Saturday, July 21, 2012

What ails Episcopalians?


A week ago, journalist and Episcopalian Jay Akasie wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, “What Ails Episcopalians?” (July 12, 2012). In it, he lambasted The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) General Convention for its sheer ostentation and carnival-like atmosphere. Among those who have responded to Akasie’s essay and who are worth reading are Scott Gunn, Winnie Varghese, Jon Meacham, Kirk Smith, and Tom Ehrich.

Akasie phrased those charges to evoke a visceral response. Some ostentation is appropriate. The Church is about God's business. The National Cathedral with its soaring, spacious architecture can inspire awe (i.e., a sense of the holy) in a way that the average building of any faith community cannot. Vestments, for example, can perform a similar function. Criticizing the Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori for carrying a primatial cross (what Akasie calls a metropolitan cross) is completely inappropriate. Bishop Katharine is TEC’s primate; she, like her predecessors, rightly carries that crozier. The real issue for objectors tends to be that Bishop Katharine is a woman. Thankfully, gender no longer defines one’s eligibility to serve as a deacon, priest, or bishop in TEC. By the vast majority of accounts, Bishop Katharine and her ministry as primate have been tremendous gifts from God to the Church.

Other ostentation behaviors are less appropriate. Lodging, food, and drink were expensive in Indianapolis. General Convention attendees from low cost areas of the country may have experienced particular surprise at prices. However, relatively few venues can accommodate the large number (over two thousand) people who attend General Convention in one capacity or another. Holding TEC’s triennial convention in different parts of the country permits, over time, a wider cross-section of TEC to attend than if the convention always met in the same city. Furthermore, Jesus apparently enjoyed a good party (detractors criticized him for this) and we do well to follow his example. Could General Convention be shorter, focus less on business issues, and more on energizing people for a shared vision of mission? Absolutely. But, until that happens, the expenses associated with General Convention are mostly a cost of doing business in a Church that values representative democracy over one man rule.

Conservative Christianity, briefly resurgent at the end of the twentieth century, is dying in the United States. Thank God for that! Religious belief should not cause a person to choose between Christianity and science. God, for example, did not create dinosaur fossils to test the sincerity of religious belief, something that conservative Christians have repeatedly told me. If Christianity does not change, then it will die (cf. Bishop Spong’s book, Christianity Must Change or Die, for a fuller explanation of this argument).

What changes are ahead for Christianity?

First, Christianity will continue becoming more inclusive, discarding prejudices and barriers against women, people of color, the poor, the GLBT community, and others. Jesus tried to embrace everyone, not just those who satisfied particular demographic criteria. The only people Jesus did not successfully embraced were those who refused his welcome.

Second, Christianity will continue moving toward affirming that it is one path among many, discarding the narrow and provincial exclusivism of its first nineteen centuries. Living in a global community emphasizes that the world is bigger than Christianity. The God manifested in Jesus was a God who loved Jew and Gentile. Thus, there is every reason to believe that God lures people toward God along a multiplicity of paths that includes the world’s major religions. The exclusive language of the New Testament (e.g., the gospel author quoting Jesus as saying, No one comes to the Father but by me) is the language of love. For the disciples there was no other path but the Jesus path, even as one lover will, in complete honesty, tell his/her partner, You are the best, you are the only one.

Third, being the Church is a messy business, so TEC will continue to change and to evolve. Some of the change will be structural. TEC will adopt a more nimble organization better suited to the 21st world. Some of the change will be theological. TEC, recognizing that theological propositions are earthen vessels rather than factual statements, will persist in revising those propositions in light of ongoing scientific, historical, and other epistemological advances. The treasure in our earthen vessels is the Light and Jesus is a window through which that light shines in the world and the lives of his followers. Confusing structure or doctrine with the treasure in the earthen vessels is a form of idolatry.

Fourth, local congregations that are spiritually alive are growing numerically and will continue to do so. People are spiritually hungry. One major reason why people are leaving organized religion is that too many congregations, denominations, and faith groups emphasize earthen vessels (structure and/or theology) over moving more fully into the Light (loving God) and helping others to do the same (loving others). Local congregations that are not spiritually vibrant will continue to wither and die.

22 comments:

Polymer said...

George, Thank you. I totally agree with you. In my aging process I have discovered that there is no evidence that Jesus and the ancients Jews did not speak in Jacobean English of the KJV of the Holy Bible; that women can be deacons, priests, and bishops; that God does love the homosexuals; etcetera. So I do agree with the changes that you have said ECUSA must take.
R. B.Thompson, (aka Ford)

BRad said...

Silly. There is one way to the Father. What are you teaching? "Living in a global community emphasizes that the world is bigger than Christianity" "WHY THANK God for the demise of ANY branch of Christianity? Are you a pastor or lay person. I can't believe any person of the cloth would teach these things.

George Clifford said...

BRad, I'm an Episcopal priest. Jesus' open minded inclusivity disappointed his narrow minded contemporaries, so I feel like I'm on strong ground in following his example. Unity within the Church is possible only as the various branches of the Church set aside their institutions and biases. Structural unity may be out of reach in the present (it would require many branches of the Church going out of business), but we can certainly achieve a unity based upon working together and being together in shared community.

Galletta said...

Inclusivity without transformation is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

George Clifford said...

Transformation makes genuine inclusivity possible.

BRad said...

I agree with your comments regarding inclusivity however I find your comment about multiple ways to God fundamentally wrong. There is but ONE way to the Father. There are no other ways. Also you being thankful for the demise of conservative Christianity is a problem. Is your big tent not so big after all? Why would an ordaindd priest wish ill on any legitimate group of Christians? AND JUST HOW IS THE WORLD BIGGER THAN CHRISTIANITY? He was The Beginning!

What seminary did you go yo if you don't mind me asking?

George Clifford said...

BRad, we read the Bible in very different ways. I understand the exclusive language found in the New Testament as the language of love, language that expresses an exuberant exaggeration of devotion rather than rigorous logic. My seminary degrees are from Princeton and Wesley.

BRad said...

So is there more than one way to the Father? And tell me again so it is clear. Is the world bigger than Christianity? Yes or no?

George Clifford said...

BRad, I've been very clear: there are many paths to God; Christianity is one of those paths. I do not understand your question, "Is the world bigger than Christianity?" The cosmos consists of material; Christianity, depending upon one's definition, may be a path, a relationship, or a set of theological ideas.

BRad said...

Ok, thanks for the clarification. You know that there are foundational, doctrinal truths that typically are adhered to in the Anglican/ECUSA world. Principal among them is recognition that Jesus is the ONLY way to the Father (read God). This gobbledygoop you wrote in your blog about multiple ways to God, and declaring the world is bigger than Christianity (when we should know that God created the world and he created his Son who together with the Father was the Alpha and is the Omega) is teaching more akin to the Unitarian Universalist Church. If we can't agree on such foundational issues as this, it calls into question the nature of the theology you profess. I also find it troublesome that as a Christian leader you would say things that alienate other Christians (yes, "conservative" ones too.) This is all I need to know. I do agree with your views of inclusiveness; Jesus is available, welcoming and lovingly wanting a relationship with ALL of us. Thanks for taking the time to respond.
Bob Radford
Raleigh, NC

George Clifford said...

BRad,
Actually, you are wrong about exclusivity being a foundational issue for The Episcopal Church. If you read the Catechism carefully (found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), the Catechism makes an affirmative statement about those who believe in Jesus receiving salvation. However, no statement is made about anyone else. Furthermore, God extended salvation to the Jews in a covenant that remains valid today.

BRad said...

Good to know someone can believe in Ja, and get to the same Father then George. And maybe Tom Cruise is on the right path after all. You know this Jesus teaching is a much more difficult path anyway. Whatever goes as long as love is involved.

MauiCris said...

The TEC is a living, moving, growing organization that works best when it opens itself to the input and prayers of the entire body. It has been the norm for groups who do the right things, who really try to walk a Christ walk, to catch a certain amount of a well-aimed backlash. People are afraid and angry. People don't like change. Most of all, people so need to be "right." But Jesus never appointed a single group or person to be "right." He was a very visible radical, challenging and changing the accepted rule of life and worship in his time. We are asked to do no less. One of the reason I was attracted to TEC was that openness. If one embraces a single sentence of the Bible as the absolute literal word, then one must embrace every sentence. As my former pastor said, "The Bible is far too important a book to take literally." It guides us. We open ourselves to answering today's challenges based on the guidance provided to us through the Bible and Christ's teaching. Christ's commands were simple and one of them was that we love one another. No caveats there. I think my church is doing an excellent job of growing with our world and trying hard not to exclude or silence anyone. I am proud to be an Episcopalian, especially in light of the convention actions.

Cris South, Maui

George Clifford said...

Cris,
Thanks for the comment. In the next few days, I intend to write a post on what is right/good about the Episcopal Church.

Turnip Ghost said...

If there are so many paths to the same goal, why bother with yours?
If atheists can be good people, why should I bother getting up early on Sundays and going to sing boring songs and watching people swan around in silk robes-at my expense?
Why should I run twice as fast to get to the same place?
It's odd that for a group that's been preaching "inclusiveness" for over 30 years, you've stayed overwhelmingly White (95% of US membership) and middle/upper middle class. Even the Southern Baptists have a higher percentage of non-Whites and non Middle class members and they supported legal segregation.
Either your programs and "prophetic ministries" aren't working or you don't really want to change as much as you say you do.

George Clifford said...

Turnip Ghost,
Apparently, the Episcopal Church is not the path for you. For some, this path is not a chore or the reason to run twice as fast, but the way of life itself. The Episcopal Church is far more diverse than five decades ago and continues to move in that direction - thankfully. Perfection is not one of our strengths.

Turnip Ghost said...

"More diverse"? Considering that you were at about 3% non-White fifty years ago, 5% must look like quite an achievement. And in ideology, all you've done is go from liberal Republican to left Democrat-but still as homogeneous as the Fundiegelicals.
Why did you find it so much easier to achieve higher percentages of gays and lesbians in your church (especially your clergy) but still "struggle" with getting the non-White and non-middle class through the doors more than once?

George Clifford said...

Turnip Ghost,
The Episcopal Church moving from 3 to percent non-white represents a two-thirds increase, a significant change. The Episcopal Church, in my experience, represents a diverse assortment of political viewpoints, but I'm unaware of any study that documents it. Clearly, and thankfully, the Episcopal Church can no longer accurately be carricatured as the GOP at prayer. I suspect that GLBT persons have always been in the Episcopal Church (and every other church), so moving toward open inclusivity was much easier. I sense that you are angry. If so, perhaps there is a spiritual path that you can follow which will bring peace. I pray that you find it.

Liam said...

Maximus the Confessor wrote that the Logos of God is incarnate in three ways: in creation, in the Law and Prophets, and perfectly in the Person of Jesus Christ. This approach helps me to be perfectly comfortably with asserting that Jesus is the only way to God and also that many who do not identify as Christians are nonetheless on the path to the Kingdom. If Jesus is Truth, then wherever human beings seek Truth, they're seeking Jesus.

The Orthodox bishop of Mt Lebanon, Metropolitan Georges Khodr, wrote that it is the duty of Christians through dialogue to awaken Christ who sleeps in the world religions. I love the simultaneous Christocentrism and inclusivity of this approach.

Turnip Ghost said...

Sir, a 2-4 point increase is within the variability points; this is statistically insignificant for numbers over 1000. But I guess they pay you to spin things and make them pretty.
I hope that you find another way to make a living that doesn't involve spraying perfume around the decomposing corpse that is religion.
I sense that you are on the defensive and feeling more than a little self-righteous when you compare yourself and your church's core demographic with those of the lower middle classes who make up the Fundiegelicals; rest assured that this provides a great deal of amusement and support for those of us in the reality-based community who only wish that there were some way we could get back the money we wasted on religion.

Turnip Ghost said...

Liam, why not ask the Orthodox bishops, in fact any Orthodox, about their churches' "inclusivity" of women in the clergy, the openly gay or even just allowing their bishops to be married or their priests to re-marry after the death of their wives. You'll find that they've yet to receive the fulness of the Progressive revelation and that you're stuck with the Balkan and Russian version of the "Roman" prejudices, only in a much more open form.

George Clifford said...

Turnip Ghost, I'm an unpaid volunteer interested only in searching for and promoting the truth, to the extent that I find it. I wish a way existed to refund the money that you feel you wasted on religion. You do make good points about the Orthodox Church's lack of inclusivity.