Saturday, February 16, 2013

Adrift at Sea, without Rudder or Compass (UPDATED)

The Episcopal Church (USA) is a ship adrift on the seas of popular culture, carried hither and yon by the fads, inclinations and currents of the moment. Surrounded by the mists of their own smug self-confidence, those on her bridge have the illusion they are in control and direct her course.

But they have lost their rudder, and snapped the needle from their compass. The former was pitted  through by rust and corrosion that was never cleaned off, and it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when it ceased wholly to function. Ignorant that it was gone, the officers on the bridge then deliberately snapped off the compass needle, after it continued to show their heading as the opposite of the direction in which (as they thought) they had fixed their course.

Confident of their steady progress, they yet believe that their vessel has become too sluggard in her response to their commands. The Captain and her mates would like to be at the helm of a nimbler bark.

To that end, they have assembled a committee, or as they call it, a Task Force -- to redesign the ship from top to bottom (while she yet floats). They have chosen the Task Force from among the ship's most capable passengers, crew and officers, and they have high expectations of it.

There is just one minor problem.

They have forgotten that the original architects of the ship left the plans for posterity to use, should they ever need to consult them. Those plans have long since disappeared into the bilge which has accumulated in the hold, and scarcely anyone currently aboard is mindful that they ever once existed.

So the Task Force has been charged to change the design of the vessel, and change it radically, without ever consulting any of the original blueprints. They will make their radical sketches and plans with no understanding of why the vessel was designed as she was, with no knowledge of what she began her voyage with, and not caring in the least to find such things out.

And there is an even bigger problem; indeed, it is the major problem.

For they have forgotten their ship's destination, and Who it was who promised to guide them there.

Indeed, few of the ship's current crew like to pronounce His name. Neither the Captain nor the First Mate could bring themselves to do so, in their opening remarks to the Task Force.

Instead, the Captain spoke of being members of His body -- that is to say, of being in the Church. But she could not be very clear about what was the object of being living members of the Body of Christ:
I believe our goal is the Kingdom of God, shalom, the beloved community, call it what you will —
Yes, call it what you will: your will, and not God's will, determines what shall be done. The task is all up to you, or rather, to us, to do it all as we deem fit and just:
... it means seeing this work through the lens of ensuring justice for all [i.e., here on earth now, rather than as the Father decrees, in heaven]. That involves addressing poverty and care of the earth, so that all have full and adequate access to food, the basic stuff of life, education, employment, dignity, access to just economic systems.
This message confounds Jesus' commandments to us here on earth (to feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the naked and visit those in prison, etc.) with His omniscient perspective over all who do and do not obey those commandments. That is to say, we should not do all those things so that we may bring about justice on earth; we should do them regardless of what our acts may accomplish here, and without anticipation of recognition or reward for what we have done, either on earth or in heaven.

We are to do those things to honor and reflect our Lord Jesus Christ,  and not to achieve any earthly, mortal or political goal such as "justice." It is solely for God, not man, to say what is just.

As for the First Mate's remarks to the Task Force, she likewise voiced her confidence that the Holy Spirit would show it what needed to be done. She made much of the fact that this re-design would spell the end for the "institutional church," and form at the same time the beginning of a new church that would somehow involve the laity, especially the younger laity, in its mission. Once again, however, the Task Force heard from the bridge that it was their responsibility to make this happen, even though the starting point was wholly undefined, other than as "the end" of what we have now. Not to worry, she said:
What it lacks in specificity it makes up for in faithfulness.
This assurance of the lack of any specificity to what is to be the Task Force's chief job is precisely what is so wrong about how the current leadership of ECUSA has handed them their task. For the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Congress had spelled out their task quite specifically: to revise the existing Articles of Confederation. Congress did not tell them to make an end of those Articles, and to start over on a blank slate. When the Convention nevertheless came to the conclusion that they would have to do just that, it was only after the most solemn and serious attempts at amendment all came to naught. Even so, they still based their new design on the foundations of the old, and supplied only that which the old design wanted, chiefly through a clear separation of powers, constrained by checks and balances.

Likewise, the conference that drafted the treaty to establish the United Nations at San Francisco in 1945 had the failed model of the League of Nations ever before them as they devised the new structure. But for this new Task Force, the six original principles which governed the formation of PECUSA between 1785 and 1789 are not even on the table, let alone in the contemplation of anyone currently in charge of, or participating in, the process.

Let me here repeat those six guiding principles verbatim, for they remain as timeless today as when they were first codified, based on an influential pamphlet published by the Rev. Dr. William White of Pennsylvania in 1782:
I. That the Episcopal Church in these States is and ought to be independent of all foreign Authority, ecclesiastical or civil.

II. That it hath and ought to have, in common with all other religious Societies, full and exclusive Powers to regulate the Concerns of its own Communion.

III. That the Doctrines of the Gospel be maintained as now professed by the Church of England; and Uniformity of Worship be continued, as near as may be, to the Liturgy of the said Church.

IV. That the Succession of the Ministry be agreeably to the Usage which requireth the three Orders of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons ; that the Rights and Powers of the same respectively be ascertained, and that they be exercised according to reasonable Laws, to be duly made.

V. That to make Canons or Laws, there be no other Authority than that of a Representative Body of the Clergy and Laity conjointly.

VI. That no Powers be delegated to a general ecclesiastical Government, except such as cannot conveniently be exercised by the Clergy and Vestries in their respective Congregations.
I doubt whether any parts of Nos. I, III, IV and V could be changed and have the resulting entity still be worthy of the name "The Episcopal Church in the United States of America." It is how the framers work out the balance between Nos. II and VI that defines what could be called the "top-heaviness" of the institution.

And as over two hundred years of history have shown, the inevitable tendency is for an episcopal-led body to grow more and more top-heavy over time.

Dr. White, in the same work where he set out the basis for the six principles quoted above, had warned against exactly such a phenomenon, which can tend only towards episcopal tyranny:
Wherever these churches have been erected [in the Colonies], the ecclesiastical government of the church of England has been adhered to; they have depended on the English bishops for ordination of their clergy, and on no occasion expressed a dissatisfaction with Episcopacy. This, considering the liberty they enjoyed in common with others, of forming their churches on whatever plan they liked best, is a presumptive proof of their preferring the Episcopal government . . . .
On the other hand there cannot be produced an instance of laymen in America, unless in the very infancy of the settlements, soliciting the introduction of a bishop; it was probably by a great majority of them thought an hazardous experiment. How far the prerogative of the king as head of the church might be construed to extend over the colonies, whether a bishop would bring with him that part of the law which respects ecclesiastical matters, and whether the civil powers vested in bishops in England would accompany that order to America, were questions which for aught they knew would include principles and produce consequences, dangerous and destructive to their civil rights.

From these two facts it may fairly be inferred, that the Episcopalians on this continent will wish to institute among themselves an Episcopal government, as soon as it shall appear practicable, and that this government will not be attended with the danger of tyranny, either temporal or spiritual.
(Bold emphasis added.) Today we have reached the point of both temporal and spiritual tyranny: the Church exercises and claims total control over every parish's real and personal property, and the assembled Bishops ensure that no one who will not stomach their revisions to doctrine and worship shall remain for long among their number.

And now that same spiritual and temporal tyranny has decided to revise itself, out of whole cloth, with no guiding principles whatsoever. The clergy are dominating the process; the laity who participate will be invited to share in the power once they agree to concentrate it. The end result can only be a Church oligarchy -- rule of the many by the few.

To which the guidance of "the Holy Spirit" will be but a fillip, a form of window dressing to justify the end reached by tyrannical means. After all, unlike Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit left behind no spoken and timeless words for the guidance of His Church. (Some in ECUSA's current leadership think of the Holy Spirit as a "she", anyway, and hence much more conducive to their need for authentication.)

The last fight for the independence of dioceses and their parishes will occur in the General Conventions to take place between 2015 and 2021. If that fight is lost, the Episcopal Church as it was once bravely founded will be a relic of things past.

[UPDATE 02/18/2013: Well, they have themselves and acronym ("TREC" - for "Task Force for Re-Imagining The Episcopal Church") and an opening statement, which is 100% true to form:
We have started the process of developing an engagement strategy that will enable us to live into our commitment to transparency while preserving the sanctity of holy conversation....
This is Episcospeak at the pinnacle of its ability to say nothing in many words. They have started the "process" of developing (whoops, we're not there yet) an engagement strategy to live into their "commitment to transparency" -- why, of course they have. Translation:
At some point we will have to be open about what we are doing. But we are not there yet, because our talk together at this stage is still "holy."

We hope eventually to have a strategy to dip our toes into the water. But first we have to develop such a strategy, and before we can do that, we have to undertake a process for developing such a strategy.

As of today, we may confidently state that we have contemplated the beginnings of that process.
I cannot bear to quote, let alone to translate, the rest. You will have to get through it on your own.

I shall have to begin referring to their new acronym as "T-REC" (short for "Train Wreck").]


  1. If I didn't know better I'd say they were headed for an emasculated idea of the 2020 process, inspired by the UK "Fresh Expressions" progress to date (achievements remain to be seen in 30 years), filtered through a patchwork quilt of 'diversity'.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  2. Some strange days we agree... see my comments on Preludium. I think the Task Force can do some real work, but not quite yet. Humility sounds like a virtue worth practicing.

  3. Right you are, Fr. Harris (here is the link to the post you mentioned, btw). Whatever else TREC may have decided to this point, they have a master of Episcospeak as their communications director. What they still need to do is hire a translator for the rest of us.

  4. Well, by the time this group gets done, there will be no semblance between the New TEC and the PECUSA that I grew up in.

    Why any orthodox believer is still affiliated with this Ship of Fools is beyond me.

    Nor do I think that the ACNA is in much better shape. While parts of it cling to the 1979 book, others go with the 1692(? not sure of the year) version. Until the entire body centers itself on an orthodox book, I see little hope for them There is also the elephant in the room - that being what to do about women's ordination - that has yet to to be dealt with.

    I would hope that ACNA can correct itself; TEC is far beyond that stage and does not recognize the need for any correction!