Friday, June 22, 2012

Nero fiddled and Rome burned

According to legend, Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. That legend provides an apt (although, like any analogy, imperfect) metaphor for today’s Church. Nero connotes we who are Christian and our ecclesial structures; fiddling suggests a focus on something other our real mission; and Rome signifies the mission to which God has called us.

People have lamented the numerical decline of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in particular and Christianity in general for decades (cf. Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). Yet the decline continues apace, unchecked. In the meantime, TEC quibbles about who may receive Holy Communion and whether to continue restricting ordination and certain church offices to confirmed members.

Few, if anyone, outside the Church really cares. The preponderance of persons interested in joining TEC recognize that TEC, like any organization, cannot exist as an organization without “borders,” i.e., without membership requirements. Lowering or removing TEC’s already minimal requirements for membership, if it achieves anything at all, may have the unintended consequence of communicating to prospects that TEC has little to offer because membership requires so little effort or commitment.

In the civilian parish that I most recently served, many adults had affiliated with the congregation without having been confirmed or received. Encouraging these adults to take more active leadership roles, a step that required the adults to attend confirmation classes and then attend a special confirmation service, required some time and effort. Nobody demurred. If anything, my sense was that these busy and talented individuals recognized that the parish, like any worthwhile organization, had reasonable and valid membership requirements. The classes afforded an opportunity to deepen relationships and to explore their spirituality and spiritual journeys together.

Likewise, a woman to whom I had served Holy Communion for over a year in a Navy Chapel was surprised to read in the bulletin one Sunday a note that Holy Baptism was a prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion. The note had been in the bulletin every Sunday for a year; it had simply taken the woman months to notice it. She then began to wonder whether she had been baptized, consulted her parents, and shamefacedly told me what had been happening. I explained that her actions posed no problem. Neither God nor the Church was offended. She wanted to receive the sacrament of baptism; the instruction classes provided a greatly appreciated opportunity for her husband and her to explore their beliefs and the Episcopal Church. She, her husband, and the congregation experienced her baptism as a moment of grace, something that theoretically happens at every baptism. Then she and her husband surprised me by inquiring about joining the Episcopal Church. I provided instruction and arranged for confirmation. When the man retired from the military, the couple enthusiastically joined an Episcopal congregation in their new community.

These anecdotes typify what I consistently have experienced and continue to experience in my ministry. Having reasonable rules and policies does not inhibit numerical or spiritual growth. The real barriers to entry in the Church include congregations and facilities that do not communicate a genuine warm welcome to all comers, clergy with poor interpersonal skills, and ministry/mission focused on anything except caring for the hungry, thirsty, hurting, alienated, and dying people all around us. I have no strong feelings about the particulars of amending the canons with respect to confirmation or the requirements for Holy Communion. I do feel strongly, notwithstanding any anecdotal evidence to contrary, that if we think any of these changes will reverse TEC’s numerical decline we are at best mistaken and at worse deluded.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned. (To be continued)

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