President Jennings’ remarks to the first meeting of the Task Force on Church Structural Reform.

On February 14, House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings gave these remarks at the first meeting of the Task Force on Church Structural Reform created by General Convention Resolution 2012-C095:

As I’ve been preparing for this meeting, I’ve been thinking about the words of a good Anglican named T.S. Eliot. In the “Dry Salvages,” one of the Four Quartets, he wrote “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Welcome to the end of the great Episcopal Church structure debate of 2011-2012. We have arrived here, in part, through a politically fraught process that no one would recommend or seek to replicate. As so often happens, however, the Holy Spirit showed up and worked through our legislative process at General Convention. The result was a rare unanimous vote in both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops for Resolution C095. The first clause of that resolution, which created this task force, says:

Resolved, That this General Convention believes the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself, so that, grounded in our rich heritage and yet open to our creative future, we may more faithfully:

• Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

• Teach, baptize and nurture new believers

• Respond to human need by loving service

• Seek to transform unjust structures of society

• Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Put simply, we are longing to be changed from glory into glory. So this is your starting point. What it lacks in specificity it makes up for in faithfulness.

Because we got here the way we did, we don’t yet have some things that you’ll need to accomplish the work you are charged to do between now and November 2014, when your report is due. Don’t worry:  You have some of the sharpest, most creative minds I know in this room, and you’ll be able to make up ground quickly and collaboratively. But here are some fundamentals you’ll want to consider as you figure out how to get the job done:

We don’t have agreement on what we mean when we say we intend to reimagine “The Episcopal Church” and reform our “structures, governance and administration.”  Are we speaking of the corporate structure of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society? Our diocesan and provincial structures? The General Convention? Executive Council? Theological education? Committees, commissions, agencies and boards? Congregations? It is up to you to define the scope of what you will seek to restructure.

We don’t have a common vocabulary. Those of you who played Bonnie Ball in the House of Deputies last summer remember the points you scored for using buzzwords like “nimble,” “flexible” and “creative.” The game was a blast, but jargon clouds meaning, as any of you who have read General Ordination Exams know all too well. I urge you to spend time developing a clear, common vocabulary to use when you communicate with one another and with the whole church—which you are charged to do “frequently” by Resolution C095.

Most of all, we have a lot of unquestioned assumptions and not much data—especially about the energetic, active, Spirit-led mission and ministries that are happening all over the grassroots of this church. As the president of the House of Deputies, which has nearly 900 members, I’m privileged to hear from a lot of laypeople and clergy, particularly young people, who are planting congregations, organizing communities, advocating for justice, and reinventing church. They have remarkably little need for, or interest in, traditional top-down governance structures more suited to the world of Mad Men than Modern Family.  Any new structure worth having will need to harness their commitment to the Gospel, their passion for mission, and their energy and creativity.

Resolution C095 gives you the mandate you need to gather the information and ask for the prayers you will need:

Resolved, That, in order to be informed by the wisdom, expertise, and commitment of the whole body of the Church, the Task Force shall gather information and ideas from congregations, dioceses and provinces, and other interested individuals and organizations, including those not often heard from; engage other resources to provide information and guidance, and shall invite all these constituencies to be joined in prayer as they engage in this common work of discernment.

I want to commend to you one more resolved clause of your enabling resolution. You won’t be surprised that it is near and dear to me:

Resolved, That this Task Force shall be accountable directly to the General Convention, and independent of other governing structures, to maintain a high degree of autonomy.

You are no one’s agents; no one’s surrogates, and the credibility of this endeavor depends on your conducting your work accordingly.

There’s a lot at stake for many faithful people in the restructuring of The Episcopal Church, because the end that we are starting from is the end of the institutional church as we have known it. You’ve been called to guide the church as we begin anew, and you have been given the independence and autonomy you will need to keep the understandable and unavoidable fear, anxiety and grief at bay and give us all “a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11, as quoted in Resolution C095).

I will wait with great interest as you lead us in welcoming and engaging changing realities, emerging networks, flattening hierarchies, rapidly changing media, amazing new technologies, and new ideas about what community means. We are all praying for you.

Let us pray:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer 280, 291)