Late in the twentieth century, Episcopal concern over the numerical decline of TEC and Christianity coalesced in a designated decade of evangelism. That initiative fizzled badly. Concurrently and more recently, some Episcopalians (and others) have advocated the emergent church movement, Dina Butler Bass’ ideas about Christianity after religion, and other revitalization efforts as the answer. In my diocese, our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, recognizing the need and energized by those efforts, has focused on encouraging his clergy and congregations to carry the gospel to Galilee, i.e., to meet people in the world where the people are. The report of the Standing Commission on Ministry and Evangelism in the 2012 General Convention Blue Book is yet another effort to address numerical decline.
I commend all of these efforts. However, reversing the numerical decline is not one task among many. TEC’s numerical decline poses the only immediate existential threat to the denomination. Unless we reverse the decline within the next twenty years, the denomination will implode. Administrative requirements will immobilize any attempt at forward movement; administration costs will consume all available funds and rapidly deplete the endowment (cf. Part 1: The story the budget tells and Part 2: The story the budget tells).
The issue is not whether TEC should have a virtual governance process, a unicameral structure, or preserve the status quo. Unless we reverse the numerical decline, TEC’s governance structures and processes will become progressively more irrelevant and meaningless. Across TEC, only a relative handful of people are genuinely invested in denominational governance; the vast majority of those individuals serves as deputies, delegates, or fills other formal roles in diocesan, provincial, and national bodies. In other words, reforming the structures and processes entails people voluntarily surrendering roles they perceive as positions of power, but roles that perform tasks few others value.
What if General Convention (or a diocesan convention) devoted just sixty minutes to all of the canonically required business and spent the rest of its time addressing one question: what can we do to reverse the numerical decline of Christianity and TEC? Attendees would commit to produce a series of specific action steps, fully funded, with the individual or group responsible for taking the action identified, deadlines established, and accountability reports due at the next General Convention (or diocesan convention). The product would not be just another denominational program but a re-visioning and re-directing of the organization that promoted multiple responses (nobody has a definitive, single answer) by mobilizing the entire organization.
What’s the cost of doing this? We would cancel many good programs and many meetings that generate few tangible results. We would set aside many important items, e.g., whether to revise the hymnal, changes to the liturgical calendar, ecumenical conversations, and proposed canonical changes. Staff would find their jobs realigned.
What’s the potential benefit? TEC might move to the cutting edge of spiritual and religious life, reverse its numerical decline, and more fully incarnate the body of Christ. Repositioned and revitalized, TEC could once again become a positive force for change.
Reading the 2012 General Convention Blue Book does not make me optimistic about the probability of genuine renewal. Overcoming institutional inertia is incredibly difficult. Congregations more frequently die rather than reinvent themselves. In the next few decades, denominations, probably including TEC, will die, refusing to reinvent themselves.
Nero fiddled. Rome burned.
Christendom is no more. Yet the Church continues to act as if Christianity were the official religion in the United States. For example, clergy retain a vestigial role as state functionaries by officiating at weddings. I did not fully appreciate the irony of this in a nation that prides itself on not having an established religion until I, a U.S. naval officer and citizen, while serving on exchange with the Royal Navy in London officiated at the wedding of two British citizens on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. I could do this because the Archbishop of Canterbury had licensed me as a Church of England priest and authorized me to serve as a Royal Navy chaplain.
If the Church was fully secure in its identity as the Body of Christ and had the integrity and courage to recognize that Christendom was no more, then many of the complexities surrounding the blessing of same-sex relationships would disappear. The Church could bless all permanent, monogamous relationships using a single liturgy; the state, not the Church, would solemnize legal contracts pertaining to domestic relationships.
Contemporary debates about marriage and same-sex relationships generally conflate into the legal contract (this is what the state cares about), the sacramental relationship (this is the Church’s proper concern), and an interpersonal relationship (out of which emerges the legal and sacramental) between two people into a single issue. Ending the pretense that the U.S. remains part of Christendom would free the Church to focus on its mission of becoming God's people.
With the de facto as well as de jure end of Christendom, other past practices are unsustainable in a secular democracy, perhaps even counterproductive for Christians to try to sustain. Among these ill-advised cultural legacies are bookending public events with an invocation and benediction, displaying Christian imagery on public property, and the legislated observance of Christian holy days. In this same vein, formal denominational efforts to influence national and international policies and legislation have achieved proportionately few results for the resources invested. Single-issue ecumenical organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, have enlisted greater support, received larger resources, and produced greater results.
Successfully re-visioning and re-creating TEC will produce an organization focused on its strength (building local communities of God's people who join in worship, caring for one another, and offer hospitality to strangers) that networks with other Christian organizations to achieve other aspects of the gospel mandate. The end of Christendom suggests that a strategy loosely linked multiple organizations may be more effective than the monolithic church of the past. The Church’s unity will be seen in relationships rather than structures.
Similarly, efforts to impose a greater degree of structural unity and conformity on the provinces of the Anglican Communion will fail. Globalization and the internet promote diversity and autonomy rather than conformity. Debating the proposed Anglican covenant wastes time and resources. Building bridges to other parts of the Anglican Communion through visits, conversations, and joint mission/ministry will produce the only form of unity sustainable in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.
Nero fiddled. Rome burned.
What will we do?