November 12, 2014

Diocesan Convention 2014: An Outsider’s View

The annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh was held this past weekend, on November 7 & 8, at Trinity Cathedral. Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) had a table in a room that hosted displays of many organizations with a connection to the diocese. PEP board member Beth Stifel attended the convention as a visitor. She was there primarily to talk to people who stopped by the PEP table, where we were promoting the November 14 screening of the documentary Inequality for All. In the essay below, Beth offers her thoughts as a non-deputy attendee.
This past weekend’s convention was the second over which Bishop Dorsey McConnell presided. There was no hype, no palpable anxiety, and little, if any, animosity in evidence. People were enjoying seeing one another. That’s what I noticed as an observer who was there to greet people at the PEP table, not to participate in the main business of the convention.

I spent most of my time in a room filled with displays from various organizations, and I felt as though I had been transported to a not-so-spiffy version of the mid-seventies. As I looked around, I thought about what a visitor would notice:
  • A lot of us were white-haired.
  • The exhibits seemed to be from the mid-seventies era and were not outstanding examples of the same.
  • The room in which a lot of gathering was happening felt dim and dreary.

Where were the younger members of our congregations, who were nowhere to be seen?

Neither computers nor evidence of their use was apparent. PEP’s table was the only one offering a PowerPoint presentation. This is the twenty-first century, people! High school students in Pittsburgh were required to be computer literate in the mid-eighties! We certainly should care enough about our organizations to produce current and relevant displays using commonly available technology.

Near and dear to my heart, the Neighborhood Youth Outreach Program had a fairly nice poster. Where was the technology-based presentation illustrating the incredible things they do with song and dance? They will have one next year!

Every organization that had an exhibit probably has someone who can put together compelling video to promote the group. This isn’t rocket science. Such a presentation lets the community see what you’re doing and helps you communicate important information to your audience. I suggested to cathedral parishioners that a history of the cathedral might be great, perhaps in the form of a did-you-know presentation. We need accessible displays that say that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is committed, interested, welcoming, and really in the twenty-first century.

The room housing the displays was dirty. The carpet was filthy. The table covers had seen many better days. It felt a lot like the grandfather’s house where the furniture hasn’t changed in 40 years and dusting rarely happens.

I’m not sure that, if I didn’t know the people there, I’d even want to find out about the groups represented. I happened to know that the people at the displays were smart, interesting, and fun. Not knowing that, I could easily have walked in, looked around briefly, and left.

There are simple things we could choose to do that would make us feel better about ourselves and would let visitors know that we respect ourselves and want to be relevant.

The room itself needs some work to make it more pleasant. I’m not sure about the cost, but fresh and clean, with better table covers, would go a long way. A new floor covering would be wonderful. A paint job would change the whole feeling of the room. (The recent transformation of Brooks Hall at St. Andrew’s, Highland Park, shows how a little redecorating can work wonders.) Such changes would cost money, of course, but they would let visitors know that Trinity Cathedral is a friendly, welcoming place. It is, after all, the center of our diocese and the bishop’s seat. We can and need to do better.

I firmly believe the gospel is relevant in our time. Communicating with people under 45, however, demands that we demonstrate that we live in the twenty-first century. Otherwise, there will be no one for us to talk to.

November 5, 2014

Bill Maher Had It Right

Before yesterday’s elections, Bill Maher, on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, excoriated Democratic candidates for not embracing Barack Obama and his real accomplishments. Sensing the unpopularity of the country’s first black president, Democratic candidates pretty much agreed with their Republican opponents that the Obama presidency has been a disaster.

No one can prove that adopting the strategy urged by Maher would have produced results more favorable to the Democratic Party on election day 2014, of course, but it is hard to imagine that things could have been any worse. At the very least, Democratic candidates standing up for the Democratic Party and a Democratic President could have played an educational role for the country: It is not a universally acknowledged fact that Barack Obama has been a terrible president. As played out on the ground, however, the notion that Obama is a feckless and incompetent president was reinforced not only by Republicans, but by Democrats as well.

With both Republicans and Democrats viewing a Democratic presidency as a failure, why would anyone vote for a Democrat? Why not give the other party a chance to govern? Did the logic of this really escape Democratic Party strategists?

Bill Maher had it right.

Bill Maher
Bill Maher (photo by Angela George)

Thoughts on the 2014 Elections

No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.
—H.L. Mencken, 1926
In the run-up to yesterday’s elections, many voters complained  about the gridlock in Washington. So, of course, they voted in overwhelming numbers for the party that was responsible for the gridlock.

God help us!

File:The Scream.jpg


October 27, 2014

PEP to Screen Inequality for All

The Board of Directors of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh is concerned about growing income inequality in America. To promote concern for this trend, PEP, along with the Social Justice and Outreach Committee and the Commission on Race and Reconciliation of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will be hosting a free screening of the Robert Reich documentary Inequality for All at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on November 14. A press release about the event is here. Click on the image below for the flyer for the event. Information about the documentary itself, including the movie trailer, can be found here.

PEP has a Facebook page for this event, from which the press release and flyer are also available. You can find that at
Inequality for All flyer

October 18, 2014

Completing the Michaelmas Massacre

The firing of the eight faculty members of the General Theological Seminary was a shock. (See The GTS 8 and the Michaelmas Massacre.) Yesterday, the Board of Trustees completed their dirty work by affirming their faith in the dean and president of the seminary and failing to reinstate the GTS 8. (See, for example, this piece on The Lead.) My faith in the competence and compassion of the seminary’s Board of Trustees is completely shattered. I believe The Episcopal Church should somehow undo the damage the board has done, but this does not really seem possible.

I had planned to write something today expressing my outrage, but I fear I am too upset and demoralized to do so. (Do read the observations of Crusty Old Dean and A.K.M. Adam, however.) Instead, I offer a collection of words that come to mind describing the Board of Trustees and their action that has completed the Michaelmas Massacre:

Word cloud

October 15, 2014

Letter to GTS Board of Trustees

Members of the Board of Trustees of the General Theological Seminary and the GTS 8 will meet tomorrow in a discussion facilitated by former presiding bishop Frank Griswold. (See my earlier post and yesterday’s story from Episcopal News Service.) I have not been hopeful regarding this meeting, but the late addition of Bishop Griswold suggests that all parties at least realize how much is at stake. Events at GTS are being followed closely by many Episcopalians, including those with no direct connections to our oldest seminary.

A post on the Facebook page of supporters of the GTS 8 pointed to a listing, albeit an incomplete one, of e-mail addresses of the Board of Trustees. Given the importance of tomorrow’s meeting to the future of GTS, and perhaps even to The Episcopal Church itself, I decided to write a letter to all those board members whose address I could find. My letter, sent today via e-mail, is below. I suspect that further comment is unnecessary.
Dear GTS Board Member,

Tomorrow is a critical day for the General Theological Seminary, and I hope that Episcopalians everywhere will receive good news emanating from the meeting with the eight dismissed GTS faculty members and members of the Board of Trustees.

For a dozen years, I have been fighting for and defending The Episcopal Church in a diocese that ultimately split, ostensibly over theological issues, but probably more over issues of power and control. I believed that my church was committed to the least in society, to justice, compassion, and to listening to all voices—in short, to following the path of Jesus.

When I heard of the work stoppage at GTS, I became concerned that something was terribly wrong at the church’s oldest and most revered seminary. My distress increased when the allegations against President Dunkle were disclosed. When I learned that the Board of Trustees had “accepted the resignations” of the eight faculty members, I was at first incredulous.

My attitude quickly turned to anger and frustration. Anger at a board that hired a dean and president with few appropriate credentials to head an academic institution, a board that seemed not to understand how institutions of higher learning operate, and a board that, on learning of a crisis at the institution they oversee, chose to deal with the situation by shooting the messengers. This is not following the lead of our Lord and Savior.

I am frustrated that a major institution associated with the church I love has been responsible for much bad press and for seemingly communicating the message that power and authority are more important that reconciliation and respect for every human being. The crisis at GTS and its inept handling has done immeasurable damage to the reputation of The Episcopal Church and, many are coming to believe, to the future prospects of the seminary.

I implore you, as a member of the Board of Trustees, to do everything you can to rescue GTS from what seems like certain disaster by immediately reinstating the “resigned” faculty members and relieving President Dunkle of his duties until such time as matters can be sorted out. No matter what you do, it will be difficult to convince bishops that they want to send seminarians to GTS any time soon. If the goal of the Board of Trustees is to shut down the school, declare that objective and pursue it in an orderly manner. If your intention is that GTS should survive this crisis, then the time for listening, understanding, and reconciliation is at hand.

My prayers are with you and with all the members of the GTS community.

Yours in Christ,
Lionel Deimel
etc., etc.

October 13, 2014

A Political Ad That Tells It as It Is

Political ads that shade the truth or pull punches are tiresome. Here’s an ad that does neither. It comes from the Agenda Project. (Details are here.)

October 11, 2014

Freedom of Speech at Yale and the Jewish State

Tablet Magazine has published a fascinating interview with the Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal Yale chaplain who was forced to resign after The New York Times printed a letter from him suggesting that Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians had encouraged attacks on Jewish assets in Europe. The Shipman incident reflects badly on freedom of speech at Yale, but that isn’t what I want to write about today. (Do read the interview, however, but remember that Tablet is a Jewish publication, and the interviewer has a conspicuous bias.)

Shipman explains that he visited the West Bank over spring break and was “deeply troubled” by the way Israelis favored settlers over Palestinians. I was struck by his conclusion: “It is almost too late for a two-state solution.”

Indeed, Israel continues to create facts on the ground that are slowly eating away at territory  Palestinians can call home. The current Israeli administration is clearly intent on claiming all of Palestine for the Jewish state. If it succeeds, however, it will have to abandon any notion that it is a democratic state if it is to remain a Jewish state.

The best outcome is probably a single, secular state in Palestine that guarantees religious freedom. If Jews want a safe haven, this may well be their best option.

(See also my earlier post, “Thoughts on the Future of Israel.”)

A Network Proposal (Is This What TREC Has in Mind?)

As readers will perhaps remember, I was unimpressed with the study paper on networks from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). (See “Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks.”) I was reminded of the incoherent treatment of the subject in TREC’s first study paper while reading an essay yesterday published by Marshall Scott. His blog post is “The Chaplain on the TREC: What I’d Like to Hear.” Apparently Scott couldn’t figure out what TREC was getting at, either. In his discussion, he points out that there are many kinds of networks, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and he argues that the church needs to have a discussion about networks before next year’s General Convention. “I do think, though,” he writes, “that if we don’t have the conversation about our expectations of networks we’ll discover that those concerns get shaped not by our ministries but by the needs of the tools themselves.”

Although networks can inspire and provoke, build and maintain relationships, and help develop leaders—see the recent TREC letter—their use is not free. Staying connected takes time and energy, and one can easily feel overwhelmed by information (or simply chatter).

Since I have no idea what TREC has in mind and am not confident that TREC even has a clear idea of how networks could serve the church, allow me to propose a possibly helpful mechanism. It would be useful for parishes to know what parishes elsewhere are doing, to know what seems to work to advance mission. Sometimes, Episcopal News Service is helpful here. Early news reports of “ashes to go,” imposing ashes on passing pedestrians on Ash Wednesday, seem to have inspired the proliferation of the practice throughout the church. Whatever the spiritual merits of this practice, it has certainly led to some very good publicity for The Episcopal Church.

What would be very helpful, I think, is a network that collected reports of the experience of individual parishes, not only their successes, but also their failures. Although it is helpful to try to reproduce the successful mission initiatives from elsewhere, it is equally important to avoid the mistakes of others or to at least find a way to turn failure into success.

A network of the sort I am suggesting has several requirements. First, churches have to be willing to describe their activities and their results. This includes admitting to abject failures. (Good batters fail at the plate two-thirds of the time. I doubt that churches do any better.) It will be necessary not only to describe big “programs,” but also small initiatives. (We put envelopes for Episcopal Relief and Development at the back of the nave and encouraged worshipers to pick on up and use it.) Fortunately, Episcopalians seem to be good at collecting and reporting statistics. (Consider our parochial reports.)  Entries should include:
  1. What was done and why
  2. What was expected
  3. What actually happened
  4. Whether the practice will continue
  5. Who to contact to learn more
  6. Keywords describing the activity
That last item, keywords, is critical. No one is going to read through thousands of entries to find out if anyone has tried something that a parish is considering doing. There must be a classification system and a database that can easily be queried to learn of related experiences and identify needed expertise.

I am not completely confident that such a network could become a significant asset to support the mission of The Episcopal Church. It would have a steep learning curve and might need people whose job it is to clarify and tweak keywords to make entered information useful. The idea does, I think, have potential to be a game changer.

Is there a diocese that would like to pilot such a network?