[Nota Bene: Readers are warned in advance that this will be the first in another of those desultory series on this blog about the continuing decline and fall of ECUSA. It is an elaboration of my far briefer remarks for this week's Anglican Unscripted, which the less interested reader could simply watch instead. More parts will shortly follow.
(I apologize for not being able to make this sorry chronicle even half as memorable as the related account by Mr. Edward Gibbon, but the difference is that he was able to describe a truly grand empire that had gone defunct, and the whole colorful picture was complete before he started. Your Curmudgeon, on the other hand, has the unenviable task of portraying the decline of a not-so-big and not-so-grand Church as it is not-so-dramatically happening in real time, and from within its own ranks.)]
In 2008, the political mood of the country was significantly behind the "Hope and Change" platform of the first black President of the United States. Nearly three years later, however, there are serious recriminations being voiced about whether the structure the President has built around that platform is in the country's best interest, and whether the Obama administration deserves another four-year term to keep enlarging it.
The problem is that Obama has been trying to fit a statist structure, or polity -- one where decisions at all levels are made by the government, and specifically, by the executive branch -- onto foundations that were designed from the outset to support divided government, with its various checks and balances. The result has been a budgetary and political catastrophe.
Billions and billions of dollars have been allocated to bailing out companies which deserved the failure their own shortsighted policies had brought upon them, but who survived instead to fail another day, thanks to their cronies in the government being generous with the taxpayers' money and with the credit of future generations.
Czars by the dozen have interfered in every aspect of citizens' lives, without any authority conferred upon them by Congress (even assuming arguendo that the Tenth Amendment did not reserve all such authority to the people themselves).
Unemployment remains stagnated at an unacceptable level, simply because the business climate has been rendered so uncertain by Obama's statist interventions into the economy. Those misguided measures produced unworkable distortions which are discouraging entrepreneurship and new investment (think: the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or on the opening of new shale deposits, with the resulting continued record high costs of fuel -- and look at what is happening right now to the Canada pipeline project).
In 1810, it would have been impossible for Congress to conceive of telling Americans that they had to switch from burning tallow candles in their homes to ones made only of beeswax, in order to reduce smoke and cut the waste of wax drippings. But just 200 years later, Congress felt free to dictate to all Americans what kind of lightbulbs they could use, in order to conserve electricity. How is this possible?
Answer: it isn't -- at least, not for very long. Have you noticed how many people are fighting back against any more statist decrees and laws, and crony bailouts? (Only some of those people are the "Tea Partiers" -- whom Obama's statist supporters, nevertheless, single out for slander and opprobrium.) Have you noticed, also, that even Nature fights back when "environmentalists" push policies whose consequences their own short-sightedness keeps them from seeing? And that every now and then, even the courts manage to wake up to see the wool being pulled over everyone's eyes with regard to the environment? (And to the detriment, again, of local economies?)
What the statists will try with the United States Government, so, too, the statists in the Episcopal Church (USA) will attempt with their own progressive platform. The process began with a change in their public image -- when they first dropped the word "Protestant" in front of their name in order to become known as "The Episcopal Church". (Everyone knows that there is only one Episcopal Church, right? Of course they do. But notice that, change or not, they have lost nearly fifty percent of their members in the years since the referenced news story appeared in 1964.)
Then it continued with expansion of the national Church's budget, almost 40% of which is now fed by monies from the federal government (for Episcopal Migration Ministries), in order to accommodate the multiplication of Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (over 75 now discernible), and the huge growth in the House of Bishops, with now over three hundred members (that's more than three for every diocese!) -- two-thirds of them, of course, having resigned (retired from) their jurisdictions.
We are now at a point where the Episcopal Church (USA) finds itself in significant structural trouble, which is having equally significant ramifications for its budget. As we have just seen, all during the period that it was steadily dropping in membership, the Church was expanding its national superstructure and its budget. This made no sense, but apparently no one in charge cared, until the steady decline in voluntary contributions, from an ever-shrinking base of parishioners, literally forced the leadership to make painful cuts. And still, the Church continues to lose members -- on average, about forty parishes a year (the equivalent, one of its officers says, of a "very small, admittedly, diocese"). Even such a small number, however, adds up significantly over time, and the cumulative effects are extremely unhealthy for future prospects.
ECUSA is like a huge mansion constructed some time ago, whose foundations are slowly eroding while its superstructure remains just as huge and heavy as ever. It makes no sense for the House of Bishops to keep growing while the number of parishes steadily diminishes. Likewise, it makes no sense for ECUSA to be downsizing its budget, to match the fall in voluntary contributions, while sending its bishops to meet in Quito so that the Church can demonstrate its claim to an "international" polity. These two observations, however, furnish a basis for drawing further conclusions about what is now happening.
A third observation coincides with the second one: one wholly unstated purpose of the bishops' traveling to Ecuador for their meeting was so that the Bandit Bishop could raid another diocese, and force out those she now found unsatisfactory in order to put in administrators of her choosing (and start a new round of the debacle that began with the arrogance of General Convention in 2009). One would like to have been a fly on the wall when Bishop Jefferts Schori informed Bishop Luis Fernando Ruiz that she expected him to resign by the end of the month, "for the good of the diocese." Did she have her Chancellor present, and did he suggest that a refusal might offer the inaugural occasion for her to exercise the new metropolitical powers which she was given [albeit illegally] under the revised disciplinary canons?
ECUSA from its beginnings was never designed with the foundations to accommodate a huge mansion. Its base was more akin to a small but sturdy platform designed to hold a collapsible tent, which it erected once every three years for a brief period. Select numbers of the Church's clergy and laity would come and meet in the tent, and then fold it up and put it away for another three years. Its presiding bishop was just another diocesan, like everyone else, who had his own diocese to run in the interim. Chairing a tent meeting every three years was not a significant additional burden for one bishop to assume, and that was how the Church functioned at the national level for 160 years.
ECUSA's General Convention in those days had as its primary function the hearing of reports on the status of the Church in each Diocese. Occasionally it was called on to admit another new diocese into union with the Church, or appoint a bishop to supervise a missionary diocese, and now and then it adopted amendments to the Canons. But its role on the national scene was largely ephemeral, and entirely forgettable.
What changed ECUSA structurally from its original model was the slow but steady growth in the size of its House of Bishops, as more and more territory came under ECUSA's jurisdiction, and also the advent of powerful new social forces. The first factor forced a change in the office and functions of the Presiding Bishop; following that change, the second factor transformed the character of the Church itself, under the active leadership of the new breed of Presiding Bishops.
In the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century, the Church's identification with the "peace and justice" movement began to add to its superstructure. At first, the Church became fired up with zeal for the civil rights movement in the South. To demonstrate its solidarity with the cause, its Presiding Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill (founder of the World Council of Churches), even canceled a General Convention which had been planned for still-segregated Houston, in 1955, rather than be embarrassed in front of his colleagues on the Council. Under his successor's initiative, the Church embarked on the "General Convention Special Program", by which money raised in dioceses, largely by Episcopal Church women through their United Thank Offering, was given to Presiding Bishop John Hines to use for his own social and civil rights agenda in the South and elsewhere. It was an ambitious program which soon began to undercut those of the several dioceses, and which, of course required an ever-larger bureaucracy -- and eventually, in 1963, a brand-new skyscraper for their headquarters.
But notice, if you will, the opposing direction of these two trends. The steady enlargement of the House of Bishops meant that they became a force of their own -- to be reckoned with, but primarily concerned with their own unique powers and theological innovations. Heresy entered the House of Bishops, first with Bishop Pike, and then with Bishops Spong, Righter and others quickly following through the breach which Bishop Pike had made. At first, the assembled bishops managed to censure Bishop Pike, but after that their courage became too diluted, and they failed to discipline the new generation of heretics. Eventually, as we all know, heresy swallowed up orthodoxy, and became itself the new orthodoxy under the new breed of bishops.
While the Bishops were distancing themselves from the traditional positions of those in the pews, at the same time the second trend, the new activism in the name of "peace and justice", was slowly transforming General Convention itself, and its House of Deputies.
Civil rights in the political sphere led to "civil rights" for women in Episcopal ordination, and the success of that blatantly political ploy was then imitated by the "gay rights" movement. By the late 1990s, ECUSA's General Convention was dominated by a new breed of deputy, described by one knowledgeable observer as "people with an excess of leisure time, or people with a cause." Because it was a mecca for activists, it became likewise a mecca for the causes and movements which the activists supported:
Convention is more than legislation. One of the most interesting parts of convention is the Exhibit Hall. The Exhibit Hall reminds me of an oriental souk: it is a marketplace of goods and ideas in which the organizations and interest groups within the church present their wares, recruit members and do their best to influence legislation. It is a colorful part of convention, and it would not be General Convention without it.
Many church-related organizations hold meetings in conjunction with convention, and there are lunches and dinners hosted by seminaries, provinces, societies, boards and staff offices of the church. . . .
General Convention is a combination of legislative assembly, bazaar of goods and services and family reunion. It is one of the most exciting and, truth be told, one of the most awe-inspiring gatherings in the world.
(And that is General Convention's Executive Officer speaking!) Moreover, this new breed of deputies felt no allegiance whatsoever to the diocese that elected them, because they viewed their mission as being guided by no less than the Holy Spirit (here is the Executive Officer again, with my emphasis added):
Deputies are not delegates; that is, they are not elected to represent the electing dioceses.
Deputies vote their conscience for the good of the church. They cannot be instructed to vote one way or another, for to do so would preclude godly debate and preempt the work of the Holy Spirit. . . .
Is it any wonder, then, that there is an ever-widening disconnect between what goes on at General Convention and what goes on in the daily life of the Church? The former has become nothing more than a spectacle, a useless extravaganza costing the Church millions, which enables its select participants to feel good about themselves. Once General Convention adjourns after coming together for ten days, its same members never get together again, so there is little follow-up on the myriad resolutions which it enacted, and zero accountability for what was done in the Church's name (such as amending the disciplinary canons to give the Presiding Bishop metropolitical powers).
Thus the Episcopal Church still has its collapsible tent which it puts up every three years, only now it is more like a Big Top Circus enclosure. Unlike the Church founded in 1789, it now has a permanent superstructure housing a national bureaucracy (think of those 75 Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards), which meets continually, and fills in the gap between General Conventions. And as it always tends to do, the bureaucracy has taken on a life of its own, despite its duplication of much diocesan effort, and despite the lack of any underlying structural support for its existence at the national level. (Recent budget shortfalls have finally forced a reduction in the size of the bureaucracy.)
As I hope you now can see, this mismatch between structure and design is the same problem which President Obama ran into when he tried out his statist platform on our traditional government base: it didn't fit, because the foundations were not designed to support such a structure above. Likewise, the model for the national Church, with its simple platform for a collapsible tent brought out only once every three years, cannot support an ongoing national bureaucracy, whose agenda is frequently at odds with the agendas of the member dioceses. The disintermediation is undermining the Church's structure, as well as its budget, and cannot long continue without further and far more radical changes than those which have occurred up until now.
In the next post in this series, I will take up the recent proposal from Bishop Stacy Sauls, the Church's new Chief Operating Officer, for just such a "restructuring."