Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Oldline and Occupy: Separated at Birth?

We love meetings.  We do.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, my attention was drawn to an interesting interchange between the church in which I grew up and the Occupy movement.

I'm a child of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in downtown DC.   My parents were married there.  I was baptized there.  I ran and played with other kids through the five-ish stories of the building.  I got confirmed there.  It was there that I watched my very first nasty church fight, which soured me on church as an institution when I was a teen.  It was there that, despite the fight,  I learned the value of Christian service as a way to shatter the self-absorption of adolescence.  It was there that I returned to serve those in need as an adult, and where I reclaimed my faith.

She's a grand old progressive dame of a church, and just a short walk to the White House.  The pew in which Abraham Lincoln sat to worship still holds a place of honor in the sanctuary, and the original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation sits in one of the many parlors.  Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the pulpit, and the church was deeply active in the civil rights movement.

So it's been fun and not-surprising to see the folks who Occupy nearby using the church as a base for occasional meetings.  The church, being the flagrantly and unrepentantly liberal gathering it is, has also reached out to the Occupy folks.

That took most recent form as the congregation opened its doors for a Thanksgiving feast, one that gave the Occupy folks a chance to eat and celebrate together.   It sounds, by all accounts, to have been a joyful occasion, attended by hundreds who had the opportunity to give thanks together.

What struck me, though, was the process by which the whole thing came about.  That process was outlined in an article in the WaPo.   You have to subscribe/link up via FB if you want access to it, so follow this link forewarned.

Here's how it rolled: An organizer from an interfaith coalition approaches Occupy to ask them to dinner.  He is told that any invitation must be handled as an announcement to the General Assembly, the Occupy decision-making body.   There are protocols to follow, though, and such announcements need to be handled by the outreach committee.

The announcement is made, and there's discussion, but it goes nowhere.  

There's another meeting the next day.  Having worked its way through the proper committee channels to General Assembly this time out, the second attempt at the announcement was well received, and approved by consensus vote.  The decision was made, although the outcome was not entirely clear.

I read this, and I think to myself:

Sweet Mary and Joseph, these people are Presbyterian.

We say aye and nay.  They do jazz-hands up or down.  But dang.  Toe-May-Toe, Toe-Mah-Toe.   The similarities are uncanny.

And a bit worrisome, if Occupy hopes to avoid sliding off the same cliff of cultural irrelevance that the old-line has.

One of the aspects of the old-line denominations that makes us so challenged in the face of more aggressive, corporately structured non-denominational churches is the incredibly high transaction costs within our polity.  Yeah, I'll unpack that.

As a community, the way we approach decision making is immensely demanding.  Committees are layered on committees, and the processes of getting anywhere requires negotiating all manner of well-meaning procedural hoops.

Which means getting things done can frequently be an exercise in frustration, and what does get done is so filtered through competing agendas that it frequently reflects no direction at all.  More importantly, a huge amount of effort is poured into managing the complex dynamics of community life.  Those energies can make for strong and mutually accountable communities, but they also are energies being poured inward.  

And if you pour your energies inward, you do not build a church.  Or a movement.  You simply don't have the time, or the sustained sense of purpose.  This is the profoundly ironic reality of anarchist gatherings.  There are few structures more convoluted and time-consuming than the complex political dance of a collective.

Or a presbytery, for that matter.