Greg Garrett: Denomination, Community, and Culture: A Conversation with Bishop Andy Doyle on the Episcopal Church, Part One


Andrew C. Doyle

In May 2008, Andrew C. Doyle was elected the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, with authority over 153 congregations, 67 Episcopal schools, a multitude of ministries within churches and in communities, and one of only two Episcopal seminaries west of the Mississippi River. Since his installation, he has made a name for himself as someone engaging with culture and is active in blogging and social mediaHis self-drawn video about Ash Wednesday (Andy is an artist and fly fisherman as well as a Christian leader) went viral this spring.

Andy is the son of an Episcopal priest, and had already spent years reflecting on the Church before his election. Since then, he has delved deep into the best of secular and sacred thinking to try and articulate a vision for his office, and for the larger Church. In 2012, he published Unabashedly Episcopalian: Proclaiming the Good News of the Episcopal Church, which remains an Episcopal bestseller. This year, he has two books coming out, and he kindly agreed to talk with me about these books, his thoughts on the Church, and his hopes for our future. Here's the first part of our conversation.

Greg Garrett:  As an Episcopal bishop, it probably isn't surprising that unlike those who suggest we live entirely in a post-denominational moment, you very clearly see evangelism through the lens of our particular Christian tradition. You write in Church that "We must be about discipling Christians as Episcopalians." What would be your elevator talk (your one-minute explanation) of why someone might find the Episcopal Church a powerful lens through which to see Jesus? What does our Church have to offer in terms of lifelong practice?

Andy Doyle:  Every day, every weekend, people across the country get up and venture out to a church of their choosing. There is a lot of press that says that people aren't going to church. That is not the church's experience. (Now we can talk about the numbers and the decrease of percentages...)

Every Sunday people choose us. So I believe it is important to understand why they are choosing us and to embrace the best part of ourselves as Episcopalians - our communities, our worship, our sacraments, our ability to live with difficult questions, our commitment to serving as neighbors in our cities. I believe that the Episcopal Church is a place where those seeking a loving God might discover God through our worship and sacraments, surrounded by a welcoming loving family of seekers who themselves know well their own brokenness, failings, shortcomings, but have found that loving, forgiving God.

Moreover, I would add that I think the growing number of "Nones" and "Dones" are likely to be interested in this particular kind of faith when we are at our best. Unburdened by budgets, buildings, and maintenance, at our best, the Episcopal Church has a legacy of contextual mission whereby we are engaging and investing in real relationships.

We are at our best when we are undertaking reconciliation ministry in the world around us. The Dean of Coventry Cathedral, John Whitcombe, offers that what we bring to the table in our communities, is well, our table. Our Episcopal tradition is one where we are willing to sit at table with a diversity of people.

It reminds me of those old folding card tables my grandmother used for bridge parties. We as Episcopalians need to pack up our folding tables and venture out sharing the sacraments and fellowship with our neighbors.

Greg Garrett:  You have two books coming out this year, beginning with the weighty Church: A Generous Community Amplified for the Future this spring, and a shorter partner book, A Generous Community: Being the Church in a New Missionary Age, this fall. What was your intent in writing these two books? How do you hope people will use each of them?

Andy Doyle:  Church is a historical and futuristic view of the potential God has in store for the denominational Church. Regardless of denomination, if you are a thought leader, clergy member, pastor, deacon, theologian, missionary, a social communicator, or a lay leader working on God's mission, this is a book for you. If you are trying to understand the changing context in which we find ourselves undertaking ministry, I think you should read this book. If you love the history of the denominational church and are interested in how that history prepares us for our future, you will enjoy this book.

I hope you, as a thought leader in your denomination, read Church (from VTS Press, now) then gather a small group of friends together and read A Generous Community: Being the Church in a New Missionary Agewhen it comes out from Church Publishing in October. Together these two books will help create a cadre of leaders, conversation partners, that can help transform your congregation, lead you to plant new missional communities, and help you transform the community and context in which you find yourself.

A Generous Community is a book of stories and reflections to help create an imaginative synergy between leaders and people who wish to ponder and act upon God's invitation to be at work in the world on his behalf. The book goes deeper with a set of questions, suggested reading, and opportunities for action that can offer a vision of who we are becoming come to life in the midst of the community in which you serve. The release of the fall book will be accompanied by videos and curricula for those of you interested in leading small group studies or in creating interesting adult forums.

My hope is that the two books together will offer leaven to feed the Church's imagination around the work before us. It is an offering to God and the Church. It is an offering to all those who have lost hope in their denominational church over the last two decades. Most of all, it is an offering for those who deeply desire to be part of what God is doing in the world around us. It is you, the imaginative lover of Jesus, passionate missionary, and worldly pilgrim, that I hope to engage in a discussion about the future.

Greg Garrett:  You often refer to the ground-breaking work of futurist Bob Johansen to try and help Episcopalians (and others) live into our new reality. How do you find his work useful for people in the Church? What harmful illusions from the past do we need to shed?

Andy Doyle:  The theologian and cultural aesthete Harvey Cox wrote:

[Theology] "projected" its own cramped situation into a statement about God and the [modern] world. Now not only was theology incompetent and uninterested in politics, science, technology and the rest, so was God. These fields, the faithful were assured, were autonomous realms with their own built-in self-guiding mechanisms. If managed competently by experts skilled in such matters, they would eventually serve the good of the commonwealth. One had only to be patient, work hard, not meddle in the things one knew nothing about, and - above all - not tear up paving stones. Having been squeezed into a corner by the modern world, theology made a virtue of necessity and wore its own reduced status into the being of the divine.

Is it any wonder that we find ourselves, as Christian communities, ill equipped to have a conversation with the culture that doesn't end up either shutting down or with two sides raising fists and shouting at one another?

One of the things that we jettisoned was our ability as Christian communities to see wisdom in the midst of our context. Therefore it isn't simply Bob Johansen's work that goes without attention, so does Daniel Kahneman's and Nassim Taleb's work on economics and how people make decisions, and Margaret Wheatley's work on new organizational theory. We miss Ken Robinson's work on the future of education. We miss out on innovations in charity, community wellness, community development, and organizing. We have become an unhealthy diaspora.

I find these voices refreshing. I find that they reveal and speak of the possibilities of God's movement and mission of reconciliation in the world. I read them and listen to their talks and I hear ideas about how we as Christian communities might engage our context and make the future God intends.

I think that we must set aside the harmful illusions that we are the only ones with a voice of authority. I think we must remove the idea that our best and highest use of assets is the support of buildings and old models of ministry. I think that we would do well to listen to the wisdom found within our context and listen for God offering to us opportunities for partnership and moments when we and our communities might be transformed.

Greg Garrett:  You argue in Church that community building (finding what we have in common rather noting than our many differences) may be the great task of our day. How have you seen the Episcopal Church working toward community? What things would you still like to see?

Andy Doyle:  The world is in a place of great intolerance. We are surrounded and live within an intolerant culture. The truth is when the church is broken it has tended to force ourselves upon cultures we colonized, we have employed an "our way or the highway" mentality, we have created systems of winners and losers. We have perpetrated a sense of vengeance for past wrongs and even nurtured in some places retaliation for our history. The church needs to own this as part of its history. As a bishop I own that as part of the office I inherit, and as a participant in the governance of the church.

This, though, is sin. It is neither the nature of who we are as redeemed members of the family of God nor is it who God dreams for us to be.

It is essential that we articulate clearly that we are a part of the mission of God - the missio dei. God's mission is reconciliation and we are God's church at work in the world. This ministry of reconciliation takes place rooted in a ministry that first embraces reconciliation itself. Reconciliation is the work of healing history, of living into difference and celebrating the gift of diversity that difference brings, so that we might create (with God) a culture of peace. We do this work by spreading the Good News of God's reconciling work with the world and by serving in the midst of our communities as neighbors.

Greg Garrett : As you might imagine, I'm pretty fond of the way your book Church uses

our culture (Monty Python, Louis C.K., Tolkien, and others) to help illuminate its points. How do you understand the relationship between religion and culture? What are some things you think the culture does a better job teaching us than our tradition? And how has being an artist shaped the way you understand faith - and perhaps would like others to understand it?

Andy Doyle:  As an art major, I was trained in the then-emerging postmodern art world. I was heavily influenced by the work of Vernon Fisher who was teaching at North Texas at the time. I think this gave me more than an applied deconstructionist view of art and culture that could then be pieced together. It gave me an understanding of the many voices that speak to us through art, culture, music, film or business, organizational theory, economics, politics. All are places that God is revealing God's self in the world. Culture itself is an outflowing of human community and human community is an outflowing of God's creation. I think as Robert Bellah and others have stated, the modern Christian Church removed itself from the culture and said, We will be about divine things, you about secular things.

When we did this we cut ourselves off from a huge opportunity for conversation, to be voices of morality in the culture, and we shut ourselves off from a massive portion of God's creation. In this way, the Christian Church has become a toxic and unhealthy diaspora. I believe (following the wisdom of Emil Brunner) we need to open ourselves up to remember that the Church and God's ecclesia are two different things. Our work as leaders, authors, artists within the church is to break the organization open to the wisdom of God found everywhere and to help us constantly move toward God's ecclesia.


From Greg's blog at