Sunday, March 26, 2006

Making Sense of Tennessee

We are living through tumultuous times in the Diocese of Tennessee. Had we been a simple majority diocese I suspect that by now Neal Michell would have been bishop-elect, and we would be starting to think about how we move forward together in mission in this weird and wonderful century. But we are not a simple majority diocese, we require 2/3 in each order to elect, which is difficult enough in less troubled times, but given where we are today it seems to be a North Face of the Eiger that needs to be scaled. We gather again on May 6th to give it another try.

But what is behind this? Although the mix is distinctively different, in many ways this is akin to the stand-off that is happening in other parts of all the churches, not just the Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Tennessee has changed enormously in the last dozen years, going from being a jurisdiction whose previous bishop had died in office amidst enormous confusion. Tennessee, despite its ancient name, was, in effect, a new diocese carved out of one that used to cover the whole state, and the previous bishop never really grasped that -- and the dynamics that go with it.

The present bishop, Bertram Herlong, did grasp that reality and began giving the diocese focus and visionary leadership. Virtually all its vital signs show remarkable health, even with some almighty hiccups after the events of August 2003, when the General Convention determined that the sovereign self takes priority over the revelation of the Sovereign God. Yet not everyone in the diocese sees what has happened in this corner of God's Vineyard as progress, and this perception is what has been playing itself out over the last two Saturdays.

The tragedy is that those who have managed to prevent the election of a bishop here have a deep affection for the Episcopal Church of the USA, and do not want its genius to be lost. One can admire their love for the institution that many of us have served for a long time, but if we were to tot up the evidence it would seem to suggest that their approach will further damage this little corner of the church rather than strengthen the institution for mission in the bracing climate that lies ahead.

We live in a very different kind of age from the one that spawned the church structures that we have been used to, and part of the unraveling that is taking place right now is due to the fact that yesterday's structures are totally inappropriate for tomorrow's church in tomorrow's world. It is hard to let go of what is old and familiar in order to move into a different kind of age, but that is what is being asked of us. However, some seem unable to do that, and while seeing themselves as champions of the institution, they are in fact endangering it by trampling over seeds of new life.

This is a postdenominational age, as my friend, Kevin Martin, has pointed out, and one of the challenges to old-line denominations is how we should adapt, function, and fullfill our ministry in an era like this. What is required of us is the ability to modify, to take calculated risks, to see how what we have inherited can be made to work on the different kind of landscape that is emerging.

In the midst of this a good chunk of the received historical structures of North American Anglicanism are obsolute or irrelevant, getting in the way rather than enabling the mission. Indeed, they are wedded to outmoded ideologies and a top-heavy bureaucracy with the result that they seem completely absorbed in their own agenda that there is little room for God's agenda to make itself known.

Those who hold a major portion of the balance in the Tennessee vote are non-parochial and retired clergy, many of them wonderful men and women, but folks whose ministry was exercised in a different time, or outside the steady pattern of parish life that is the front line of the church's mission. I was a non-parochial priest for 18 years, so from personal experience I fully understand the lesser sense of accountability that such folks have to the congregational and diocesan framework of day-to-day church life.

But there are other factors. One is that those who are leading the charge on both sides of this divide are Boomers, and as the history of this generation has shown, we Boomers see things in terms of competing visions. About twenty years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe published their remarkable book, Generations, in which they said that "Unlike their G.I. fathers, who excelled at overcoming crisis, Boomers are attracted to the possibility of fomenting crisis" (Page 314).

Strauss and Howe, in their more recent book, The Fourth Turning, posit that sometime during the first decade of the 21st Century we would encounter an enormous Crisis. Written before 9/11, it is possible that what took place then either triggered it or was the ominous early warning of a lot that was (and still is) to come. Older and wiser, they now say that "When the Crisis hits, Boomers will need to defuse the Culture Wars at once. Their pro-choice secularists and pro-life evangelicals will need to move beyond their Unraveling-era skirmishes and unite around an agenda of national survival, much as Missionary elders (an early prophetic generation) did during the depression and war. Bommers must also display a forbearance others have never associated with them" (Page 325).

The question before us in Tennessee is sobering because there are many difficult choices and decisions attached to it. Those of us who are Boomers in this battle are, perhaps, being forced to face up to what Strauss and Howe call the dark side of our collective persona. We require wisdom that comes from above that will prevail over being hot-headed. We require grace and holiness that will counter self-centeredness. We also need to grapple with what it means to be a people committed to the truth wherever such a commitment might take us. Without the aid of a mighty God these challenges could be considered dilemmas that are mutually exclusive.

Yesterday, between ballots in Christ Church Cathedral I began reading Eugene Peterson's latest volume, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading. In its second chapter there is a paragraph that I wanted to shout from the rooftops because it precisely addresses what we are dealing with.

Peterson writes, "I want to counter this widespread practice of taking personal experience instead of the Bible as the authority for living. I want to pull Christian Scriptures back from the margins of the contemporary imagination where they have been so rudely elbowed by their glamorous competitors, and reestablish them at the center as the text for living the Christian life deeply and well. I want to confront and expose this replacement of the authoritative Bible by the authoritative self. I want to place personal experience under the authority of the Bible and not over it. I want to set the Bible before us as the text by which we live our lives, this text that stands in such sturdy contrast to the potpourri of religious psychology, self-development, mystical experimentation, and devotional dilettantism that has come to characterize so much of what takes cover under the umbrella of 'spirituality'" (Page 17).

But as I have read these words again today I realize that if I am to be a person who lives his life under the authority of God's revelation, then I personally have to take responsibility for the part that I have played in the stand-off here in Tennessee. Whether our intentions are the very best, and I hope that mine have been, because of our fallenness we cannot help but complicate things. I want to discover in the next few weeks how I might, with others, find a godly resolution to this impasse, and one that will bring such glory to God that the heavens will trumpet forth their praises.


Bill said...

Good luck. Seriously. You have my prayers, for whatever they're worth.

Anonymous said...

This could be the result of too much listening and a lack of action. Are the clergy and the laity envisioning the church in a different way? Has this ever been discussed between these groups? Remember if their is no one in the pews it matters little what the priests or bishop think.

Jimmy said...

'Crisis' Is something that is ongoing in different parts of the world at all times.
I think what western writers mean is crisis coming home like bastard children of the progenitor.
Will crisis come home?
I don't know but there are people who know a lot more about these things than I do who think it will.