Not too long ago, I had an alarming moment when I opened a book to read an essay by my friend and former colleague Dr. Matthew Sheep. The book is What We Shall Become: The Future and Structure of the Episcopal Church, edited by Deputy Winnie Varghese and published last fall by Church Publishing, Inc. I’m honored to have an essay in it along with Bishop Katharine, Deputy Susan Snook, and other people you may know from your ministry in the wider church.
The experience was alarming not because of the book, which is excellent, or Matthew’s essay, which is insightful. It was alarming because the further I read, the more it became clear that his project was to explore the “discourse” of the restructuring of the Episcopal church by doing what my English professor used to call a “close reading” of Bishop Katharine’s and my remarks to the first meeting of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church held in February of 2013.
It made me feel a little bit like I had become the kind of summer reading assignment that every teenager dreads.
I became fascinated by Matthew’s thesis. He says that it is through our “habitual lines of argument or ways of speaking”—often called discourse—that we “make sense of our past, construct our present reality, and shape the expansiveness as well as the limits of our future.”
A couple of weeks ago, we had a conversation at my Council of Advice meeting that drove this point home for me. Some of us were talking about “shared governance” as one of our highest values in restructuring. You know, as in phrases like, “our fundamental value of shared governance makes God’s mission possible.” I said that in a speech recently, and I believe it in my bones.
Then one member of the Council piped up and said that for some people he talks with, the very word “governance” is a problem. Microsoft Word’s synonyms for “governance” include “supremacy, ascendency, domination, power, authority, control,” he pointed out, and just modifying it with the adjective “shared” doesn’t do the trick.
So at that meeting, I learned that our discourse—our habitual way of speaking about the structure of the church—might just include a word, almost certainly more than one word—that is loaded with meaning that we don’t recognize and that shapes our discussions and decisions in ways we don’t intend.
In his essay, Matthew Sheep addresses this very issue: “While we use existing words or ‘labels’ when we talk with others—words that are found in the dictionary or defined in our historic documents—their meanings are not always as fixed or universally understood as we might assume. Thus, can meanings reliably be taken for granted when we seek to implement words to enact changes in social contexts? Should they be, particularly in earlier stages of organizing or reorganizing?”
In the year between now and General Convention, I want to pay close attention to the issues of discourse that Matthew has raised. What well-worn patterns of discourse are shaping our thinking in well-worn ways that no longer serve us well? Where can we admit new meanings, healthy tension, and opportunities to promote resilience? How can we work together to expand our discourses about the church to include more people, more contexts, more perspectives and more followers of Jesus?
Sometimes just thinking about discourse leaves me a bit tongue-tied. But as Christians, we know that this is the season for learning new languages of faith. Like the disciples at the Ascension, we have been promised power to be witnesses in new places. Like the followers of Christ at Pentecost, we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us.
As we begin our meeting, I take comfort that on Pentecost, the disciples were gathered together when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak new languages. Let it also be so for us.
Matthew L. Sheep, “Meaning, Discourse and Design Thinking: Organizational Becoming in the Episcopal Church.” In What We Shall Become: The Future and Structure of the Episcopal Church, edited by Winnie Varghese, Kindle edition locations 1415-1416. New York: Church Publishing Inc., 2013.
Sheep, Kindle edition locations 1346-1349.