I won’t be signing on…

I haven’t blogged Episcopal matters much in recent months for several reasons. First, I’ve been focused on other matters in my day-to-day ministry and as we prepare for renovations at Grace. Perhaps more importantly, there are urgent needs and issues in Madison and the nation that have demanded attention. And frankly, although the Triennial General Convention is a little more than a month away and the usual verbiage and posturing related to it are well underway, I haven’t found any of it particularly compelling. That’s surprising, because there are a number of important issues that will come before Convention—reports from the marriage task force, same sex blessings, restructuring, and the election of a new Presiding Bishop.

The level of my disengagement and disinterest was only slightly altered by the release yesterday of A Memorial to the Church: “Calling the 78th General Convention to Proclaim Resurrection.” Crafted by eight people and with a lengthy list of signatures from bishops, deputies, and others, the document is a plea for the transformation of the Episcopal Church:

 We, the undersigned, hold dear the Episcopal Church and believe passionately in the gift this church offers. Washed in the waters of Baptism and nourished from the deep springs of word and sacrament, we experience the power of God’s presence as we open the Scriptures and celebrate the Eucharist. We stand in awe of the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the power of the triune God to love, to forgive, to make whole. We know the joy of serving God through serving others. We long for a world with every unjust structure toppled. We love this church enough to yearn for it to be transformed.

The authors urge General Convention to take action:

Engage creatively, openly, and prayerfully in reading the signs of the times and discerning the particular ways God is speaking to the Episcopal Church now;

 

Pray, read the scriptures, and listen deeply for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in electing a new Presiding Bishop and other leaders, in entering into creative initiatives for the spread of the kingdom, and in restructuring the church for mission;

 

Fund evangelism initiatives extravagantly: training laborers to go into the harvest to revitalize existing congregations and plant new ones; forming networks and educational offerings to train and deploy church planters and revitalizers who will follow Jesus into all kinds of neighborhoods; and creating training opportunities for bilingual and bi-cultural ministry;

 

Release our hold on buildings, structures, comfortable habits, egos, and conflicts that do not serve the church well;

 

Remove obstacles embedded in current structures, however formerly useful or well-meaning, that hinder new and creative mission and evangelism initiatives;

 

Refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level, where we all may learn how to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.

As I read, and although I am familiar with and respect many of the authors of the document, I wondered, “What world do they live in?”

That question reverberated as I read another document prepared for General Convention published the same day, “The Report on the Church.”

The four-year trend (2009-2013) shows an 8 percent decrease in active membership and a 9 percent decline in average Sunday attendance. The 10-year trend data provides a longer view of what has occurred in the life of the domestic dioceses of The Episcopal Church. In that period, the Church has seen an 18 percent decrease in active membership and a 24 percent decrease in Average Sunday Attendance. Communicants in Good Standing also declined by 18 percent during the last 10 years. It should be noted, however, that the severity of annual declines began to moderate somewhat in 2011, with domestic losses dropping from around 50,000 members per year to less than 29,000 per year for three consecutive years (2011-2013).

I began to wonder not only “What world do they live in?” but “What church do they live in?”

The Pew Survey that was released earlier this work shows a dramatic decline in religious affiliation in the US, a trend especially prominent among “millennials.” It’s not just about the decline of traditional mainline Christianity. It’s a transformation in the way people express and embody their religious lives. What might “discipleship” look like or mean in that context?

Don’t get me wrong. I think what the document advocates is spot on. My criticism is that it isn’t radical enough. Perhaps we need to be ready to “release our hold” on the Episcopal Church itself.

This past Tuesday, while I marched with other clergy through the streets of Madison in the wake of the DA’s decision not to prosecute in the shooting of Tony Robinson, I was struck both by the power and privilege of our symbols and buildings as well as by their relative irrelevance to the lives and issues facing our community. Clergy and lay people were present. We spoke, marched, prayed, and sang but most of the energy, passion, and message came from others. We contributed our prestige, privilege, and whatever moral authority we carry. And the final gathering on the steps of Grace was a great photo-op.

As we marched, I had a conversation with a retired Episcopal priest about the Pew Survey and what it meant for the Episcopal Church. I told him I thought that the Church would die but that the spirit of Anglicanism could live on in new forms of community and in new ways of being Anglican. But we must let that spirit blow where it will, and not try to divert it to rekindle the dying embers of old fires. I suspect the Episcopal Church lingers in those dying embers.

I want to spend my time and energy in following where the spirit is blowing, into new ways of being church, new ways of encountering Jesus, and new ways of connecting with those who are seeking spiritual meaning. If the institutional church can be transformed to do those things, fine, but I’m not going to be fighting that battle. There’s too much else at stake.

 

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6 thoughts on “I won’t be signing on…

  1. Jonathan, I hear what you are saying, but then what SHOULD we be doing with the church-wide structure? We cant simply ignore it, and chucking it completely isn’t a good idea either. While no one needs to sign onto the memorial, what do you think needs to be done? If we remain ministers in a denomination with national discipline, the structure ALWAYS will matter, for better or worse.

    • 2 things, David. If you go to the Ramey piece I linked to in my previous post, you’ll see some interesting ideas about changing practices related to religious identity that I think have profound implications for what “discipleship” might look like in the 21st century. 2) if you look at successful reform movements in the History of Christianity look like, they tend to follow this pattern: locally based, building networks (the RC church calls them orders, but still). Eventually, reluctantly, the central structure responds, or not. That happened in the 12th and 13th centuries, with the Mendicants, in the 16th with the Jesuits, though not with the Protestants, and even in the 18th with the Pietists and Methodists.

      • I agree with your first point – but we don’t have control over the ebb and flow of 21st Century Christianity. While it is vitally important that we pay attention to where the spirit is leading in new ways, to ignore the current structure is in some ways to ignore the power and privilege that they currently hold and to continue to enable it through our contributions. Even if the current structure crumbles, we will be using the debris to help build what is new. Im not trying to be combative here, but It feels to me not unlike ignoring the current climate crisis because Jesus is gonna be here soon. Getting to the future God wants for us means dealing with the past and present in a real and constructive way. As for the second point, I think that’s exactly what is happening here. The people who have put the memorial together are not authorized or funded by anyone. It is an informal network of people who are working for reform in their own dioceses. Yet the resolutions are more sweeping and more canonically correct than the TREC resolutions. I think this is the beginning of what is to come, which is more network activity. I would say that this is the first sign of exactly what you are talking about in point 2.

  2. I agree with David Simmons; I signed on to #episcopalresurrection as a first-time (and probably only time) deputy because it does send a positive message to the grinding machinery of convention that there are more nimble, missional, Jesus-oriented ways of being church. Will it solve all our problems? No, we will only reach and transform souls at the parish level. It didn’t consume a lot of my time to sign on and pass along the message. I think the message to the Church (capital C) is mostly one of lead, follow or get out of the way.

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