Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Responding to Grim News about the Episcopal Church

More bad news for the Episcopal Church, this time from Kirk Hadaway and Matthew Price's January 27 briefing to the Executive Council. Here is one particularly revealing part of the report (h/t to Kendall Harmon):

To get a broad-based sense of congregational vitality, we have used a number of measurements including church school enrollment, marriages, funerals, child baptisms, adult baptisms, and confirmations. These speak to a parish's integration in the community and the possibility for future growth:

Change in church school enrollment: -33%
Change in number of marriages performed: -41%
Change in number of burials/funerals: -21%
Change in the number of child baptisms: -36%
Change in the number of adult baptisms: -40%
Change in the number of confirmations: -32%

While these numbers may not capture the totality of what is happening in the Church, we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction.

I wonder if any of this will come up at this summer's General Convention. As I recall, there was similar sobering content in the report from the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church submitted to General Convention in 2009. But unless I missed it, I don't recall any serious public comment about it.

Responding to these depressing statistics, Fr. Tony Clavier offers insightful thoughts:

No doubt our loss of parishioners – I dislike the word “member” – has been compounded by the desertion of so many since 2003 and the ensuing law suits. However what seems clear is that the greater problem is our inability to retain younger people or to seem to offer a faith which inspires people who believe in growing numbers that what we offer in our parishes has not a thing to do with what they believe to be the reality of daily living. We have become victims of the culture wars which divide Americans and we don’t seem to speak to those who want something more than a ritual affirmation of their political views. ...

In the 19th Century, at least in Britain and the US, we lost working women and men because we wrapped ourselves in the culture of affluence, ‘conservatives at prayer’. We were the church of the wealthy and the upper classes, the people who built or adorned most of our church buildings and paid the rector. Nowadays we appeal to upper middle class intellectuals and where these people are in short supply, in cities and towns where the businesses run by such people have evaporated and where their proprietors have gone elsewhere – to the sun – a dwindling, graying minority struggle to keep the roof on crumbling piles and meet the significantly growing cost of paying a priest.

Around our buildings, or on the edges of communities now distanced from our buildings are a new constituency, made up not of unchurched families, but of no-churched families, a generation or more from the their ancestors who filled our buildings and regarded them as significant centers of their lives and devotion. The burning question is just how we frame our ministry, lay and ordained, to contact this pool of people to whom the Faith is as mysterious as the goings on in a masonic lodge. We continue to try to attract by our causes people who look with growing distrust to politicians and political parties. What we don’t seem to offer is a faith which changes lives and gives them the strength to navigate the bewildering complexities of modern life. Christian faith has much to say about relationships, how to raise children, how to cope with tragedy, how to minister to the poor and those made victims of unemployment and financial disaster. That Gospel begins with introducing people to God, the relevance of Jesus and the life of the Spirit.

Christian Faith presents the Way through the complicated reality of daily living and yes daily dying. Our Prayer Book wondrously supplies that Way within the community of those called out by God to herald the Kingdom and winsomely demonstrate God’s compassion and purpose. Yet we seem to be offering the stone of adequate governance rather than the Bread of Life.

In the midst of church decline, the following practices strike me as at the core of a much-needed approach to evangelism and formation that can offer the Bread of Life:

  • Returning to our roots and rediscovering how the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith applies to our world today.
  • Emphasizing all of the Baptismal Covenant (and not just the last two questions of promise).
  • Reaffirming a non-negotiable commitment to (in the words of Derek Olsen) "the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer," "the common prayers agreed upon there," and "the structure of the church that we have received."
  • Engaging the world by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison.
  • And of absolutely central importance: teaching and preaching the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior without shame or apology.

Doing all of this things may not fit the "progressive" agenda. They won't necessarily insure that our pews and coffers overflow. But these practices represent authentic Anglican Christianity that is faithful to the Gospel. And I believe that such authenticity and faithfulness will speak to the hearts of those who hunger for the abundant life that only Jesus Christ can give.

ADDENDUM - Check out what Tune: Kings Lynn offers in info and analysis on all of this in a posting entitled "Statistical Day of Reckoning."


Anonymous said...

Bryan it is a crying shame that you need to point out those 5 areas that 'need' to happen . . . that they are not already indivisible from the face of the Church people are presented with.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. Thanks for commenting and I hope you're doing well.

I'd like to clarify that I do not intend to imply that every single parish in the Episcopal Church (or even every single diocese, for that matter) is utterly failing in the five areas that I suggested are at the core of a "Bread of Life" approach to evangelism and mission. In the midst of decline there are, thanks be to God, success stories. I remain concerned, however, that too many places are not adequately living into these authentically Anglican practices, opting instead for what seems politically correct and theologically/liturgically relevant.

It doesn't help that the grim statistics about the Episcopal Church's decline have still not been bluntly and publicly acknowledged by the Presiding Bishop and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I'm not aware of a game plan for the future. (If I'm wrong about this, please, someone, correct me!!) And that concerns me because, as I've written before: "Aging membership + conflict + declining financial health + little interest in or understanding of evangelism = no viable future."

Please pray for the Episcopal Church!

Rick said...

"Doing all of this things may not fit the "progressive" agenda. They won't necessarily insure that our pews and coffers overflow. But these practices represent authentic Anglican Christianity that is faithful to the Gospel. And I believe that such authenticity and faithfulness will speak to the hearts of those who hunger for the abundant life that only Jesus Christ can give."

But the powers that be do not want to make those changes. This problem is nothing new, and they would rather have it die on the vine than go back to the roots of orthodoxy.

In light of this, I have a hard time understanding why those interested in orthodoxy do not make the move to the Anglican groups.

Why contribute to an institution that is clearly not interested in those roots?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rick. You asked:

Why contribute to an institution that is clearly not interested in those roots?

It may be the case that General Convention and perhaps even the staff of more than a few diocesan offices are not interested in the practices I touched on. But things can be utterly and completely different at the parish level. That's not about contributing to an institution that doesn't care about authentic, faithful Anglicanism. That's about contributing to the lives of people - both those already in our churches and those who are unchurched.

I noticed in my bloglist this morning that Kendall Harmon's TitusOneNine site offers a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that may have some relevance:

Not all of us have power. But we all have influence, whether we seek it or not. We make the people around us better or worse than they might otherwise have been. Worse if we infect them with our materialism or cynicism, better if we inspire them with what Wordsworth called “the best portion” of a good life, our “little, nameless, unremembered acts / of kindness and of love.” That quiet leadership of influence seeks no power but it changes lives. In tough times like now we need it more than ever.

To piggyback on what the Rabbi has said, our task is not to seek power (much less to contribute to what is wrong with an institution) but to engage in the quiet leadership of influence that uses the best and most faithful practices of the Anglican tradition to touch and (with God's help) change lives. Who knows? That could be the mustard seed that grows into "the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree," or the yeast that leavens the whole of the dough (cf. Mt. 13:31-33).

Suem said...

I am sorry that you face this situation and have some inkling of how grim it must seem. Once a state has been reached where law suits are involved, "ordinary" people are going to back away. Jesus did say that people would know we were his disciples because of our love for each other.
I suggest that, whether we are progressive or conservative, once our focus is more on "issues" than on the message of the gospel (even when we believe our take on those issues to relate to the gospel) then we will alienate others and we will have little of worth to offer. This is something which has exercise my mind of late. I will pray that the mustard seeds of faith and leaven of grace will increasingly bring more to glimpse the Kingdom of God in your area of the world.

Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Suem, for the kind words and prayers. I am fortunate to serve in a diocese in which, our differences on the issues du jour notwithstanding, we manage to keep the focus on and unite around mission.

Anonymous said...

Bryan reading G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross today I came across this passage that reminded me of your Blog Post . . .

""The Church is not a thing like the Athenaeum Club," he cried. "If the Athenaeum Club lost all its members, the Athenaeum Club would dissolve and cease to exist. But when we belong to the Church we belong to something which is outside all of us; which is outside everything you talk about, outside the Cardinals and the Pope. They belong to it, but it does not belong to them. If we all fell dead suddenly, the Church would still somehow exist in God. Confound it all, don't you see that I am more sure of its existence than I am of my own existence?"

We treat the Church as something we own, something we control, something we must manage for we know best . . . at our peril. We have turned the church it seems (and I know I am generalizing) into a man-made, man-controlled entity. God have mercy we are so blind!

Robert F said...

The question we as Christians have to ask ourselves is "Am I leading a transformed life that reflects and is consistent with the gospel of and about Jesus Christ?" When people who have no familiarity with Christianity observe us, I'm afraid they find us indistinguishable from themselves in the way we conduct our lives and inhabit social reality. There is nothing like the distinctive witness made by the first Christians in the ancient Roman era. Yes, Christians perform many good works in very difficult situations throughout the world, but the effectiveness of these deeds as witness is partly neutralized by: 1) the fact that Christianity has been successful in making one of its values, active compassion, a socially central value so that there are many secular institutions that perform acts of compassion and are seen by the secular world as equal to, or greater in value than, Christian organizations; and 2) a significant portion of those who are completely secular are beginning to revert back to a classical pagan ethos which does not place much value on assisting the weak and vulnerable when it requires those who are "strong" and "able" to make significant sacrifices. Ironically, the very success of the Christian value of compassion in becoming prevalent in our cultural ethic, at least in terms of the social myth that we surround ourselves with, however much it may or may not correspond to reality, has begun to lead to a disenchantment with that value in the discourse of the post-Christian world, so that it is not appreciated as a radically positive break with inhuman values the way that it ultimately was in the ancient Roman era. This means that the world will not be susceptible to the radical witness of this Kingdom value the way it was in the first centuries of the C.E. It is not only the mainstream churches in the West that will have to deal with this new reality; the evangelical churches have also seemingly hit a plateau in membership and are showing signs of decline. The above comments are applicable, of course, mostly to North America and Europe.

Robert F said...

None of what I said in the above post means that we should not do our best to be salt and light in the midst of the world. But we will be doing this in a world which has been significantly inoculated against Kingdom values, and will not suffer attempts at re-enchantment kindly. There will most certainly be significant persecution of Christians who hold to Kingdom values here in the West. Personally, I see the requirement of the Obama administration that most Roman Catholic, and other Christian, institutions will have to provide free birth control to those employees that they provide with health insurance as the leading edge of the beginning of that persecution. The aspirations of the secular state, whether ostensibly democratic or not, will always end in soft or hard totalitarianism, pushing personal religious choices into a narrower and narrower sphere, and claiming the right to coerce the conscience in more pervasive ways.

Kelso said...

The few occasions I step foot in my parish I always remind the rector I am praying for two things:

1. The restoration of the 1928 BCP.
2. The restoration of the Apostolic Succession.

I haven't been to church more than a handful of times since we turned into a holy-roller Protestant sect with a liturgy worthy of a Thomas Kinkade painting.

C. Wingate said...

Kelso, I don't know because I got confirmed the same year that the 1979 BCP first came up in GC, and so I don't have significant experience of using 1928 other than one time being subjected to the 1892 book. But I really don't see how going back is going to fix much. It surely didn't do much for James Pike. I agree that it would be better if people used 1979 more along the lines that people think of 1928 as being used. And a lot of places did and I think still do use 1979 that way.

Kurt said...

The decline in the churches in America represents a general decline across the board, affecting conservative denominations as well as liberal ones such as TEC and ELCA. There has been a cultural paradigm shift in America, and we had better come to grips with it. For decades we American Christians touted our “exceptionalism” to the decline of organized religion in Europe. That has now changed, accelerated, no doubt, by the past 30-some years of con evo theological and political reaction. At best, religion is seen by many young people today as irrelevant to their daily lives; at worst it is seen as unworthy of serious consideration by educated people.

I’m not saying that I have The Answer, but it’s absurd to think that strategies such as restoring the 1928 Prayer Book, or refusing to litigate with those attempting to steal TEC property will return us to a mythical golden past a la the 1950s. We must come to grips with the fact that the ethos of the West is fundamentally changing—and not necessarily for the better in many areas (the institutionalized greed of the 1%, the corruption of politicians, permanent war, etc.)

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I appreciate the quote from Chesterton very much, George. Thank you.

Robert F., you raise a number of thought-provoking points about how Christians and the Church in general face daunting challenges when it comes to offering a distinctive witness. I find your first point about the successful and general acceptance of Christian values like "active compassion" as one of the reasons why we find it hard to be distinctive an interesting irony. And your second point about reverting to the values of "a classical pagan ethos" is troubling. Perhaps there are ways that these two points dovetail with what David Bentley Hart is arguing in his book Atheist Delusions.

And I quite agree, Kurt, that there has been "a cultural paradigm shift in America" such that blaming church decline on things like Prayer Book revision is not a sufficient explanation. It's a far more complicated constellation of factors converging to push us into an increasingly post-Christian (and, in some quarters, anti-Christian) culture. Bringing back the 1928 Prayer Book would not change that.

Robert F said...

The U.S. is indeed headed to the same aggressive secularism that Europe has already arrived at by a different route, perhaps more circuitous and therefore slower. But in the rest of the world, the majority world, religion, Christianity included, is a more potent social reality than ever. Our post-Christian civilization is breeding values that will, in a relatively short period, result in its demise based on demographic factors alone, and render it largely "irrelevant" to the development of human affairs in the rest of the world. Let the church be the church, and recognize that the Kingdom will not wither away because Euro/American culture and civilization is withering away. Our hope is not in empires and civilizations, but in the name of the Lord.