General Convention, Parish Life

GC78, and things I wish we’d stop saying.

Since GC78 has ended I’ve been trying to piece together exactly what we have done and what we have left undone. I’m more and more convinced that it’s the second part of that line from the confession that’s going to be the burden we carry going into the 21st Century. But before I hop on that soapbox It’s important to celebrate what we accomplished.

  • We elected Michael Curry as the next Presiding Bishop.
  • We opened up the sacrament of Marriage to all people, regardless of orientation.
  • We trimmed down committee bloat at the national level.
  • We approved funding for digital evangelism.
  • We (finally) approved money for church planting and innovative ministries.

We did more, but that’s the stuff that really encourages me. This General Convention did worlds for our efforts to reach out to those who we are not currently. I may just be saying that because I relegated to the House of Twitter, and in comparing the Twitter feed with the livestream was an exercise in how social media can throw shade over the facts on the floor. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but It did leave me with a very clear sense that those of us on #GC78 were just as hungry for cultural change as we were for institutional change.

While some folks were ready to call out our snark, the snark is case in point. We’re snarky about processes. About cultural assumptions. About parliamentary process impeding real work getting done. Ad hominem attacks were few and far between and were usually wrought by trolls. (The fact that #GC78 got big enough to troll is Twitter’s way of saying we were kind of a big deal.)

The things that make us cynical about GC are the same things that make newcomers cynical about our parishes. Committee bloat. Process over product. Covering our institutional asses at the risk of losing out on real relationship. I see it all the time. Folks come into our churches looking for real encounter. Looking for something that is increasingly hard to find in an increasingly fragmented culture, and we give them institutional process. I really do get why they’re important to have, especially when you’re dealing with an international denominational body, but they have no place in our parishes. Even in the big ones.

The distinction between process and program is important to make here. Programming is good. Programming as a hoop to jump through for inclusion into the full life of the institution is bad.

We’re here to baptize people into the body of Christ, not inculcate them into our institutional norms. 

Now, a good many goodly Episcopalians are probably saying: “But we welcome everybody!”

Friends, that’s bullshit. And we need to stop saying it. Let’s check this right now. We are good at welcoming people who want to be more like us. And very few people want to be like us anymore.

Our bastion of White middle-class enlightened liberal reserve is not the cultural commodity that it once was, and yet t is still so ingrained in our institutional memory that we don’t realize the pressure we apply when we tell people about ourselves. We can go down the list:

  • We’re Inclusive! (If you fit a mold of what we think it means to be LGBT. Notice the lack of Q, and we’re iffy about B and T too…)
  • We welcome everyone! (But if you’re going to stay here are a list of cultural norms that you have to abide by, otherwise you can get right the hell out. We won’t tell you that, but we’ll sure as hell make you feel it.)
  • We’re progressive! (Except for when you challenge our notions about what it means to actually be progressive. This is especially true if you aren’t white.)
  • We elected a Black Bishop! (Who has told me that he spent the first few years of his Episcopacy in North Carolina having to prove over and over again that he was indeed “Episcopalian enough.”)

This is in our bones. We put it on t-shirts. On Mugs. It’s our flagship meme. The fact that we’re inclusive is good, but we’re increasingly living in a world where inclusivity is assumed. We are no longer weird for welcoming LGBT people. There are other denominations who are, in fact, ahead of us on this one.

In a lot of ways we have to become the anti-institution. Institutions crashed the economy and put me and my peers in boatloads of debt that we can never hope to discharge. Institutions sent my friends to the middle east to die, and didn’t take care of them when they came back. Institutions are keeping people away from receiving vital care because the price of entry is too high. There was a time where we wanted to emulate these institutions, but they’ve spent the last 30 years proving that they can’t be trusted and the whole time we’ve been trying to play nice with them.

We have the unique opportunity to not be that. But it means we’re going to have to give up a lot of what we think makes us who we are. If the millennials like me are going to have keep proving our value to the institutional life of the church then we’re going to keep staying out.

It’s been a fight for me and a lot of folks like me. Some of us have the patience, and we’re here because we love worshiping God in the Anglican way. But it ain’t been easy. The floor debates didn’t lead me to believe that its going to get easier anytime soon. Twitter did though. And for that I give thanks.

Church, Parish Life

The Long Ascensiontide.

In the first Chapter of Acts Christ ascends to Heaven, and then the Apostles do some institutional maintenance. It’s built into us. Something happens that we don’t expect, so we turn in on ourselves. Christ ascends, so we get together and pray because we don’t know what else to do. Judas is gone, so we have to replace him. (Take note Vestries, you don’t actually have to have 12 people…) We will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain equilibrium, even when the world around us is changing faster than we can account for.

The Pew Survey on American Religion came out this week and it told us a lot of things we already knew, it just put some clearer numbers to how fast the American religious landscape is changing. The Alarmists sounded the alarm. The Episcopal blogosphere once again went nuts. Some said its good. Some not. Everyone noticed. Either way, its not entirely helpful.

I don’t really know a nice way to say this, so I may as well not try to be nice. We’ve got to stop collectively losing our minds whenever a new number comes out, and we actually have to start being about the work where we are. Nationwide statistics are nice, but the demographics we really need to be concerned with are the demographics immediately surrounding our parishes.

The lead up to this General Convention has thoroughly convinced me of one thing; We don’t think subsidiarity is an applicable ecclesiological concept anymore. I can’t think of a nice way to say this either, but the unaffiliated, the folks that we should be reaching out to and inviting into our life together give precisely zero shits about the next Presiding Bishop, or the next Social Justice resolution, or about restructuring our governance.

What they care about is whether or not the Gospel is being communicated in a compelling way. What they care about is Pentecost. If the Apostles stayed indoors after ascension, then Christianity as a historical phenomenon stops in that room in Jerusalem. It may have been a really nice room, but the room isn’t where the life is.  We invite people into parishes, not the institutions. If later on down the line they decide that they want to take their place in institutional decision making, that is well and good, but less that describes less than 5% of our membership. If that.

We have willingly stuck ourselves in the long ascensiontide, where we huddle together wondering where exactly it is that Jesus went, and what exactly he wants us to do. We have done a great job of re-imagining the institution, without getting specific about re-imaging our lives. The Spirit is with us, calling us to step outside our doors and to give a compelling witness to what it is that gives us life, and gives the world life. That starts at the parish. That starts with us. If the institution is dying, then let the dead bury their own.

Christianity was built by tongues of fire. If that offends our middle-class WASP sensibilities, then our sensibilities need to go. Like the good Saint said, “Give me a man in love; he understands what I mean. Give me a man who yearns: give me a man who is hungry: give me a man travelling in the desert, who is thirsty and sighing for the spring of the eternal country. Give me that sort of man; he knows what I mean.” -St. Augustine (On John’s Gospel 26.4)

I know a lot of folks who fit that description. I know a lot of parishes that fit that description. The Spirit is not leaving us, it is with us, guiding us into all Truth. Pentecost happened, and we are it’s legacy. So, for the love of God, (and I still don’t know a nice way to say this) let’s fucking act like it.

Parish Life

The Church is Dying. Long Live the Church.

I’ve had it about up to here with the endless articles and forums talking about why the Church in the West is in decline. And its not because they’re wrong. We’re losing numbers. We’re losing money. We’re losing parishes. The outlook isn’t great for our denominational structures right now. And nothing that we’re doing in response to this makes any sense.

We’ve got Joseph over our shoulder telling us about lean years ahead, and we’re calling committees about whether or not we should maybe build some silos.

This way of being isn’t just the Church’s problem. I’m really concerned that we in the West are losing the capacity for making strategic sacrifices in the short term for the sake of our collective long term health. Our inaction around Climate Change is case in point, but its not the only example. The Great Recession, infrastructure backlogs, even Congressional deadlock are all symptoms of the same underlying issue.

We’re hamstrung by self-interest. And why wouldn’t we be? A good number of people are making a good bit of money off of the way things are. Even in the Church. We are more willing than ever to fork over big numbers for Church growth gurus, “dynamic” clergy, and pre-packaged programming. Whether they know it or not, and I’m sure most of them don’t, a good number of the leaders in our Church are profiting from our collective fear of decline. And we’re more than happy to let them.

Lessons from the Middle of a Hurricane.

I used to spend a lot of time in Southern California. When folks out there heard I was from Florida they would always ask about how scary the weather was. Didn’t Hurricanes make me nervous? All those high winds and storm surges… I never really understood the question. These people who are more than happy to tell me that earthquakes are “no big deal” are worried about Hurricanes?

Earthquakes can happen anytime, and without warning. You get to see a hurricane coming for weeks. You even get to know about how strong that hurricane is going to be, and have more than enough time to respond appropriately. If you didn’t board your windows when a cat 4 was coming through, that was your fault. (There are exceptions, like Katrina and Andrew. Although most of the damage from Katrina can be blamed on poor preparation and differed maintenance on the part of the Army Corp of Engineers and the City of New Orleans.)

Hell, once we got the windows boarded and the lawn furniture inside we threw parties. We rested well knowing that we were prepared. So we poured a few drinks, and waited for the storm to blow in.

Eventually you get so good at the process that it only takes a few hours. The boards are pre-cut. The generator’s oil is fresh and the fuel is treated. The hurricane kit is stocked and ready to go. It becomes a way of being. Just a fact of living in a sub-tropical climate.

A New Way of Being Means a New Way of Doing. 

So the storm is coming. We can all see it coming. We can see it’s going to be pretty bad… We can either make preparing for the storm a way of being now, or we can open up the windows and leave the lawn darts out.

Here are a few places where I think we can start preparing in earnest: (And I’m going to be painfully practical about it.)

1.) Stop spending down the principal on our endowments. 

If we don’t touch that money it will last forever. Take the earnings and spend it with impunity, but every time that principal takes a hit, that money is really difficult to get back. Our endowments are the hold over of giving habits that just don’t exist anymore. I sincerely doubt they will exist again. My generation is making less money than our parents did. We have more debt. We give substantially less. That money may be the only reason the doors stay open a few decades from now.

2.) Build for ease of maintenance and longevity.

Buildings are money-pits par excellence. (I know, I’ve got one.) Time and time again I’ve seen people make decisions about building and maintaining churches that they would not make for their own homes. There are a number of exciting new materials on the shelves at home depot that are a lot easier to care for, and that last a lot longer than their predecessors. Yes, they come at a premium, and they tend to not be as pretty as the alternatives. But when your parish has a steel roof that’s held strong for 30 years, they will be praising your prowess and forward-thinking, instead of cursing their need to re-shingle yet again.

3.) Clergy, we’ve got to get serious about restructuring our compensation.

This is a post unto itself… All I can say now is this; We can either get proactive and work to restructure our compensation on our terms, or we can hold on tighter and tighter to what we have until it gets restructured for us. We can’t sit up and say that we’re willing to lead the Church into a new way of being when we’re insistent on getting paid the same way we have since the 1940’s.

All Growth is Local.

You’ll notice that none of these suggestions are addressed at General Convention, or even at Diocesan bodies, and that’s for a reason. Whatever we do to restructure the Church for the future is going to have to happen at the Parish level. This one is on us. Its on Parish clergy. Its on Vestries. Its on Lay leaders. We’ve got to become counter-cultural pockets of active hope that are sure in the Truth we live on, and are willing to make the hard calls to preserve our mission into the years to come. This isn’t just about maintaining an institution. It’s about making sure that the people who come after us have a better set of tools to serve the world than our predecessors gave us.

There’s a lot to all of this. And its worth spilling the ink. But for the love of God, please stop telling me that the Church is dying, and let’s start talking about how we should live.

Church Supply, Parish Life, Product Reviews

Ancient Faith, Digital Marketplaces.

So you want to be an Altar Server. Or you’re going to Seminary. Or you’ve been roped into being a Thurifer so many times that you might as well go ahead and make it official. At some point in your training/hazing (sorry Seminarians, but let’s call a Spade a Spade) someone will either hand you a catalogue with a combination of vestments circled (which you will be expected to order,) or you will be handed a very well-loved vestment that has been with the Church since the first printing of the 1929 Prayer Book. It was most likely sized for a portly gentlemen who was five feet tall.

Neither of these options is ok.

Before the panic sets in, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: There is nothing particularly sacred about any particular church supply company. Even if they’re your Priest’s favorite, they’re operating in the same online marketplace everyone else is operating in, and it is absolutely appropriate to expect the same level of care and service from a church supply co. as you would from any other online seller. This means that the whole experience is something you should take into account. Is their site easy to navigate? Are they able to accommodate unique orders (size/cut/material) without slapping you with an egregious premium? Are their invoices clear and easy to read? Do they provide free tracking for shipped items?

For many businesses that came to fruition in the online marketplace all of those criteria are second nature, but church supply is a venerable (read: old) industry that in many cases has had to make the transition to the world of online sales. Many of these sellers have come into the online age in much the same way the Church has (read: poorly.) For those of us who order out of paper catalogues about as often as we use floppy discs, our expectations for ease of ordering and quality of service are worlds beyond what the traditional by-mail catalogue has to offer. If the supplier you’re looking at hasn’t taken this into account then you should feel absolutely okay in looking for one who has. Even if they weren’t the one your Priest recommended. 

If you’re the lucky recipient of a well-worn and well-loved vestment that doesn’t fit at all, then take heart. Know your Priest is going to love that you take the fit and look of your vestments seriously enough to spend some time and money to ensure that you are appropriately vested for the service of God’s Altar. Proper decorum in public worship matters. If you can’t get behind that, then at least get behind the fact that comfortable and affordable vestments matter.

In every other niche market you’d have a Litany of reviews and write ups to guide you on your way to making the best choice in terms of quality, price, and service. That isn’t the case with church supply.

We’re trying to change that.

So when you go home and start looking around, just relax. The Broke Churchman is here for you. We’ll help you find something nice.