Ongoing revolutions and structural reform

By Sandy Webb
Posted Sep 6, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] A movement toward structural reform captivated the 77th General Convention. Scores of resolutions were proposed to reshape our means of governance, and some people went so far as to propose a constitutional convention at which we would simply start again, tabula rasa. The General Convention wisely resisted the temptation to rewrite our canons overnight, but the special task force on structural reform will also need to proceed carefully.

There is no piece of legislation that will move the Episcopal Church into a new era of efficiency and responsiveness. There is no piece of legislation that will make us “nimble.” The Episcopal Church evolves organically, often ahead of its canons. The objective of the special task force should be creating a structure in which our evolution – our revolution! – can be ongoing.

Consider three examples of reform in the last hundred years:

• A century ago, presiding bishops continued to exercise diocesan jurisdiction. The General Convention began requiring their resignations in 1943, but did not assign any church-wide authority to the presiding bishop until 1967. For twenty-four years, the church lived in the ambiguity of having a de facto church-wide leader who lacked any de jure church-wide authority.

• A century ago, the principal worship experience of most Episcopalians was Morning Prayer; it is now Holy Eucharist. The 1979 Prayer Book inaugurated this change by defining Holy Eucharist as “the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts.” However, in many of our congregations, Holy Eucharist has become a semiweekly, if not daily, celebration. Canonical reform inaugurated this major transformation, but it has continued to evolve without canonical prompting.

• A century ago, it was anathema to suggest that lay people would assist with the administration of Holy Communion. The General Convention rejected the idea of lay assistance nine times between 1931 and 1964. Male lay readers were not allowed to serve the chalice until 1967, women until 1969, and those who were not lay readers until 1976. The chalice-only requirement was not removed until 1988, and the requirement that there be an insufficient number of clergy present was not removed from the canons until 2003, although it remains to this day in the rubrics. For 36 years, the canons have tried to keep pace with an ongoing evolution in our customs, and the present variance between the canons and the rubrics reminds us that we have not succeeded.

While the list of 20th century reforms could go on and on, these three case studies highlight three different approaches to reform. In the first case, the General Convention left room for the church to work out the question of centralized authority before writing its canons. In the second case, the General Convention set a transformation in motion and allowed the details to evolve naturally. In the third case, the General Convention tried to keep pace with an ongoing evolution in our customs, and has spent nearly four decades tinkering with the canons.

Our 21st century interest in structural reform is no less significant than our 20th century interests in centralized authority, liturgical reform, and the ministry of the baptized. And, our present revolution is no less ongoing.

We know that we want a structure that is more nimble and responsive, but we do not yet know what that structure looks like. The goal of the special task force must be creating space for the Episcopal Church to evolve organically.

Perhaps the special task force will ask us to live in a season of ambiguity, as we did with matters of centralized authority. Perhaps the special task force will call for us to take one major step and then allow the details to evolve on their own, as we did with the prayer book.

What the special task force must not do is attempt to legislate a new system of governance that it thinks will magically transform us into a more effective, more efficient, more nimble organization. Choosing that approach will mean spending the next half-century tinkering with our canons in a futile attempt to keep pace with an ongoing revolution.

The 20th century has left in our care an Episcopal Church profoundly different from the one our grandparents knew, and our present conversations will have an equally transformative effect on the Episcopal Church that we leave to our grandchildren. The challenge for our special task force on structural reform is designing a structure that leaves room for organic growth. The challenge for the church will be finding the courage to live for a while in the ambiguity of an ongoing revolution.

– The Rev. Alexander H. Webb II (“Sandy”) is associate to the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia. Prior to attending Virginia Theological Seminary, he worked as a lay professional in the General Convention Office at the Episcopal Church Center in New York and as an intern in the Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.

(NB: Historical background on the case studies presented in this editorial is drawn from White and Dykman’s Annotated Constitution and Canons, 1981 revision, 1:201 and 2:937-942. See also General Convention Resolutions 1988-A123 and 2003-A111.)


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Comments (2)

  1. John Schaffer says:

    Sandy, I had hoped your comments would be more revealing about what is happening with structure. I am disappointed, but not surprised.

  2. Sandy, I find your description of and invitation to an open and evolving process to be very exciting. I sensed that quite a large portion of folks at General Convention shared such open-ness and eagerness. I pray that we as a Church, and members of it, may have the patience, courage, imagination, and mutual trust to participate in such “revolution” for the Episcopal Church in the 21st century. We will need much grace and prayer. Amen?

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