Both governments are incurring criticism from within their ranks; both governments are spending money which they do not have to spend; and both governments are stumbling blithely ahead, as though nothing had changed. Here is a contemporary description -- see if you can guess to which one it applies:
The government at the national level is completely unresponsive to its constituents at the local level. Those in control of the purse strings simply spend the money on the priorities they establish in accordance with their views of the situation -- without any regard for where the money has to originate, or how much of it is actually on hand from day to day. Instead, they settle on priorities which they carefully select, so as to reinforce their own entrenched appearance of power, which comes only from the fact that they sign (or authorize) the checks that go out to their favored beneficiaries.
Those in power actually are convinced that the ones who constitute the source of all their funds should have absolutely no voice in setting the priorities for how those funds will be spent, because, of course, only those in power can "know best." Oh, to be sure, they make a pretense of running the priorities past the elected representatives, in their legislature; but the legislature exercises no final control over the decision-makers' gross deviations from their promises as to how they will carry out the voted agenda, which is intentionally vague and lofty-sounding, in order to garner "bipartisan" support for its passage.
Instead, the legislature avoids all responsibility in the matter, by abandoning any concept of meaningful budgeting, and by issuing clouds of platitudes when it is in session. Then the legislature declares victory, adjourns, and abdicates to the executive accountability for whatever takes place afterwards. Its members go home, in order to brainwash their respective constituents into re-electing them to their positions of ongoing irresponsibility and irrelevance.
To which government -- ecclesiastical (as in ECUSA) or political (as in USA) -- does the foregoing description apply? Does it sound too harsh as applied to one, or the other? If so, why -- and if not, then why not?
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OK, I will confess -- I composed that quotation above, but as a quodlibet from many contemporary accounts and criticisms of Congress and the current administration, as well as of the General Convention, the Executive Council, and the Presiding Bishop and her staff at 815. The alarming thing is that (now, confess!) it was impossible to tell, from the words used alone, which one was being described.
What does that fact say to you about the current state of our nation, and of our church? The truth is that there is a tremendous gap between those at the top, and those at the bottom whose efforts and voluntary contributions make the whole machinery possible. For the most part, the latter do not call for much detail about how their hard-earned money is spent -- until the edifice itself appears in danger of toppling. And in that one aspect, the United States Government has the Episcopal Church (USA) currently beat, by a country mile.
Recent publicity about the posturing and back-room deals which led to the so-called "resolution" of the debt ceiling crisis (not a resolution at all, of course, but only a temporary postponement of the severe disagreements over where the country is headed) has brought about an unthinkable low in the esteem in which Congress is held by the public.
Let me digress a bit by reminding you that it has almost always been so. Here are some very choice quotes on the subject of Congress by the immortal Mark Twain:
"Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."". . . one of the first achievements of the legislature was to institute a ten-thousand-dollar agricultural fair to show off forty dollars’ worth of pumpkins in.""Our Congress . . . In their private life they are true to every obligation of honor; yet in every session they violate them all, and do it without shame. . . . In private life those men would bitterly resent--and justly--any insinuation that it would not be safe to leave unwatched money within their reach; yet you could not wound their feelings by reminding them that every time they vote ten dollars to the pension appropriation, nine of it is stolen money and they the marauders.""It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
"I believe the Prince of Darkness could start a branch [of] hell in the District of Columbia (if he has not already done it), and carry it on unimpeached by the Congress of the United States, even though the Constitution were bristling with articles forbidding hells in this country. . . . What a rotten, rotten, and unspeakable nasty concern this nest of departments is, with its brainless battalions of Congressional poor-relation-clerks and their book-keeping, pencil-sharpening strumpets.""No one's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session."
All right, enough venting on Congress. But when you analyze matters closely, there is precious little difference between Congress and General Convention. To be sure, Congress claims to have the power to compel the payment of taxes -- but in the final analysis, all tax-paying is completely voluntary, and dependent on who chooses to fill out a return for any given year, and to disclose what sources of income they had in that year.
The same is true of General Convention and the Church -- all contributions to 815 are voluntary, and are dependent on what the dioceses choose to report and send in. General Convention "recommends" the level of diocesan contributions, just as Congress sets the supposed tax rates. Then, however, they both go about undermining what they have decided, by (in Congress' case) enacting special loopholes for the lobbyists' clients and (in ECUSA's case) by allowing Executive Council and the Presiding Bishop to do entirely what they wish in between sessions of General Convention, with zero accountability afterwards.
In these parallel circumstances, your Curmudgeon submits, the following hard-hitting analysis, admittedly directed at the evils currently besetting our nation, is fully applicable to ECUSA as well:
This is not a fiscal crisis — it is an attempt to halt the very accumulation of federal power that the Federalists promised us would never happen. It’s a constitutional crisis, and it cannot be fixed merely by holding the line on taxes and securing deep spending cuts in the short term.For the Episcopal Church (USA), any pretense that it was born of authority delegated to it by the several dioceses which formed it in 1789 has, in the term of the current Presiding Bishop, been erased in favor of a new, carefully scripted, and dearly bought, "history" by which it was supposedly "hierarchical" from the very first day of its formation. As the Church itself acknowledged just seven years earlier, however, nothing was further from the minds of the drafters of PECUSA's first Constitution than that they were establishing a hierarchical church, whether modeled on the Church of England or not. Those founders knew that they had to positively distance themselves from the Church of England if they were to gain acceptance among the newly independent United States of America, and so they emphasized that the Church would exercise at the national level authority only over those matters which could not be definitively settled (for local purposes) at the local or diocesan levels.
What has long been clear to many constitutional scholars is now intuitively obvious to Americans of all stripes: The relentless expansion of federal power is destroying self-government at every level of society besides the national one — and with it, the self-reliance and independence that made this country great. It is difficult any longer to see what stands between us and a statist tyranny of the majority.
There was never any thought in 1789, or in the decades following, of needing a uniform structure and experience throughout the entire, country-wide Church. But that is what we have now to deal with, thanks to "institutional creep." The leaders at 815 have decided that they, and only they, will dictate the features of the Church's face to the public, and (through the newly enacted louche "disciplinary" canons) exercise the exclusive authority to say who is and is not "Episcopalian". Moreover, in a complete betrayal of all the founders' anti-episcopalian sentiments, they have (without bothering to change the Constitution) conferred upon the Presiding Bishop primatial powers of discipline over all the other bishops in the Church.
The House of Bishops has thus far chosen to sanction this usurpation of authority, just as the United States Senate has allowed the President to appoint unlimited "czars" over various aspects of government without its advice and consent. And together, of course, both Congress and General Convention have completely abdicated their responsibilities over official spending.
This is a portrait of institutional decay at a very advanced stage. Neither the United States Government, nor the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, can continue for long on their present (and respective) destructive courses. From this Curmudgeon's vantage point, there remains only the question of which will succumb first to the collective (i.e., both institutional and individual) neglect and indifference toward the rot which is eating away at each of them from inside.