On Selling our Inheritance

Last June, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the organizing body of the esteemed institution that I serve, decided to sell its property on Second Avenue in NYC.  It’s where our Presiding Bishop resides and the central office is located.

Certainly there are some good reasons.  After all, our church is declining and we have little money.  And what do they do there in NY, anyway?  NYC is such an elitist, expensive place, with their snobbish restaurants, cultural activities with foreign artists, and expensive hotels.   They have theater.  An entire theater district.   And we’ve got enough of that, thank you very much.

Couldn’t we sell the building and give all the money to the poor?  To the Sudan.  Just wire transfer it there.  If not the Sudan, then Mali or Honduras.   Just give it away.

I appreciate the sentiment.  It won’t create the changes we seek.

Well meaning people suffer from a few common errors.  The first is from the belief that if we sell our wealth and give it away, we will be doing some good to ourselves and to others.  Perhaps we think that with a little money, the poor would suddenly become the middle class with jobs and houses – in control of their lives.  More likely, we’d merely lose our inheritance, the hard work of our previous generations, and still have lots of poor people.  In addition, we’d also have lost an effective staging area, the organization that can help us transform the relationship of donor to client; giver to receiver.   It takes long term work.  It takes training, advocacy and time.  It means building up relationships and institutions.  Certainly we should reinvent our own organization; but selling our property may only diminish our strength rather than invite us to a shared struggle.

The second is a corollary:  a suspicion of any sort of extravagance.  I respect this – while people are skiing in Vail, others are dying in Syria.  How can anyone have a good time?  Yet, the poor woman generously pours out abundance over Jesus; and then the apostles complain, that money could have been given away.  How can we celebrate the resurrection when there are so many people who are dying needlessly?   We just feted our bishop in NY, and I could hear the occasional people complain about the cost.   We couldn’t even appreciate the party that he was throwing for us.  He’d already become a target.

We are eager to sacrifice, but especially when it’s with money we don’t earn ourselves.  We give the money away, cheaply.   For we aren’t actually making the sacrifices that will ensure our institutions can do effective work; we sell for a song the contributions that previous generations made.  We feel righteous for giving our wealth away; when we are meant to be stewards of wealth we inherited.  Our first step should be to give more; not to buy into financial austerity.

What’s disturbing is the number of many Episcopalians who are also instinctively anti-institutional.  I think this reflects our cultural antagonism toward “institutional” religion.  But this is misplaced:  strong institutions create sustained change.  They represent groups of people of a common mind.    We may identify changes in our culture with individuals or movements; but we forget that there were always organizations that made such work possible.    As our market system becomes more sophisticated, the institutions that make that work possible become invisible.  But they are there.  Social media may make us think  individuals are more effective, but Google, Facebook and Twitter are institutions, not merely platforms.  We are ill served when we forget that.

Certainly the institution of the central office should be held accountable; its administration should be staffed with people who are competent and energetic, who understand that good business practices and institutional power are not, in themselves, bad.  They probably should not be priests, aside from those individuals who must perform the church’s role in public.  But such leadership concerns are altogether of a different sort than the magic we expect from releasing the investments we make.

Our institution does need intentional disorganization and thoughtful reorganization.  But while we are certainly eager to do the former, we have little idea how to do the latter.  And selling prime real estate does not give me confidence in our ability to do so.  To some, the selling signifies prophetic action and deliverance.  But it also reflects our miserliness and desperation.

A couple thoughts on General Convention

Over the summer, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Anaheim, California. There was plenty of good work getting done. The church considered a variety of issues, from benefits for lay employees, support of the Cuban Church, and the other foundational work that allows us to support each other.

One issue excited the media: the affirmation that sexual orientation should not be a bar for the episcopacy. In 2006, General Convention resolved that the church would have a moratoria on consecrating gay bishops for the sake of the communion. It wasn’t suitable for many who opposed, who were looking for a rejection of Bishop Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in Catholic Christendom.

The resolution merely affirms this: The Episcopal Church finds no theological reason to discriminate. One’s sexuality will not be the primary criteria for a Church’s appointment.

Although this may disturb many people, it is a consequence of the democratic nature of the institution and the fragmentation of denominational life that has been happening since the early 70’s.

Because General Convention, our ruling body, is a democratic institution, the church will always accommodate changing cultural views – and the Episcopal church is an accurate bellweather for the views of the culture at large.

The shift toward an agnostic perspective toward sexuality is exacerbated by the cultural shift of the church from a “voice” institution to an “exit” institution. “Voice” institutions are like families: you might not like it, but you don’t leave the family. “Exit” institutions are like franchises or stores.

We are in an era where churches compete, like other businesses, for attention. Conservatives may leave for friendlier franchises while social liberals dominate the Episcopal church. This is the consequence of the church succumbing to the ethos of a commercial society. Do I think this is bad? Not necessarily, but I’m sentimental.

When we divide we are truly succumbing to a cultural shift that affirms our own particular ideological preference is more important than the relationships we have. That said, I do think that “capitalism” – even as churches compete – is more responsible for peace than war. And I’m willing to argue about it (and be proven wrong as well).

However, I worry as we move away from the conservative – and honorable – traditions that affirm loyalty, tenacity and engagement; that familial relationships and traditions are of equal importance to individual preference.

What does this mean for the church? My predictions:

1) The episcopal church will still continue to select primarily married male bishops.
2) Dioceses throughout the world will be split. Bishops in Africa who need our help will be in conflict with other bishops who find the Episcopal view taboo. This split will be difficult in some places, but allow for greater pockets of safety for individuals of different sexualities in less tolerant countries.
3) The Episcopal Church will become a niche church for those who are socially libertarian and theologically modern.
4) The Church of England will be forced to confront its own hypocrisy in its clerical orders as the Archbishop tries to figure out what to do next.
5) The Episcopal Church will continue to build relationships with dioceses throughout the world based on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoner.
6) Most Episcopal Churches will continue to decline because they do not offer compelling alternative views to the culture at large.

I do not think the church will grow because of our church’s clarity. It may grow. But people rarely join churches because of an idea. My friends who are cheering the Episcopal church’s liberality aren’t the sort who will find themselves darkening our doors. However, church communities that offer authentic hope, help and hospitality grow, no matter what their beliefs are.

At St. Barts I have been deliberate on ensuring that our own church does is not divided by social, political or economic issues. What unites us our mutual trust and gratitude in being able to experience God’s grand creation.

When the Lord said, “love one another” he didn’t continue with the word, “but…” or “if….” It seems like a simple command, doesn’t it? But how difficult it is when what we believe matters more.

Reflections on General Convention

I’ve generally stayed out of the General Convention fray. After reading the long missives, the assertions, the arguments, the proposals and the plans I’ve come to a realization.

I’m addicted to the internet.
I need a media diet.

Sometimes I’m moved by the occasional blog; inspired by a just cause; convinced by a conservative. But most of the time I think, “I just spent an hour, or two, doing what?”

I could have written a small pamphlet explaining the liturgy to newcomers, or given Paul V a call. He just had a pacemaker put in. I should have taken out the trash and done some weeding. I could have reconnected with friends.

Instead, engaging a screen.

I can’t resist, however, making a few observations.

  • Although I’m a fan of the Archbishop, he is becoming more obscure.
  • When conservatives leave a church, there will be a greater number of liberals making policy.
  • Conservatives will remain surprised that there are more liberals in the church, confirming that conservatives are bad at math, except when calculating how many people are leaving the Episcopal Church.
  • Liberals aren’t very good at reading scripture.
  • GC wanted to remind people that we don’t submit to the queen of England anymore.
  • We submit to our own queens.
  • Although LGBT have positions of authority in every part of the Episcopal Church, they continue to think they don’t have power in the church. Don’t they know all the bishops still wear pink and lace?
  • GC addressed other issues besides sexuality. I’m not sure what, but they did.
  • And finally, the ABC has suggested a two track system for the church. I’m disappointed that it is only two.