I write to you from the meeting of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church being held in Salt Lake City, October 21-24, 2011. As you might know, the Executive Council is the Episcopal Church’s governing mechanism between the meetings of the General Convention (a much larger gathering that is held once every three years). I am here to have some time to talk with members of the Council about the impact that the new canons on lay benefits will have on a good many of our schools. As I have listened to the deliberations to date, some other things have struck me about our schools’ and indeed our culture’s relationship to the Church.
Checking-in to the hotel where the meetings were being held, a very well meaning and I suspect well-educated clerk at the registration desk noticed that my reservation was under a group, The Episcopal Church. She wanted to make mention of the fact that I had a promotional benefit in registering with that group, namely free access to the internet in my room.
However, this word “Episcopal” was very new and strange to her, and embarrassingly she had trouble pronouncing it. Admittedly, it is not the easiest word to pronounce (I find many struggling with it on the telephone when I am making reservations for various events and the agents taking the reservation have trouble as they repeat my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org!). It is also true that there are not a great many Episcopalians in Utah.
Nevertheless, it reminded me of just how little our culture in general knows about the word “Episcopal.” No wonder many parents in our schools or members of our faculty have trouble understanding it as well. We live in a culture that is undergoing rapid change on the religious landscape, and one symptom of that flux is that many are not familiar with traditional denominational affiliations, let alone particularly care about them. Explaining a word that some people have trouble pronouncing and even more have trouble understanding is no small task!
Secondly, in her opening address, the Presiding Bishop spoke of the budget challenges facing the Church, which are enormous. She very effectively put the budgetary matters—which she referred to as decidedly moral matters—in the context of what the Church likes to refer to as the “Five Marks of Mission.”
As she spoke, I was struck by the number of times that the qualities she identified as marks of mission dovetailed with things we seek to do, indeed have been doing, in our schools. Phrases such as, “Countering parochial attitudes and practices,” “new ways of gathering Christians and non-Christians,” “leadership training,” “new expressions of Church,” “talking about our identity,” “offering best practices,” “promoting conversations on what justice means,” “showing adult examples of what it means to be the Body of Christ,” all resonate with what Episcopal schools have been about and actively seek to be. At the risk of sounding smug, it reminded me of what we have to offer our sisters and brothers as they seek to find answers to the new ways of doing and being the Church. It also made me think about the very real possibility that we have not been doing as good as job as we could in letting the Church know just how much work we have been doing on all of those missional aspirations.
Finally, as many of you know who follow of the inner workings of the Church, there is a good deal of division right now over the future shape of our governance as a denomination. It has less to do with the “traditional” markers of division in our Church (i.e. the issues we all know have dominated our denomination’s discourse in recent times) than with matters of whether or not our denomination needs to restructure its governance, not only making it more economical but also giving priority to what it needs to be doing in the world.
As I listened to a very civil and respectful airing of those divisions, I was nonetheless reminded of some of the sure symptoms of division, whether they are found in the Church, in our schools, or in schools’ relationships with parishes:
- People on both sides of the issues feel hurt and overlooked.
- Both sides are not talking to one another.
- There is too much focus on personalities, and not on the real substance of the issues.
- Both sides claim to be caught by surprise.
A sure sign of division is the articulation of symptoms of that division we hold in common with the “other”!
When we see those signs, along with a host of many other signs, then we know divisive things are happening. But Jesus also taught us to read signs in another fashion: they can also be signs of new beginnings. What gave me hope as I listened to some descriptions of the above symptoms was the realization that, “These are truly good-heartened people,” and that—in the long run—will carry the day for the Church. It is also one of the important reasons why our schools need to stay connected to the Church: it may be showing symptoms of distress or decline, but all of us who have been through internal division and economic challenges know that such things can not only make us stronger but help better define who we are. It is worth sticking around to see how that takes shape in this denomination!