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.
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.
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.