Saturday, June 7, 2008

Failing Christianity

A clergy colleague recently shared with me that in every parish he has thus far served, parishioners have come to him troubled by encounters they’ve had with non-Episcopalians. In those encounters, the non-Episcopalians grill the Episcopalians about their Church and about their faith, insinuating or openly accusing them of not really believing in much of anything. And time and time again, the Episcopalians in the hot seat find it difficult, if not impossible, to adequately respond to the charges.

In my almost eight years of ordained ministry, I’ve never had anyone come to me with experiences like this. But given the holes in spiritual and intellectual formation I’ve seen among some of the youth in my diocese (and among a few aspirants to Holy Orders and even graduates from seminary), I’m not surprised that this could happen. Bearing in mind that there are many noteworthy exceptions, I think the hard truth is that the Episcopal Church is failing to adequately form her people as Christians who are competent “to represent Christ and his Church” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855).

This is why a recent essay by Barbara Brown Taylor published in the June 17, 2008 issue of The Christian Century entitled “Failing Christianity” caught my eye. Taylor (a non-parochial Episcopal priest) writes about the “Introduction to World Religions” course she teaches at Piedmont College. Based upon her experience of teaching this course for several years, she offers some reflections that ought to be cause for concern well beyond the academy. We in the Church should take note of what Taylor says:

Students who have spent every Sunday of their lives in church may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but they rarely have any idea how those books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know that this makes them Protestants, or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing. … They never noticed that Matthew and Luke tell different stories of Jesus’ birth, or that Mark and John tell no such stories at all. They never imagined that the first Christians did not walk around with New Testaments in their pockets. No one ever told them about Constantine, Augustine, Benedict or Martin Luther. They never thought about what happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. In their minds, they fell in line behind the disciples, picking up the proclamation of the gospel where those simple fishermen left off.

“The only student who makes an A+ on the quiz,” Taylor continues, “is an orthodox Jew.”

In conclusion, Taylor writes:

This is the point in the semester when I figure I have failed the Christians – but not all by myself. Their churches have failed them, too, by supporting them to believe things they do not know much about. College students in all other regards, they remain fifth graders in religion. How, when they meet someone who asks them intelligent questions about their faith, will they come up with equally intelligent answers?

Taylor’s experience in the classroom suggests that the problem extends well beyond the Episcopal Church (I suppose there’s some comfort in knowing that we Episcopalians are not alone in our failures). In light of my experience and that of other lay and clergy persons I know in the Episcopal Church, I’m convinced that there is no simple solution to the problem.

However, if someone came to my office to share their angst and embarrassment over not knowing how to respond to non-Episcopalians who ask questions about (or even attack) their faith, here are a few suggestions I would offer:

1. Regularly read and study the Bible. Read the Bible daily. A great way to do this in the Episcopal Church is to read the lections assigned each day in the Daily Office. Forward Day by Day is a good resource, even if the reflection offered on any given day isn’t so great. Another way to do this is to observe the discipline of Daily Morning and Evening Prayer according to the forms provided in The Book of Common Prayer. This can be done individually. But it’s more effective if two or three (or more) are gathered in Jesus’ name to do it. So consider joining a Bible study group or starting one in your church that uses the readings for the Daily Office.

While you’re at it, get a couple of good translations of the Bible. And be sure to get a translation that’s also a reliable study Bible. There are many, such as The Orthodox Study Bible (New King James Version) and The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (New Revised Standard Version).

Also, obtain and read a couple of good Bible commentaries and/or introductions to the Bible. Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Writings of the New Testament: An Introduction (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002) is worth checking out. And although it’s expensive, The New Jerome Bible Commentary (Prentice Hall, 1990) is very good. The “For Everyone” series written by Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is also a wonderful resource for the New Testament (see, for example, Mark for Everyone).

2. Know The Book of Common Prayer. The Prayer Book belongs to every baptized member of the Episcopal Church. It’s not the property of clergy. And yet, too many Episcopalians know very little about what is actually in The Book of Common Prayer beyond what begins on page 355. There really is no excuse for this.

Besides leafing through the Prayer Book to see what’s in there, a good place to start is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Catechism (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 845-862). Although brief, it’s a good way to begin learning and talking about the Christian faith as received in the Episcopal Church. Also, read Leonel Mitchell’s Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Morehouse, 1985) to better understand the overall theology of the 1979 Prayer Book and the rationale for the changes from the 1928 Prayer Book.

And study the language and theology of the Eucharistic Prayers in both Rites I and II. What do they say about who God is? About Jesus? About the Church? About salvation?

3. Study the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The historic creeds sum up the orthodox faith of the Church. Anyone conversant with the theology of the creeds can easily talk about the essentials of the Christian faith with non-Episcopalians and/or with non-Christians. As aids to this end, I would particularly recommend Justo Gonzalez’s The Apostles’ Creed for Today (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003).

4. Know your history. King Henry VIII didn’t found the Church in England or start a new religion. The Episcopal Church – and Anglicanism more broadly – cannot be neatly classified as either Catholic or Protestant. So who are we? How are we similar to yet different from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Reformed Churches?

I think a place to start would be to read J. R. H. Moorman’s classic A History of the Church in England Third Edition (Morehouse, 1986), and also Robert Prichard’s A History of the Episcopal Church Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1999).

5. Remember your baptism. Not just by thinking about it, or mindlessly mouthing the renewal of our baptismal covenant vows in church on baptismal feast days, but by studying and knowing what the sacrament really means and what the Baptismal Covenant actually entails – the entire Baptismal Covenant (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 305-306).

Note that the Baptismal Covenant includes not only the five vows to do certain things, but also a commitment to believing certain things by including that statement of the Church’s faith called the Apostles’ Creed (hence the need to study the creeds mentioned above in #3 above). Orthodoxy without orthopraxy is a dead faith, but orthopraxy without orthodoxy is a pale imitation of genuinely Christian faith. So don’t fall into the temptation of separating believing and doing. They go together.

One particularly helpful resource in this area is Claudia Dickson’s Entering the Household of God: Taking Baptism Seriously in a Post-Christian Society (Church Publishing, 2002). If you’re working with one or more catechumens in your parish church, you really should get copies of this book for every adult preparing to receive Holy Baptism.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of suggestions. I certainly welcome and encourage the insights and suggestions of those who read this blog (I’m always on the lookout for good Christian education resources, and especially those of benefit to Episcopalians).

My larger point in this posting is this: moving from 5th graders in Christianity to graduates who are genuinely equipped to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” – which is the baptismal charism and calling of all orders of ministry (which most definitely includes the laity) – will be costly (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). If we Episcopalians are serious about cultivating anamnesis (remembrance) as opposed to going with the flow of amnesia (forgetfulness) – if we’re going to form Episcopal Christians who know who they are, where they come from, where they’re going, and to Whom they belong – then it’s going to mean a sacrifice of time, money, and effort for both clergy and laity.

We have everything we need to do this. But are we Episcopalians willing to pay the price? And what are the costs if we are not willing?


DK78 said...

The reason people keep quizzing the Episcopalians--as opposed to, say, Catholics, or Baptists--is that there's good reason to believe that 21st Century American Episcopalianism is nothing less than the Laodicea of Revelation 3-4. The fact that this reference would be completely over the heads of most Episcopalians only makes my point. Big, cold, empty churches; flowery liturgy & flowery robes, signifying nothing. Indifference toward the Bible & institutional tolerance of what the Bible categorically forbids. I'm amazed at the premise of this blog; i.e., that people doubt the Episcopal commitment to the tenets of historic Christianity.

- Mark Smith

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for your comments, Mark.

I think there are reasons that can better take into account the fact that some Episcopalians (not all, but too many) love their Church deeply while simultaneously knowing very little about it without charging them with being "lukewarm" or "indifferent" or (even worse) apostates. I think an ethos that downplays the need for ongoing education and formation for ALL ages plays a significant role.

I also think that Episcopalians get grilled because historically some (not all) of our Baptist and other Christian friends have never trusted the Anglican 'middle way' or they find it frustrating. Like the Presbyterian seminarian I knew at Sewanee, it baffles them. They don't get it. ("How in the world can you guys function as a Church without confessional statements?")

Or it infuriates them and they grow hostile. Think of the more radical reformers in England who consistently tried and consistently failed to either jettison the Prayer Book entirely, or to revise it in accordance with their wishes (like, for example, throwing out any suggestion of baptismal regeneration). Their repeated failures must have left them feeling resentful.

Perhaps there's also lingering distrust of the Anglican presence in America that has historical roots. After all, the Puritans tried to get away from the Church of England, and now here's a small but nonetheless influential (at one point in our nation's history at least) continuation of the Anglican tradition right in our backyards on American soil.

Perhaps some Episcopalians get grilled by other Christians because those other Christians arrogantly assume that they are the "real" Christians and theirs is the "real" Church and so their job is to "save" other Christians.

Perhaps it's all a bit more complicated than citing Revelation 3:14-22.

bls said...

Mark Smith, I hate to mention it, but hundreds of Catholic churches are closed every year all over the United States. The fastest-growing segment of the population is the "unchurched" - and this has been true for a decade or more.

BTW, the Bible "categorically forbids" the lending of money at interest, and in hundreds more places than it says anything about the topic of your obvious reference here (and on which, BTW, I completely disagree with you - the Bible doesn't say anything like what you're claiming).

Yet somehow that topic never comes up; yea, verily, the "Prosperity Gospel" preachers pack 'em in. Huge megachurches filled with people who are told that God wants them to become wealthy.

Too, the "family values" crowd ignores what Jesus actually has to say about "family values." ("If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as his own life, he can't be my disciple.")

So please: lectures about "indifference toward the Bible" are taken by many people these days with a gigantic grain of salt.

bls said...

You are right, Fr. Bryan, that Episcopalians need to be more Biblically literate. I think that is happening, though, through programs such as "Via Media" and EFM (which is, BTW, really a terrific program that I'd recommend to anybody). Since I started EFM two years ago, I've talked with many others who have started it, too - and the national church is promoting it, and the dioceses are picking it up.

And it's also happening because of the flow into the Episcopal Church of people from other denoms that emphasize Bible study more than we do or have.

What's really needed, IMO, is the return to daily prayer, and also the teaching of the various kinds of prayer that exist. People don't really know about Lectio Divina and Contemplative Prayer and Ignatian prayer and the many other kinds that are available. In a group I'm involved in, I offered a group version of lectio (the one on this page) - and people really liked it. The parishes need to start offering Daily Prayer again, too; that is our unique heritage, and many people today don't even know what the Daily Office is.

Daily prayer, and attention to the wonderful and dynamic ebb and flow of the Great Church Year, are to me the crucial center of our faith. People need real and deep experience of faith, and these things teach it.

Bryan Owen said...

I think you're right about EfM. DOCC is also another good way to equip folks.

Teaching the different ways of prayer - like lectio divina - would also be a good complement to the other suggestions.

And I share your desire to renew the observance of the Daily Office. It really is a pity that it's fallen into such neglect.

eric said...

Again, I think you're on to something here :)

Last semester, I took an upper-division Western Civ. class. Upon reaching 1CE, the professor asked, "How many here are Christians?" Roughly 85% of the class raised their hands. The teacher then asked, "How many people know who Paul, or St. Paul, is?" Only two hands were in the air - mine, and that of a (rather outspoken) Atheist.

Microcosm of the Church? I hope not.

Bryan Owen said...

Well, Eric, if your experience, and Barbara Brown Taylor's experience, and my experience are any indicator, then yes, this is a microcosm of the Church. Or least a microcosm of the so-called "mainline" churches.

I sometimes wonder if part of the problem in The Episcopal Church is that we're just too sophisticated and intellectual to be bothered with such trifles as ... the faith of the Church. And so we know very little about scripture, the creeds, The Book of Common Prayer, etc.

And boy does it sometimes show!