial issues to a small circle at the expense of general enlightened decision making by the whole council. That is, it became an instrument of control.

I do like the introduction of Task Forces rather than more Committees, standing or otherwise. The Commissions, Committees, Agencies and Boards (CCAB's) of the Church are a confusing mess as it stands.

In the end, the TREC paper says, "We believe...that many of these changes are significant and that together they can start the Church on the path to more effective governance, freeing up time and resources to achieve more substantial change in a next phase of governance and administrative reform." 

TREC has been honest in assessing their efforts this way. These are about incremental reform, and some reform will lead to more reform. Not all the ideas have equal merit, but some are very helpful indeed. The notions of a missionary convocation for the whole church, limits on committees, establishment of Task Forces as a way to do work, all seem helpful. 

I am, however, waiting (perpetually waiting as Lawrence Ferlinghetti would say). I am waiting for something more.  Maybe it is as he said, "I am waiting, perpetually waiting, for a rebirth of wonder."

So, in all this that has come from the good work of TREC,  where is the rebirth of wonder? 

I am often filled with the wonder, beauty and glory, that is the Church - not The Episcopal Church, not this or that particular church - but the Church as an organic living thing whose life stretches back to the beginnings and whose breadth is measured by inclusion of myriad heresies and grand faith represented in all the small clans and tribes within its large embrace. I await the news that The Episcopal Church is seen in a vision to be transfigured by the Grace of God, so that we who see it as it really is, small in size and large of heart, will take heart ourselves, and filled with glory be transfigured too.

Until then transformation will have to do.


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