Posted by: Titus Presler | November 7, 2010

Mission highlighted in Presiding Bishop’s warning about “suicide by governance”

The warning by its presiding bishop that the Episcopal Church was threatened by “suicide by governance” was issued for the sake of mission, according to the Episcopal News Service’s report on her opening address to the church’s Executive Council in Salt Lake City:

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori challenged the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council Oct. 24 to avoid “committing suicide by governance.”

Jefferts Schori said that the council and the church face a “life-or-death decision,” describing life as “a renewed and continually renewing focus on mission” and death as “an appeal to old ways and to internal focus” which devotes ever-greater resources to the institution and its internal conflicts.

“We need some structural change across the Episcopal Church,” she said. “Almost everywhere I go I hear dioceses wrestling with this; dioceses addressing what they often think of as their own governance handcuffs, the structures that are preventing them from moving more flexibly into a more open future.”

Part of what Jefferts Schori seems to have had in mind is the perennial tension between the energy required to keep institutional structures operating and the energy required to ensure that such structures carry out the work they were founded to carry out.  Maintenance versus mission is one way this tension is frequently expressed, and there is now a vast literature in ecclesiology, missiology, and congregational studies discussing that tension and lifting up the mission side of it as decisive.

The force of Jefferts Schori’s remarks was blunted, unfortunately, by the fact that the major conflict she cited was tension between, on one hand, clergy and lay people elected as deputies to the church’s triennial General Convention, and, on the other hand, the bishops of the church.  Evidently her remarks implied that deputies’ criticism of bishops reflected deputies’ more limited perspective on the church’s life, a view at which the clergy and lay members of council understandably took umbrage.

Jefferts Schori’s general point about mission is valid and merits attention by all communions and denominations and at all levels of their life – small-group ministries, congregations, regional judicatories, churchwide commissions, offices and assemblies.  She did well in distinguishing the internal focus she was critiquing from the external focus of mission:

I think we’re in some danger of committing suicide by governance by focusing internally rather than externally. . . . Dying organisms pay most attention to survival. Our Haiti initiative [raising $10 million to rebuild that diocese] is a positive counter-force to that.  It’s an example of what’s possible when we turn outward rather than inward.

Mission is indeed intrinsically concerned not with the internal but with the external, with those beyond the community in question, those who are different in some identifiable way from the community.  As I like to put it, mission is mission in the dimension of difference.

The difficulty is that many Episcopalians and members of other mainline denominations have such an inclusive understanding of mission that mission’s distinctive emphasis on encounter with the different is usually lost amid a vague and diffuse sense that mission is synonymous with the entire life of the church – worship, fellowship groups, “development” work, international outreach, Sunday School, liturgical innovation, evangelism, Bible study, sending missionaries and so on.  Mission in this inclusive sense has become very popular, everyone wants to be considered involved in it, so all of it is included in mission. Unfortunately, many church leaders use the phrase “mission and ministry” often enough without indicating why they’re using two words instead of one that church members are left with little way of knowing the difference between the two.

Rather than focusing on deputies’ criticisms of bishops, Jefferts Schori might have done better to analyze other conflicts that more obviously detract from the church’s missional focus.  Anglican turmoil about sexuality is one such conflict, though, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it is important to recognize that that conflict is, in fact, about mission, not simply a distraction from mission.  The very public conflict between the Diocese of Pennsylvania and Bishop Charles Bennison would benefit from public analysis.  Most important, Episcopalians and other mainliners need to explore how their declines in membership and funding bring stresses that unexpectedly prompt people to turn on each other rather than engage forthrightly the missional opportunities and challenges of our era.

As though in counterpoint to Jefferts Schori’s critique of the Episcopal Church’s current institutional structure, Bonnie Anderson, president of the church’s House of Deputies, was quoted as celebrating how the church’s governance structures facilitate mission:

Fortunately God has called us to this ministry and has given us the gifts to do what needs to be done,” she said. “It is all of us together – bishops, laity, clergy – who govern the Episcopal Church.  Make no mistake about it: our form of governance enables our mission.

Fair enough: The church’s governance structures would not have survived over 200 years if they did nothing to facilitate faithfulness to God’s mission, and they manifestly have nurtured an enormous amount of mission in that time.  Yet Anderson’s remarks suffered from vagueness about what mission is in relation to ministry, and her point was blunted.


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