September 18, 2013

Repackaging The Episcopal Church: what it means to be The Missionary Society

Apparently The Episcopal Church is now all set to become The Missionary Society. No more 815. No more Church Center. No more PECUSA. No more The Episcopal Church. Henceforth, this enterprise is The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

I have to say this is tiring, but nevertheless it's a conversation worth having.

The immediate issue this presents is twofold, with two geographic centers of concern. To put these succinctly,

  1. In the spiritual-but-not-religious United States, "missionary" is a term freighted with deep-seated psychological baggage, specifically the image of Christians so blinded by zealotry as to be immune to the actual needs of the world but instead intent on creating Jesus delivery systems. (Did you, for example, have a chance to take in "The Book of Mormon"?) It's a term that smacks of knowing you're in the right and others had ought to get out of the way. (As Martin Marty has written, "in today’s religion, it often occurs that 'the committed people are not civil and the civil are not committed.'") We are, for better or worse, hard-pressed to imagine a less impressionable lot than the American missionary, and that isn't because missionaries are necessarily hard-headed, inflexible, or insensitive to the needs of the world (for why else join up in the first place?). It's just the image we get from the overall, hyper-mediated cultural gestalt of the term, and any marketing major with a clipboard and half a day's worth of research would tell you that. Many God-fearing people may have ably, nobly served as missionaries; many lives may have been deeply changed as a result of such service; and many may have given everything -- even their very lives -- in the service of their Lord. I'm very sorry to say that despite all that, the term "missionary" still doesn't play in Paducah.
  2. In many other areas of the world, the term remains even more deeply problematic, even more deeply entrenched. It smacks of imperialism, colonialism -- genocide, warfare, germs, defenestration of kings, cultures, systems of self-governance, ideas, whole libraries, ways of being. It has yet to be effectively separated from colonialism as a category, yet we no longer live in that age.

So there are your two prongs of trouble, and they're guaranteed to cause heartache down the line if this new name is adopted into common use. However, these prongs are attached to a more current systemic issue holding them together -- the precise point at which this decision was made.

To my knowledge, the actual title of this branch of American Anglicanism is set by General Convention. Currently it is something like Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA. In practice, DFMS is in-house language deployed by Leadership, who use it in a technical sense as the historic title and who also, more colloquially, probably like that it contains the word Missionary. This, it must be figured, is helpful for mission-driven, mission-shaped churches. And if that's as far as you want to take it, then maybe all seems fine, but those other issues cited above aren't going away.

I just have to wonder whether there's been much reflection on the subtler calculations of what using a title like that does or doesn't do to the ongoing conversation within the church about inclusiveness. Perhaps in a small way, saying ECUSA (wider audience of understanding) or DFMS (narrower audience) or TEC or now Missionary Society -- well, it is more of a stylistic choice; nevertheless, it's still one with far-reaching implications.

If you'd asked me up until today, I'd have said that trying to crack down on these distinctions was probably the last of the concerns our friends at 815/Church Center/DFMS HQ should have right now. Probably that should still be the case.

DFMS will have the effect of creating even more talk of insiders and outsiders within the church -- both in the postcolonial, theological context and more in just the vein of "What are they talking about?" I see more of the same kinds of frustrating experiences I've had when attending a churchwide meeting -- lots of names and acronyms dropped and an expectation that I'll be impressed, or at least able to keep up.

As I say, the whole thing is wearying. I'm awfully tempted not to play the game at all.


Ron Reed said...

Hi, this proposed change is new to me and I am so glad you have written on it and so well. Eric Funston on FB brought it to me attention. So as not to repeat myself,if you wish, please read my comments under his FB note:

I spent seven largely good years working at 815 from '84 to '91 and left more or less over the issue of the Treasurer Ellen Cooke and other lesser known problems with how PB Browning was managing and leading. Your comments are very on target and have a certain weight of institutional history of which may be aware. Further please take a look at The issue of hope and the Ep.Church is what we are about and specifically a three part essay that goes for me to the heart of where we have been at our best in the last century and where we have now for some decades not focused on real hope. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I really do not have an opinion about this topic one way or another... I just like to read what my brother (Mr.Lightcap) puts on paper, or screens across America as it were.