Monday, April 16, 2007

God's Common Life is in the Details

Revised April 17, 2007

I have been thinking about the goings-on in Colorado Springs and what this might teach us about why the details of organizations is important for our common life in Christ.

As Christians, we believe that our common life reflects Christ. Our understanding of the Triune God, the Incarnation and the nature of the Holy Spirit teaches us the relational nature of God. One of the reasons that we care so much about liturgy is that Anglicans believe that how we are together witnesses to how Christ is with the world. It is one of the reasons that Christians, especially those laity and clergy charged with ministries of oversight, should pay attention to the details of Christian community.

For those who need it, here is the background: The presentment of Fr. Don Armstrong, former Rector of Grace and St. Stephens, Colorado Springs, by the Diocese of Colorado is moving forward. While there are no winners here, the documents released by the Diocese are thorough and measured. In response, Fr. Armstrong is trying to avoid the adjudication of the charges by changing Churches (being received into the Church of Nigeria via CANA) rather than participating in his own defense. This parish's version of the 40 Days of Discernment exists under the shadow of this unresolved presentment, so that Armstrong and his supporters have cast the prosecution as a persecution, instead of answering the specific charges. Some former Vestry have broken ranks in disgust. Others have risen to Armstrong's defense.

(Read Dylan's Bruer's brilliant analysis of how ACI, Grace & St. Stephen's Anglican Institute and the parish itself are intertwined.)

None of this is good for anyone. Armstrong has damaged his own cause more than he can know. He seems to have been as clever and evasive with the handling of the funds (and the name) of the Anglican Communion Institute as he seems to have been in his own parish. He has led his parish into a dreadful split, and he has caused confusion in the ACI and their allied groups. Clearly the leadership of the ACI thought they were in charge of what they were not, and at a crucial moment in the life of the church, they are in disarray.

Those, like me, who disagree with the essential thread of the ACI's analysis and approach, might be tempted to gloat like the occasional psalmist. But I find no joy in these events whatsoever. This has made an already complicated situation even more complex, and emotions are so hardened that it makes reconciliation even more difficult. This is a scandal in the truest sense of the word.

Which leads me to the only questions that are left: what can we learn from this and where is God in this mess?

As I reflect on these events, I am absolutely stunned that the ACI has found itself in this mess. I mean, this is a group whose reason for being is to think and write about the structural solutions to the problems within the Episcopal Church. I have a dreadful admiration for their ability to conceptualize their ideas and turn them into political reality. And yet, the ACI was amazingly lax in forming and overseeing their own organization. Their own words indicate that they seemed to have no practical appreciation of the details of actually running their own group...until it was too late.

If there are any lessons to be learned in whole sad mess, there are three I can think of right now.

First, Churches are called to do mission, and we hate the the details of structure--boards, finances, accountability, standards of accounting practice, transparency, etc. etc. It is certainly true that when we spend too much time in meetings and worrying about structure to the exclusion of mission is the kiss of death. But these details still matter. They matter because the integrity of our common life matters. Those who have criticized The Episcopal Church for adhering to our Constitutions and Canons, instead of simply letting departing members take Church property with them or just ignoring our fiduciary responsibilities just to make peace, have forgotten that.

Which means, second, these issues are not theoretical. The problem with a lot of the ACI's work on their big, meta-solutions to theological and pastoral issues facing the Church is that theories that are not grounded in real, common life. Consequently, they tend to collapse under their own weight.

The ACI's solutions and the work that grows out of them--such as the Communique and the Key Recommendations that came out of Dar es Salaam to name but two--are based on an intellectual ideal and ignore the nuances of how organizations (including churches) grow and adapt over time.

The third lesson is that political acumen is no substitute for actually governing. Innovation, energy and vision do not always translate into competent leadership. Many brilliant inventors could not run the company's they started with their inventions, and either lose it to buyers or run them into the ground. The ACI was successful at creating influence and attracting names, but beyond that the organization seems to be surprisingly thin. The lesson is that being focused on mission is no excuse for neglecting common life. Mission is common life.

Ironically, the debacle in Colorado Springs may be a lesson that we need to learn once again for the first time. The structural details matter because our common life matters. Because our common life matters, how we live our life--including how we manage our money, our time, and our talents--matters. And because these matter, the give and take of common life, while messy and at times distracting, works better in the long run for the Body of Christ than a small committee of wise, benevolent talking heads.

When we remember that we are all together the body of Christ, and all of us together are ambassadors of reconciliation, then the value of open, transparent, prayerful and accountable decision-making, and the importance of adhering to our common standard of life are more than obvious. It's too bad it takes a presentment or an embezzlement or a fiscal crisis to teach us that.

So where is God in this mess? God is where God always is...God is where Jesus always walked... God is where the Holy Spirit always shows up: in the messy details of common life that shows off Christ.


Ann said...

As an Interim priest I have often gone to chruches after this sort of breakdown. What I find is a terrible lack of accountability of clergy. There is often a childlike trust of clergy - helped along by the use of Father and Mother titles. Disbelief that daddy or mommy (who was ordained by God) could do anything like this. I see it in CO Springs responses. Once people begin to believe the facts - the response to the betrayal is what I call "de-evangelization" - the church and the clergy are so tied that people will give up on church altogether. There is always a great deal of polarizing -- only those who can walk the "narrow way" are able to stay calm in the midst of dissension.

Unknown said...

This gets more interesting. As Grace was the host of the ACI, it is also the "host" of the John Jay Institute. The institute is primarily an organization offering post-grad "fellowships" for training on the Grace campus. It is run by Alan Crippen, who the Gazette has referred to as Armstrong's spokesman. Viz: "Alan Crippen a parishioner and spokesman for the breakaway church said funds did not appear to be frozen on Thursday afternoon." The institute appears to be very similar in function to the Trinity Fellowships and Witherspoon Fellowships. Crippen founded the Witherspoon Program in D.C. in 1997. It is part of the Family Research Council and all three provide post graduate training in reformed theology and politics and leadership as well internships. I am not suggesting that such activities are illegal or that the John Jay Institute has violated the restricitions of its 501c3 tax exempt status. What I am asking is: What is it doing physically in the buildings of Grace? What does it mean when it talks about a partnership with Grace in its materials? Did the Bishop know of its existence? And why is Mr. Crippen Fr. Armstrong's spokesperson and how would he have knowledge of Grace's accounts. Fr. Armstrong is on the Board of Governors of John Jay but Mr. Crippen is not noted as a vsetry or staff member of Grace.?

Marshall Scott said...

Good analysis, Andrew, and to the point.

In those days long gone when I thought I might be called to be a CPE Supervisor, I had a student who taught me, as I put it, "Enthusiasm is no substitute for groundedness." She had both an MSW and a Masters from the Matthew Fox's University for Creation Spirituality. She knew a lot - but, sadly, little about her own tradition or practice. She returned to Social Work (and probably a significantly lifetime income) when she realized that she needed to embrace and live into a discreet tradition, rather than practicing cafeteria spirituality. Of course, she had a lot of information from which to discourse intelligently on religion in general. However, she never really understood the relatively ordered spiritual lives of her patients because her own was so eclectic.

Specific to the ACI, I sometimes think that about Dr. Radner's writings. They certainly sound erudite (although I sometimes disagree), but they often seem to me distant from actual people struggling with actual decisions. Somewhat as you suggest, I don't question his scholarship, but I don't see how it leads us forward. Where I grew up we have a saying: "Some people are so heavenly-minded as to be no earthly good."

Muthah+ said...

Like you, Andrew, I do not follow Don Armstrong's theology or politics and agree with you that no one wins in these matters. But I have seen charges made against priests for financial mismanagment by bishops who want to silence or rid themselves of difficult priests. The way the canons are written almost any one of us who is in charge of anything can be found wanting in the light of a forensic audit. And as you say, few of us get into the "preaching business" with facility in accounting.

In the spirit of American jurisprudence, let us not try Don Armstrong on our blogs. He can be tried for what he says, but let us wait until all the issues have been presented to assess his his greed.