Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nero fiddled and Rome burned: Part 2

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?


Ron Reed said...

You are right on target in total. Thank you. Having worked at all levels of the church, I have seen and become increasingly frustrated with the blindness and poverty of our leadership. Check out our blog where a number of articles discuss changing to the sort of structures you are suggesting.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Clifford, in researching some information about the Episcopal church, I came across your blog and have been reading about your denomination's problem with declining membership. For what it's worth, allow me to offer an observation: Here where I live (near Boston, MA),the diocesan cathedral has just decided to install some sort of seashell motif above the door (the pediment?) This same cathedral has an average Sunday attendance of less than 80 people, many of whom are homeless folks living in the nearby streets.

Now, ask yourself: this Christian church--dying by any fair accounting--is putting some ethereal seashell thing above their front door in some deeply meaningful (to someone) attempt to...what? Attract newcomers? Spread the Gospel? Bring in any wandering fishermen who may happen by?

Don't get me wrong: this particular cathedral used to broadcast a lovely Sunday sermon on a local radio station for years, until the station was purchased and refused to continue to allow them a voice on the airwaves. The people who work at this cathedral are incredibly nice and thoughtful. They are also, so far as I can tell, fiddling while Rome burns. A seashell? Really?

If you would like your church to reverse its tragic decline, preach the Gospel. Talk about sin and salvation. Talk about peace and kindness. Don't talk about seashells. If people want seashells, they can go to the Unitarians. Imagine that C.S. Lewis were delivering a sermon in your church. Would your congregation have any idea of what he was talking about? If not, why?

God bless you. I admire the Epsicopalians, I truly do. You are brave and good people with the courage of your convictions. American's spiritual landscape will be much poorer in your absence. But your absence is immanent, my friend, unless you re-discover some basic truths about Christianity and start shouting them from your pulpits.

One man's opinion. MJCIV

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention, this same cathedral opened itself up to the #OccupyBoston people when the city dismantled their camp. Now, you can say what you like about religion and politics, or the pros and cons of the #Occupy movement, but one can only speculate that aligning the church with the most leftward fringe in the American body politic isn't really going to win many new members. Perhaps many of the Occupy folks have become fervent church goers since then, but somehow I doubt it.

One thing I've noticed about Episcopalians: it is a very wealthy denomination (wasn't it called "the Republican party at prayer" for a long time (before the GOP went insane, I mean)? Perhaps it's time to rethink the comfortable and embrace a bit of the radical. Like circuit riders, or itinerant preachers. The early Christians didn't have pensions, health care, or cathedrals. Perhaps God is using this painful moment to reshape you all into something new...or something very old.

Regardless: I like the Episcopal church. I think you are very brave, and I wish you all the best.