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'There’s no consensus in any church I know of'


The complicated US church response to guns and lessons from decentralising a denomination were on the agenda when writer and priest Winnie Varghese spoke to Alex Baker 


Winnie Varghese Greenbelt 2018

I wanted to begin with the volume you edited (What We Shall Become?) which looked at the future and structure of the Episcopal Church. It was around the time Baptists did a similar thing (through the Futures Process).

What were the key conclusions? Have you seen particular elements come to pass – and what have been the effects?

Looking back on it, I think I have different conclusions today than I did at the time. We knew after the market crash, and how that impacted our income, that we would have to be smaller in some way. We had also been working since the 70s to try and understand how the shift in the church should impact how we structure ourselves. So, as with many things, some things exist by default, but having a central office does not exist by default.

We built that central office in the 50s and 60s when everything in America was growing – we were making a middle class for the first time, and frankly that all fell apart in the 80s in our country as it did all over the world. We didn’t undo those structures, so we’d been paying for this really top-heavy, problematic centre, stocked with really wonderful people, which is always the really painful part.

My thinking at the time of the book was: clearly what we are doing is unsustainable, and we are so diverse as a church now and very regional, that the idea of an office in New York (and that New York is the centre of our country) frankly offends a lot of people. Having expensive real estate in New York City that most Americans could not imagine being able to afford to live in, much less work in, doesn’t sit comfortably with our values, even though it’s our primary media market. So, I we should have our headquarters somewhere smaller, somewhere that feels a little more like us, in an area we can afford, and as much as possible, try to make our dioceses more effective, because they’re falling apart as well because we send our money to the top.

I think there are some advantages of being at the heart of the media in particular, but I still think that managing real estate and expense in New York is not the best use of our church’s time.

Interestingly, the more difficult question becomes: how do you decide where to put it? How do you have a process that doesn’t just alienate all of us further from each other?

What I did not understand clearly is, if we are going to have diffused networks of alignment across dioceses, we’re going to need the capacity to network them and work together. We tend to be independent when we create institutions and start groups because we care about an issue or cause.

And because we’re working so much online, we’re going to need to meet face to face, so we actually need a lot more funding for the face-to-face of the coordinating side. We need people to do that, so it’s a different thing than creating a programme from the centre, but we actually do need staffing from the centre in a pretty substantive way if these networks are going to work. We need the networks to be connected as a church. I’m beginning to see that part - but I wonder if it takes us back to the size we would have been.


So has it gone full circle and you’ve gone on a journey with this?

I think to do different work, in some ways. We really do need staffing at the centre. An example would be: we don’t have a women’s desk – the idea was we shouldn’t have any desks; what does that mean to have one person [at a desk]? And of course, if they’re creating programming and they’re a person who goes to international meetings, it is kind of an odd position to have. But in the era of #metoo, we’ve realised that we don’t have a way to respond as a church, we don’t have a person or team coordinating us – we have volunteers and government structures, but getting that to respond appropriately in public, and then putting all the pressure on our representing bishop to be that face, doesn’t actually work.

I don’t think it’s completely full circle, but I think there’s a sense that just blowing it up and taking it apart doesn’t work. Understanding what the right functions are at the centre is the key.  

Winnie Varghese Greenbelt

You have written a lot about social justice and the church, including about the danger of simply responding to gun tragedies and not campaigning for gun reform. Do you feel the church has the balance right between social action and the kind of campaigning that leads to change?

I think for us at home, particularly on the issue of guns, it’s really challenging because there’s no consensus in our church – in any church that I know of, there may be exceptions, but I can’t think of any. Guns in the US are tied to sense of American individual independence and autonomy, and it’s interesting that it kind of cuts across class and race – you can be surprised sometimes by who will defend the right to own a gun.

So it’s an interesting one when it comes to campaigns. Many of us are involved with groups who are working on legislation and reform, but as a Church we can’t take a position. We tried at convention – it doesn’t get very far. We agreed we are horrified by mass shootings (that’s not much to agree to, frankly), but we cannot agree, even as a Church, on why they happen, and whether more control of who can buy guns, how you store guns or access to guns will change that. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s the truth.

An example would be that at our convention, we had a bishop who had Smith & Wesson (a firearms manufacturer) in his diocese ask us to buy stock in company, so that we could be corporate activists and go into Smith & Wesson board meetings to say ‘you have to make safer guns’. We are desperate for strategy!

And there is another resolution, stating that we need to divest in this business and tell them the reason why. We are on many sides of that issue. I think that the peace fellowship and some of our parallel groups are very good at keeping us in the campaign long term. And I think that locally, people are activists in their parish and in local campaigns in their area.

Would you like to see more of the church taking an active role in campaigning?

I think we could do more. We are doing a lot more than we used to. Our political environment is so fraught right now, we have people who have never done this before as saying ‘I can’t sit back any longer’. I’d say I think we’re on a good track for getting really engaged, and this political moment has given us some clarity around that.

How do you think the church in the US has changed with regards to having an opinion on politics and getting involved in political discussions?

Well, the far right at home uses Christianity and faith as their foundation. I think that’s appalling to many us in the middle and the left. It forces us into the public space. We’ve had some really complicated characters claim Jesus and the church looks foolish. We look foolish and hypocritical if we let that voice be the sole voice of Christians.

Our politicians have to claim to be Christian to be elected. And they’re politicians, right? So all the horrible things which politicians do happen.

So I think we have to speak up on behalf of the church. There’s a lot space in the United States for religious people to speak up.

But the mainline, and I am from the mainline, does assume that we are overwhelmingly polite in civil society, we work on hard issues like race and poverty, that we’re sensible, that we will move forward in a sensible way. The last five years has proved that is not true. I think there’s a sense across the mainline that we have to stand up alongside people who are really disenfranchised at this time. And that is us in many of our churches. That is a shift. I don’t know if that has happened before.

The Revd Winnie Varghese is a blogger for the Huffington Post; author of Church Meets World; editor of What We Shall Become; and author of numerous articles and chapters on social justice and the church.

She is also the Priest and Chief Justice and Reconciliation Officer at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City. There she oversees the domestics grants programme, directs service and outreach, and programmes in areas of service and justice.

She spoke to Alex Baker at the 2018 Greenbelt festival. 

Top Image | Alex Baker Photography www.alexbakerphotography.com 
Microphone image | Greenbelt | Philip King Photography | Flickr


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