TRECing from the Pew (Part 1)

I’ve tried really hard to get into the TREC stuff—honestly, I have. For those unfamiliar, TREC is the taskforce that’s trying to come up with a concept for restructuring the Episcopal Church. They’ve put out two documents, one on networks and recently one on administration. People who can and do get into this kind of thing have done a very good job talking about them. In my opinion, Crusty Old Dean, Scott Gunn, and Susan Snook have presented the most cogent readings of them. If you’re only going to take the trouble to read one of these, read Susan’s; since so much of this is ostensibly about budget, she sheds a clear and penetrating light on the huge gaps in the analyses to date.

My overwhelming sense is that I’m having a hard time making sense out of it. Fundamentally, I’m coming from a different place than the taskforce seems to be. I’m active on the churchwide level because of my work with the Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music, but I still a newbie to churchwide-level politics. Rather, I’m a vestryman at a small congregation facing the struggles that a hundred other small parishes are. I don;t feel like I have the data or the vision to do a system-wide picture; I’ve got to start where I am.

So—I’m a guy in a pew. I recognize that I come with a particular perspective. I’m trying to become a mature Christian. Thus, I realize that my faith does and should effect many different aspects of my life in terms of evangelism, outreach, works of charity and mercy and justice, and so forth. However, my chief charisms are around teaching the faith and its spiritual practices, so that’s where my perspective will tend to skew.

What do I need from the church? What do I need a church structure to do and be and provide?

As a liturgical, sacramental Christian, my main need from the Episcopal Church is a functional worshiping community. Thus, I primarily need:

  • A healthy clergy person educated in the teachings of the faith and in the proper conduct of its liturgies
  • A sound liturgy with roots in the apostolic and catholic and Anglican tradition shared in common with other worshiping communities

Ok—let’s stop there.

For me, a “healthy clergy person” implies the need for a bishop who is an overseer—a provider of episcope (see the root there?). As the leader of a diocese, I would expect a bishop to function kind of like my (secular) boss: we talk regularly, she knows how I’m doing, she knows what tasks she needs me to do, she makes sure I have the tools to get them done, and she calls me on the carpet when they don’t get done or don’t get done according to the requirements. Shouldn’t this sort of communication be the primary job of a bishop? I don’t always get the sense that it is, though.

Second, “healthy” implies the need for standards. We have to have clear expectations about what’s healthy and what’s not and these should be clear and consistent across the church. Ok—so we need church-wide rules and therefore a group that creates these and checks them over to make sure they work: a Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons.

My other requirement for a clergy person besides “healthy” is “educated.” There needs to be mastery of a certain body of knowledge and a certain set of skills that include doctrine, the Scriptures, the respectful and informed conduct of worship, pastoral care, and basic parish administration. (Ideally these are all products of a certain kind of spiritual formation—the knowledge and the skills proceed directly from the spiritual formation rather than being add-ons or there being a separation between them.) Yes, we have seminaries but their viability is coming into question, and there are a variety of other options out there from non-Episcopal seminaries to various mutual ministry schemes. Again, I would think that the sets of knowledge and skills should be common across the church. The GOEs (General Ordination Exams) head in this direction, but their interpretation and application varies widely from diocese to diocese.

Moving to my second bullet, a sound and common liturgy also needs to proceed from a church-wide level. So, yes, I see a need for a Standing Commission on Liturgy & Music to keep an eye on our essential worshiping needs: the Book of Common Prayer and appropriate music in harmony with the prayer book.

As a liturgical sacramental type, I believe that Christian worship should normatively be celebrated within a consecrated space.  Of course it can and does happen anywhere that two or three are gathered; I’m not attempting to deny that. My point is that our legacy, speaking spiritually, physically, and geographically, comes with church buildings. I don’t know about anybody else, but in my parish and in many parishes with which I’m familiar, the building is both a huge issue in terms of maintenance and is one of our largest costs alongside staff. We waste spend more time in vestry meetings talking about the building or about finding money to fix the building than anything else.

Now—I’m an IT guy. I don’t know crap about buildings except that rain isn’t suppose to come through the roof, wood isn’t suppose to have suspicious piles of dust by it, and water is supposed to stay in the pipes and come when someone turns the handle. If my vestry and I waste spend this much time talking about the building, I think it would be very helpful to have a set of directives and best-practices from people who know what they’re talking about regarding a host of building topics from emergency maintenance and regular maintenance to legal issues to resources for grants to energy efficiency recommendations. There’s no way a church-wide body could solve the problems we have at a local level. But I wonder if some big-picture clarity from folks who know what they’re talking about could free up vestries and clergies to talk about local ministry instead of flailing about with building talk? A Standing Commission on Property Concerns?

The other clear requirement that I need are resources to help my parish be a healthy community that nurtures itself towards the goal of Christian maturity. I see two pieces here: first, a better understanding of organizational dynamics (how various sized parishes act, what is healthy community behavior for a given size, what systems and behaviors are signs of typical problems), and second, resources to help direct parishioners in community and individually towards Christian maturity—deepening their faith and embracing a life of discipleship.

I’ve talked enough at this point—I’ll come back to these topics later…

15 thoughts on “TRECing from the Pew (Part 1)

  1. Barbara

    That’s an excellent suggestion, the thing about a churchwide best practices for buildings and property! I think it would be extremely valuable for congregations to have a central clearing-house like that – and it could possibly facilitate the purchase of materials at a better price (for instance) than individual parishes could get. And, it might be able help parishes get grants as historical buildings (for instance), so they could remain open. That would be great.

    Your suggestions here are good, as always. You probably have much more of a sense of the clergy-bishop relationship than I do, given your situation, but I wonder why bishops aren’t fulfilling the role you describe here? What are they doing instead? Some seem to be more interested in political issues (like mine) than in the church itself; some seem to to filling some sort of idealized role in their heads in re: church politics. But I don’t really know; this is just an impression.

    Here’s something else that strikes me as necessary when it comes to “clergy health” – or at least, the healthy relationship between laypeople and clergy. I don’t believe our clergy are formally bound by canon to the “seal of the confessional.” Catholic priests can be defrocked, I believe, for revealing things said in confession; as far as I can tell, Episcopal priests are not bound in this way. We have to trust them to be discreet – and honestly, I really don’t, for the most part. It’s a small church and everybody knows everybody else; on a personal level, I’ve heard priests basically gossiping about other parishioners (not saying here they were breaking confession). I found it really creepy and I no longer trust the clergy because of it; I’m not alone in this mistrust, either, I know for a fact. Can’t we do something about this via the canons?

  2. gaudetetheology

    TREC is the taskforce that’s trying to come up with a concept for restructuring the Episcopal Church. They’ve put out two documents, one on networks and recently one on administration.

    Wouldn’t one expect to begin with a document on ecclesiology?

  3. David Englund

    As to your comments concerning Bishops, it seems that many Bishops approach their ministry as CEOs rather than as pastors of their flock -too much time out of the diocese, too much time in admin, not enough connection with people in the pew, especially in diocese that have a large rural segment.
    In response to Barbara, the Seal of the confessional does apply to Episcopal priests as long as there is a stated intention of going under the Rite. I tell my parish that if they drop by my office and tell me something off the cuff, it is not protected under the seal. If they wish to confess, they must indicate this to me and we the have a common agreement that puts us under the seal. This conforms with child abuse reporting laws in the State of Califonia ( I use to be a CPS social worker). This does not work for clergy in those denominations that do not canons and liturgical rites providing for confession.
    As a priest in a small parish, TREC seems to be much ado about things far away….

  4. Barbara (bls)

    Thanks, David. I think the problem may be that that really isn’t strong enough. I would suspect that most people going into a priest’s office to talk would assume what they say is confidential.

    I’m glad you say this to your own people, but I’ve never heard it before myself. Perhaps the issue is that Confession isn’t taken very seriously by the Episcopal Church, so there’s no strong ethos about it in place. I was really shocked to hear what that guy said, a propos of nothing at all, and as if it were anybody else’s business. (He was talking about a couple in the parish who, he said, “weren’t going to be together for much longer.” Clearly, he was talking with them about their personal issues. Now, perhaps this was more commonly known than I knew, but I don’t know why the priest thought he had any business talking about it to me. FYI, the couple is still together.)

    I’ve always had much more confidence that Catholic priests would be discrete – and actually I’ve sought them out myself to talk with. In one of my A.A. groups, one member, a Catholic priest, heard lots of peoples’ Fifth Step. The 5th Step says, in fact, that “Our next problem will be to discover the person in whom we are to confide. Here we ought to take much care, remembering that prudence is a virtue which carries a high rating. Perhaps we shall need to share with this person facts about ourselves which no others ought to know. ”

    And later that” It may turn out, however, that you’ll choose someone else for the more difficult and deeper revelations. This individual may be entirely outside of A.A.–for example, your clergyman or your doctor.” So total confidentiality is (or at least has been) expected.

    So I find the distinction between “under the Rite” and “in the office” to be quite problematic. There should be more discipline around this, in any case.

  5. Barbara (bls)

    Ugh. Discipline (including, apparently, self-discipline) in the Episcopal Church is a serious problem, I’d say. Some priests clearly believe they are “laws unto themselves.”

  6. Barbara (bls)

    (I wonder if the “bishops abdicating their responsibilities” thing has to do with the difficulty people sometimes have when they become boss of people who’d previously been their colleagues?

    Maybe they need “Bishop school” to know how to deal with things like this….)

  7. Derek Olsen

    LOL! This is the Episcopal Church… If they tried doing that, they’d spend all their time fighting over whether you can even do that or whether it would threaten the “big tent” perspective.

  8. John-Julian, OJN

    Wait a minute. What happened to BCP page 446: “The secrecy of a confession is morally absolute for the confessor, and must under no circumstances be broken.” What is there about “UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES” that is unclear? Indeed, I know an Episcopal priest who was threatened by a judge with imprisonment if he didn’t reveal what was heard—the priest didn’t, and the judge ultimately didn’t either.

  9. Barbara (bls)

    I have just searched The Constitution and Canons (2012) for any information about this. The word “confession” appears once, in Canon IV, Section 27, and refers back to the BCP and the “moral absolute” of secrecy. Here’s what it says:

    Privileged Communication shall not be disclosed, nor shall any negative inference be drawn respecting the claim of the privilege, unless the privilege is waived by the person to whom the privilege belongs. Waiver of a privilege may occur by (a) voluntary disclosure; (b) failure to timely object to use of a Privileged Communication; or (c) placing the Privileged Communication at issue. Notwithstanding any provision of this section to the contrary, no waiver by a penitent of the privilege which attaches to communications or disclosures made within the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent shall work to require any confessor to divulge anything pertaining to any such communications or disclosures, the secrecy of the confession being morally absolute as provided in the Book of Common Prayer.

    If I’m reading this correctly, disclosure is OK if the penitent fails to “timely [sic] object”!

    This just doesn’t seem very serious, to me….

  10. John-Julian, OJN

    I just don’t have time for a full work-up, but, Barbara, note the distinction in the Canon between “Privileged Communication” and “Rite of Reconciliation” (and regarding the latter, the Canon refers to the BCP rubric). The meaning of the canonical “timely…” phrase means, I THINK, if the priest has asked permission to divulge Privileged Communication and there is no timely objection.

    I recall two historical instances where a priest was presented for deposition on the claim that he had broken “the seal”. The issue both times was whether it was actually a Confession or not—and in both instances, it was determined by the court that it was NOT the Rite of Reconciliation, but ONLY a private talk, and the priests were both let off.

  11. Nurya Love Parish (@nurya)

    Hi there, sorry to be late to the party, but there is a churchwide network for building best practices and use of facilities for mission and ministry. It’s an independent entity however, and I only know them from the Internet so I can’t speak from any experience with their offerings. However, I have definitely been impressed by what they have to offer. Check out

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