Changing a Church

There's a church meeting in Salt Lake City this week. That probably doesn't surprise you. But it may surprise you to learn that it's not a gathering of Mormons.

Instead it's the every-three-year gathering of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (oh, sorry, #GC78, as it's the 78th such meeting) -- the primary policymaking body in this part of what's left of American mainline Protestantism.


It's a difficult moment, not just for the church but for the nation, and there is much for the delegates to reflect on. Our country's enduring sin of racism has again shed the blood of innocents, even within the sheltering walls of a church. The Supreme Court addressed the right of gay and lesbian people to have access to the institution of marriage, and the rights of all people to have a chance at access to health care. Extreme weather events are putting an exclamation point on the urgency of reversing the human contribution to climate change. Our economy continues to provide enormous rewards to a small number, while posing insecurity and instability to most. The quality of our public discourse has fallen to a level somewhere between cynicism and snark.

Each Sunday I gather with faithful people who pray about these issues, and who look for ways to relate their consciences and commitments to these pressing questions in our public square. But they'll be disappointed if they're expecting the General Convention to focus primarily on these matters. Instead, the largest focus of concern of the gathering seems to be, well, how to organize the church.

Of course, to some extent this can't be avoided. Denominational religion arose in this country alongside the industrial age, and it isn't at all surprising that the resulting structures of these entities look a great deal like the way firms are organized. These structures must naturally attend to their own functioning from time to time. Even Swiss watches have to be cleaned.

But it's fair to question whether the focus on internal matters strikes the right balance -- or offers the best promise of a flourishing future.

Hierarchies have a way of coming to invest resources in preserving the role and responsibilities of the structures they create. Even when they arise from grassroots movements, these structures tend to take a greater and greater share of energy, resources, power and prestige within the movement they seek to guide and lead.

That is certainly true for the Episcopal church. Though the overall number of the faithful has declined, though we are closing churches each week, the number of dioceses and the employees within them have not been so fast to change. We do not seem to know how to question -- and, what is more, to restructure and reduce -- the vestiges of an ascendant, 1950s-era church in more than symbolic ways.

The curious result of this at the Salt Lake City meeting is a series of proposals that would consolidate more authority in the church in a smaller number of hearts and hands at higher levels of the institution -- more and more removed from the lives in the pews. And this is where what once thought of itself as the Church of the Establishment is at risk of carrying our elitist DNA into the future in ill-advised ways. It poses the real risk of alienating the structure of the church from its own faithful, and somewhat bewildered, constituency.

Here's a basic truth: Our society has already entered upon a period of history in which the firms created to serve social and economic purposes of a past century are collapsing of their own weight -- and being replaced by a commons equipped with the democratizing forces of technology and better able to address social needs. Ask Encyclopedia Britannica about Wikipedia; ask Veterans' Taxi about Uber.

In the midst of this shift, a consolidation of authority at higher levels of an organization is a characteristic, predictable and wrong reaction to crisis. Comforting though it may be, it's simply unsuited to the future that is breaking in on us. Worse, it evinces a lack of faith in the wisdom, the energy, the purpose and the possibility of the smallest and ultimately essential constituent element of any denominational structure -- the local parish.

The conflicted views of the institutional church toward the church on the streetcorner can be glimpsed in a variety of ways. There's the fact that of the four candidates named for election as presiding bishop -- the church's most senior clerical office -- only two seem ever to have held the post of parish rector, the Episcopal equivalent of a senior pastor. Or there are the younger voices calling for the outright closure of what they see as "zombie parishes" -- the sort of unheralded, economically marginal places that do the very boring and largely unnoticed work of ministering to the lives, sicknesses, joys, sorrows and losses of those who are marginalized in a church's own culture.

Hierarchical firms are very good at some things, but not very good at all things. They are good at achieving economies of scale; they are not good at inspiring, or insisting on, renewal and revival. They're good at directing resources efficiently to where they're most needed; they're really not good at encouraging experimentation and questioning socially constructed systems of authority.

The opportunity now exists for the Episcopal Church to set a different example for how the future might unfold -- not just for itself, but for all the mainline churches. The way of doing that is not to focus on the top, but rather on the bottom, of the structure.

If the mainline Protestant church is to endure as a voice for the possibility of the sacred in willing dialogue with the revelation of science and the diversity of commitments of conscience in our society, then it will endure because local congregations find both the will and the ways of flourishing. They'll do this by meeting the needs of the communities around them -- not because they follow the prescriptions of an increasingly removed structure of authority.

In practical terms, what that means is reimagining the purpose of the polity to be radically focused on the local, rather than the central. It means that there will be as many possible expressions of vital ministry as there are parishes. It would mean "flipping the model" of the institutional polity to direct resources, energy, skill and incentives downward toward the pews rather than upward toward the brand.

And most dangerously of all, it would mean scrutinizing anew any received or reified structures of authority that control and distribute power in the church against the standard of radical equality that is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

The traces of our history of being a church/firm are still easy to glimpse. We have our own pension fund and our own publishing house. (While others out there determined to change the world are happy to give their ideas away, we insist you pay for the single most powerful document we have to explain our vision of the Christian life -- the Book of Common Prayer.) We even have our own NGO.

But none of this will assure that we build communities where they most matter, and are most endangered -- at the local level. The most radical and most urgently necessary thing we have to offer as a Christian church is the idea of genuine community between groups of neighbors across lines of class, race and ethnicity, gathered to share the essential human task of making meaning and searching for the transcendent. No one looking for a place in that kind of community thinks first of showing up on Sunday at General Convention, or even at the diocese. No one looking for place to pray their way through the stories of racist violence, or seeking an authentic and life-affirming alternative to religious extremism, or seeking how to bend the human will so as to heal the earth, will look for their place in those lofty places.

If we want to be present for them to find us, we need place our focus and energy fully at the place where they'll look -- the local community of faith. That is where, it turns out, Jesus worked, too. If we have a future, it is there.