Monday, July 16, 2012

What Ever To Do About the Episcopal Church

Ross Douthat is predictably unhappy with the Episcopal Church.  I must confess that I haven't bothered to read his essay, but it seems to be the usual yadda yadda yadda about the Episcopal Church declining in membership because it is so damn liberal.

Well, how's Holy Mother Rome doing these days?  Speaking of catastrophic decline, some anecdotal evidence from my neighborhood.  Saint Vincent's Church in Williamsburg is now closed with a tree growing out of its bell tower.  I walk by St. Cecilia's almost daily, and I see the remains of a once large and thriving Italian parish.  There is a huge school building attached to the parish.  At one time, the school was so large and crowded that an annex was built as well as an extra convent house for the nuns.  Now, the large school building, and the extra convent are closed and empty.   The school annex is now part of an apartment complex. The convent houses a handful of aging nuns.  The parish is dying and will probably not survive long the passing of its current members.  The Brooklyn diocese merged it with two other churches, Divine Mercy and St. Francis of Paola, to keep these parishes all afloat.  The only RC parish in the neighborhood that appears to be thriving is St. Stanislaus Kostka, the Polish parish sustained by immigration and by undying Polish loyalty to the Roman Church no matter what.

But for St. Stanislaus, the neighborhood would begin to look like Montreal with its many empty and abandoned churches.

 The detractors of the Episcopal Church have been pronouncing it dead and writing its obituary for over thirty years.  When members of the church's right wing marched out over the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, they loudly banged their shoes on the desk and declared that they would bury us.  That's been 9 years ago now.  The apocalyptic mass defection by clergy and laity from the Episcopal Church so long predicted never happened, and by this time, it probably won't.

September of this year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of my confirmation into the Episcopal Church.  I've joined or participated in congregations in Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Italy, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York.  In those three decades, I've been pleased to be part of congregations that were never large, but were full of people happy to be there, people from many different generations and classes.  Religious life was always a serious matter of education and prayer with Sunday school, adult education, Bible classes, pastoral training for laity, hospital partnerships, prison ministries, food pantries, hot meal programs, programs for homeless kids, Benedictine spiritual groups, prayer groups, house congregations, etc.  These congregations were always busy and full of life.  Most striking about all of them is that the majority of their members, including the clergy, were converts. 
I remember the small congregation in rural Kentucky that I joined for the year I taught at Berea College.  Almost all the members were rural folk who converted over from their charismatic fundamentalist congregations.  Most of them were women, and they brought the Kentucky countryside into the parish's life, especially its music.  Our offertory anthems were usually very old gospel tunes like "Peace in the Valley" and "I'll Fly Away."

In thirty years, I've yet to encounter that graying dying Episcopal Church with only 30 people in the pews on any given Sunday that is the staple of hostile essays and reportage.

Sure, the Episcopal Church lost a lot of members over the past 50 years, but so did most churches.  If anything, the Episcopal Church is in better shape now than the Roman Catholic Church in the USA with its dramatic rates of attrition.   That other model of right wing success, the Southern Baptist Church, is having its own problems with declining membership and accelerating rates of attrition, especially among the young.  Compared to the Church of England these days, the Episcopal Church despite its problems is the picture of institutional health.

Here is my family in Dallas dressed for Easter in 1961 in a photo almost certainly taken by a visiting grandmother.

Church for us at that time was an unquestioned social obligation enforced by ferociously pious grandmothers.  I hated it.  I hated having to wear a wool suit in hot weather.  The Methodist church we attended was always packed with people with the spillover crowded onto folding chairs in the narthex listening to the service by intercom.  We dreaded getting there too late for a pew seat and having to sit in the narthex.  Few people in that church seemed particularly glad to be there.  My parents hated it as much as I did.  When the grandmothers died, they quit going entirely, and their inner secularism was no longer inhibited, and they were much happier.
I'm happy to see the back of those days. I think back on that, and I can only conclude that the church membership decline was bound to happen as soon as everyone's pious grandma died.  The hard right turn of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the hegemony of Evangelical Christianity over political and cultural life in this country for the past 30 years accelerated that membership decline, especially among the young.  The identification of Christianity with right wing politics guarantees a secular future for the USA.

My friend David Kaplan likens Episcopalianism to Conservative Judaism.  Both are projects to reconcile tradition with modernity.  As the late theologian Jaroslav Pelikan once famously said, tradition is a living relationship with the dead, and traditionalism is a dead relationship with the living.  Conservative Judaism was an American creation by immigrant Jews who refused to abandon their religious faith and identity in order to live and succeed in a modern country.  They refused that stark choice between  studying Torah in a yeshiva in a religious ghetto and the abandonment of their religion in order to be professionals in the modern world.  Episcopalians likewise refuse that stark choice between fundamentalism and secularism.  As my friend Weiben points out, the Episcopal Church is one of the very few churches that does not claim to be The True Church and to have all the answers.  As he says, that is not weakness, it is humility and strength.

I now belong to a church that is much smaller in size than the Methodist church of my Dallas childhood (the education wing was larger than my old elementary school at the time; and this was decades before anyone coined the term "megachurch").  All of the Episcopal congregations that I knew were much smaller.  But, they were all much happier, full of people who were there by choice instead of obligation.

Here I am at Easter this year serving as subdeacon for retired Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold at my parish in New York.

I remember Neil Alexander before he became Bishop of Atlanta telling a group of adults in a Bible study class in New York that all of us wandered down separate paths and found ourselves together at the same place.  When we joined the Episcopal Church, we consented to walk together.


Making the rounds of the internet this morning is Winnie Varghese's essay in HuffPost describing the Episcopal Church instead of letting our detractors describe it for us.   Perhaps the light is finally starting to come out from under the bushel basket.


Sid said...

I think you make a lot of fair points, but you must know that this is all anecdotal. I have personal experience, on the contrary side, with single Roman Catholic parishes (both conservative and not so conservative) as large as some Episcopal dioceses, and, yes, graying and dying Episcopal parishes.

The numbers are what they are. Losing 25% of your members in 10 years is getting pretty close to apocalyptic, especially as neither you nor I can say for sure that rate of attrition won't continue or even accelerate. I don't see the purpose in being Pollyannaish about it; the Episcopal Church is failing with respect to attracting people to its philosophy. That doesn't mean the parish life isn't special, and that the remaining people aren't, as you say, happy to be there and happy to be with each other. And I agree with you also that Douthat's thesis is too simplistic.

Counterlight said...


A fair point.

On the other hand, I don't think I would want the success of the mega-churches packing people in with the promises of prosperity gospel, or with charismatic (and frequently autocratic) preachers/motivational speakers.

As a priest friend of mine once pointed out, any church that points out that the application of religious ethics to life is seldom clear and never easy is not going to attract huge crowds to join.

I would agree that the Episcopal Church does a better job of keeping itself secret and under the radar than the CIA. Going out and beating the bushes for converts is not us. We are not driven by any apocalyptic "Turn or Burn!" urgency. We do a good job with those "...children at the gate who cannot pray and will not go away" in the words of TS Eliot. We provide a refuge and a home for those who left or were expelled from their churches and yet won't let go of their faith. Also, we provide a place for those who identify themselves as Christian, but are not willing subsume their critically thinking selves to some binding magisterium or to some literalist interpretation of Scripture. They see a conversion to Christianity as the beginning of an adventure, not the end of all adventuring. Perhaps this is why the majority of Episcopalians are converts.

Perhaps I do sound pollyanna about the whole thing, but after thirty years and many miles, my experience has certainly changed but is no less happy. Those very actions of the church that alienated some people only made my allegiance to it even stronger. The election and consecration of Bishop Robinson was a watershed moment for me and a lot of other people. My church willingly took upon itself to share the scorn and alienation I've felt all of my life as a gay man. I was never prouder to be Episcopalian or more grateful to the Episcopal Church. I can't see any corporation or political party doing anything similar. I certainly can't see Rome or any fundamentalist church doing the same thing, though I hope I'm wrong about that.

I continue to come into contact with remarkable people, and with courageously selfless people, through this church. I hope others can say the same thing about their churches.

Sid said...

I agree with you about the mega-churches; I'm not sure they're preaching Christianity, and, from that perspective, seeing a lot of people there is troubling (though I want to make clear that's a general statement, and I'm not judging anybody's faith).

I don't agree with the idea that people in more conservative (or whatever the word is) churches don't think critically - as opposed to simply reaching a different conclusion than their progressive counterparts. But I did find this moving: "We do a good job with those '...children at the gate who cannot pray and will not go away' in the words of TS Eliot. We provide a refuge and a home for those who left or were expelled from their churches and yet won't let go of their faith." That sounds like Christ's "the least of these." It's wrong for any church to abandon them.

NancyP said...

Megachurches have a high rate of turnover. They stay afloat because they excel at marketing to new prospects, not because they excel at creating long-term community.

NancyP said...

BTW, did you like teaching at Berea College? When I lived in Cincinnati,OH, I used to visit once or so a year to go to a bluegrass festival or simply to have a nice day/weekend trip, and a ginormous home-style dinner at the student-run hotel. I have a lot of respect for their mission of educating low-income Appalachian students via work/study.

kishnevi said...

FYI, Conservative Judaism is not a raving success story now; many who were Conservative Jews have abandoned Judaism, or moved over to Reform, or gotten much more observant and become Orthodox, usually of the stricter kind. And the less strict Orthodox are also gradually assimilating into the stricter sort. Even those Orthodox who remain participants in secular life are usually more strict and less likely to stretch the boundaries than their parents might have been. The only real growing community in Judaism seems to be the stricter Orthodox, in fact. Part of this dynamic is tied to the Israeli right wing--this trend is making the settlers that much stronger, and is itself made stronger by the settlers.

I've never been able to understand those "prosperity gospel" churches myself. It seems as some of the stuff Jesus taught, in the Sermon on the Mount and other places, directly contradicts their ideas. But obviously that doesn't worry them, does it?

JCF said...

"Things fall apart, the center cannot hold"

It makes sense that in historically Jewish society, as in historically Christian society, we're seeing a stark division into fundamentalist theism and (increasingly fundamentalist) atheism (which I often call anti-theism).

But of course, this leaves our Episcopal faith in a familiar place: the Via Media.

And the Reality is, the Via Media has a lot in common w/ the "Via Dolorosa": Expect The Cross! :-0

Counterlight said...

Nancy P,

As a matter of fact, I did enjoy teaching at Berea, including dinners at the Boone Tavern.
While I was there, I found out that I had 2 relatives who went there decades earlier.

Counterlight said...

That's my concern about the future of the Episcopal Church, and other things reasonable and humane; that they are about to be ground to powder between the millstones of competing ideologies. I fear a rerun of the 1930s where people actually believed that a choice between Hitler and Stalin was realistic and reasonable.

Lapinbizarre said...

Solving the quandary of specs and a dalmatic is, in itself, a feat.