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.