Aristotle argued that the goal of a well-lived life is human flourishing (eudaimonia). Jesus of Nazareth identified the goal of human existence as life abundant. The study of ethics, to which this blog is dedicated, is the search for and reflections about the path that leads to the abundant life of human flourishing.
post, Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff, evoked considerable interest
and comment. The comments seem to consist of four identifiable, sometimes
some responders do not seem to have grasped the severity of the problem I
sought to describe. Yes, some congregations do great liturgy in traditional
ways and are growing numerically. However, there are relatively few such
congregations. The Episcopal Church (TEC), as a whole, is a denomination in
which the majority of congregations are declining numerically while
concurrently experiencing increasing financial struggles to pay full-time
clergy and to maintain underutilized buildings. Those declines are facts, not
assertions or hypotheses (cf. Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff for the data).
traditional liturgy better – whether high or low, sung or said – were a
panacea, then TEC would not find itself in this predicament. Traditional theology
and Anglican emphases would have kept a majority of our congregations on a
safe, healthy course. The minority of our congregations that are thriving will
wisely stay their current course (though an unknown number of these
congregations have already begun to reinvent themselves for the twenty-first
century). Quite probably, a handful of other congregations have the resources
and context in which adopting a similar course will bring renewal.
thriving traditional congregations are exceptions to the norm. They represent a
great danger if they distract leadership – lay and clerical – from recognizing
that for the preponderance of TEC congregations staying the course will result
in certain shipwreck. Each year the shoals of empty pews and fiscal insolvency
become visibly closer and more threatening. Furthermore, underutilized
buildings and clergy constitute bad stewardship of the gifts that God’s people
have given (remember Jesus’ parable of the talents).
contrary to many comments, technology is neither the problem nor the solution.
Technology is only a means to an end. The English Reformation built on the
technology of its day (the printing press) to make the Bible and Book of Common
Prayer more available to all. The twenty-first century Church should adopt
contemporary technology as a means for achieving the same end, a point some
commenters grasped. Additionally, the new technology can benefit the hearing
and sight challenged, which I had not fully appreciated.
focusing on arguments about the pros and cons of PowerPoint vs. tablets puts
the proverbial cart before the horse. If anachronistic technology were the essential
problem, congregations that adopted modern technology while retaining
traditional liturgy and theology would consistently experience renewal. This does
not happen. The problems are much deeper and more basic than a dated form of
liturgy and theology are themselves earthen vessels whose form and design date
to previous centuries. The immanence of God’s loving presence, which Jesus’
followers recognized as so powerfully manifest in him, is not defined, inherently
and perfectly, by Greek philosophical thought (some moderns, for example, find
process philosophy a more useful vessel) or the Creeds (e.g., the subtle, once
hotly contested, distinctions used to define Jesus’ identity as God and human
are irrelevant to, and ignored by, many in our post-modern world).
people hunger for a genuine spirituality. They seek a path that will lead them into
a deeper relationship with God. They seek, often without realizing it, the
treasure – the immanence of God’s loving presence found in the Jesus’ narrative
– that the Church’s earthen vessels hold. Unfortunately, our ecclesial vessels
too often impede rather than aid access to that treasure. For example, why
should our theology depend upon thought forms that pre-date Jesus? Why should
our worship use seventeenth or eighteenth century music instead of contemporary
music? Ironically, Martin Luther’s hymns provoked ecclesial outrage in Luther’s
own day because they set religious verse to popular drinking tunes, exchanging
dated earthen vessels for more contemporary ones.
some of the comments to my last essay remarked upon the economic plight of
clergy formed and educated for full-time ecclesial employment. TEC has a
problem. Our seminaries continue to produce well-educated clergy, many with
significant indebtedness, all having made considerable sacrifice to obtain an
M.Div. degree, who are committed to serving a Church that has a diminishing
need for their services.
and cultural transitions frequently create economic hardship for employees of
affected concerns. Perhaps the highest profile example of this are rust belt
and garment industry workers who experienced economic hardship when employers
closed antiquated facilities or moved factories to lower cost locations. TEC,
and other Christian bodies, rightly support displaced workers and advocate that
government and employers provide appropriate transition assistance.
to take similar steps to support and aid displaced clergy. Consolidating
seminaries and rethinking M.Div. programs can help seminarians graduate debt
free (see A word on our seminaries:
the Daily Episcopalian). Emphasizing to people entering the discernment process
for ordination as a priest that opportunities for full-time ecclesial
employment are diminishing is another important step. Bi-vocational and other,
non-full-time forms of clergy deployment will become increasingly common.
and congregational leaders should not expend all of a congregation’s resources
in usually futile last-ditch efforts to resuscitate an already deceased
congregation. Instead, they should earmark sufficient resources to fund one or
two years of secular education for the congregation’s last full-time priest, preparing
him/her for bi-vocational work or a new career. Second career clergy may
require less assistance to resume a previous career. The Church repeatedly
calls for secular employers to support displaced employees in this way.
Practicing what we preach would both add credibility to our social witness and
encourage our ordained leadership to speak and lead with refreshing boldness.
and finally, a few people who commented – some Episcopalian and some from other
denominations facing their own impending ecclesial fiscal cliff – actually
grasped my message. (I’d like to think that these few represent the “silent
majority,” i.e., readers who grasped my message, perhaps who even understood it
and were taking action before they read my post.) The ecclesial fiscal cliff is
real and we move alarmingly closer every year. In too many congregations, attendance
declines annually while expenses inexorably increase.
we do not have to go over this cliff. Worn-out earthen vessels neither signify
the death of God nor God having abandoned the Church. But choosing not to go
over the cliff requires replacing the Church’s tired, dated, though often familiar
and well-loved (by me, among many others) earthen vessels. Otherwise, God will
sing a new song and act in new ways to achieve God’s purposes.