Let’s get this straight right from the beginning: God’s mission has a church. There, I said it. Sure, someone else said it before, but it is important for me to claim. As a person who works at one of those endowed Episcopal parishes, we need to be clear that no church, new or old, established or creative, small or large, is the progenitor of God’s mission. God’s mission, beginning-middle-and-end, is God’s responsibility to call forth from Goodness.
Just last week I spent a few days with colleagues from the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP). The conference was one of the best I have ever been to. Now before you think I’m biased because I’m on the planning committee, don’t just take my word for it. Do yourself a favor and search #CEEP2016. In doing so, you will find a full conversation for yourself via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Indeed, apart from the normal snarkiness that is ingredient to some clergy in our fine tradition, the generative spirit expressed by most was palpable.
One of the most important conversation threads that I heard over and over again at #CEEP2016 went something like this: the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement (#jesusmovement) must find ways to embrace the complexity of its togetherness so that mission can flow generatively from mutuality.
As a member of the Diocese of Atlanta (@episcopalatl), I am excruciatingly lucky to be a part of the good work that our Bishop Robert C. Wright (@xbishopatl) is calling us to. Over the course of the first three years of his episcopate, Bishop Wright has challenged clergy and laity to see our network of parishes as diocese. I believe his sense that our ecclesiology calls us to the embodiment of a networked-ecology is the most vital conversation facing our church today. What is more, Bishop Wright insists that it will only be as we (ordained and lay people alike) take this work seriously together, that we’ll ever thrive together. Recently the Rev. Michael Sullivan (@michaelrsulliva) captured this work as a calling forth of our spiritual body to function “not as an organization but as an organism animated by the Spirit of God.”
What was clear to me through conversation after conversation at CEEP, is that at least in the Diocese of Atlanta, the work that our Bishop, Canons, and our convocation Deans are calling us to will empower the whole of the diocese to be the hosts of serious missional dialogue, especially as it pertains to the question of ‘how’ the future-shaped work of the church embodies a new kind of mutuality.
A second and connected conversation from CEEP is related to how we begin to prepare ourselves to be the church of the future — or, as Texas Bishop Andy Doyle (@texasbishop)suggests, the church of 2050. In truth, no matter what your flavor of liturgical expression and no matter what your hymnotic bias, the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement must continue to find and form our parishioners, ourselves, out of the fullness of our tradition, scriptures, and reasonable experience. While often this has been translated as merely a tradition approach, the rootedness of leadership activity that comes from a kind of praying that shapes believing is essential to the ongoing discernment of our faith in practice for the age to come.
One of the first places that this starts is with a re-framing of how things like hierarchy and vocation work for and against our #jesusmovement. As Bishop Andy Doyle of Texas commented in one of his sessions at CEEP, and nuances in his book A Generous Community: Being Church in the New Missionary Age, “we (the Episcopal church) do not have a hierarchy of vocations. But we do have a way of doing church that makes people believe we do.”
For Bishops Doyle and Wright, the church must begin to ask more of her leadership activity than the mere-preservation of past performance metrics. Indeed, as a few of us on the Vital Stories working-group in the Diocese of Atlanta are already discussing, we need to focus our primary attention on harvesting the stories from those places where God’s Spirit is vitally active. To seek out these places, to ask these kinds of questions, is far a better a use of our time and energy than crunching the majority of the numbers gathered by any ASA. For when curation of the stories of resurrection, redemption, loss, life, and hope becomes primary to our answering how to be church in the age to come, our reliance on God’s activity in the world may generatively skew our self-understanding all the more.
A final take away from my time is this: the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement must embrace creativity from the margins, resources from the center, and learnings from our goings if we are to effectively embrace the work of evangelism, racial reconciliation, and discipleship. Some of this work will happen on Sundays, other bits of this work will happen on Wednesdays, but the reality is: the far majority of our work as church will happen where ever Christians find themselves in the world during their day-to-day lives.
In Atlanta, one expression of this challenge to purpose is found through our grappling with the embodiment of a diocesan purpose statement. It reads, we challenge ourselves and the world to love like Jesus as we worship joyful, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually. Like all good local purpose statements, this one can and should be baked into our local flavor of the church at large. But be not mistaken, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (@pb_curry) rightfully noted in his opening address to #CEEP2016 “Jesus was not baptized into a stagnant lake, he was baptized into moving body of water.” Our willingness to live into purpose will change us and the diocese of 2050. What is more, maybe we just need to remind ourselves candidly, that if things are stale, if there is no movement to our work, then maybe God’s mission has moved on out ahead of us. For we must never forget one of those central learnings our going-faith through the ages: God will call forth God’s mission with or without God’s church.
This year at CEEP I became even more convinced that Phyllis Tickle was right. The Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement has a unique role to play in the working out of what Christianity will look like for the next 500 years; however, our capacity to step into this emerging vacuum of local faith will require us to curate, or nurture, or animate, or hold open spaces for our networked-ecology to mature and grow in trust. It will take time. It will take courage. It will take creativity. But most of all, the ongoing work of the future-oriented, mission-shaped, always-mutual Episcopal Church will take us all. The age of the siloed institution is over. It is time that we work out anew how to BE the church together — and yes, that means all of us.