At 5:08 every evening my iPhone buzzes and “Pray for the Church” flashes on the screen. It is a leftover of an early attempt at an Acts 8 Cycle of Prayer. While the prayer list has not been kept up as we had hoped, the Google Calendar still exists, reminding me everyday of the importance of praying for the Church, capital C. And so I pray using the words of our Book of Common Prayer and a collect appointed for Ash Wednesday and Ordinations.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world know that things that were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.” The purpose of the Acts 8 Moment is “to preach resurrection in The Episcopal Church.” The first step in resurrection is rather unpleasant: death. Something must die in order to be raised from the dead. I have no problem admitting that Mainline Christianity, of which The Episcopal Church was an integral part, is dead. And so I read with great hope the opening scripture quote in last week’s Open Letter to The Episcopal Church from The Task Force for Re-Imagining The Episcopal Church (TREC).
Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:43–44)
Finally, someone in a position of authority in the Church had admitted what many of us have known for quite some time. We’ve died. Some have argued that the Lazarus metaphor isn’t a good one – that Lazarus was recucitated rather than resurrected, but I disagree. John gives us two details to make sure we know Lazarus is really, really dead. He’s been that way four days, one day longer than the Hebrew mythology thought the soul hung around, and he stinketh. Lazarus was really dead and needed Jesus to resurrect him.
Note the lady unbinding Lazarus. He stinketh!
The Episcopal Church is really dead, and only Jesus can bring us back to life. Thankfully the good people who make up TREC have realized this. Before I go on to critique one specific point in their work, I want to make it clear that I’m supportive of their overall goals, I pray for their success, and I’m thankful that they have been communicative and are actively seeking feedback. Their task is unenviable, and the vitriolic reaction from some of the entrenched leadership is as unhelpful as it is unsurprising and boring. I am hugely in favor of TREC’s focus on mission, church planting, and the need for transparency at all levels of the Church. In fact, I was so excited that we’ve finally decided to admit that we’re dead that I let the fact that the “specific examples” of the Church as catalyst, connector, capability builder, and covnenor are neither specific, nor really even examples.
I was stopped short, however, in the section dealing with the role of the executive structure. Specifically, their suggestion to retain the Presiding Bishop as “the CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of DFMS, with managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff.” After all that talk of death and resurrection, they’ve hung on to a model of episcopacy that should have died long ago: Bishop as CEO. The Episcopal Church is an episcopal church. As such, we readily acknowledge the importance of the historic episcopate both in the Apostolic Succession of the actual laying on of hands and in the Apostolic Succession of committed obedience to the tradition of the Apostles as the original witnesses and messengers of the Gospel (Kung, “Signposts for the Future” p. 95). Unfortunately, with the growth of the corporate world, the office of Bishop has taken on more and more of the business functions, while struggling to maintain the spiritual essence of the office. As such, we have bishops who are too busy running a staff, signing off on legal documents, and flying off here, there, and everywhere to serve on committees, non-profit boards, and to act as chaplains at Diocesan Conventions to reasonably serve the real needs of people of their dioceses. This, in turn, leaves dioceses feeling disconnected from their Bishop, their episcopoi, and clergy without a chief pastor, which drives us further and further into Congregationalism.
At the top level, the Presiding Bishop as CEO exacerbates these confused roles. Is the PB the Presiding Officer in the House of Bishops, a primus inter pares (first among equals) or is the PB the CEO of the Church? These are two very different jobs, both of which would easily make up at least one full-time job. As I read the TREC letter, it became clear to me that in order for us to be resurrected, in order to move past the power struggles between Church-wide staff, the Executive Council, General Convention, the PHoD, and the PB, we have to admit that Bishop as CEO is dead, and if it isn’t, we have to kill it.
Instead of the PB as CEO, I would argue that something closer to Alternative III in TREC’s Study Paper on Governance and Administration needs to be adopted. While I do think that the PB would need to resign his or her diocesan position to fulfill the obligations of the office, limiting the Presiding Bishop’s role to that of Presiding Officer, Chief Consecrator and Pastor, and mouthpiece of the Church seems a prudent move in order to highlight the importance of such functions within the whole House of Bishops. Allowing the Executive Council, of a similar size and composition of the current Council, to work as a true Board of Directors: taking the work of General Convention to heart in creating a strategic vision and seeking out an Executive Director/CEO who will lead the church-wide staff in implementing that vision for the good of the whole Church, should then create a way for the Church to move forward together and eliminate the undue power of the CCABs, many of which seem to exist only to keep themselves going and are run by a few voices and their pet projects. This model, it seems to me, would allow for a full representation of the Church, a closer tie to our understanding of the historic episcopate, and allow closer connections to be made at all levels: congregational, regional, diocesan, provincial (if such a thing needs to exist) and church-wide.
At 5:08 this afternoon, I will pray, as I do everyday, for the Church. My specific prayer today will be that The Episcopal Church, as one part of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, will do its part in helping the whole world see that God’s kingdom continues to unfold through cycles of death and resurrection. I hope and pray that TREC, as they finish their work, and later the 78th General Convention will see the need to accept death as the precursor to new life. I hope we can let go of those things which are old and cast down and allow Jesus to raise us up and make us new. As Lazarus could surely attest, dying isn’t a whole lot of fun, but eating dinner with your family four days later has to be one heavenly banquet.