07/07/2012 09:41 am ET | Updated Sep 06, 2012

As Episcopalians Gather, a Vision for a Bottom-up Church

Since 1785, Episcopalians have been gathering on a nationwide basis every three years to govern the church. It was, in its day, a revolutionary idea in itself; a church governed by means of a democratic process. At that first gathering in Philadelphia, the process organized itself into two legislative houses -- bishops in one, everyone else in another -- creating a pattern of bicameralism that may well have influenced the Constitutional Convention held in the same city two years later.

A democratically governed church is necessarily a deliberative church, and that deliberation itself is where -- if prayers are answered -- the idea of a church governed by majority rule opens itself to the hope of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. But there is a great deal of work to be done -- and, at least in some places, a growing sense of unease about how to go about doing it.

One blessed result of nearly 30 years of tumult and controversy is that the Episcopal Church now stands unquestionably for a progressive vision of the Christian message. In a nation, indeed in a world, torn apart by religious extremism and intolerance, and in a historic moment that tends to reduce religious meaning to hardline ideologies, the church has articulated an idea of Christianity that is open to examination, unafraid of difficult questions, and characterized by an essential humility about the claims it makes.

So you might think this would be the perfect historic moment for the Episcopal Church. Though the road has been hard, the church has come to a place clearly distinguished from the loudest Christian voices in our civic culture -- conservative Evangelicals -- as well as from the increasing doctrinism of a Roman Catholic Church that has chosen to turn away from 50 years of Vatican II-inspired reforms. It should be a church that appeals to an increasingly educated, increasingly diverse, increasingly global population.

But so far, at least, it hasn't turned out that way. Among the reports to be set before the gathered delegates in Indianapolis is the church's own most recent study of itself, which shows that on a nationwide basis the church has shrunk at an annual rate of about 3 percent per year since 2006. There are places where growth is happening -- my own diocese, Massachusetts, is one of them -- but the broad numbers don't offer a promising picture of the future. It is something of an irony: After taking substantive, often difficult steps to make the church more intentionally inclusive, it does not seem to be including more people.

The question is not how we got here -- although plenty of angry voices have opinions on the question (it's because we became too liberal, it's because we lost touch with the people who were at the core of the tradition, it's because we don't reproduce quickly enough, etc.). It is rather what the way ahead might be, where this voice for an idea of the Christian faith that is inclusive and hopeful, welcoming and questioning, regarding both scientific knowledge and the grace of faith both as gifts of a loving God.

A critical part of the answer may lie deep in the reports prepared for the delegates, in a document that goes under the deceptively boring title "Report of the Standing Committee on the Structure of the Church." There, on page 536 of the 759-page-long doorstop of a book prepared for the delegates to read, is a resolution calling for the church to endorse the "principle of subsidiarity" in shaping its future life of witness and work.

The question this resolution seeks to answer is one confronted by all of the traditional mainline Protestant denominations: How can churches that have historically been organized in some kind of hierarchy open the doors to innovation and creativity, while still retaining an essential kind of unity and clarity of message?

This seems simple; it is not. In a tradition that understands itself to have an incarnational emphasis in its theology -- to hold an understanding of the Christian message that meets the culture on its own terms in order to transform it into something more closely aligned with the hope of God -- a conundrum has emerged. In virtually every other realm of our common life -- in our politics, in our corporations, in our societies and communities -- we are becoming less and less hierarchical. The people who wander in the door of my church and sit in the pews on Sunday morning come to Sunday morning from a world where hierarchies are being relentlessly flattened, from institutions and corporations moving toward a stark delineation between leaders and workers, from an economy of growing distance between the haves and the have-nots with fewer and fewer left in the middle.

But the mainline traditions were historically churches of the middle: middle class, middle America, middle road. And they offered the faithful a way of doing church that was, at its core, hierarchical. How can that now seem "incarnational"? How can that come alongside an increasingly flattened, separated world, where the center increasingly does not hold?

The idea of a church focused on subsidiarity opens up the possibility of creativity and responsiveness at the street corner -- where, as it turns out, the local church lives, and the growth of the church must happen if it is to happen at all. Fewer and fewer people come into a church because they are interested in the "brand" (Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, whatever); the heritage function of those identity markers is swiftly sinking into irrelevance. Fewer still think of a diocese or a district or a bishop or a polity as where they will find meaning, community or help in making sense of human existence.

If the trend of shrinkage is to become again a trend of growth, it will happen this time exactly where the church meets the people seeking a relationship with God -- at the level of the local parish. Encouraging creativity and invention there, empowering not just the clergy but the people to identify and address the needs of the communities where they placed, could be the place where a new revival begins.

This is, let's be honest, a risky business. For better or worse, many of the most significant changes that have made the church more inclusive and more progressive in the years just past were, in their essence, top-down changes. They were not positions sensed by a majority and then codified by a once-every-three-years gathering. Something more like the opposite took place; the elected leadership of the church set out new and ambitions visions of our message, and the people in the pews have had to find ways to grow into that vision.

Some have left, yes; but most have stayed and risen to the challenge in ways that inspire and sometimes amaze. But now may be the time that what is needed is something like the reverse; a new kind of humility that allows more scope for leadership to arise out in the pews, that encourages the emergence of authentic ministry (even the kind that sounds traditional) out of the local parish in response to its own setting and community.

This nearly hidden notion of a church that places an idea of subsidiarity at its heart gives a vision of a future in which a church transformed by the wrenching changes of the past decades now finds the faith to risk reinvesting at the local level. It would be a church that empowers bottom-up solutions to bottom-up problems, and which holds up against that standard the initiatives that come from the top.

It would be a fairly radical change for an institution first gathered in 1785. But then again, it is a church that began with a fairly revolutionary idea -- democratic governance, a bottom-up solution to a bottom-up problem. And it offers a message that gives a desperately needed counterpoise to the increasing violence in the religious rhetoric of much of the rest of the world.

Mark Edington is an Episcopal priest in Newtonville, Mass., and the executive director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory.