April 14, 2014

Reform

I heard a radio report this morning of a Republican plan to “reform” the Pennsylvania tax system. The plan would involve reducing or abolishing property taxes in favor of higher sales and income taxes. In other words, the scheme would transfer tax burdens from more well-off people to the less privileged and the outright poor. Is this really reform?

In the American political lexicon, any plan to change the status quo, whether in law or practice, is touted as reform. One person’s reform, however, is another person’s backward step. Democrats and Republicans can advance diametrically opposed legislative plans, each of which is said to constitute reform. If a plan involves a change more aligned with one’s philosophy or desires, it is easy to call it a reform. Those who do not share that philosophy or desires may have a quite different view. The theme of “reform” is such a powerful rhetorical tool that we cannot expect politicians to abandon its use.

Journalists, however, should be more careful in how they use “reform.” It is one thing for a journalist to say that a legislator or party calls a proposal a reform; it is quite another for that journalist to place the reform label on a proposal without attributing that description to a person or group. Given our present political divide, a journalist who calls a plan to change immigration law a proposed “immigration reform,” is likely, if inadvertently, carrying water for the advocates of that plan.

When can “reform” properly be used by a journalist who strives for objectivity? When there is a clear consensus that something is wrong with the status quo and changes need to be made, it is fair to say that politicians are seeking reform. Certainly, “immigration reform” is on the national agenda now—everyone seems to believe that change is needed, though there is much dispute as to what that change should be. Also, when there is both a consensus that something is wrong and a consensus as to what is to be done, we can properly speak of reform. (I’m hard pressed to cite an example of a piece of legislation that qualifies as reform legislation, but I’m sure there must be one.)

In any case, not every change—indeed, few changes—are really reforms. Therefore, a reporter writing about one proposal or another regarding, say, immigration, should simply refer to the “immigration bill.” Let the politicians do what they will do, but don’t let them get away with selling their “reform” snake oil.

Snake oil salesman

April 12, 2014

The Most Popular Post

Some visitors have no doubt noticed the list of “Popular Posts” to the right of my blog posts. The first post listed is usually “A Preëmptive Political Post,” an essay I wrote on September 2, 2012, in anticipation of the upcoming presidential election. Near the beginning of that post, I wrote:
To save myself from all that future writing [in the days leading up to the November election], I’ve decided to develop a kind of preëmptive post simply listing themes relevant (or maybe relevant) to the presidential campaign. Each of these themes could be expanded into a standalone essay, but I leave that, at least for now, to the imagination of the reader. …

Actually, since my “themes” are generally assertions, I should perhaps call them truths. They will seem that more readily to Democrats than to Republicans, although I gore a donkey or two in addition to the elephants.
I suspect that the “popularity” of this post has more to do with the multitude of political issues touched on in the post, rather than with a widespread sense that my essay, taken as a whole, is a brilliant piece of political journalism. In other words, I suspect that I inadvertently created an effective Google magnet. My essay probably gets lots of “views” but not many “reads.”

Having just reread “A Preëmptive Political Post,” however, I think that’s unfortunate. A year and a half later, I stand by all the assertions I made in 2012. If you haven’t read the post and would like to see my take on what principles should underlie a progressive agenda, read the post now. Be the first to comment on my most “popular” post.

April 6, 2014

Whither Welby?

Ever since he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Episcopalians and other Anglicans have been trying to figure out what Justin Welby believes and how he will use his office. Will his tenure represent continuity with that of his predecessor, Rowan Williams, or will he act quite differently?

Early Indications

It was quickly apparent that Welby is less aloof and more plainspoken than Williams, more down-to-earth, if you will. He is easier to like and to relate to. His support for allowing women to become bishops in the Church of England has been encouraging, as has been his outspoken support for the downtrodden of English society. As far as I can determine, Welby has never made any public pronouncements about the Anglican Covenant, likewise a good thing.

His record on same-sex marriage, on the other hand, has been disappointing. In the House of Lords, he strongly opposed the bill that eventually authorized same-sex marriage in England and Wales. More distressing still was the pastoral guidance on same-sex marriage promulgated by the House of Bishops, presumably under the influence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Whereas the Pilling Report suggested that English clergy should be given some significant discretion in dealing with same-sex couples availing themselves of their new right to marry, the bishops announced unexpected restrictions on the ability of clergy to bless such partnerships or to enter into same-sex marriages themselves. The pastoral guidance seemed mean-spirited. (Tobias Haller, with a certain satirical malice,  perfectly captured the ethos of the episcopal directions in his post, “A Form of Prayer for a Same-Sex Marriage.”)

The Talk Show

Two days ago, Justin Welby was the guest on a radio call-in show on LBC radio hosted by James O’Brien. Apparently, no Archbishop of Canterbury had ever been on such a show. (Kudos to Welby for that.) On the whole, he handled his role with aplomb, as one might expect from the clerical leader of the Church of England. Liberal Anglicans can be pleased with Welby’s remarks about women bishops, economic inequality, the cost of energy, the nature of God, and the stewardship of church property. His observations regarding the church and homosexuals were revealing, but only added to the anxiety felt by liberal Anglicans.

The entire one-hour show can be viewed below:



What He Said

The archbishop had a lot to say in response both to callers and to host James O’Brien.  I want first to call attention to some of his remarks and then to offer a general critique of his performance.

Early in the show, Welby declined to comment on whether the same-sex marriage law is a good thing or not. He justified his reticence by noting that the church is in the process of deciding together about same-sex marriage, referring, presumably, to the facilitated conversations called for in the Pilling Report. Having argued so vigorously against the law, however, one can only assume that he is actually not too keen on it, even though he declared that the church would no longer oppose it once it was in effect. (What could the church do that would possibly be productive at this juncture?)

When asked directly whether homosexuality is wrong, he again refused to answer. But then he said this:
People can’t help being gay, and every human being’s dignity has to be respected.
It is encouraging that the archbishop believes that one’s sexual orientation is not a choice. Moreover, he later acknowledged that homosexuals, especially gay teenagers, experience “enormous suffering.” Respecting the dignity of homosexuals, however, runs afoul of the church’s current view of marriage:
My position is the historic position of the church, which is in our canons, which says that sexual relations should be within marriage, and marriage is between a man and a woman.
Of course, an all-male episcopate was also traditional and protected by canon, yet he campaigned against it. One has to think that his invocation of the status quo is, at least in part, a fig leaf to cover his own prejudices.

Archbishop Justin Welby
What is not clear is whether Welby is open to changing the position of the Church of England as a possible outcome of the facilitated conversations. O’Brien asked if the archbishop could imagine a gay wedding being performed in an Anglican church. He replied that he didn’t have to imagine it because it was already happening in some places. Then he said this:
I look at the scriptures; I look at the teaching of the church; I listen to Christians around the world; and I have real hesitation about that because I really don’t [want to?] say no to people who love each other. You have to have a sense of what the teaching of the church is. You can’t just make sudden changes.
Welby stammered uncharacteristically as he said this. His concern for homosexual persons seems genuine, but it is not his only serious concern.

None of the foregoing made news. What caught everyone’s attention was Welby’s explanation of why the Church of England’s embrace of same-sex marriage would be problematic. Many have assumed that the Archbishop of Canterbury is reluctant to offend conservative African primates who have threatened to distance their churches from Lambeth and, implicitly, from the Anglican Communion. Although Welby denied it, consideration of—as O’Brien put it—“conniptions” that a more gay-friendly policy in England might give Global South leaders must surely factor into Welby’s calculus of constraints under which he must operate. (I suspect that the archbishop was none-too-happy with the use of “conniptions,” and he took immediate exception to O’Brien’s referring to “less enlightened people in Africa.”)

In any case, Welby told this story:
I’ve stood by graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America. And they were attacked by other people because of that, and a lot of them have been killed. And I was in the South Sudan a few weeks ago, and the church leaders there were saying, “Please don’t change what you’re doing because then we couldn’t accept your help, and we need your help desperately.” And we have to listen carefully to that.
O’Brien asked this question:
So a Christian on the ground in Africa could end up being on the receiving end of violence and abuse because of a decision taken at Lambeth Palace about sexual equality, about gay marriage?
Welby answered, simply, “Yes.”

(For readers unwilling to watch the entire LBC program, the most newsworthy excerpt is here.)

Welby and the Anglican Communion

I don’t doubt for a moment that the archbishop was told what he reported when he was in South Sudan. I have serious doubts about the candor of his informants, however. There have been numerous massacres in Sudan in recent years, but, although these have generally been Muslim-on-Christian violence, I have seen no credible reports suggesting that they have had anything to do with any event in the U.S. Archbishop Welby did not hint at what might have sparked the killings he reported. The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are far ahead of the Church of England in their fair treatment of gays and lesbians, but it isn’t obvious that this is responsible for the deaths of Anglicans elsewhere. One might argue that the Church of England is a special case, but it isn’t as special as it thinks. See below.

This is not to say that violence in one country cannot be inspired by events elsewhere. The infamous Danish cartoons and the laughably amateurish Innocence of Muslims trailer each led to deadly violence in Islamic countries, but these were extreme cases in which the “provocation” was construed as a frontal attack on Islam itself. Surely the embrace of marriage equality by the Church of England would be less inflammatory.

As an aside, I should note that, although many commentators have suggested that Welby is acceding to blackmail, he is actually bowing to extortion. Not that this matters—neither would represent capture of the high moral ground on his part. The Archbishop of Canterbury has declared himself willing to continue the actual harm being done to members of his own church in the hope of staving off hypothetical evil actions of foreigners over which he has no control.

The Rev. Susan Russell described Welby’s stance as pathetic, rather than prophetic. Certainly, the Church of England has the opportunity to demonstrate a more humane and, many would say, a more Christian way of responding to the challenge of homosexuality than is commonplace in the Anglican Global South. The archbishop is unwilling to take that opportunity.

As for churches such as that of South Sudan’s being unable to accept aid from the Church of England if England embraces marriage equality, that is South Sudan’s problem. That country is already accepting aid from Episcopalians in America, so I view the argument that South Sudan would need to eschew English aid as pure extortion.

Whatever the “real” reasons Welby might have for fearing the effects that actions taken by the Church of England might have on conservative churches of the Anglican Communion, the fear itself is the product of the arrogant self-importance that seems to afflict Archbishops of Canterbury. Holders of the office seem to view the Communion as the last remnant of empire, to which they must cling to retain any semblance of English self-respect.

Consider a few selected quotes from the LBC program:
But the problem we face … is that everything we say here goes around the world, for reasons of history and media and all that, so we don’t make policy on the hoof … .

Ninety-eight percent of members of the Anglican Communion who are regular churchgoers are not in England. The average Anglican is an African woman in her 30s—a sub-Saharan African woman in her 30s.

We are the most incredible multinational organization. The Anglican Church is in 143 countries, 37 provinces.

What we say here is heard round the world.

Why can’t we just do it [make major changes] now? Because the impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Pakistan, Nigeria, and other places, would be absolutely catastrophic. And we have to love them as much as we love the people who are here.

We are one of the great international groups that there is in this world; we are massively majority, not in England.
When I attended my confirmation class thirty years ago, the Anglican Communion was described as a fellowship of independent churches that had little effect on the day-to-day operation of The Episcopal Church or of its dioceses and parishes. Bishops got together every decade to discuss matters of concern to them at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who acted as a kind of party host. I was pleased to learn that I could find churches throughout the world related to the one I was about to join, but no one suggested that the fellowship was the sort of monolith of which the Roman Catholic Church was the prime example (and one I wanted to get away from as far as possible). It was made very clear that there is no “Anglican Church,” only Anglican churches (or provinces). Yet, despite the protestations of Welby (and other Archbishops of Canterbury) that he has no desire to be the Anglican pope, he does seem to possess some deep-seated papal envy. He wants to be (or, at the very least, believes himself to be) very important in the Christian world.

If the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), say, wants to avoid any local unrest due to actions of the Church of England, or of any other Communion church for that matter, it can invoke plausible deniability. The Nigerian church is an independent organization having neither control over nor obligation to follow the lead of the Church of England. End of story.

In fact, it has been the primates of the conservative Global South and their fellow travelers (and bankrollers) in the West that have promoted an exulted view of the Anglican Communion and the notion that all our churches are somehow bound at the hip. Why? Precisely so they can play on raw numbers and colonial guilt to extort money, prestige, and support for their own traditionalist beliefs from the liberal churches of the Anglican world. It is high time that Western churches—and especially the Church of England—condemned that extortion for what it is. Neither the Church of England nor the Archbishop of Canterbury is half as important as Justin Welby imagines them to be.

There are only two ways that widespread change happens in the world. Either (1) it is imposed by a dictatorial leader or through a more-or-less democratic process by a body possessing agreed-upon authority or (2) early adopters implement change, and others, seeing the wisdom of their actions, eventually follow along. Serious change almost never comes about by simply waiting for everyone to come to the same conclusion as to what needs to be done. The Anglican Communion as a whole is not going to come to a uniform policy regarding homosexuality in our lifetimes. (Not all Communion churches even accept women priests!) The churches that can, need to end the treatment of homosexuals as second- (or third-) class members and show the way of Christ to others.

Welby the Conflicted

Justin Welby is, I think, a perfectly decent chap, but he is clearly suffering from cognitive dissonance, that is, he holds, simultaneously, mutually contradictory ideas. On the one hand, he believes that homosexuals have been persecuted by the church and deserve to be treated like anyone else. Yet he heads a church that, at least on paper, holds otherwise. Moreover, he sincerely believes that treating homosexuals fairly at home will result in death to innocent Christians elsewhere. He is, from his point of view, between Scylla and Charybdis.

It is easy to sympathize with Welby’s dilemma. Even though he has constructed a temporary rationale for inaction, he surely must realize that he cannot forestall his church’s decision on same-sex marriage forever. One way or another, the facilitated conversations can only end badly. I suspect that he will try to export the sexuality conversations to the entire Anglican Communion in a vain attempt to achieve consensus or at least avoid a crisis. In the meantime, however, life happens, and God, not Justin Welby, is in control.

Welby’s problems are of his own making. First, the problem of the Church of England’s stance on homosexuality is really no problem at all, at least from an institutional viewpoint. Citing the church’s current doctrine is but a rationale for avoidance. The church has changed its views on divorce, ordination of women, and other matters, and it can surely change its view of marriage without the world’s coming to an end. Of course, even taken in isolation from other churches, he may not consider this a good outcome, but it almost certainly will be demanded by the English people, and, if he is still in office, he will be forced to go along.

As for the effect of change on the rest of the world, the archbishop needs to realize that neither he nor his church is as important to the world as it thinks they are. He is a primate like any other, and whatever moral authority he has is hardly advanced by bowing to extortion that hurts those under his care in the hope that doing so will inspire right behavior in others who have no incentive to pay him the slightest attention. A little humility will greatly reduce the current cognitive dissonance the archbishop is experiencing.

A Word about The Episcopal Church

Wherever Archbishop Justin Welby chooses to go, The Episcopal Church and perhaps a handful of like-minded churches, should assert their need to follow Christ as they understand they are called to do. Our church should be willing to work with other churches of the Communion, but it will not be bound by their theologies. We must let the Anglican world know that following the lead of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily mean following the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates’ Meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council, or the GAFCON primates.

It is clear that Justin Welby has set himself up for failure. We should not follow.

April 4, 2014

National Poetry Month 2014

National Poetry Month is here again. I invite readers to sample my poetry on Lionel Deimel’s Farrago. You can find all my poetry here.



March 31, 2014

An Interesting Argument against Creationism

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Fox’s new series Cosmos, made a very interesting point in yesterday’s episode. It should not, of course, be necessary to argue against the ignorant, anti-scientific (yet pseudo-scientific) notion of “creationism.” Alas, it is, and this program has taken several opportunities to attack religious nonsense without being too explicit about it.

Episode 4 made a point I had never thought of, namely, that were the universe only 6,600 years old—I think I have the number mentioned right—we could see stars only 6,600 light years away. Yet we can see stars billions of light years away. In other words, one only has to look at the sky to realize that creationist theories are wrong.

What Cosmos failed to do in episode 4 and has failed to do in earlier episodes is to justify some of the scientific facts that it promulgates. This would be difficult in some cases, to be sure, but often a credible case can be made for a scientific idea without offering an absolutely convincing proof. That may not be true in quantum mechanics, but it is certainly true for, say, the speed of light.

We have gone to the moon and therefore have fairly direct evidence of how far away it is. Moreover, we have bounced laser light off a mirror on the moon, and we know how long that took. There may be simpler ways of measuring the speed of light, but the average viewer ought to be able to appreciate such a measurement and, assuming some honesty among scientists, that that speed is what it is represented to be. I’m not sure what is the easiest way of establishing that many stars are very far away—I suspect that an argument involving trigonometry would work—but I cannot imagine that such an argument would be too difficult to construct.

Whereas I find the argument from the nature of what we see in the sky quite convincing, I have no doubt that a creationist could devise some cockamamie alternative explanation. (Creationists have never heard of Occam’s razor, apparently.) In any case, I appreciate the ideas presented in Cosmos, but I wish that the series would go at least a little deeper into its subjects.

March 30, 2014

Gator

I attended a conference at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Friday and Saturday. It was the first time I had spent time on campus since I gave up my teaching position in the computer science department more than 25 years ago and joined the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. I was impressed by the changes I saw, which included new and renovated buildings, as well as updated landscaping.

I had to smile when I encountered an unfamiliar piece of outdoor sculpture near the entrance to the student center. I meant to take a number of pictures of the campus, but rain intervened, and the only photos I took were of the alligator sculpture (below). It is, as you can see, amazingly lifelike. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Alligator sculpture

Allegheny College sports teams are the Gators. Paradoxically, there are no alligators in the chilly climate of northwestern Pennsylvania. The alliteration of “Allegheny Alligators,” along with the reputation of the American alligator as a ferocious carnivore, no doubt lead to the selection of school mascot. “Go, Gators,” I suppose, works better as a cheer than “Go, Alligators.”

March 24, 2014

Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks

TREC logo
The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) released its first “study paper” for public comment last momth. (It has now released a second paper. See my post “Some Initial Thoughts on the TREC Study Paper on Governance and Administration.”) Here, I want to offer my own thoughts on “Study Paper on Episcopal Networks.”

Background

TREC was mandated by Resolution C095, enacted by the 2012 General Convention. Its main provision is the following:
Resolved, That this General Convention establish a Task Force under the Joint Rules of Order, whose purpose shall be to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration;
The stated rationale for C095 is this:
The administrative and governance structures of The Episcopal Church have grown over the years so that they now comprise approximately 47% of the churchwide budget and sometimes hinder rather than further this Church’s engagement in God’s mission. Reform is urgently needed to facilitate this Church’s strategic engagement in mission and allow it to more fully live into its identity as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society in a world that has changed dramatically over the years but that also presents extraordinary missional opportunity.
In truth, General Convention deputies were not simply alarmed at the cost of running the general church; there was a sense, among many deputies, that Episcopalians were not getting their money’s worth. In particular, the budgeting process in the past two triennia was seen to be opaque, unresponsive, and maladroit. No doubt, there were other reasons behind support for C095, some more justified than others. I suspect that some people are alarmed at our shrinking membership and are looking for any changes, wherever they might be found, that might possibly reverse the trends.

Whatever the motivation, C095 commanded nearly universal support from deputies. The church was perceived to be in trouble, and C095 was seen as a way of doing something about it.

The Study Papers

In releasing “Study Paper on Episcopal Networks” (SPEN), TREC promised that additional papers would follow “over the next few months … to stimulate conversation and seek input from the larger church.” The papers are described by TREC this way:
We call these documents Study Papers, because they study an issue or offer a new approach to a particular dimension of the structure, governance or administration of the church. As such, we hope they are constructive and thought provoking.
The task force has requested comments, corrections, relevant stories, and other varieties of feedback. The suggested feedback mechanisms are diverse to the point of raising the question as to whether the task force will even be aware of all the comments being made. (A March 18, 2014, report to the church is encouraging, however, as it reports on task force members “reviewing feedback that we have received thus far from throughout the church, including from the engagement kit, blogs, website postings, direct conversation, and a variety of other sources.”) Curiously, the task force suggests that one might “email a TREC member privately,” but addresses for TREC members have not been posted. I suppose the idea is that you might prefer to communicate with a TREC member you actually know, rather than sending a comment to the task force’s general address, reimaginetec@gmail.com.

I noticed that the study papers thus far released do not carry any indication of authorship. Knowing their provenance could be helpful. SPEN indicates that it was produced by the “sub-group on networks.” We are not told, however, who is in this sub-group or how many people are in it. Is SPEN the exclusive product of the sub-group on networks, or was it vetted or approved by a larger group?

Until very recently, the organization of TREC and the way it has chosen to divide its task has not been obvious. The agenda for its March 13–15 meeting suggests that TREC operates as four groups:
  1. Constitution and Canons team
  2. Networks sub-committee
  3. Leadership and Centers for Excellence Sub-Committee
  4. Engagement sub-committee
 (I have listed the groups exactly as they appear on the agenda. I assume the apparent inconsistency in naming is inconsequential.) I have inferred, but am by no means certain, that the four groups are disjoint. Clearly, the last group is concerned with collecting responses from the church at large, so it appears that TREC has partitioned its remit into the areas of governance, networks, and leadership.

It is not obvious that the topics of governance, networks, and leadership cover the waterfront of structural issues facing The Episcopal Church. George Clifford wrote a series of essays for Episcopal Café (here, here, and here) called “Be Bold: restructuring the TEC.” He identified a number of worrisome trends, at least some of which seem worthy of consideration by TREC. Clifford notes, for example, that our church has “a legacy of many small congregations in the wrong geographic locales” and that this circumstance represents a serious drain on church resources. He also observed that “increasing numbers of Christians prefer to attend a large rather than a small congregation.” To these concerns, I would add the observation that small dioceses may also be a drain on church resources. Also, in light of the organized (and ongoing) defections and thefts experienced by The Episcopal Church in recent years, some consideration should be given to preventing such depredations in the future. These issues seem not to have been identified as significant by TREC.

Of course, it is difficult not to agree with Bishop of Springfield Daniel Martins, who wrote, in response to a presentation to Episcopal bishops by the task force, “They [TREC] are only 24 people, the scope of their task is impossible to comprehend, and their work is seriously underfunded.” What Bishop Martins did not say is that the members of the task force are unpaid volunteers. We owe them our gratitude for taking on such a daunting task, though the usefulness of their efforts ultimately will rest on what they are able to produce.

Consistent with the apparent organization of TREC, a recent Episcopal News Service story  mentioned only one additional paper that we should expect to see from TREC prior to its final report, namely, one on leadership development. Revised versions of the two papers issued so far (and perhaps a revision of the future leadership paper) are also scheduled to appear.

With that background, I now want to take a close look at SPEN.

Study Paper on Episcopal Networks

I found SPEN worrisome. To begin with, networks, however construed, hardly seems like the first topic to be addressed if one is interested in reimagining The Episcopal Church. Perhaps the network group was simply quick out of the starting gate. In any case, SPEN is vague and often incoherent. TREC’s second effort has been a bit more encouraging, but even it is long on recommendations and short on analysis.

I was surprised that SPEN contains no footnotes to the literature on organizational structure or organizational behavior. In fact, I have seen no evidence of the task force’s having consulted experts in the areas about which they have written. No doubt, the volunteer nature of TREC and an inadequate budget, which I suspect will largely be expended on travel support, are responsible for its relying largely on its own resources. Doing so, however, necessarily limits what TREC can be expected to accomplish.

SPEN begins with this abstract:
In the Network Study Paper, we observe that TEC has several kinds of networks operating in it (4 types, across network v.1.0 and v.2.0). Some are adapted for the challenges ahead of us, some of these networks are not. TEC has operated under a corporate network for the last 50 years and that model appears to be dying. New life is struggling to come about, and we sketch some possibilities.
Actually, the above paragraph appears in the PDF version of the paper—see link above—but is omitted from the HTML version. It is odd in many respects. What, for example, are “network v.1.0 and v.2.0”? I have heard our church described as having a “corporate” structure, though I have never heard of The Episcopal Church (or any American corporation, for that matter) as “operating under a corporate network.” (Corporations have corporate networks, but that’s something else entirely.) And I don’t know what to make of the anthropomorphism of “[N]ew life … struggling to come about.”

The abstract prepares us to learn about various Episcopal Church networks and how some are equipped for a twenty-first century church and some are not. Alas, such an expectation goes unrealized.

Introduction

The careful reader might reasonably expect the authors of SPEN to (1) provide a rigorous definition of what they understand by the term “network” and (2) justify the importance of the topic to the task assigned to them. It might also be expected that the nature of relevant networks would be investigated in some detail. SPEN does none of this.

The closest the paper comes to defining the term “network” is in this phrase:
that intermix of human connections, bolstered by technology, and focused on some purposeful outcomes
This text is set off by dashes, and it is unclear whether it is intended to refer to networks generally or to “networks for ministry,” the words that precede the “definition.” As a working definition—if indeed that is what this phrase is intended to be—is a hopeless muddle. It seems both too broad and too narrow. By this definition, a football team is a network, but a group of clergy getting together every week for coffee and conversation may not be. (The technology isn’t apparent, and neither are the purposeful outcomes in this latter example.) A good definition serves the purpose of allowing one to determine, without too much ambiguity, what is in the class being defined and what is not. What SPEN has offered does not qualify as a good definition. I suspect that it was not even meant to be, the reader being expected to use his own intuitive sense of what a network is. This lapse is not a small one.

The SPEN authors clearly believe that networks (or suitably enhanced networks) are the solution to a church problem. It is not clear what that problem is. The closest we get to a statement of the problem is this: “how the Episcopal Church (TEC) may best position itself for the future in order to participate faithfully in God’s mission of reconciliation, renewal and restoration.” That is too general to be useful. We get some hint of what problem (or problems) that networks might be solving later on, but the exposition in SPEN is hardly compelling.

Assumptions: Central/Local Tensions

The first major section of SPEN is “Assumptions: Central/Local Tensions.” Acknowledging assumptions is a useful preliminary step in such a paper, but this section, too, is disappointing.

The section begins
We believe that in the cultural West, in which TEC operates for the most part, Christian institutional forms have diminished in both impact and visibility. A consequence of this diminishment is that the corporate model of doing work/ministry is no longer sustainable: the classic central (up)/local (down) relationship is changing, or has changed. The center for example, is no longer the source of strategy and programming, nor the networking hub. It simply does not have the resources or the knowledge to do so in a church community that is diverse, spanning geographies and theological perspectives, and experiencing all manner of challenges and opportunities.
Most would agree without much argument that mainline Protestant churches have lost members and influence in recent years. I’m not sure what “Christian institutional forms” actually refers to, however, or just what the impact and visibility of Christian institutional forms might be. Certainly, evangelical Christians have gained influence and visibility as mainstream Protestants have lost it. It does not follow logically that “the corporate model of doing work/ministry” is no longer viable. Why is this so? What is “the corporate model”? If the implication is that all Christian denominations have a similar “corporate” structure, SPEN is simply wrong. If the authors only mean to refer to mainline Protestant churches, the assertion is only somewhat less wrong. In any case, there is a good deal of hand waving and not much thoughtful exposition going on here. “The center” presumably refers to the Episcopal Church Center (ECC). It is true that it is not the center of strategy, programming, or communication within the church. Was it ever? It certainly has not been for as long as I have been an Episcopalian.

The next paragraph asserts, without citing any evidence, that Americans in general, and Episcopalians in particular, have lost faith in central authorities. The clear implication is that, in large measure, we need to do away with ECC, even if it is or can perform legitimate functions. This seems a defeatist approach. Trends are simply trends; they may be bad or they may be good. Sometimes bad trends need to be resisted.

I must offer an aside here. In the next paragraph, ECC is identified by the parenthetical “dubbed by some as ‘815’, and by itself as Missionary Society.” Bishop Stacey Sauls seems to have invented this “Missionary Society” name to re-brand the central office of The Episcopal Church, which SPEN asserts has lost credibility. Well, Congress has lost credibility, but no one is suggesting we rename it. Moreover, Missionary Society makes no sense as a moniker for ECC, as it suggests exactly the kind of privileged role that SPEN argues is not viable. Moreover, the (legally) corporate church is formally the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society—“Missionary Society” apparently comes from this name—and all Episcopalians are its members, not simply church office-holders and hired hands at 815 Second Avenue. (See my previous rants about this foolishness here and here.)

SPEN goes on to ask if the church needs “a central-anything,” and suggests an affirmative answer “if only because people abhor a vacuum.” What kind of argument is this? Is this really the best logic we can get from 24 people chosen from across the entire church? Did anyone read this paper seriously before it was thrown over the transom?

As the paper asserts, there is a tension between the local and the central (actually, non-local) in The Episcopal Church and, really, in any large organization. This tension is complicated, however, which SPEN does not acknowledge. Many would like to see ECC do less. As one who has lived through a diocesan schism, however, my regret is that the general church was unable or unwilling to do more. Pittsburgh Episcopalians were aware of the coming schism years before it occurred; only when it was imminent did we receive substantial help. That help was too little and too late to head off the painful split.

Anyway, in the final paragraph of this section, the authors get a bit smug and gratuitously dismissive. The paper refers to “our tradition of shared governance—which sometimes seems like a sacralization of division of powers.” What is the implication here? Are we to turn over control of the church to the clergy, thereby letting the inmates run the asylum? Our participatory governance is an appropriate way for Americans to adapt the historic episcopate “in the methods of its administration to the … needs” of our nation. Perhaps some changes are needed, but shared governance must remain.

In summary, the message of the Assumptions section seems to be that Episcopalians are hostile to central authority. If so, we need to investigate why that might be so and consider what could be done about it. Apparently, too many see the general church as meddling in local affairs and too few see it as the servant of the local church. Perhaps we need to change attitudes, not restructure the church to pander to what are, in many cases, ignorant prejudices

Uncertainty and the Future: Sin and Metanoia

Two things become clear in this next section. First—this point is expressed only obliquely—networks are seen as an alternative to more hierarchical structures. They are possibly less formal, yet more effective. Second, there are far too many members of the clergy on the task force. Nearly 60% of its members are ordained, and I would hazard a guess that, as a group, they know a good deal more about theology than about organizational development or organizational theory. And how is a task force that is mostly populated by clergy representative of the church at large?

This rather over-long section asserts that our efforts at structural change must take sin into account. We are invited to change our hearts and minds, to experience metanoia.

The reality is that people in organizations exhibit a variety of behaviors for a variety of reasons. Actions viewed as undesirable or destructive may arise from misunderstanding, valid disagreement as to goals and strategies, differing assessment of particular situations, as well as from fear, personal ambition, resentment, and the like. In other words, in whatever organization they operate, people behave like humans. To label “bad” behavior sinful is manipulative, mean-spirited, and unhelpful name-calling. To introduce a word like metanoia into a conversation about organizational restructuring is clerical pedantry.

That this entire section is largely irrelevant to whatever point this paper is trying to make is indicated by the fact that “sin” occurs nowhere in SPEN other than in this section. Rather than condemning sin and calling for repentance and a change of heart, it would have been more helpful had the authors identified particular attitudes and behaviors they view as dysfunction in the past and in our possible futures. My own sense is that our church is less threatened by personal ambition and insensitivity than it is by a pervading ethic of Anglican niceness, an unwillingness to rock the boat because someone somewhere—possibly even someone not in our church and on another continent—may not like what we do or say. Saying what we really think is more useful (and healthy) than branding as a sinner anyone who thinks differently.

Legislation and Bonds of Affection

In this section, it is clear that networks are somehow seen as TREC’s great white hope for saving The Episcopal Church, a notion that SPEN has thus far failed to establish (and, overall in this paper, fails to establish). The section begins with this assertion:
TREC’s output is expected to be a set of legislation for the General Convention to consider, including perhaps legislation for how to go about building (central doing), or encouraging (central helping local) networks.
I should point out that Resolution C095 did not ask the task force to produce “a set of legislation for the General Convention to consider.” It asked instead, as I quoted at the beginning of this essay, for “a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration.”

Anyway, SPEN proceeds to dismiss legislation as a mechanism for establishing effective networks. At this point, however, SPEN becomes increasing incoherent and poorly written. The second paragraph begins with
But this, is not legislation or a thing. This, at least when it comes to networks, is always a person.
It took me a while to figure out what is being said here, in part, because the comma after “this” makes no sense. I looked in vain for an antecedent for “this.” I finally realized that “this” did not need an antecedent but should have been enclosed in quotation marks or italicized. It refers to the final sentence of the preceding paragraph, which was intended to disparage legislation:
Everything becomes, “do you support this or oppose this?”
In any case, what does it even mean to say, as the authors do next, that “[t]his, at least when it comes to networks, is always a person”? This writing is gobbledygook.

The section goes on to say that Episcopal networks must be based on love, on “bonds of affection.” This notion is fundamentally wrong. SPEN rightly observes that recent history may make readers skeptical of talk of “bonds of affection.” (Damn right!) As in the Anglican Communion globally, bonds of affection may, in some abstract sense, hold us together, but only common objectives lead to effective common action. (This is another instance of clerical nonsense getting in the way of useful analysis.)

A Framework to Think about Networks

This section serves up muddled thinking in the guise of rigorous scholarship. The paper identifies four types of networks (personal, issue/lobby/political, project/missional, and knowledge sharing or co-learning). No theory is cited for these hypothesized network types, and the authors give neither useful definitions nor examples. The rather cumbersome names attached to these network types is evidence of the fuzzy thinking behind this section. More abstraction and exposition is needed here. Is this list of four network types intended to be exhaustive? Are they mutually exclusive? Who knows? The discussion is devoid of intellectual rigor.

We are told that the four networks are cross-cut by degrees of depth, breadth, and diversity, by which it is apparently meant that networks have properties (among others) indicating degrees of depth, breadth, and diversity (or heterogeneity). One might have wished for a description based on mathematics, rather than carpentry.

Anyway, the reader next is confronted by this perplexing chart:



Simple/Local/Same/organized
Complex/global/diverse/emergent
1.            Personal and Social
Race/Gender/Class


Cosmopolitan, mixed identity
2.            Political
Parish
Diocese
TEC
Anglican
3.             
Missional
City
County
Country
Global
4.            Knowledge and Learning
Episcopalian focused
(organized by Diocese or 815)
Ecumenical (part
organized)
Interfaith (more
spontaneity)
Eclectic (emergent, self-organized)

The reader is left to infer what this table represents. The vertical axis is clear enough; it represents the hypothesized network types. The horizontal axis is less clear. That the body of the chart contains four columns is misleading. There is not, for example, a type of political network having the right-facing arrow property. In this oddly constructed display, one seemingly moves from examples of abstractly simple networks at the left to examples of abstractly complicated networks on the right. The table is especially confusing, as the entries within the body do not all seem to be of the same class. What, for example, is a “Race/Gender/Class”? Is “City” a missional network? (Can it be said that a city is “focused on some purposeful outcomes”? If so, in what sense?) What is “Anglican”? Is it the Anglican Communion? Is it meant to include every church with “Anglican” in its name? (Is the Anglican Church in North America included in this cell?)

Returning to the horizontal axis, it appears that networks are being characterized by properties of complexity, locality, heterogeneity, and some ill-defined organizational principle. What happened to the three-way classification suggested in the proceeding paragraph (depth, breadth, and heterogeneity)? Who knows? Because the variability represented on the horizontal axis refers to a constellation of at least four components, the apparent simplicity of the chart is quite misleading. The two-dimensional table is a simplified representation of a classification that is at least five-dimensional.

SPEN proceeds to argue, incoherently, I contend, that certain networks are somehow better than others. We need to imagine “how #1 and #2 are harnessed to serve #3 and #4.” This sounds like dialogue from a bad science fiction movie. What does it even mean? Next, we are told about “network version 1.0” and “network 2.0.” (Nomenclature isn’t even parallel here.) We are told that network version 1.0—a class of network types or subtypes—is shown in blue on the chart. The chart contains cells in two colors of blue, however, as well as white cells. What do the light blue cells and the white cells represent? Why are some cells empty? The reader isn’t told. (Presumably, this is a holy mystery.)

This section continues, but further analysis of transparent nonsense is a waste of time.

Our Understanding of Change

There isn’t much substance in this section. There are some useful insights, though they are not clearly connected to the rest of the paper. SPEN notes that
  1. We cannot simply ignore current Episcopalians, who have a high median age, and rebuild our church for a younger generation. (As an elderly Episcopalian, albeit a technically savvy one, this acknowledgement was reassuring.)
  2. Is is increasingly difficult to find younger church members willing to assume responsibility for functions currently being performed by older Episcopalians.

 

Our areas of research in the next 2-3 months

This section ought to say something like the following:
We will forget we ever wrote this paper and will begin doing some serious, scholarly thinking. In preparation, we will interview leaders of other Christian churches facing challenges analogous to our own, and we will consult with academic experts whose lives are devoted to the study of organizations.
Instead, the plan is to move forward with TREC’s incoherent network model and to
  1. examine bodies established under the 1.0 paradigm, and ask: how can they be improved for better networking?
  2. identify functioning 2.0 networks and ask them to tell their stories.
From the foregoing sections of the paper, it is not clear to me—and, I suspect, not clear to most readers—how version 2.0 networks differ from version 1.0 networks or, for that matter, why the former are intrinsically “better” the the latter. (Are there, by the way, version 1.5 networks? Is this even a meaningful question in the TREC model? Is the “.0” just an attempt to make the text seem more “scientific”?) It is not, therefore, obvious that the identified activities are going to be useful other than to keep the network group busy.

I want to make a few isolated observations about the proposed activities outlined in this section, rather than analyze the section as a whole.

The authors want to know the degree to which bodies (House of Bishops, House of Deputies, and Executive Council) “go beyond their prescribed roles and positions, to act spontaneously in the service of missional networking (#3) and co-learning (#4).” With respect to Executive Council in particular, are the authors suggesting that it would be a good thing if members acted beyond their authority? Are they endorsing the abuse of power? I surely hope not.

The paper acknowledges that Episcopal seminaries are in trouble. It is not intuitively obvious, however, that networking of some sort will be the mechanism that saves our seminaries.

TREC plans to consider the role of ECC with regard to networking. The paper makes some assertions about the history of the general church, and it would have been helpful had SPEN discussed that history. Again, the paper exhibits a degree of resignation regarding the need to change for the sake of change, which may be counterproductive:
We note that the skepticism directed towards church-wide structures appears to be deep, and while not complete, affects a sizeable portion of TEC’s membership such that even if a majority were to agree to forms of centrally sponsored networks, the vigor and focus will inevitably be deficient—in other words, unloved and hence illegitimate.
What happened to metanoia?

Some Final Thoughts

It is telling, I think, that this first TREC paper has received significantly less commentary in the Anglican blogosphere and elsewhere. The paper is simply incoherent and poorly written. It should never have been allowed to see the light of day. Further, SPEN makes no effective recommendations to evaluate. Basically, it says that we should move from version 1.0 networks to version 2.0 networks, but it neither makes clear what that means nor provides a viable mechanism to make such transitions.

TREC has a November 2014 deadline for offering its recommendations to the 2015 General Convention. If its work is to be at all useful to the church, the quality of that work will have to improve substantially over what is evident in SPEN. Even the latest paper on governance and administration is long on recommendations but painfully short on any rationale for implementing them. Moreover, one looks in vain for any evidence of the task force’s musings on networks in “Study Paper on Governance and Administration.” Apparently, TREC needs a heavy does of version 2.0 networking itself, as one hand does not seem to know what the other hand is doing.

Barring some miraculous improvement in the performance of TREC, it is obvious that either the recommendations of the task force will be deemed useless to the 2015 General Convention or that ill-conceived recommendations will be enacted as a kind of hail-Mary play by a frightened General Convention. Neither outcome will serve our church. We should expect that reasonable reform requiring General Convention sanction cannot be undertaken before 2018.