Tuesday, May 03, 2005

We Need a Public Presiding Bishop

Recently, I heard a National Public Radio report about Christ Church, Overland Park, Kansas that was notable not for it’s reporting of the decision by that congregation to become independent of the Episcopal Church, nor for the fact that their parting was fairly peaceful, but for a strange error. The report itself and the lead-in said that the Episcopal Church elected Gene Robinson as our “presiding bishop.” This might be laughable except that it is a simple and raw example of how the Episcopal Church is losing the communications battle, especially to the conservative groups who want to realign the Episcopal Church and the expression of the Anglicanism in this country.

On it’s face, there is some producer at NPR did not do her or his homework, so what? It occurred to me though, who was the producer going to ask for clarity? Who places this conflict in theological and social context? And for that matter, who of us speaks to the average person—including the average Episcopalian—about the mission, vision, ministry and direction of the Episcopal Church?

I have been an elected clergy alternate to General Convention for only six months, which means that I am reading more closely the publications, web-sites, and blogs relevant to the Episcopal Church and I have come to some conclusions about how it is that well-organized conservative groups are winning the media wars, and if not winning, at least convincing, the hearts and minds of people in and out of the Episcopal Church. These groups have set the agenda, the language and the timetable to accomplish what they are after. The rest of the Church is simply responding, and the secular media and the people outside the Church, if they care, are going along for the ride for lack of a better alternative.

This can change.

We have an opportunity with the election of our next Presiding Bishop to change how we present ourselves to ourselves and to the public at large. We have a chance to reach out to the Public Square with all the tools that this age has to offer. To do this, we will need a different kind of Presiding Bishop.

I don’t mean this to be in any way a slight to those who have held the office up until now, certainly not the current presiding bishop. Our Primate, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, has done everything he knows how to hold the dynamic center together. He is now beginning to speak the truth about what has been happening in the church since before the last General Convention, and I admire him for that. His situation has been close to impossible with people imputing motives and painting him in malicious characterizations. He has not risen to the debate.

The fact that we are in a new age of communication and, within the church as a whole, the evangelicals have mastered it much more than we have.

Most of all, despite all the rancor, I believe the Episcopal Church is better placed than it has ever been to speak to real, felt needs of the people of our culture. We have a life-changing Gospel—and unlike other traditions, we can make it available to people who until now only assume that Christians only think and act one way. Our moment may be here, if only we act.

How Leadership Can Help Us Proclaim the Gospel

Here are few things we can do:

First, spend much less time talking to ourselves. Most of the debate in the mainstream of the Church arising out of Gene Robinsons consecration, and sexuality before that, and the myriad other “issues” before that has been a conversation with ourselves. We love to debate the minutia of doctrine, polity, policy, and this keeps us from seeing that the public around largely does not care about the details. We do observe that we live in a world where people are spiritually hungry—they are dying for wholeness, meaning, purpose and community, and we have a Gospel of Life in Jesus Christ to offer to them. But we don’t

The various conservative groups have figured this out and have figured out to put forward a simple message that both appeals to average clergy and laity, and also plays well in the public. There is a key weakness in their message—which most members of media-savvy public has figured out—but we have not offered an alternative.

I believe that we must be intentional about directing at least 75% of our message to the public at large outside of the Church and that this message is dynamic Good News.

Let’s define again what we mean by “unity.” We tend to want to find our unity in some lowest common denominator. This has the paradoxical effect of making our shared identity in Christ into the least little thing that we at least all share. Our unity will not arrive when we, who are talking mainly to ourselves, stop fighting. Our unity will grow out of a shared commitment to be Christ’s people in the world—of being the public face of Jesus Christ to a world seeking healing, wholeness, purpose and justice.

This will require over and over again reminding and encouraging each other that our catholicity is expressed in not in our particularity but in our universality. The mystery and grace is that while we all represent Christ, no one of us—and no one party of us—can represent Christ in his fullness. We are all the Word together.

Proclaim the Gospel as we have received it. Polls show that most people outside of the Church perceive Christianity as Biblically conservative and whose response to the moral and ethical challenges of our day is mainly one of reaction and prohibition. People know what Conservative Christians are against (mainly having to do with sex) but few people know what we offer.

We must proclaim the Gospel to the public at large. This is a mandate from Jesus himself. And we Episcopalians must put forward that we offer a Gospel message that is a clear, viable, accessible alternative to Biblical Fundamentalism and religious nationalism. We offer to our world a living relationship to God in Christ within a dynamic community of faith that really does change lives.

Other traditions have their appeal to people as well. We don’t need to be what the other traditions are, we are called to be the Gospel that God has given us.

We have a unique tradition that is relevant to our American experience, and we must celebrate and proclaim it. We are an American Episcopal Church with roots in the Church of England—and the Episcopal Church of Scotland—and world wide ties to other similarly rooted Anglicans and other catholic and apostolic traditions. That we do not look like the public face of evangelical or fundamentalist or even Roman Catholic or other Anglican churches is our strength. The conservative networks have worked many years to change the facts “on the ground” and have attempted, with some success, to turn our greatest strength into a liability in our own minds.

The Windsor Report asks us to think about the consequences of our being an American Church and to apologize for how we hear the Holy Spirit speaking to us in our own cultural and social context. Sure what we do has an effect on others, and other churches in other places will have to decide how to respond to our choices, but that does not mean that the Spirit is any less at work in our tradition as any other. Stop apologizing! Choose! Either we are speaking to ourselves and trying to manage each others feelings so that we all get along or—and this I believe is our calling--we are a church of our time and place and age and speaking the Gospel to the culture we are in and the people we know with hope and vigor and promise.

Our public leadership is mainly concerned with maintaining the institution of the Church and not leading us to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the public at large. We need a Presiding Bishop who will know how to speak as much or more to the public to whom we bring the Gospel as he or she is willing to speak to our councils and organizations. We need a Presiding Bishop who will lead us and teach us in speaking directly to the people God has given us.

If we are looking for unity, this is how we will find it. We will not achieve unity by appealing either to the squishy middle (of which I have been a card-carrying member since I was born into that Episcopal cradle) nor through the issues that drive the extremes in our church. The main way we will accomplish both internal unity while proclaiming the Gospel is to present a clear Gospel message—distinctly different from the religious nationalism and biblical literalism of our day—to the widest possible audience. We will achieve unity by holding up our best accomplishments. We will achieve unity when our leadership reaches directly into the hearts and lives of the average layperson and cleric, as well as to the public.

We can learn a thing or two from the papacy of John Paul II in this regard. He left the running of the day to day operations to people who knew how to do those. We will see how much of that he influenced and how much of that influenced him. Even if the message he presented was not the message I personally would choose, he taught the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of us that the Church has a public face with a clear vision of the Gospel.

Our response when churches do that well is to confuse the message for the medium. When we disagree with the message, we tend to eschew the medium. And as right as we may be, it does us no good to be invisible.

A Presiding Bishop for All People

This is why the next Presiding Bishop must see him or herself as a Presiding Bishop for all people—especially to those outside of the Episcopal Church. We need a person who can speak with compassion, conviction and clarity to ordinary people. We need a pastoral face that opens the door to a caring church with an inclusive, welcoming and life-changing Gospel. We need a person who will dare to challenge our idols and hold up our best selves. We need a Presiding Bishop who will show us by example how to reach outside of our four walls into the neighborhoods, workplaces, homes, and reach out to ordinary people in ordinary places—people who seek the fullness of God’s love and who are themselves living out lives of quiet faithfulness.

We live in a day and age where the possibilities of connection to average people are greater than ever. In former times, the influence of the Episcopal Church was found in the hallways of power—congress, the white house, the Rotary Club. Today, the New Religious Establishment is enjoying that kind of influence. Being freed from the burdens of that kind of connection to power, we are now free to reach past the halls of power, and even past our own, directly to people. Through the internet, television as well as being visible and available to average Episcopalians and other people of faith as they do their work on behalf of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the institution of the Episcopal Church needs to be cared for. The Presiding Bishop can set the tone for allowing the offices and institutions of the Episcopal Church function in service to the wider church. It is an ongoing effort to turn our attention away from keeping things open to getting things moving. A reading of the job description for the Presiding Bishop is long on maintenance and short on vision, mission and, most of all, public leadership.

The question is not whether we should maintain our common life or proclaim the Gospel. The challenge is how to we nurture our common life in the service of proclaiming the Gospel.

We need a public Presiding Bishop. Here is what that would look like:

  • A Presiding Bishop who listens and is also willing to set boundaries.
  • A person with a clear vision of the Gospel that is accessible to the public.
  • A clear communicator who is comfortable with being a public person in the modern sense—who can stand in front of cameras before backdrops that are more than banners or liturgies. The PB will take shots from all quarters all the time anyway—visible or not—by people who know nothing of the person in the first place. If you going to take the hit, you might as well earn it.
  • A person willing to be seen by more than other Bishops, clerics or lay leaders. A person willing to commit to see and being seen in places of average ministry with ordinary Christians, and willing to see and be seen in places of real human need. Here is an idea—what if the next Presiding Bishop were to commit to spending 50% of his or her time at any given visit to a dioceses or a gatherings of bishops and clergy in a place where ordinary ministry happens by ordinary people. Make sure cameras are present. Another proposal: that every weekly sermon be webcast so that anyone with a web-site can see the face and hear the words of the Presiding Bishop. Blog regularly. Make oneself known in a few select list-serves. Don’t post everyday on every topic, but let the Church know that she or he is listening.
  • A person who will raise up leaders to share a common vision of Gospel ministry who can manage the resources of the Episcopal Church in line with and supportive of the new public role of the Presiding Bishop. In other words, not only leave the running of the institutions to people who are good at that, but figure out ways of having those structures support the vision of the Presiding Bishop. These structures should free his or her time, not tie it up.
  • A person who is clear as to the unique character of our American experience and from that both raise up our gifts and confront our sins.
  • A person who understands that the call to serve the Church as Presiding Bishop is also a call to take seriously the political nature of Christian common life. To lead and influence is not a sin but it is a given. The best politics does not take place in back rooms or even on list-serves and press-releases, but is when the choices and the vision are taken to the people. To attempt to this when we no longer in the cultural ascendancy will be costly.

Some will say that this style of leadership is unseemly, even inappropriate. The fear will be that because we want to make disciples and encourage lay ministry, that the last thing we need is an Episcopal Pope. This is not what I am advocating. What I am advocating is public, energizing leadership directed at the hearts and minds of our workday laity and clergy and, at the same time, to the public at large. That there will be disagreement is a given—good leadership will always be challenged by those in every quarter who enjoy either inertia or constant conflict. It is how we speak to the hearts and minds and souls of the ordinary people that Christ came to serve and bring home that will define our effectiveness.

Ministry flows from the grass roots. Leadership flows from the top. It is that synergy that makes things happen. That synergy happens whether we attend to it or not. We can attend to it for good or ill. Harry Truman repeated two axioms that show this tension: he said “the buck stops here” which speaks to clear, well-differentiated, responsible leadership. He also said, “you can accomplish anything as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.” This speaks to the fact that the real work—political or ministerial—happens from the ground up.

Since the 1980’s conservative anger has gelled around the perception of a convergence of progressive social stands and a lack of clear moral leadership. Activists have built coalitions—and perhaps the seeds for a new American denomination—around the proposition that clear moral leadership necessarily means a retreat from a progressive stands. These groups have built themselves on the promise of growth that comes from clear teaching, clear leadership, clear boundaries, and clear theological norms. Our mistake has been to assume that the only we can live together in the Big Tent of the Episcopal Church is become more and more general in all these areas.

If the conservative activists succeed in setting up a parallel Anglican denomination, we will have a choice. We can turn turtle and continue to talk to ourselves, battling with our counterparts as we compete for fewer and fewer interested people. Whether they succeed or not, we can choose to be free of the burdens of trying to get along based on generalities, and begin to work together under the banner of a common vision of the Gospel—a vision which allows for diversity in the particulars and unity in the fullness of our mission.

Imagine our place today, if when we first heard the conservative challenges we did not try to paper over our differences but met them with clarity and leadership as well as listening and sensitivity?

The next Presiding Bishop has an opportunity to put forward the Gospel message that the Cross and Resurrection makes God’s transforming love and power real for everyone, and provide the moral and ethical clarity our age seeks—that is also a viable, living alternative to the prevailing New Religious Establishment.

The Episcopal Church proclaims the dynamic, life-affirming, life-changing Gospel. We are grounded scripture, respectful of reason, and honoring of tradition. We are an American Church that is well placed to speak to the aspirations, hopes, fears and challenges of our culture. We are not called to talk to ourselves but the world—the public—that Jesus himself sent us to. We need a Presiding Bishop prepared to be both a pastor to a hurting culture and an example in proclamation.

1 comment:

eastonweaver said...

Hey andrewplus - Wow! I like what you have to say. We seem to be in the Dark Ages when it comes to reaching out to the non-Episcopalian community. I think your vision of a "peoples' PB" is excellent, something that would sure give us a boost - even if it would earn him/her hits from every corner.

From an editorial point of view - and I'm just getting into blogging - might your remarks be shortened a bit with more precise bulleted suggestions? I want to read more, but I wonder if a lot of people will have time to do that?
Best wishes on your blog!