The Episcopal Church 2012: Stewards or Owners?
By Ladson F. Mills
Special to Virtueonline
February 9, 2012
The turf war between Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson over finances and jurisdictional prerogatives should come as a surprise to no one. Decades of arrogant leadership have contributed to the decline now reflected in our budgetary issues. We have finally arrived at a financial crisis where tough decisions can no longer be avoided. Either the Presiding Bishop or Bonnie Anderson will leave the next general convention with her influence greatly diminished. That in itself might be seen as "poetic justice" for the intrusive gadflyism which is the hallmark of their respective tenures but the implication for the wider church is the real concern.
What is fascinating about this latest development is this growing panic not being sounded by conservatives. The decline is now so evident that liberals and revisionists are raising the same alarm. When liberals start picking fights with one another it is time to sit up and take notice.
There was a time when the senior leadership viewed themselves as entrusted servants and stewards of this sacred mystery we call The Church. Being in a position of leadership was considered a godly responsibility and a privilege. Today those in the highest offices of The Episcopal Church act more like owners of a company rather than stewards of the Christian Gospel. Their attitude has resulted in squabbles over territorial rights, superficial jurisdictional issues and the ever present petulant response to perceived personal slights. Bruised egos are a luxury that cannot be afforded in this time of rapid decline. This ownership model provides very little in the way of connection to the Gospel we claim to follow.
In her parting address to the Executive Council budgetary meeting in Maryland last month Anderson quoted from noted writer William Stringfellow that the nature of institutions to save themselves is part of our fallen nature. I gather she is observing that left to its own devices a bureaucracy will always seek to perpetuate itself at the expense of its mission. She is absolutely correct in her assessment that this ownership model is doomed for failure. One need only read between the lines over the past year to see that this message is also being modeled from the very bureaucracy incapable of making the changes needed to save itself.
Although our bishops will not publicly admit it privately many express deep concern for our direction under the current leadership. One may be critical of their caution but given the power of the new Canon Title IV and the presiding bishop's willingness to use litigation funded by the church this concern is understandable. The attempt to create a new school for bishops is based on the recognition that our direction is failing. I have been critical of the fifteen million dollar price tag for this school, especially in our current economic crisis. One must, however concede they are at least attempting to do something.
A twenty eight percent loss in ASA in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and a similar percentage in Virginia is now the norm. The Diocese of Georgia having won its court case to reclaim Christ Church Savannah for the Episcopal Church finds itself in court again seeking claims for control of a disputed endowment fund. Now that the excitement of having won the case has passed the work of paying for it with its diminished congregation may pose for them an even greater challenge.
Father Jonathan Grieser, a priest in the Diocese of Wisconsin, in an article entitled "Why I despair the future of the Episcopal Church" does an excellent job in laying out the issues of concern for the next General Convention. He further exposes the ever widening disconnect between the organization directing our church and the living organism that is supposed to be the visible and tangible Body of Christ in the world. The Episcopal Church was once a shining example for relationships involving differing perspectives but is now the poster child for leadership through intimidation and adjudication. Grieser warns that whether in the area of denominational health plans or same sex unions local congregations will be "left to our own devices, ill prepared and ill-equipped to deal with local consequences of its actions and increasingly curious why so many of us in the church want to have nothing to do with it."
One must wonder in light of our current failed policies why we cannot agree that now is the time to change them. Years of embracing non Christian and unhealthy models have permeated our structure and become so embedded in our corporate mindset that we are incapable of breaking from the practices hastening our demise. As one frustrated revisionist priest confided to me recently; The Episcopal Church has reached the place even when there is general agreement on issues our structure is incapable of addressing a solution.
Several years ago the Presiding Bishop visited the diocese in which I served. Many of the conservative clergy admitted they had a difficult time reconciling the warm engaging person whom they met with the policies coming out of her office. When the genuine decency of people is dwarfed by the system they serve its time to overhaul the way we conduct business.
In his book "Moral Combat" historian Michael Burleigh looks at the moral and ethical sentiments of both individuals and societies during World War II. He notes that Hitler was able to preserve an image during most of the war of being unaware of the excesses and atrocities being committed by the German Government. It was not unusual for the typical German to observe that when these atrocities were brought to Hitler's attention those responsible would be severely punished.
Given the dire situation of the Episcopal Church this type of plausible deniability for us is no longer an option. For the first time in decades revisionists and conservatives agree we are in a mess. The ownership model has failed. Now is the time to return to our call of entrusted stewardship.
The Revd Ladson F. Mills III is a retired priest with over thirty years parish experience who currently lives in South Carolina. He serves as scholar in residence at The Church of Our Saviour, Johns Island