House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church

When the Spirit Gets an Itch

Michael Barlowe

Michael BarloweIn mid-January, the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe made a transcontinental move from the Diocese of California to “815,” The Episcopal Church headquarters at 815 Second Avenue in New York City. The move follows his December appointment as executive officer of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, an appointment made by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies.

Barlowe, who has been the Diocese of California’s Canon to the Ordinary since 2006, is an elected member of Executive Council and a deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of California. He is “enormously excited” to have an instrumental role in what he considers a pivotal time in the church, a time when the church has affirmed its commitment to external mission and internal reform.

It’s a big move, a big job and a big change for him personally. Barlowe will live in New York, and he and his husband and partner of 30 years, the Rev. Paul Burrows, will have a transcontinental relationship for a while. Burrows is rector of Church of the Advent in San Francisco.

Here are some of Barlowe’s responses to questions asked during a recent telephone interview.

What is your primary role as Executive Officer of General Convention?

“The General Convention is not just the big event every three years. It has an ongoing life. The executive officer works closely with the other officers, the president of the House of Deputies and with the presiding bishop, to make sure that the work of General Convention continues throughout the triennium and at the level of excellence the church deserves. As the governance continues, my office has oversight responsibilities.”

Duties of the position include serving, if elected, as secretary of the House of Deputies and, if elected by both houses of General Convention, secretary of the General Convention; coordinating the work of the Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards funded by General Convention; and managing the General Convention office staff. The 78th General Convention will be held in 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Part of my role, as I see it, is to keep the excitement of reimagining the church for mission in every piece of work that we do as a church. I find that life giving and exciting.”

What makes this a pivotal time for the church?

“Well, I think the main thing is the huge, unanimous commitment to mission in our church,” Barlowe said. “We’ve gone through some extraordinary times in the last decade of the Episcopal Church. We’re at a place of common mind when we, as a church, want to focus on mission. That means that everything we do needs to be at the heart of the mission of the Episcopal Church. The special task force on restructuring our church has outstanding people who will be making suggestions about how we can reimagine how we can become more missional for the work we have to do in the 21st century. We can move forward on inclusion of all of God’s people in all of our church and still try to restructure our church. It’s like flying a plane while building it.

“There’s been a lot of desire to make the church more nimble. At General Convention last summer, I served on the House of Deputies’ Legislative Committee on Structure that wrote the resolution that was unanimously passed by both houses—a resolution that called for a reimagining and restructuring of the church for mission. Pretty much everything is on the table. We want fresh thinking about how we can do what God calls us to do. That would include the reality that we’re living in a very different age than in the 1950s and 1960s, which was the last restructuring.”

Why now?

“It’s been an itching of the spirit for a lot of people. For many of us who have pushed for a greater inclusion in the church, it is because God needs all of us—all of us—to do what God calls us to do. We know by looking at the demographics of the church there are whole groups, especially among young adults, who are underrepresented. But there’s a reason to be optimistic. We’re well suited, the Episcopal Church is well suited, to minister in the complex societies in which we live.

“The Episcopal Church may have come late to the emerging church movement, but when we got there, we found that younger evangelicals had rediscovered a need for the sacramental and spiritual mystery that is deeply rooted in our tradition. Not everything can be reduced to words, and as sacramental people we know that. The word is essential to us, but we also need an encounter with the mystery, which the sacraments manifest.

“The Episcopal Church has that. A few years ago I went to a gathering in San Diego of folks involved in the emerging church, and the worship was pretty much out of the Book of Common Prayer. And they were mainly from nondenominational evangelical churches. Chanting, incense, icons—outward signs of spiritual movement that infuse our tradition—were everywhere. They were longing for experiences of the spirit found throughout the Episcopal Church.

“But that’s not the only reason we are well suited to speak to this longing. It’s also because we aren’t trying to sell anything; we are witnesses to the authenticity of Jesus Christ’s transformation of the world. Our children’s generation has all grown up in a culture where people are always trying to sell them something, and it’s a survival technique for them to edit some of that out. I think they realize that we’re not trying to sell them something; we’re trying to introduce people into a relationship with God. With the cadences of our language, with our embrace of the incarnate God, we try to find ways to manifest that incarnation that are tied to the eternal and not just to the here and now.”

What major challenges/opportunities do you see ahead?

“The reality is that we can’t do things the way we once did them, and we shouldn’t want to. We don’t have the same financial resources we once had, and we can’t have as many face to face committee meetings. You can say that’s terrible, or you can ask how can we use new methods of communication, new technologies, new social media, to build new relationships and networks for mission.

“I don’t work out of scarcity. It’s a challenge, but it’s a life-giving challenge. Instead of talking about what we don’t have, we should talk about what God has given us and how we can creatively use it to God’s purposes. We’re really fortunate we have an outstanding presiding bishop and an outstanding president of the House of Deputies who both understand that and lead from that place of strength.

“And fortunately, throughout the church, there seems to be a nice coalition of energy and desire to move us in the right direction, a direction of mission for God’s world.”

Were you able to get the name of Gregory Straub’s tailor?

(BIG LAUGH). “I tried to bribe the name of his tailor out of him, but he could not be bought. Gregory was a one-off, as the English say. There’s nobody like him.”

An icon known, in part, for his wild and crazy jackets and bow ties, the Rev. Canon Gregory Straub served as executive officer of General Convention from 2005 until his retirement, effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Why would anybody want to be Executive Officer of General Convention?

“I have a real sense of call. Before a friend talked to me about it, I had never thought about the position, but the more I prayed and considered it, the move seemed a genuine call from God. God has to be very patient with me sometimes. I’ve been a priest for 29 years, and it’s still as fresh as ever. I still love God, I still love the church, and I still expect surprises.”