Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Diocese as the Fundamental Unit of the Church?

I first heard the notion of the diocese as the fundamental unit of the church back in the 1980s from my bishop.  But I never heard a reasonable theology that supported his claim.  Practically, I recoiled at this absurd idea thrust upon the church by the bishops who had, under this rubric, either lost touch with reality or suffered form significant amnesia.  Anybody with any sense knows that the fundamental unit of the church is the local congregation.  The local parish is the place where the people are, and as we all know, the baptized faithful are the church.

I tried to find a theology that justified the Bishop's idea.  I "googled" theology of diocese" and came up with nothing.  But I do believe that I remember correctly that the notion that the diocese is the fundamental unit of the church arose accidentally from the 4th century Roman political organizational system.  After Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church continued to flourish and grow, and therefore, needed to organize itself to fit the growth.  The church thus adopted the Roman form of administrative organization which was the diocese.  An early definition of the word diocese means to dwell, occupy, manage, derivative of oikos house.

In the New Testament the first churches were house churches, relatively small, probably attended by no more than 50 people.  Think about that when we consider that an early definition of the diocese was a derivative of the word "house."  Jewish Christians also met in synagogues.  As the church grew, they used bigger houses and some of them were donated by wealthy Roman citizens who were Christians.  This made them "churches" in the modern sense of a public building set aside for worship.

The early church in the British Isles had no diocesan system.  Celtic Christianity was organized around a monastic tradition where the Abbot was more powerful than the bishop.  This was a spiritual community united through a communion of friendships and alliances between spiritual leaders and their monasteries.  The diocese as an administrative principle in British Christianity was not adopted until after Augustine of Canterbury arrived on British soil in 597 A.D., establishing sees at Rochester in Kent and East Saxon (London).

Parish priests and their people know that the local parish is the fundamental unit of the church.  This is where the baptized faithful assemble for worship, prayer, discipleship and ministry.  Our catechism puts it this way:  The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and all baptized persons are members.  It is called the People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.  This basic statement says nothing about organizational and administrative structure, but to me implies that the local assembly is the organizing principle of the body.

While the diocese is the traditional judicatory style of Anglican and Roman Catholics, there is no practical or theological justification for the notion that it is the fundamental unit.  Ecumenically it doesn't hold water either.  The Methodist are organized in conferences.  The Lutherans have their Synods.  Ecumenical charity demands that we recognize these and other Christian organizational structures as just as valid as the diocese.

What planet are the bishops who believe this living on?  The local parish has always been the fundamental unit of the church.  This is where the action is.  If the local parish did not exist, there would be no diocese.  The diocese depends on us, not we on them.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Bishop Speaks from the heart

Long ago (1992) and far away (Arizona), I became bishop of a diocese with 65 congregations and a lot of issues. I worked very hard and visited all of the congregations in one year as was expected of me. This required me to have more than one visit each weekend. Sometimes I had one visit, sometimes I had two visits and sometimes I had five visits. I was in congregations on Saturday and Sunday. I did confirmation in each of the congregations.

After that year, I was exhausted. I did it another year. After that year, I was exhausted and I did not like confirmation any longer. I would go to some churches and confirm 20 people, 50 people, 8 people, and sometimes 1 person. I thought there has to be a better way.

We began to do things which had not been done elsewhere. We reduced the size of the diocesan staff to 1 bishop, 1 Canon to the Ordinary, 1 archdeacon (a deacon), 1 secretary, 1 finance person, 1 communication person and 2 general staff persons to take care of the phones and assist others as needed. We eliminated 5 staff positions. I believed we were not responsible for doing things which congregations could do for themselves. We were there to serve the congregations.

We became stewards of the finances. I declared at the diocesan convention that we were going to tithe the diocesan budget. We were going to return 10% of all of the diocesan assessments back to the congregations. Most people thought it would never happen. I was determined that it would happen. We looked at some of the things we were doing as a diocese which could be done easily by congregations and we stopped doing them. There is more to this story, but for the sake of blog I will tell you that at the diocesan convention the next year we presented an envelope to each congregation at the offertory (we did not take an offering) which was 10% of what they had given to the diocese as assessment. We returned $140,000 and these people were stunned. The smallest check was $38 and the largest was $18,000.

From that moment on we were about the business of being different from any other diocese. It was not a competition. It was about freedom and excitement. It was about believing that anything we could dream, we could do. And we did it. If there is interest, I can share more in future blogs.

Now, back to confirmation. I told our clergy and congregations I was exhausted by the schedule and I intended to try something new. I asked if they would help me. The response was positive and we began to do regional confirmations. We started on the Saturday after Easter and concluded on the Saturday before Pentecost. They were big celebrations with hundreds of people. They knew it was something important. They knew they were part of something larger than their parish. They knew the reception after the liturgy was for them and not the bishop. It was wonderful. We did it for another 10 years.

The point is this. It is quite easy for us to find reasons why we cannot do something. It is easy to keep our heads down and tread through life. It does not have to be that way.

My colleague, Gary, made a case for merging neighboring smaller dioceses under a single bishop. The first comment I heard was that it cannot be done because the bishop could not go to all of the churches in a year.

It is not a requirement that the bishop is in every church every year. It is not a requirement that the bishop do confirmation every week. If we want to be a little frisky, we could even ask the bishops to vote to turn confirmation over to the clergy.

I will speak only for myself. I would vote to put confirmation in the hands of the clergy because it is not necessary for the bishop to do this. It is not admission to anything which requires those hands. As a matter of fact, it makes more sense to me to recognize the laying on of hands of the priest at baptism of a child or adult as being “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, they Church and inheritors of the kingdom of God”. That is it.

This is no longer the entry into communion as is was in my life. We now say confirmation is a “sacramental rite” which is a mature commitment to Christ and the reception of “strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop”.

There is no reason for us to think the Holy Spirit is only available from the bishop. I know we have always done it like this and I know lots of bishops really feel the need to have something which only they can do, but I must say, it does not make any sense and it does not make a bishop.

I know I have a different perspective than many bishops. I saw my role as being Teacher, Preacher, Evangelist, and Sign of Unity. That is what I chose to do and I let that lead all of my actions. I was never thought of as a leader among the bishops. I was never invited to say a prayer or lead a worship in the House of Bishops.

I had a wonderful time being bishop in a wonderful place. I have many bishop friends. But for now, I am just a blog guy with a sense of hope.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Via Media Metaphysics

A. William McVey


In this postmodern culture, where more and more people describe themselves as spiritual as opposed to religious, I hear “something” statements like, “Well, there must be something there. There must be something that explains life. I mean there has to be something.” Usually, such statements are immediately followed by declarations that the person is definitely not religious. Furthermore, the same person seems to have a certain arrogant scorn for any previous religious formation.

It appears that very few seekers of the spiritual “something” are conscious that Western religious scholars have, since the time of Greek philosophers, been concerned about the nature of the “something” of the universe. The Greeks looked for a permanent and foundational reality to believe in. In other words, they were looking for the foundational something of the universe which they called “Being.”

                It was Aristotle who insisted the metaphysical quest for the divine comprehension of the universe is found only in grasping the essence of the universe. Knowledge of the divine “something” is known by means of understanding the workings (the causation) of the universe. Eventually, this metaphysical teaching of Aristotle, with the development of medieval philosophy, became the foundational truth for theology and spirituality; Thomas Aquinas calls it the analogy of being. Up to the present day, Martin Heidegger continues to reconstruct a modern approach to the issue of the “Something of the Universe” with a new methodology of Phenomenological Metaphysics in the classic work Being and Time. In this modern work, the thrust of Heidegger’s metaphysical inquiry is about the essence of Being as it is disclosed in time.

 The metaphysical has become in the age of modernity no longer the pursuit of the unchangeable nature of the universe; rather it is an inquiry into humanity’s divine destiny. The “Something” has become a question of what is the foundational truth that must drive the universe and human consciousness. For Christian philosophy, it is the Catholic expression of metaphysics that has been extremely important. Scholastic theology has, for example, relied on Christian metaphysics to prove certain truths called the preambula which are presupposed before revelation and can be considered reasonable and possible.

  I want to draw attention to the issue of a needed Anglican metaphysics because we do have our Catholic side.  I suggest in our Episcopal journey of hope in a postmodern culture that we give serious attention to philosophical theology and a neo-scholastic approach to metaphysics. My argument is based on two Episcopal basic philosophical and theological pillars of identity. First, we describe ourselves as a hermeneutical community who hold that God is revealed through a triad of scripture, tradition and reason. For this approach to revelation to have validity we must borrow from the Catholic scholastic philosophy. In other words, we must have an Anglo- Catholic foundational preambula if we are serious about the place of reason within the context of revelation.  Note I am using reason here in the sense of a methodical dialectical pursuit of a metaphysical foundation for theology, especially spiritual theology, in an age of radical postmodern skepticism of foundational truth. The second pillar of Episcopal inquiry into the nature of God’s continuing revelation is the path of the via media (the middle way). It is John Henry Newman as part of the Tractarian movement who coined the phrase Via Media. It was a concept used within the parameters of doctrinal theology that saw Anglicanism has the middle path between a Reformed and Roman Catholic doctrinal theology of revelation and ecclesial authority.

Anglo-Catholics have strongly assumed the via media identity not only in matters of doctrinal theology, but we seem to apply it to all controversial issues. Personally, I find continuing via media identity extremely promising for our Episcopal journey of hope.  Consequently, I am defining via media as a practice of more than live and let live, or we agree to disagree because this thinking is not an exercise of profound reasoning. Via Media might serve as the basis of an Anglo Catholic, neo-scholastic metaphysics that opens up new avenues of dialogue within the Catholic and Evangelical community, and simultaneously provides our Episcopal  theology with the real heft necessary in an age when the conversation once again is about the spiritual nature of Being (the Seeker Something).

I propose that there is the beginning of this philosophical theology in the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce.  Some have called Pierce the American Aristotle, but I like to call him the American scientific scholastic.  His philosophy was tremendously influenced by scholastic realism, especially the works of John Dun Scotus. From this starting point, Pierce began a reconstruction of religious metaphysics to a scientific or cosmogonic one.  It is metaphysics about the divine nature of the universe becoming manifested and real over time. It is really metaphysics of more is yet to be revealed. “I think that the existence of God, as well as we conceive of it, consists in this, that a tendency towards ends is so necessary a constituent of the universe that the mere action of chance upon innumerable atoms has an inevitable teleological result. One of the ends so brought about is the development of intelligence and of knowledge; and therefore I should say God’s omniscience, humanly conceived, and consists in the fact that knowledge in its development leaves no question unanswered.” (The Essential Pierce, P. 236).

Pierce’s metaphysics is a method of painstaking and persistent inquiry into the movement of the universe and human conscious to foundational truth.  Humanity in its questions, disputes, opinions, attitudes, theories and tests is driven to a final compromise and opinion. Human beings at their best are driven in intellect, will and soul to the final truth of the universe through a type of dialectical via media inquiry.  Rosa Maria Perez-Teran Mayorga writes that Pierce’s metaphysics “…claims that  the drive towards a consensus about things is as much an actual force or law or power as the gravitational one; it is a tendency that guides thought in one “fated” or determined direction-the truth…the very fact that we engage in inquiry presupposes that we will be persuaded by the right kind of evidence to accept the correct answer… according to Pierce there is some predisposition, some occult power… we are destined in the direction of truth, so given enough time, we look likely to arrive at it. It is a real fact that there would be a final option were the investigation to continue long enough.” (From Realism to ‘Realicism’, The Metaphysics of Charles Sanders Pierce, and p.145)  Finally, I take it that Pierce is a Via Media type person, and there is a Via Media metaphysics that gives Anglo-Catholic theology real heft and sustaining power in our Journey of Hope.





Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is Redundancy Immoral?

Gary Gilbertson
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Congratulations to the United Methodists of Kansas and Missouri.  They openly acknowledged the population movement from rural areas and the resulting decline in the number of Methodist churches in the two states.  So like good stewards, on August 23rd, they merged three Conferences:  Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska, into the new "Great Plains Annual Conference"; please note that they will still have over 1,000 Methodist churches across the two states.  So why merge?  Their answer:  "Our hope is that we'll be stronger, and able to do more in mission by uniting than we could as three smaller conferences."

The Episcopal Church also has three jurisdictions in the two states:  the Diocese of Nebraska, Kansas, and Western Kansas.  Could they not be stronger and do more in mission by uniting into one rather than continuing as three smaller jurisdictions?  The reality of rural to city movement and the decline of the number of Episcopal churches is as true of us as it is for the Methodists.  Even with merger the two states would have only 129 Episcopal congregations with many in the waning moments of life:  50 congregations (39%) have an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of less than 20 members, another 35 congregations (27%) have an ASA of 20-49.  At the National level 68% (4,580) of our congregations have an average Sunday attendance under 100 members; in Nebraska and Kansas 66%of our congregations have an average Sunday attendance under 50 members.

Why have three bishops?  Why have three diocesan staffs managing similar programs for so few congregations?  If the Methodists can service seven times as many congregations in the same geographical area, why can't we Episcopalians centrally manage 129 congregations in the two states?

Repeatedly lay-persons suggest the reason we can't merge is the lack of leadership in our bishops and senior clergy.  To be fair one of the bishops involved did offer to take one or both of the other dioceses under his wing; nevertheless, when was the last time any bishop challenged a diocesan convention to make merger a major priority?  When was the last time a parish delegation pushed legislation for merger?  The remnant Diocese of Quincy did retreat back into the Diocese of Chicago last month but that was a move based on financial desperation and not mission; in any case, it is atypical.

If we used the Methodist example of 1000 congregations as a decent basis for a new jurisdiction - the Episcopal Church in the United States would have only seven dioceses instead of the 100 we have now.  The National Church listed just 6,736 congregations in the last reported year of 2011 and that was down 58 churches from the year before; hundreds of these congregations have no priest at all and hundreds more have only part-time clergy - this in spite of the fact that there is no clergy shortage in the Episcopal Church.  So why do we need 100 Episcopal dioceses and staffs that are inefficient, or worse, that incompetent that we need so much redundancy?  The Methodists merged to be stronger and do more in mission.

What keeps the Episcopal Church in Kansas and Nebraska from actively working toward merger?  What keeps the other 97 diocesan bishops from actively working toward merger?  The most common answers do not focus on inefficiency or incompetency but rather that our most senior leaders are "territorial" - "empire builders."  If this is accurate, it is a sad commentary that those entrusted with leading the Church are actually about keeping dominion over their domain.  As Author David Gibson says, "An organization that was born as a divine kingdom...and flourished by donning the trappings of monarchy does not yield easily to retrofitting."  Granted, many in Episcopal Orders are dedicated and committed but many others are aloof and their ministry lacks accountability and transparency; one respected university historian put it this way, "...a betrayal of fidelity enable by arrogance that comes with unchecked power."  That may be too strong but it is time for renewal and reorganization.

History teaches us that change will not originate from those with Holy Orders; it must come from "ordinary" lay people who, face it, have little leverage in a voluntary organization that is proudly defined as hierarchical.  Nevertheless, if the Episcopal journey forward is to be one of "hope," the key is in the hands of the laity.