In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. On a tree the Word was exalted in death, and in life emerged from a three-day tomb. Proclaimed first by the Jews, then the Gentiles, the Word reached disparate lands. He was preached in wide fields, in marketplaces, in churches—anywhere an ear was to hear. The Word was lifted high in spite of flame, dismemberment and drowning; then enthroned in cathedrals rising, in chants of high thanksgiving, and in myriad hearts yearning. Women preached, too, along with anyone who was called to give the Word, regardless of sexuality. In our day, though, the Church sits behind a nameplate, reads blogs and worries about the future.
A foregone conclusion: the Episcopal Church is dying. I need not give you numbers because you can recite them like creeds. It is the one paradigm uniting conservative and liberals, high and low church. We will die, or are dying, or have recently died.
Yet, it is important to remember no matter how many statistical soothsayers gaze into their PowerPoints, no one can predict the future. This is because the future does not exist. The only time existing is now—this very now as your eyes pass over these words. This is all there is. Before and after only exist in the mind of the present, in the heart of now.
Because of this, data and projections tell us nothing of tomorrow, but do tell us much of today. Into this made-up future, we project all our current feelings and longings. Odds are, if we’re feeling good today, the future looks bright; if we’re feeling bad, everything will be terrible. We bend numbers—the most malleable things in creation—to suit our current disposition. In the same way, numbers can also be manipulated to create current dispositions. A predicted future can be used to shape the present.
The 2012 General Convention asked the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appoint twenty-four members to form the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). Specifically, they were charged with contemplation of administrative and governance structures. General Convention resolved that TREC be diverse and “include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership.” After several months of meeting, they began publishing their thoughts for comment from the wider church.
In their most recent letter from September 2014, TREC shared some of what they’d been ruminating. Corporate language frames nearly all their suggestions. For example, TREC suggests at the churchwide level, leadership should be empowered to pursue “bold and disruptive ideas” and staff should work “as network catalysts and network builders.” The Presiding Bishop is “retained as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)”; the President of the House Deputies is “retained as Vice President”; the Executive Council would be “similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees”; along with new positions, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer.
Amidst all this corporate jargon is the sharp knife to many existing structures. The Executive Council—the voice of General Convention between General Conventions—should be reduced from forty to twenty-one members, and the various Provinces are no longer guaranteed membership. The committees of General Convention (CCABs) should be reduced. Those three new chiefs “would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop” and could be fired without anyone’s approval. Staff of the DFMS should be reduced to a “contractor-only model” and these will be judged by the Executive Council “against a set of pre-agreed metrics.”
This is surprising after the calls for change at the last General Convention. But one should realize TREC was criticized from the beginning for being full of insiders without the prerequisite “critical distance”. Or that TREC themselves were appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. Should it really be a surprise that they nearly conclude new expanded powers for both positions and less input from marginalized voices?
But, what’s hiding behind all of these recommendations is the expectation that they will stave off disaster. That, as TREC wrote in their September letter, we are like Lazarus who was held back from his bindings and if we just fix “the old ways of working,” we can save ourselves from future death.
As it is well known, several dioceses and congregations left the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Yet, less known is three years into Schori’s term, Mary E. Kostel was named “Special Counsel to the Presiding Bishop for Property Litigation and Discipline” in order to assist with these property disputes. She still holds this position in the Presiding Bishop’s Office. This is nearly unprecedented, by the way, for as far as I know, even the Roman Catholic Church with its various pedophilia lawsuits does not retain special counsel in this way. In a memo shared with the Executive Council—the body TREC suggests a reduction of members—Mary Kostel wrote, “[the legal team] typically has counseled in favor of forbearance from dramatic or inflammatory action, on the view that the disputes over parish property will ultimately be resolved in court.”
Eric Bonetti—himself a self-described nonprofit professional—wrote an essay in the Episcopal Cafe defending these litigations. He writes, “Indeed, if there is any fault to be found in the church’s handling of the dissidents, it was in trying too hard to find a workable compromise.” The New York Times reported it was this kind of pressure to never compromise which Bishop Johnston felt during his amicable negotiations with his friend, the conservative rector of Truro Church. As The Vice President of the Virginia Theological Seminary commented, “The extreme on the right and the extreme on the left have much to lose if they give an inch.” As Kostel wrote, everything should be and “will ultimately be” settled in court.
This pressure seldom produces amicable results as in Truro. Consider The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York. Before 2007, breakaways could often work out solutions with their former dioceses. The congregation offered the diocese $150,000 for the building. The initial conversations were promising, but eventually they were sued by the Episcopal Church. After removing the congregation, the Diocese sold the building for $50,000 to an Islamic community center.
The Presiding Bishop defended this policy of settling everything in court to USA Today. She did not think it “was a faithful thing” to let the breakaway parishes keep their buildings. She said, “In a sense it’s related to the old ecclesiastical behavior toward child abuse. . . Bad behavior must be confronted.” Confronting this bad behavior has been very expensive for the Episcopal Church. Although a number is hard to estimate, one totals at $34.5 million over the last decade. As of 2014, there are over eighty cases being argued in courts over property disputes.
The September TREC Letter does not mention these eighty litigations nor $34.5 million cost. Of course, it does specifically mention legal staff would not be impacted by the slimming for “efficiency” or “effectiveness”. TREC also suggests the addition of a Chief Legal Officer—one of those three Chiefs serving “at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop”. Ostensibly, this is an expansion of what has been called “the scorched earth” litigation policy. Katie Sherrod, one of Fort Worth’s faithful Episcopalians, argues the TREC letter is reminiscent of the power grabs by conservative bishops.
In 2013 American anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for Strike! Magazine. In it, Graeber examines the rise of “professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers,” or the salaried paper-pushers. These are not doctors, but hospital administrators; not the violinists, but the managers of the orchestra; not the professors, but the Dean. These people don’t actually produce anything. They judge and manage the people who do produce. And, very often, are convinced that their jobs have no meaning. Yet, as Graeber writes, through “some strange alchemy” as corporations downsize and exploit workers, these “bullshit jobs” continue to grow. Today, the Episcopal Church is run by people with “bullshit jobs.”
In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, the mission of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” I submit that any “bullshit job” in the Episcopal Church is anyone we are paying who doesn’t do this mission directly. These would be the Social Media Coordinators, the Marketing Gurus, the lawyers, etc. A pretty good bet of a “bullshit job” is anything having the title of “consultant.” You may find the likes of these padding the budget of most every diocese (and even a few parishes).
On top of this, consider how much of a “bullshit job” the role of Presiding Bishop has become. Originally, the Presiding Bishop was the senior-most diocesan bishop who presided over the House of Bishops. Back then, the Presiding Bishop still had all the apostolic duties of a bishop: tending the spiritual care of God’s priests, confirming, and ensuring decency and good order. Back then, a Presiding Bishop still did useful things that impacted the lives of those in their care. Over time, however, the Presiding Bishop garnered more national responsibilities and by the 1940s, it was expected a Presiding Bishop resign his or her diocese. Thus, we have a Bishop without a See. This is odd in Christendom, as even the Bishop of Rome is, well, the Bishop of Rome along with being the Pope. It is the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In the months leading up to the formation of TREC, there were several calls to return the Presiding Bishop to the older formula of the senior-most diocesan bishop. Interestingly enough, the group picked by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies didn’t think this was a good idea. In fact, TREC went the complete opposite way. TREC saw the future death of the Episcopal Church as a corporate problem with a corporate solution of greatly expanding the powers of a “bullshit job.” Under TREC’s recommendations, once elected, a Presiding Bishop would almost be removed from accountability to the wider church.
I’ve been a well-informed Episcopalian for nearly a decade and I still have no real clue what the Presiding Bishop does other than collect a paycheck, anger conservatives, pursue “scorched-earth” litigations, and not talk about Jesus. Even though we’ve been calling the Presiding Bishop our Primate since 1982, it seems the position is nothing more than a very powerful administrator, or as Graeber might call it, a very powerful “bullshit job”—or as TREC stylizes the position, a CEO.
John Keble preached against a similar problem when he famously mounted the pulpit in St. Mary’s, Oxford in 1833. In his time, the Church of Ireland had too many bishops and not enough people. So, moved by efficiency and effectiveness, Parliament sought to amalgamate the dioceses. Few saw this as a crisis because in the mindset of the time, the Church was considered a ward of the State. Keble, however, preached this is a sign of apostasy. It was a power-play of the State over the apostolic authority of the Church. No one fought it, because as he likened the Church of England to the children of Israel crying out for Samuel to anoint a king, everyone in the Church of England wanted to be like the other nations.
It was clear enough for Israel, though: the Ammonites were at the gates, threatening annihilation, so a king would be effective and efficient to destroy the enemy. Likewise, for the Church of England to give up her own authority and be lead into bondage to the State, Keble theorized there must be some kind of threat. If not a threat, then at least a pretense of a threat. And these “Pretenses will never be hard to find.” Israel wanted to be like every other nation. The Church of England, Keble preached, would frighten themselves in order to become like everybody else, so they could be safe from these pretenses of a threat.
Interestingly enough, corporate America does this all the time. Naomi Klein describes this in detail in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008). If you keep telling everyone that everything is terrible, if you keep shocking the system with manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis, then, of course, people will give up their freedom in order to be saved. They will give up their voice. They will go gladly into bondage for safety. Are these not the trumped-up pretenses of threat Keble preached against?
Therefore, whenever I hear anyone prophesying the imminent downfall of the Episcopal Church, I consider the source. Typically, it’s not a priest or a deacon or a bishop. Usually, it’s a consultant or someone else with a “bullshit job.” Usually, it’s someone in power. Usually, they’re using this forecasted future (that doesn’t exist) to give their “bullshit job” meaning. They’ll use these threats of a forecasted future to give themselves more authority. Make a CEO, TREC says, and you’ll keep the Church from dying. We only want to be like everybody else.
Once I consider the source, then I consider the other narrative no one mentions: if we can defend (and celebrate) $34.5 million spent over a decade in over eighty lawsuits, surely we can afford to pay staff; if we can (presumably) expand our litigations through a Chief Legal Officer, surely it’s not all terrible; if we can sue to get a building and then sell it for a third the price, then surely we’ll make it; if we can afford the $11 million facility at 815, surely we’re not in such dire straits to ask for a CEO; if we can afford to send the House of Bishops (whom TREC mentions no restrictions) to Taiwan, then maybe we’re not headed for the ash heap; if we can keep and expand (as TREC suggests) all these “bullshit jobs,” then surely it’s not too bad.
Once I consider the source and consider this other narrative, my mind is clear: I am no longer motivated by fear.
So, please pardon my incredulity when I hear the leadership of the Episcopal Church speak about mission and social justice and growing the church in the name of “efficiency” and “effectiveness.” After all, none of our leaders—even those in “bullshit jobs”—tell us not to be afraid. On the contrary, they tell us over and over and over to be very afraid. Thus, this oft-prophesized future has nothing to do with tomorrow, but has everything to do with today. This fear of the future is a powerful tool.
And so, the poor go unfed and songs go unsung. Souls go without the gospel while we go about in litigation against our brothers and sisters. And so, in our day, the Episcopal Church sits behind a very expensive desk, reads blogs and wrings her hands about the future, convincing herself day after day that she is not really the bride of the incarnate Word who was, and is, and will be God forever, world without end. She loses the moment for the future. She loses the moment for her materialism. She convinces herself deliverance is not at hand. And she will sell herself into corporate prostitution.
But, I say to you: do not be afraid.