In the last few years, there’s been an identity crisis brewing in some of the churchwide structures of the Episcopal Church. The decidedly dour name of the New York corporation under which the Episcopal Church does business—the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society—has somehow reared its head outside of legal and corporate documents, and the staff at the Church Center—known colloquially as 815—has adopted a moniker of “The Missionary Society.”
We didn’t really need more evidence that we need to think about church structure. But if we did, we’d have it in this perceived need to distinguish the corporate structure of the church and its staff from the people of the Episcopal Church seeking to carry out God’s mission in congregations and dioceses across the church.
Here’s the hazard in confusing structure and identity: We might be seduced into thinking that if we make a few big, grand gestures—change the name of the church, rearrange some departments, get rid of our bicameral General Convention—we have taken the problems that confront us seriously. As human beings, we’re all a bit susceptible to that: we get a new haircut, or a new Facebook profile picture, or a new set of frames for our glasses (check out my new ones next time we meet) in the hope that it will somehow make us fundamentally different, fresher, better, more relevant.
It’s this confusion of structure and identity that makes me think that, while the structure debate is essential to our future in the Episcopal Church, we might be doing a little bit of magical thinking about its results. Structural reform is healthy and right—we Episcopalians have done it about every 25 years, and, like an oil change, we’re due. We need to restructure, and we also need to stop looking to structural reform to save the Episcopal Church. When we talk about structure as if it will save us, I think we’re not really talking about structure. We’re talking about our identity and our vision for the future. And if we decide to restructure in ways that mean we care less about our institutional structures and more about the message and the mission—if we worry less about our physical assets and our policies and more about spreading the message of Jesus—how will we still know that we are Episcopalians? What will be distinctive about us?
As beloved children of God, we don’t need to rely on a makeover or a new vocabulary of jargon to bring us into new life. We’re not a corporation in need of a takeover; we are a people who need to rediscover who we are. Our governing documents—the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution & Canons, rules of order and by-laws—provide the foundational principles for the ways in which we carry out God’s mission in the world. And within those documents, we have an enormous amount of room to stretch. Our job in the 21st century is not to remake ourselves in the image of the age. Our job is to change and grow and transform and adapt to be the Episcopal Church more and more authentically, more and more as God has called us to be.
Once we get clear on the difference between structure and identity, what questions should we be asking as we consider how to structure the Episcopal Church more efficiently during this time of great change? Around the church, I hear clergy and lay leaders wondering how we can support relationships and networks around the church without a large, unsustainable corporate hierarchy. How do we continue to conserve our treasures—buildings, fabric and fine arts, and the remarkable work of the Archives of the Episcopal Church—without becoming overseers of museums? How can we reorganize our relationships with such entities as the Church Pension Fund and our seminaries so that their important work is being done in the context of the church of the 21st century?
I don’t know the answers to all of the structure questions before us now, but I do know that we will figure out the answers together, through our essential character—our identity—as a church in which God has called laypeople, clergy, and bishops to share authority so we can carry out God’s mission in the world.
My mother used to tell me that the only people who like change are wet babies, but I have to confess, I’m excited by much of the change I see happening in our church. We don’t take ourselves as seriously as we used to—at least most of us don’t, and the rest of us shouldn’t. We’re not as afraid to speak our minds as some of used to be, and we’ve arrived at a moment when we have the ability to be true in new ways to our Episcopal traditions of distributing authority among laypeople, clergy and bishops and letting the Holy Spirit work among us through shared decision-making. That’s our work at this General Convention, and I hope at every General Convention to come.