Thursday, February 16, 2012

No Names: Nothing Changes

Trying to understand, I asked him about his single condition: that no names or identifying references be used in this post. Is there someone you feel you need to protect? Family members perhaps who are still active in the parish life? Not the bishop?

Eventually he came up with what he admitted was the closest he could manage to an answer: ‘Some messes are bad enough you don’t need to swim through them a second time. Learn you lesson well, because it’s my experience that if you try to change the outcome it will almost invariably make things worse because the other parties will be on the defensive if they’re not busy back-tracking. By the time the air’s been cleared, you’re worn down- exhausted, and asking yourself why you even tried in the first place.’

‘Sounds pretty toxic to me,’ I admitted.

‘ Sometimes the only healthy thing to do is let go: let the consequences of actions beyond your control work themselves out, and get on with your own healing’ he suggested with an audible sigh.

Yes, this unfortunately is an Anglican story. My friend, a cradle Anglican grew up in a family deeply involved in his parish and diocese. Eventually, however, he had his own deep and very painful reasons for parting company with the institution of the local Church.

‘In the rest of my life I, and much of the world were living a reality that the official Church and many of its ‘decision makers’ were politely, fastidiously avoiding. I tried, getting individual priests, and even the bishop involved; ‘ducking out’ would perhaps be the best description of the response I received. Listening to me the first time perhaps; lots of those slightly condescending smiles and pats on the hand- as if only they knew what was really going on, what was really at stake behind the harrowing realities I was describing. However, there was never a second meeting to discuss a concrete commitment. I’d been heard, and apparently that was supposed to be enough.’

My friend and I both belong to a loosely network which a third participant- a theologian- calls ‘the church in exile.’ Some of us, our lives indelibly coloured, the essential architecture of our beings fashioned by our Anglican birthright; others informed by denominations and traditions which overlap ours and inform our fellowship.

‘What d’you call yourself?’ possibly the first question of many from my friend in the rich exchange of prayer and mutual support which spans several years now.

‘ A post-Anglican-anglican?’ I offered, perhaps consciously coining the phrase for the first time.

‘I’m not sure the definition has been worked out for someone like me,’ he’d eventually responded.

Less than a year later the theologian joined our number. ‘A lay theologian,’ he’d made a point of stressing at the time, ‘no vested interests in the corporate monolith we call Church.’

The shape of my friend’s days are almost monastic. ‘Shaped by silence,’ is how he describes it.

The work that he does allows for that solitude. ‘And yet, I’m blessed to be in touch with some of the most vitally interesting, deep thinkers you can imagine.’

My friend is also impressively well-read. What he calls ‘critical theology,’ environmental and social issues; there’s also a considerable exposure to orthodox theology and Russian literature which creeps into our exchanges at times. Which is kind of surprising as the thinkers we’re more likely to share these days are the likes of +Spong, Capon, Heschel, Sacks, Borg or McLaren. For more than a year, the two of us read in tandem the works Ehrman and many of the original texts Ehrman cites.

‘A post-theist Christian, trying his best to embody the consequences of the Incarnation,’ is perhaps the closest he’s ever come to defining himself, and that was only when a mutual acquaintance pressed him. Another time, possibly around the time our theologian friend referred to our loose network of prayer and caring as a ‘Church in exile,’ my friend found himself agreeing.

‘Well, I am Church, if no longer officially part of the Corporate structure- so yeah.’

About five years ago my friend, who works in the world of solutions and ideas, had an idea.

Actually, it was a lot more than a single idea. ‘One thing sort of led to another,’ he told me.

‘When a local Church which had played a part in his Mother’s childhood was closed and sold- along with several others in a very short time within his diocese, my friend got thinking.

As is most often the case, ‘the problem’ was really a lot more complex than simply b.i.p (bums in the pew). Yes, current attendance was a pale ghost of its former self, but equally significant my friend determined was the whole culture of the corporate Church. As much the language they were using as what they were offering. How they were engaging with potential membership. The whole concept of membership itself. Why they were offering it?

All of which led to a lot of deep reflection and what my friend calls organizational doodling. Which of course eventually led to the money of it all.

At that time, not only was his local Church closing parishes, but a Bishop’s Annual Dinner was instituted ($250 per head), an annual Bishop’s Golf Tournament, and shortly thereafter the diocesan paper started advertising annual ‘pilgrimages’- with the Bishop of course- to the Middle East one year, Italy the next. An outside ‘consultant’ was eventually hired, and subsequently made a permanent employee of the diocese: to advise on ‘visibility, access and marketing.’

But back to my friend and the money issue.

A contextual note: This is a Canadian story, and at the time my friend began working things out on paper, the Canadian cell phone market- unlike its American equivalent- was essentially dominated by three national players. Informing his awareness of the development of this market was the fact that one of my friend’s closest friends had occupied senior executive positions in two of these three corporations.

As I said, my friend’s ‘organizational doodling’ had brought him to the ‘issue of money’ in current Church culture: the medieval concept of pledges, frequently tithing; the multiple ‘appeals’ (pressure) on an ever-decreasing laity to assume greater and greater responsibility for the costs of the institutional Church and its infrastructure. One word kept seeping into his doodling ‘patriarchy.’ ‘Essentially a patriarchal monolith’ he eventually told me. ‘A model which was found to be too costly and counter-productive in almost every other sector of our lives... Effectively extinct.‘

‘Except in the Church,’ I’d teased.

Somewhere in all of this my friend thought of his cell phone executive friend.

Not the first time the concept of ‘affinity’ had entered my friend’s life or thinking. Essentially a transactional culture developed for ‘mutual benefit,’ (you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours- gently, caringly, for our mutual benefit) he’d been part of a much earlier experiment in ‘affinity’ in his volunteer life.

My friend did his research: the number of parishes, dioceses, aid and development initiatives within the Canadian church: all beneficiaries.

Knowing church and more specifically Anglican Church culture, my friend them began mapping out a process which could accommodate and work with the objections and resistance he sensed he’d invariably encounter.

Almost like a defining icon, the story of our Lord driving the money changers from the temple almost immediately came to mind- and stayed with him.

This however would be different.

With time another passage from Scripture also came to mind: Matthew 10:16

"Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves'

Through what my friend hoped would be a series of exploratory discussions, the Church would define the parameters of the plan and accessibility to Church membership. The Church would likewise invite all three of Canada’s leading cell phone service providers to compete for access to that same membership.

With a registered membership of 800,000 in 30 dioceses: but more importantly with 2,035,000 ‘self-identified Anglicans’ in the country according to the 2001 national census (6.1 percent of the population), Anglicans were a group any one of these companies would be happy to talk with in a conversation which could be designed and managed by the Church.

With diocesan and a national newspaper- available both electronically and by home delivery, with weekly bulletins and regular mailings, the Church was essentially an invested market: one with an interest in something more than cell phones: ie the Church.

In the theoretical model my friend proposed, the Corporate partner would perhaps have:

Serious quarterly advertizing of pre-determined dimensions in the diocesan newspapers; bi-annual access to the national Anglican Journal.

Links would also be provided on diocesan and the national Church website for subscription to the plan.

Possibly, the Corporate partner would be granted access to individual parish bulletins as part of their annual stewardship campaign.

All of these details to be crafted by the Church and negotiated with the eventual corporate partner. At no time would direct access to individual participants (i.e. email addresses) be provided to the Church to the Corporate partner.

Members of the Church, their family, friends and even sympathetic strangers would have the opportunity to enrol their cell phone usage with the Corporate partner for the benefit of specific parishes, the national Church or individual Anglican initiatives.

In return, each of these beneficiaries would receive a monthly royalty payment based on a pre-determined percentage of individual enrolled participant’s cell phone usage.

Lifelong Anglican that he is, the process my friend designed was Church-driven and defined every step of the way, and being an unanticipated initiative, the Church would have an obvious advantage in negotiating access and royalty percentages as each of the three leading service providers competed to become the Church’s Corporate partner.

Once again my friend sat down with his corporate executive friend:

Did the cell phone industry currently offer any affinity opportunities? On a very limited basis. Normally within their own corporate culture- to unions and professional associations.

Would either of the corporation she knew so well be capable of instituting a beneficiary code into their system, to identify accounts enrolled in such a plan as well as this organization's beneficial recipient? Yes.

Would a national organization with national membership, infrastructure and exposure- and here he quoted his statistics- possibly be of interest to either of the Corporations she knew so well? Reminding him their personal mandate was not in marketing, his friend responded with a question: What would such a group possibly have to lose by pitching such an idea?

Another thing, once my friend had got the first program worked out, he started what he calls ‘developmental daydreaming.’

‘Once the Church saw the incremental benefits of their plan on a monthly basis, maybe they could even help other non-profits negotiate similar arrangements: breast cancer, Save the Children- who knows.’

That wasn’t all however.

‘I also started thinking about some of the more visible claims on Church finances. Specifically, all those trips the Bishop and Archdeacon make- for meetings of the House of Bishops, for international conferences and diocesan partnerships. Without giving away any details I actually got in touch with the national air miles plan- essentially about the possibility of Church members ceding their air miles points to the Church in return for a tax receipt: effectively rendering most if not all church air travel cost-free.’


‘It was all to be part of my presentation to the Bishop, once I’d got him understanding the possibilities for the Church with affinity’

But sadly- predictably, some might say- here’s where the whole thing fell apart.

Some time previously, my friend had been asked to befriend a recent arrival to the diocese. Church history, critical theology and modern Biblical scholarship were cited as possible mutual interests by the individual who described this third party as ‘someone in need of friends.’

They also ended up being near-neighbors.

Once my friend had completed his ‘developmental doodling’ he sent off an e-mail request for a meeting to the Bishop (a long-time family acquaintance) and shared his proposal with this third individual over coffee.

What he didn’t know at the time however was that this individual, after having completed all the necessary academic requirements had been declined as a candidate for ordination. This person had ‘issues’ and had essentially become a ‘power player’ within the corporate Church.

Unbeknownst to my friend, this individual and the Bishop met for other purposes, but inevitably got around to discussing my friend’s request for a meeting with the Bishop.

Whatever was said, my friend never received even the courtesy of an acknowledgement from the Bishop.

The other party made a point of letting him know of their meeting with the Bishop. ‘Oh, and we discussed your idea.’

‘And?’ my friend asked.

‘That’s it. We discussed it.’

‘That’s it?’ my friend asked, not quite grasping the dimensions of what was going on.

‘You’ll just have to wait and see,’ the third party told him, with what he mistook for coy amusement.

So why am I writing this- probably five years after the fact.

Because, just days short of Christmas, my friend was out grocery shopping and literally crossed paths with that Bishop. ‘He was coming straight at me... No question that he saw me, and knew who I was... For a moment old habits almost kicked in. I almost greeted him by name. Instead I simply nodded and smiled- I mean it’s not as if we were exactly on speaking terms.’

‘And what about the Bishop?’

‘His features flushed, he lowered his eyes, and kept walking- right past me... I actually stepped out of his way to make it easier for him.’

‘How did that feel?’ I asked only when it became clear there wasn’t more to the story.

‘I was almost all the way back home before it really hit- this only-too-concrete proof I was no longer even recognized by this particular embodiment of the corporate Church... I can’t say it didn’t hurt.’

The other day, thinking of a couple of responses to something I had written and published in another quarter, my friend’s pre-Christmas pain came only too readily to mind.

When I e-mailed him about writing this post, his only question was ‘Why?’

Because you deserve better

Your work deserves better

The Church deserves better,

and besides, they’re probably still closing parishes and selling off the real estate, I reminded him.

‘I did what I could: cast my bread upon the proverbial,’ he told me.

‘What are you feeling?’ I asked only after the question persisted.

‘Nothing really. Not now at least.’

The problem, however, was I only too well remembered his pain last Christmas.

‘What do you think really happened,’ I couldn’t help but ask.

‘Who knows?’

‘That other person you shared the programme with?’

‘She’s actually left the diocese- moved on.’

‘But whatever she might have said- for her own angry ends- bottom line is the Bishop didn’t even have the courtesy to respond to your request or listen to your proposal.’

‘There is that.’

‘Did you ever think that possibly your proposal was more than he could handle. Just maybe the old guy wasn’t quite up to getting his head around it.’

‘He’s not that old.’

‘So... maybe it was just too far outside his ‘box.’

‘That’s just it,’ my friend finally admitted. ‘There’d be a decided shift in the transactional power exchange in financing the Church. An expansion of the individual parishioner’s investment in the Church.’

‘Isn’t that a good thing?’

‘Yes, but that could also bring with it an increased expectation of accountability and transparency- over how those new funds are being spent; how this considerable change in the Church’s fiscal situation is being reflected in the Church’s priorities and performance.’

‘You just might have something there... Accountability and transparency in corporate Church culture? What a thought!’

‘Yes, but in a whole other context that’s already changing for the Church with the internet,’ my friend thoughtfully posited. ‘That’s why I’ve let the whole thing go- for now at least.’

My friend? He’s gone on to other things. Currently that includes an alternate model for disaster relief housing; three inventions, lacking only the funding for their patent applications, and another project ‘too tentative and new to even have a name yet, ‘ he told me.

‘But what about affinity?’ I asked, when we spoke the other night.

‘The Church obviously wasn’t up to it- not even for entertaining the possibility.

‘And in the process, they’re probably still closing churches, putting the squeeze on those in the pew.’

‘Yeah, well...’

There really wasn’t anything more to be said.

I did however keep my promise: no names or identifying details. ‘You mean to protect the guilty,’ I’d teased when we spoke last.

‘Maybe to protect me,’ he’d eventually admitted. ‘I don’t need the grief.’

‘Love you-‘ I reminded him just before hanging up. ‘And I still say you deserved better from your Bishop if no one else... a lot better.’

‘I love you too.’

My friend, this one’s for you.

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