Thinking Out Loud

All right, you quondam Episcopalians who read this: No pitying glances, no wagging of forefingers, if you please. We are all in this together -- Christians of common conviction, whether Anglican or not, who wait the Great Turnaround that may or may not come in our time, with the Lord enjoying exclusive jurisdiction around here.

Have I prepared you for the Episcopal Church’s (my Church’s) latest confession: to wit, things aren’t going well?

Indeed they’re not, as the church’s headship is starting to confess with forced smiles. In early September House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Jennings wrote to my fellow General Convention deputies: “Last week we learned that the 10-year membership and attendance numbers for the Episcopal Church show a steep decline. For those of us who love the Episcopal Church, this new was sobering and even upsetting.

“It has inspired many people to question their assumptions and consider anew the urgency of thinking in new ways -- thinking adaptively, in the parlance of organizational development -- and trying things that we’ve never tried before… I’ve been inspired by the number of creative ideas and initiatives being discussed, and by people’s desire to work together to create new models and new expression of the church that make sense in their communities.”

We’ll let that one lie for a minute. Related  business intervenes; e.g., notice that the bishop of Albany, the Rt. Rev. William Love, has been brought up on formal ecclesiastical charges for declining (with great civility, be it noted) to allow the performance of same-sex weddings in his diocese, on grounds that General Convention’s approval of that expedient contradicts the diocese’s marriage canon. The canon in question, Love explains, “recognizes and upholds [the] traditional understanding of marriage, and as a result prohibits [diocesan] clergy from officiating at or allowing any marriage to take place on any church property other than that between a man and a woman.” However, the Episcopal Church ain’t gonna let no such objections stand in the way of the new theology to which it tenders obeisance. Love, 21st century Episcopal style, makes no room for a bishop named Love who dares to question the new order of things.

And so back to Gay Jennings, or, more properly, what many would probably see as the dire consequences of the new order of things: plummeting membership and attendance, the itch to try “things that we’ve never tried before” -- new sense-making models and expressions of the church.

To the end that… well, let’s think about it. To what end, these new models and expressions? Renewed growth, perhaps, the church having shrunk to half its size back in the ‘60s. ASA in the Diocese of Connecticut shrank by a third between 2008 and 2018, Western New York by an eye-popping 40.5 percent. Larger drops in Fort Worth, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh stem from formal and intentional divisions of the house. More common are statistical drops of about a quarter or more. 

It seems uur once-proud church faces what looks like a going-out-of-business sale: or if that is too strong, a reorganization of the character Wall Street would faintly recognize. New leadership, new strategies, new programs of outreach, after the notions Mrs. Jennings seems to favor. 

To what end?  Back to that essential question. At least it seems essential in the context to which churches have conformed themselves: that of mission alike to the lost and the self-identified found, centered on their unassailable need for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, raised, ascended, awaiting the moment for his promised return in glory. 

Mrs. Jennings -- a woman of Christian character, whom I happen to like personally -- talks of strategies. But one has to ask: why? The “strategy” of presenting Jesus Christ to a world much in need of knowing him requires no test-marketing, no product roll-out. Chiefly it requires dedication and passion of a sort too long absent from Episcopal preaching and, most of all, belief.

It’s not that, as a church we disbelieve. I don’t think we do.

I think on the contrary the things we believe in most are notions the world develops for itself, thank you: the idea of autonomy and self-sufficiency, the idea of the present world as adequate to our purposes, the idea of sin consisting in the refusal of claims to political equality, the idea of redemption as rescue by the sovereign intervention of elected legislative bodies. Under this regimen you don’t thank Bishop Bill Love for defending the received understanding of marriage. Instead, you bring him up on charges aimed at punishing him.

 See what I mean about what goes on around here and looks like going on -- I’m sorry to say -- a while longer?   

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.