As we look at structural changes in the Episcopal Church during the next three years, we need to develop some way to allow non-Episcopal/Anglican congregations to affiliate with our church. This idea may seem odd, or even threatening. But as we do God’s work more effectively as a national church, we should expect to attract congregations who want to join us but may not want identify as Episcopalian.
We know this happens with people in our pews. On any given Sunday, our churches are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds. Some have formally become Episcopalian, some may in the future, and some never will. But all are part of our ministry and important for our mission. In the same way, we should expect non-Episcopalian congregations (and even networks of congregations) to play a similar role in the life of our diocesan and national church.
Two sets of experiences have made me realize just how important our flexibility in this area could be. The first is that a group of congregations from a number of mainline churches have hired a part-time missionary for our county. A portion of his ministry is being out where people gather, like a downtown restaurant and a college student center, to build relationships with pre-Christians. If he is successful, as he has been in the past, within a few months there will probably be prayer, Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship, and other ministry taking place in those sites. They could also develop a group that wanted to worship together and form the core of a new church plant. When they do, I hope they will be able to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, even if they don’t want to use the BCP at every worship service or have every lay worship leader certified by the local Episcopal bishop or sign up their very part-time clergy with the Church Pension Fund. But we may be doing things at a deanery or diocesan level that could benefit them and that their participation could benefit us. Maybe they want to be a multi-denominational church (as opposed to a non-denominational one) that maintained close bonds with PCUSA and the Episcopal Church. We will want to include such communities in the life of our church, even if they aren’t necessarily “Episcopalian” congregations. We won’t need these mechanisms until creative church planting initiatives are successful, but we should assume such efforts will create thriving Christian communities.
My second experience is being part of a prayer group with a number of non-denominational, independent, and congregationally-governed churches. As I listen to some of their struggles, I find that the Episcopal Church has figured out some things that give them fits. The Clergy Tax Guide sent out by the Church Pension Fund would be a huge benefit to many independent church pastors. Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People would help them address difficult questions all churches face. Our structured outreach programs from local food pantries to Episcopal Relief and Development can provide a way for smaller congregations to connect to those in need. Any number of such efforts can lead local congregations into deeper relationships with the Episcopal Church. These churches may not be interested in giving up their own backgrounds, but they may benefit from being regular participants in discussions we are having at the local or diocesan level about theology, ministry, mission and outreach. We should be looking for ways to welcome voices of our Christian brothers and sisters as we serve our local communities together. As our Diocesan and national church programs become less “command performances” and more helpful and life-giving, we should expect them to want to join us.
We have spent decades formulating various ecumenical agreements, and these are all good things. Yet, not all churches have an ecumenical affairs officer or the desire to spend years in theological discussions. But they do want to be the best Christians they can be, and the Episcopal Church has many important gifts to give. What we don’t have now are good structural mechanisms (or the openness) to allow non-Episcopalian congregations to have a role in our diocesan life. Some of those congregations will be new missions becoming Episcopalian. Some may be multi-denominational missions. Some may be churches resembling us who are the only congregation of their denomination in the area that need our support and fellowship. Some may have structures with very different strengths that need our strengths to succeed. Some may just discover incense and sanctus bells for the first time and want to learn more about us. Just as healthy congregations attract new members, a healthy denomination will attract new congregations. When they show up, we should be prepared.