I just finished watching the churchwide meeting held by the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). I had low expectations for this meeting, but, at the very least, I gained a better appreciation of what TREC is up to. I want to respond to the experience quickly, so this post will not be polished or expansive.
First, the quality of the Webcast was excellent. Kudos to whoever is responsible for that and to Trinity Wall Street for providing funds to make the meeting happen.
I was struck by how few people seemed to be in attendance at Washington National Cathedral. Was the attendance a disappointment? There was talk about balancing questions from the floor with questions from e-mail and Twitter. That didn’t happen. Most questions were from the floor. Had more questions been selected judiciously from those submitted from the hinterlands (where most of the church is), the questions would have been better.
My overall impression was that TREC does not now know what its recommendations are going to be. At one level, this is comforting, as some of their suggestions, for example, in their most recent letter, were ill-considered. On the other hand, I don’t know how much wisdom they are going to conjure up in the next two days. It was comforting that task force members acknowledged that they can only make a start at transforming the church. General Convention 2015 will only be able to make a few changes—one hopes, in a productive direction.
I came away with the impression that TREC had considered many important issues and had a better handle on the problems of the church than has been apparent from its past communications. So far, TREC has failed to effectively communicate the problems it thinks it is trying to solve. Its missives would have been much more helpful had the task force clearly stated the perceived problems and outlined possible ways of addressing those problems. That would have led to better questions tonight.
I was particularly impressed by some TREC members, though by no means all of them. Bishop Michael Curry, of course, knows how to fire up a crowd, though I don’t know that he has the temperament I would like to see in our next presiding bishop. (He would make a great Baptist preacher!) I found Bishop Sean Rowe and the Rev. Leng Lim particularly thought-provoking.
TREC clearly is very concerned about the lines of authority and accountability among the general church staff, the presiding bishop, the president of the House of Deputies, and Executive Council. I am willing to believe there are problems here, but most of us who are far removed from 815 Second Avenue are unclear as to the nature of the ambiguities that the task force finds troubling. I wish that TREC would tell us the nature of the ambiguities and conflicts, so that we could evaluate proposed responses more effectively. As I understand it, a major issue here is the nature of Executive Council. At one level, I want Executive Council to be constrained by what the General Convention has said and not said. And yet, Executive Council needs a certain mandate to act between conventions in response to unanticipated developments. This is only one of the questions that needs to be clarified.
I am concerned about what TREC can reasonably suggest in its final report. I hope it will set modest goals for itself, address the most pressing issues, and not overreach. It should lay out the problems it wants to solve, describe possible approaches, and justify its final recommendations. I am not betting on its being able to pull this off.
Preparing to watch tonight’s meeting, I was reminded of a number of church polity matters of some concern. I will mention them here, even though they are only loosely related to anything written by TREC or said by its members.
TREC has suggested that the General Convention might be smaller, but they have not suggested how this might be done. I have some suggestions. Reduce the size of the House of Bishops by excluding retired bishops and bishops without jurisdiction. If we want to reduce the size of the House of Deputies, limit the number of clerical deputies to two. General Convention is too clergy-heavy. Laypeople should have more influence; they make up most of the church.
Having attended several General Conventions, I have been struck by how much it seems like a closed club. Many deputies proudly announce how many conventions they have attended. It is useful to have deputies with General Convention experience, but I do not think it helpful to have lifetime tenure for clergy or lay deputies. We should limit the number of consecutive conventions for which a deputy can serve. Give other people a chance to serve.
The hour is late, so I think it is time to wrap this up. I pray that TREC manages to do something useful. I have no idea what that will look like.
Update, 10/3/2014. The above was written around midnight, and I forgot about a question I had submitted myself to TREC. The duties of presiding bishop have grown far beyond just presiding over the House of Bishops, and TREC seems to be inclined to make the presiding bishop even more powerful. In light of this, isn’t it time to give clergy and laypeople a substantive role in selecting the presiding bishop? As it is now, bishops elect a presiding bishop and the House of Deputies simply ratifies the selection. It is hard to imagine the House of Deputies ever saying no to the choice of the junior house.