“Saddle your own horse.”
This old Texas saying was the last piece of advice Bonnie Anderson had for the people at the "Episcopalians for the Future" meeting sponsored by Fort Worth Via Media and Brite Divinity School on September 8.
"Always saddle your own horse" also is the unofficial motto of The Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
It means taking responsibility for yourself.
What the president of the House of Deputies was telling us was that The Episcopal Church leadership can’t “rescue” us. They can help us, but they can’t rescue us.
We – the laypeople and clergy in the Diocese of Fort Worth who intend to remain Episcopalian should our bishop and others leave TEC -- have a responsibility to get informed, get organized, and get busy.
Some of us who have been saying the same thing for nigh on fifteen years or more felt like standing up and cheering.
But I also understand why people here are waiting for the TEC cavalry to ride over the hill and rescue them.
There is a deepseated culture of passivity in the church here, a culture that’s been carefully nurtured by the clergy and bishops here for decades and that has been buttressed by carefully crafted rules and policies.
Lay people have been told for the entirety of this diocese’s existence that lay people can pray, pay, and obey and that’s it. Only the clergy can actually do things in the church. Only the clergy have power. The clericalism of this diocese has to be experienced to be believed.
In this, the Fatherland of The Episcopal Church, lay people are assured that Father knows best and that one questions him at one's peril. Only those lay people who toe the doctrinal line are allowed to have any position of influence.
In most of our parishes it is very hard for lay people who disagree with the bishop to have any power. We can urge people to run for vestry and for convention delegates until we are blue in the face, but often when they try, they run up against the “policies” of their rectors and the Bishop’s Customary.
What is the Bishop’s Customary? It’s the twenty-two page-long set of rules that run this diocese. You can find it on the diocesan web page.
For example, here is how the national canons define a communicant in good standing:
CANON 17: Of Regulations Respecting the Laity
Sec. 3. All communicants of this Church who for the previous year
have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause
prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for
the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered
communicants in good standing.
Here is how the Bishop’s Customary defines a communicant:
(1) Communicant In Good Standing A baptized person who has been confirmed or received by a Bishop of this Church and who receives Holy Communion on a regular basis in the Episcopal Church is a communicant of this Church. All communicants whose names are duly recorded in the Parish Register where they are attending, who for the previous year have been faithful in corporate worship, unless for good cause prevented, and have been faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God, are to be considered Communicants in Good Standing.
Here is some of what the Bishop’s Customary says about election of Vestry members:
In most parishes, the rector usually appoints the outgoing members of the vestry to serve as a nominating committee. It is their duty to present nominees who will bring additional know-how to the vestry, so that its membership will reflect a broad spectrum of expertise ranging from the legal and fiscal to such fields as communications, teaching, social work, etc.Many nominating committees prepare a slate of more names than there are positions to be filled to offer a choice to the parishioners and to forestall any embarrassment among the losers. A person's commitment to the parish is utmost in determining his/her willingness to service. . .
In some parishes, it is customary to supplement the nominating committee's list by making nominations from the floor of the meeting. Others provide that this be done in advance, by petition with a prescribed number of signatures. Whatever procedure is followed, you will want to be sure that all candidates know what election to the vestry will mean in terms of their time, energy, and imagination.Although many priests are reluctant to do so, it is quite within the rights of the local clergyman to make suggestions to the nominating committee and most especially to express his previous relations with the nominees, and possible difficulties or problems which could be encountered if they were elected to vestry membership.
BASIC CRITERIA FOR VESTRY NOMINATION ARE THE FOLLOWING:
1. Does the nominee meet or exceed the canonical requirements of Communicant status in this Church?
2. Is the nominee a consistent, concerned steward? Does he/she make a pledge each year and pay that pledge?
3. Does the basic lifestyle of the nominee conform to Christian expectations and is it consistent with his/her evaluation by the community and parish?
4. What lay ministry have they performed?
5. Is the nominee hopeful about the life of the parish, the Christian faith, and life in general?
6. Can the rector work with the nominee?
Pay attention to numbers 2, 3, and 6. These are the rules invoked in most parishes in this diocese when anyone who disagrees with the bishop is nominated to run for vestry. If the rector can’t scratch him or her because his or her pledge isn’t all paid up, then he can get the person on the lifestyle rule, by labeling him/her argumentative and confrontational. And as a last resort, he can always simply announce, “I can’t work with this person,” and that person is stricken from the list of nominees.
In most parishes, the annual meeting is presented with a slate of nominees and that’s it. Some rectors, such as the rector of All Saints Fort Worth, forbid nominations from the floor.
Here is what the Bishop’s Customary says about the election of Convention delegates:
Delegates and Alternate Delegates to the annual conventions of the Diocese of Fort Worth are elected at the annual parish meeting of the congregation and serve until their successors are elected. The annual meeting of each parish shall be held no later than the 31st of January. Delegates and Alternate Delegates must be communicants in good standing of the parish they are to represent and at least 18 years of age. The number of delegates to be elected is determined on the basis of the size of the congregation as determined by Canon 1 of the Diocese of Fort Worth. If a Delegate cannot serve and no elected Alternate Delegate is available, the rector may certify another person to serve in place of the elected delegate.
Here again, if a person isn’t pledging, they are declared not a communicant in good standing and cannot be nominated. Additionally, in many parishes, including my own, convention delegates are not elected at the parish meeting. Rather, they are chosen by the vestry, often from among the vestry. This has tremendous potential to increase the control a rector has over convention delegates and lessens the number of lay people who can play a role in the governance of their parish and diocese.
In this diocese, rectors are expected to be in control of their vestries. At the last diocesan convention, Bishop Iker said from the podium, only half jokingly, that any rector who can’t control his vestry isn’t worth his salt. The idea that the rector and the vestry should serve as a system of checks and balances on each other is considered novel indeed -- or subversive.
And should a person who does not agree with the stated theological positions of this diocese manage to get elected a convention delegate, and dare to offer a resolution or to speak from the floor, he or she will almost certainly be attacked, humiliated and publicly shamed by other delegates, or even by the bishop from the chair.
All it takes is people witnessing that a few times and they aren’t apt to offer themselves up as sacrificial lambs.
Still, in spite of all this, more and more people are willing to speak up and are working to change things.
But, please, do not underestimate the challenges facing those of us in this diocese who wish to remain in The Episcopal Church.
It’s hard to saddle a horse that's trying to bite you.