It’s time to rethink TEC. Are home churches the answer?

By | November 24, 2020

In a recent comment from the DioVA bishop’s bi-weekly clergy conference call, someone said that TEC “doesn’t do” home churches.

But in recent conversations with friends who, like me, as disappointed in The Episcopal Church and its lack of ethical awareness, as well as its inability to get its act together, home churches increasingly seem to be the answer.

To be clear: TEC does, in fact, do home churches.

Back in the good ole’ days, when the church was actually growing, one of the ways new parishes came into being was through home churches. A group of like-minded persons formed a group, began worshipping together, and went from there. Indeed, a great many churches here in Northern VA got their start in rented space, or in the homes of members, eventually going on to become the parishes we know today.

If all went well, application was made to the diocese, and bylaws adopted that included an accession clause to TEC’s constitution. That’s it. Presto! You’re now St. Bluehair, and the women are required to wear pearls on Sunday. And the diocese has authority over you, at least to the extent that it owns your assets if you change your mind. But best of all, you get a once-a-year visit from the Pointy Hats Club, where the bishop rolls through, makes small talk at coffee hour, and charms the kiddies with her cope and vestments.

Today, however, the church is hopelessly mired in clericalism, indifference, and corruption, the latter often concealed behind babble about racial reconciliation and more. At the same time, ACNA’s position on same-sex marriage and other social issues leaves that an unpalatable alternative.

So what advantages would home churches have?

Several come to mind, among them:

  • Accountability. With a smaller size, it’s not possible to hide misconduct behind the hierarchical goo that TEC has created.
  • Flexibility. A home church can find innovative ways to hold services while social distancing, without the diocese and its endless dithering about drive-in services, versus indoor services, versus outdoor services, etc.
  • Purity. Without the costs of maintaining energy-inefficient, fusty old heaps, home churches are nimble, cost-effective, and can devote a higher portion of their revenue to mission and social justice.
  • Less clericalism. One of the great failings of TEC is its 18th century view of church, replete with canons to the ordinary, vergers, wardens, and all the other silliness. Smaller groups may tend to address issues with less formality, and with a greater sense of ownership, than these outdated notions of churchmanship and the diffusion of accountability that results.
  • Less supervision. Coming from this author, that probably sounds like a contradiction, but hear me out. While the TEC canons provide that the bishop may issue a pastoral directive at any time, for any reason, the reality is most bishops only exercise supervision if money is embezzled or there is an affair. This illusory supervision leads people to conclude that all is well in many churches, despite a junior high school level of bullying and childish interaction that goes on, often in the full light of day. Thus, a home church is well rid of TEC’s idea of “supervision,” freeing it up to actually hold people accountable.,

Of course, home churches also would come with challenges. While there are plenty of TEC clergy to go around, and one suspects that it would not be hard to find clergy willing to officiate, if the home church includes persons like this author—now persona non grata in much of TEC—any supply clergy would probably have to serve on the QT.

That presupposes, of course, that a home church holds to the traditional TEC view of the priest as the woman with the magic hands. Whether in fact only a priest can consecrate bread and wine seems, in this day and age of social distancing, at best an issue ripe for further prayerful reflection. Indeed, while I think most would agree that the personal failings of a priest do not render the sacraments ineffectual, neither would most disagree with the notion that a priest lacking in ethics is damaging to the church and its members. And there are plenty of those running about in TEC these days, with many well-liked and well-established in their roles. Indeed, friendly is not the same as faithful, and some of the most beloved priests in TEC are the least ethical.

Of course, hybrid models are possible. It was not that long ago that, much like Presbyterians today, Holy Communion happened only a few times a year. In those cases, one certainly could roll through TEC parishes that indeed are inclusive and welcoming, take communion, and peel out for the next six months. The rest of the time could be spent, as it was in the past, in morning prayer, evening prayer, and possibly communion from the reserved sacrament.

It’s also true that there are a few parishes out there that have basically started as home churches, grown to become full-sized Episcopal Churches, but have never integrated into the larger denomination. Some fear the Dennis Canon and the diocesan ownership interest it imposes on church assets. Others fear dealing with the dithering of church officials. Others disagree with the theological and political stance of many in the church. Still others just don’t feel like doing the paperwork. And others prefer not to send funds to the diocese to be squandered on the endless dithering involved in “being church.”

I’d also add a closing observation, which is that ugly behavior in TEC goes right to the top, and has been going on for years. Whether it’s the hideous politics and infighting at 815; the embezzlement scandal of Ellen Cook, the national treasurer, who rode to work in limousines; the scandal a few years ago when I recording device was discovered at the Excutive Council meetings or the refusal to address sexual abuse and harassment and other forms of abuse in the church, TEC has more than had its chance. And if there is one consistent theme, it is that the Episcopal Church has screwed that chance up.

For the record, I’m done with the church’s apologies. I loath liturgies of lament. I’m over Episcopal oversight.

It’s time for persons of good conscience to consider whether there are valuable aspects of Anglicanism that they can take with them as they form a new model. That model might would be built neither in the image of ACNA nor TEC, but instead in the image of a Christ who loves all, who includes all, and who loves social justice and building the Kingdom of God, versus building the Kingdom of Church.

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