Restructuring Principles for the church, Part 1

by George Clifford

The Episcopal Church (TEC) has constituted a special task force charged with proposing denominational restructuring. Here are ten proposals for shaping their recommendations and the ensuing discussion; our denominational history and the Anglican interpretation of Christianity inform all ten. If we can agree upon a set of principles for restructuring, then the ensuing debate is likely to be more respectful and productive because participants will share common goals, though differ, perhaps sharply, in how to weight factors, perception of need, and future ramifications.

Part 1 enumerates the first six principles; Part 2 includes the remaining four, a brief illustration of the relevance of this approach, and a summary of the ten principles.

First, and perhaps most obviously, any restructuring should preserve the four historic orders of ministry (lay, deacon, priest, and bishop). The New Testament provides scant detail about the organization of the early church. Although twenty-first century Christians hold widely divergent views about the early church’s structure, our Anglican tradition is clear in affirming the four orders. Holy Baptism is the lay equivalent of ordination; the ordination services establish some boundaries for each of the other three orders while recognizing considerable overlap. Scriptural and historical studies provide some, though incomplete, information about of the role and function of each order. In other words, restructuring should respect what little light the New Testament sheds on patterns of ecclesial organization while recognizing that considerable flexibility exists.

Second, TEC exists as a communal and missional expression of the body of Christ. That is, TEC does not claim to be the only legitimate branch of Christ’s body, but a valid part of that body in which Christians enjoy the community of God and the saints, and in which Christians unite to serve God. Our baptismal vows make this dual emphasis on community and mission explicit. In the service of Holy Baptism, the celebrant asks any adult baptismal candidates and the assembled congregation to commit to continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and then asks whether they will proclaim the gospel in word and example, seek and serve Christ in all people, and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human. A strong communal and missional emphasis in the task force’s work will focus TEC’s structure on its raison d’être. This sharply contrasts with the apparently widely held but mistaken presumptions that dioceses and TEC’s national structures exist primarily for governance or that congregations exist primarily to preserve local tradition and their facilities or for the benefit of the clergy.

Third, restructuring should preserve governance premised on discerning God’s leading through representative democratic processes. This practice, arguably rooted in New Testament accounts of the early church (e.g., reports of Church councils, their debates, and early Christians consensually drawing lots to replace Judas), was distinctive of the post-American Revolution Episcopal Church. Vestries, diocesan conventions/councils, and TEC’s general convention/executive council are all expressions of representative democracy (a limited number of members/delegates/deputies represent the larger constituency). Direct democracy (everyone has a vote) is more cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming without any assurance of better results, i.e., more faithfully discerning God’s will or fostering committed community.

Over the last half-century, TEC has pushed for greater inclusivity and diversity in selecting individuals to serve as representatives (deputies, delegates, etc.). Hopefully, the commitment to racial, ethnic, and gender inclusivity has sufficient traction to sustain it (better yet, for these commitments to continue to gain momentum!) without requiring institutionalizing through formal quotas. Diversity and inclusivity fall short of the mark with respect to age (e.g., General Convention deputies are disproportionately old), affluence (overcoming this would require paying all expenses for representatives, including childcare), and employment status (increasing the number of virtual meetings will allow the participation of more employed people who have limited vacation time). Additionally, term limits that allow shorter tenure among incumbents (fewer individuals filling the same position for three, four, or more terms) would advantageously allow for broader participation without increasing the number of deputies.

Fourth, the principle of subsidiarity should shape restructuring, i.e., functions better performed – for any reason(s) to include tradition, effectiveness, and preference – by provinces, dioceses, congregations, or individuals should be the responsibility of the most basic level possible. Subsidiarity promotes decentralization, creates greater opportunity for lay ministries, maximizes options for participation, and is consistent with the diocese as the Church’s basic unit (in contrast to a tradition that either centralizes authority in a patriarch or views the congregation or individual Christian as the basic unit in the body of Christ).

Fifth, restructuring should adopt a minimalist approach, reserving all specifically unidentified powers and responsibilities to individuals, congregations, or dioceses. Less structure is usually better than more structure. This principle, a corollary of subsidiarity, extends the latter principle to recognize the individual and appropriately diverse nature of religious belief and practice. Centrally determined forms of prayer and cooperative action are not synonymous with uniformity of belief or coercing compliance to church norms. The failed effort to unite the Anglican Communion with a Covenant designed to ensure conformity represented an abrupt break with Anglican tradition.

Sixth, simplicity of structure will promote efficiency (cost and labor savings) while enhancing effectiveness (nimble, reasonably rapid responses). Proliferating committees, commissions, boards, task forces, etc. can create an illusion of broader participation in governance processes. However, proliferating our structures actually impedes decision-making without improving its quality. TEC depends upon volunteer labor, a scarce and precious resource that is wrongly squandered on committees (by whatever label they are known) that lack a clear function and achievable goals or are entirely tangential to TEC’s mission.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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