Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Modest Proposal to Reform ECUSA (I)

The Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church (TREC) has been busy reporting on the ideas it is considering to restructure how ECUSA works, and its proposals have been garnering both positive and negative comments. The most recent split seems to be between those who view ECUSA as their personal vehicle for "social justice", and those who would like to make General Convention "more efficient."

Briefly, TREC has proposed to limit the kind of resolutions that General Convention may consider -- only those which would amend the Constitution, Canons, or Book of Common Prayer, or which fulfill election duties entrusted to it.  Gone would be the hordes of special interest resolutions -- and presumably also, the innumerable Agencies, Boards, Committees and Commissions which generate them. 

It is a good proposal, as far as it goes, but it comes too late in the day. As a body, General Convention has grown too large -- but for a New Hampshire Town Meeting, the Chinese National Peoples' Congress, and the British Parliament, it is the largest legislative body in the world. For a national Church, that is ridiculous -- General Convention is far too unwieldy, far too expensive, and far too ineffective for all the money that is spent upon it.

Limiting its competence will not make it more competent. What is needed is a major downsizing.

But to downsize General Convention means we first have to downsize the Church it represents -- i.e., the number of dioceses, and consequently, the number of bishops, needs to be greatly reduced.  Make the Church structure a workable one, and General Convention will take care of itself.

Fortunately, your Curmudgeon has been a student of ECUSA's polity for all of his adult life. And though the powers at 815 did not see fit to accept my offer to work on the Task Force, I can still (through this blog) put forward my Modest Proposal for the Church's thoughtful consideration.

A bit of background, first. There is a huge gap between ECUSA as 815 and their lawyers think of it, and ECUSA in reality. For 815, the standard mantra is that the Church is a "hierarchy" of three tiers: General Convention is at the top, the 110 dioceses are subordinate to General Convention, and the 7.000+ congregations are subordinate to the dioceses.

Viewed in that way, ECUSA is only an abstraction of the intellect (and a meme in the courts that have blindly bought into 815's abstraction, because they never see or experience the reality). In real life such a tiered structure is unworkable, principally for the reason that General Convention is like the Village of Brigadoon -- it comes together for a brief moment in the present, and then vanishes into the mist, never to be experienced by the same people in the same way, ever again.

Imagine if the U.S. Congress completely reconstituted itself every other week -- and then agreed to meet only every 156th week. Do you see what I mean?

After the required three years pass, a new General Convention springs into being -- unable and incapable of maintaining any continuity with all of its predecessors, and once again existing for just the few moments of its delusional triumphs. The Convention disbands, and without anyone left to sustain them, the triumphs of the moment quickly turn into wilted flowers and rotten fruit.

How can a Church be run by a body so ephemeral? It can't -- and that is one key to my Modest Proposal.

The next tier down -- the dioceses -- is likewise, if one considers it a monolithic structure, an intellectual abstraction. You can't get 110 dioceses (let alone 7,000+ parishes) to agree on anything, not even eternal salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Face it: ECUSA is an unwieldy and unworkable agglomeration of individual units that cannot, and never will, work together toward one common goal. It is more akin to a 110-ring circus, with individual acts succeeding one another in gloriously haphazard fashion, as the culture and the times dictate to each ringmaster.

The only glue that even begins to hold it together is money. The dioceses feed off the ingrained habit of individuals' contributions and pledges to their parishes, and 815 feeds off the dioceses.  General Convention, with funding from all three sources, feeds off everything in the Church, and (since its inherent ephemerality means it can never be held accountable) wastes millions and millions of dollars for its follies.

The other factor that holds together a part of the Church -- and only a very small part -- is the social activism of many who get involved at the diocesan and national levels. But it is this very activism that puts the leadership (such as it is) at such odds with the masses who fill (to a lesser and lesser degree) the pews Sunday after Sunday.

The leadership pretends it must be doing something right, because the "quality" of Episcopalians is improving generation after generation, even though their numbers are declining severely with each generation.

Translation: "We like ever more and more the activists who are floating up to join us at our level -- they are kindred spirits. You can ignore the slaves in the galley -- they are there just to fuel the engines, and there are still plenty enough of them for our purposes. Plus, all their fathers and grandfathers had the foresight to entrust us with their hard-earned wages for future purchases of engine fuel, so we won't be running out any time soon."

What a picture, eh? In need of reform? You bet!

But how to reform such a monstrosity, that has gone so far off course from its original moorings?

Break it down into its component parts, that's how.  Come, reason with me --

Herewith my Modest Proposal:

All the existing parishes and missions remain intact as they are, because they are the physical reality of "The Episcopal Church". All else is administration or abstraction.

Parishes elect their own vestries, just as before. And parishes call their own rectors, again just as before -- though so do the missions, if they are functioning (a change from before, where a bishop chooses the priest/vicar for a mission). But the screening process is more rigorous -- meaning there are more hoops to jump through. Every new rector, for example, must serve a probationary period for one year, and then the parish  or mission votes whether or not to retain that rector, or to start the process to find another. No bishop can ever force a rector on a functioning parish or mission.

The number of dioceses is reduced from 110 to 10, modeled on the existing nine provinces (and breaking Province VIII into two along the northern borders of California, Nevada and Utah). The 110 "diocesan" bishops become vicars of their respective regions, which are mostly the former dioceses, but now purely geographical, rather than administrative, units.  The former dioceses are broken down further as needed to provide continuing employment for current suffragans and assistants. All such vicars have chiefly pastoral -- and very, very little administrative -- duties. That is, they make parish visitations, baptize and confirm, and ordain new priests and see to their training, but they do not have a budget of their own. Instead, they are all salaried, on a scale that goes up with experience and pastoral merit, as voted by the parishes in the vicar's jurisdiction every five years. The parishes don't think their vicar is doing his job? No raise for another five years.

The vicars are not called "bishop", and they do not get to go to Lambeth, or to anything called a "House of Bishops." They are pastoral representatives of the true episcopal authority of the Church (read on).  Although they can certainly hire more staff out of their own pockets, they are each authorized to have only one paid staff member, and an office rent allowance for the cost of five hundred square feet, at going local rates (which they can locate in their own residences, if they wish).

The idea is to keep the regional vicars close to the parishes they can pastor within a given year, and to foster their identification with a manageable number of parishes. As I say, suffragan and assistant bishops will likewise become vicars of their own regions, so that no one vicar has to supervise more than is practicable. Visits once a year mean a maximum of fifty congregations -- and even that would be higher than the ideal, of thirty to forty (say). 7000 (congregations) divided by 35 (average number of congregations per vicar) equals 200 vicars needed to cover them all, which is well within the number of bishops ECUSA has already. A limit of 35 or so congregations per vicar also ensures that no one region will be too large to administer.

[UPDATE 03/07/2014: In response to a commenter's concern about non-bishops performing the traditional duties of a bishop with respect to ordinations, confirmations, etc., I am willing to modify my Proposal to give all the ones I have called "vicars" the title of "Assisting Bishops," and let them keep their miters and croziers. They would still not be bishop diocesans, and so they would not be eligible to go to Lambeth. Nor would there be any national, church-wide  "House of Bishops" for them; there would instead be a House of Bishops in each of the ten dioceses, where they would come together to meet with their diocesan twice a year. The bishops in each diocese will be in charge of disciplining and consecrating their own; the only church-wide disciplinary tribunal would be a court for the trial of a bishop, and a review body, to deal with canonical charges against any of the eleven diocesans.]

A regional vicar is elected by the parishes of that vicar's region, from among the rectors in that region. (No more pastoral surprises from outside.) If a region ceases to have enough parishes to keep a vicar busy, it is merged into a neighboring region by the Church's Administrative Office (see next post). Rectors, on the other hand, are welcome from other regions -- but only after going through the rigorous vetting process to ensure that they will be good pastors to their congregations.

Face it -- this reform means that ECUSA can no longer serve as a welfare organization for incompetent and misguided priests. If they cannot preach and practice the faith so as to make their parishes want to keep them, then they are out, and if they cannot find another parish that wants them -- well, it is time to look into another career. The former bishops (now vicars) will have no patronage privileges, and no ability to protect unwanted priests from unemployment.

The ten dioceses will each be headed up by a true bishop, so ECUSA will have in all just ten bishops, who rotate annually through the post of Presiding Bishop. Thus every bishop will serve as Presiding Bishop for one year out of every ten. But the only duties of the Presiding Bishop are to chair the regular quarterly meetings of the ten bishops -- now called the "Council of Guardians", to emphasize their true role in the Church. As one of ten diocesan bishops, the Presiding Bishop will have primary responsibility for the pastoral operation of his own diocese, and will specifically (by canon) have no other role as a spokesperson for the national Church.

The ten individual bishops will have the primary duty to guard the faith and the traditions of the Church, as the same have been handed down from the saints.  They shall be chosen from among the vicars in each diocese, and confirmed by a vote of two-thirds of the Council (seven out of nine -- because there will be a vacancy), before being consecrated by the traditional laying on of hands by the members of the Council. They are required to meet with the assembled vicars in their respective dioceses twice a year, in order to discuss and go over diocesan issues, amendments proposed to the BCP and Canons, hold diocesan court sessions, and similar functions. Additionally, they have full archiepiscopal powers within their diocese to issue pastoral directives, disciplinary sentences and the like with respect to the vicars and rectors in that diocese.

To the Council is entrusted the responsibility to publish the Church Canons, as well as to oversee and maintain the Book of Common Prayer in the tradition handed down to us from Cranmer.

Unlike the current model, the Canons which the Council has the power to publish will be limited to just standards for the clergy and their discipline administered by diocesan courts and bishops. Liturgical matters will be covered by the rubrics of the BCP. No individual bishop will any longer have the power to "supplement" or "grant dispensations from" the liturgy of the BCP. If it's not in the BCP, it's not part of the Church's liturgy, period.

If the Council wants to propose a revision to the BCP, they first must pass such a revision at two successive meetings a year apart, and the proposal is circulated to each diocese for distribution to each and every parish in that diocese in the intervening twelve months, so that they may provide feedback as they choose to the Council.

Once a proposal to amend the BCP has passed the Council by two votes a year apart, it then officially circulates, first to all the vicars, and then to the rectors for discussion with their vestries and congregations. For the proposal to be finally adopted and effective, it will need to receive a favorable vote from two-thirds of the parishes at their annual meetings in each and every region, plus the approval of two-thirds of the vicars in any given diocese. Only then does it come back for a final vote in the Council of Guardians, where it requires a minimum of eight out of ten votes to become finally effective.

This process will guarantee a stable BCP, and prevent any faction from ruining it with the fads of the age.  And with that, we have taken care of the main missional and pastoral functions of the Church. The rest is just administration -- oh, and allowing venting for "social justice."

I will cover those aspects in my next post.


  1. OK, you've got me on this one! Really interesting idea. Looking forward to the next installment. Curious, why 10 and not 12... tradition and all that...and, I really don't like "guardian" as a title, but then I could live with it. Great to read a really different sort of approach.

  2. Dear Mr. Haley,
    I think you offer sage advice. I have also appointed myself as a consultant to TEC but they have not followed up on my efforts either. There is an old saying about a consultant. They borrow your watch and tell you what time it is.

  3. Great ideas have a habit of getting tossed in the wastebin until put into practice by someone with the passion and persistence to see them to fruition thereby proving the naysayers wrong. Would that such an individual were part of the appropriately named TREC.

  4. The Blog ‘Episcopal Journey of Hope’ has long championed the need to reduce the number of dioceses, bishops and staff. Recently we pointed out that three United Methodist jurisdictions in Kansas & Nebraska merged to be more efficient and effective; the new jurisdiction will have over 1000 congregations. By their standards the Episcopal Church would have only 7 dioceses. Your suggesting 10 dioceses is actually quite generous as is providing a paid staff member. Last week Pope Francis “blasted bishops who strut about in church finery as “peacocks.” He called on bishops “to be pastors who are close to the flock and not “airport bishops” who buzz around the world padding their resumes.” Now how do we get the Church to follow your plan?

  5. Fr. Harris, there is no magic to the number ten -- it could just as easily be 12, or as Goodthunder points out, seven. To make the concept simple to grasp, I took the existing provinces (and divided the largest one, Province VIII, into two) -- everyone is familiar with those boundaries, and the existing dioceses within them already are used to working together.

    However, it might prove unworkable to try to administer most of the far-flung foreign dioceses as a new single unit. ECUSA may just have to give up its dream of being TEC, and go back to being ECUSA. But I would let its business managers (see my next post) make that decision, based on simple workability and common sense.

  6. Mr Haley,

    Your altogether sensible approach unfortunately has less than zero chance of penetrating through the suffocating fog of madness, ego, self-aggrandisement, and self-interest that now characterises the leadership of this sinking church.