About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

The Book of Common Prayer

The Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer is observed on “a weekday after Pentecost.” In our calendar this year, that means it is observed today (Monday was the Venerable Bede, yesterday, Augustine of Canterbury. The collect for this day reads:

Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

From Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

 

I said this while reflecting on Jaobs’ book a couple of years ago:

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

I’m struck by the last couple of sentences considering the rumblings going through the church right now about Prayer Book revision as well as the various resolutions the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music have submitted to General Convention (You can read incisive commentary on those revisions from Scott Gunn here). It seems to me that before undertaking such changes, whether tinkering around the edges or full-scale revision, we need to think carefully and creatively about the role of the Book of Common Prayer in our common life in the twenty-first century.

On the one hand, there’s a tendency to fetishize the BCP (whether the 1662, the 1928, or I suppose, even the 1979), to regard a particular version as normative for all time. On the other hand, there’s another tendency to want to revise it regularly. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that as the institutional church collapses, the things that bind it together may lose their power as well. That is true of the Book of Common Prayer. Can its language, disciplines, and rituals continue to shape people when they no longer experience it as a “book?” And what might its demise mean for Anglicanism as a living tradition within Christianity?

 

It’s not the Birthday of the Church! A Sermon for Pentecost, 2015

One of the things that most annoys me about contemporary popular Christianity is the domestication of our practices, or really the infantilization of them. In our attempt to help outsiders make sense of what we do and what we believe, we have a tendency to dumb things down. It may also be that language and imagery developed to help children understand our worship, practices, and doctrine have become so ingrained that as adults we reach to them as well. Continue reading

So, Back to Square 1? Or Capitol Square?

Reports are that the courts have ruled in favor of the Town of Madison in its dispute with Dane County over locating a Day Resource Center on Martin St. Will the County appeal?

In any case, it’s almost June  and we’ve got five months to come up with a solution for next winter. How long has this been going on?

Let’s see if the city and county can bury the hatchet, work with homeless advocates and service providers and come up with a permanent solution for a Homeless Day Resource Center in the downtown .

 

Religious Identity, Religious Community: More Thoughts on the Pew Study and the Memorial to the Church

I’ve been thinking a great deal about my post last week and the conversations around both the Memorial to the Church and the Pew Survey. We’re in uncharted territory as the Episcopal Church (and Mainline Protestantism) collapse. All sorts of people from all over the theological spectrum will offer analyses of the reasons for this collapse but it will require historical distance to gain the necessary perspective from which to judge what happened and why. At the same time, with the rise of the percentage of people who no longer identify with particular denominations or traditions, one of the things the Pew Survey has made clear is that Americans are creating new ways of being religious. A number of commentators have made this case, among them Kaya Oakes and Peter Manseau. Something Oakes wrote is especially pertinent:

The new Pew Survey should not be giving people who are creating their own religions and communities something to think about. They’ve already thought about the role religions should play in their lives.

Manseau puts it like this:

Religion, however, is not a zero sum game. Just as any individual’s life might include periods of greater and lesser religious interest, every tradition is home to remarkable diversity of belief and practice. Church pews may hold nonbelievers; a chanter of mantras may still recall the bat mitzvah prayers of her youth. To claim one religious identity is not necessarily to forsake all others, no matter what a pollster’s multiple choice options might imply.

It is this development, individual creativity in response to America’s religious marketplace, that I consider the greatest challenge to those who want to create (or restructure) Christian community on the other side of Christianity’s collapse. With multiple commitments and engagements, people’s attention, interests, and desires have multiple claims on them—and each of those claims may be important and life-giving. I doubt very much that a Christian perspective that remains open to culture (in the Niebuhrian sense) can hope to claim the sole allegiance of many people in today’s world.

The problem is that we have few models on which to draw as we think about what Christian community (either local or national) might look like on the other side. Obviously, fundamentalism is a no-go and even the Anabaptist or Neo-Anabaptist models seem to draw too sharp a line between the community and “the world.” Over on the Catholic/Orthodox conservative side, there’s been considerable talk of adapting monasticism for the present moment. Rod Dreher calls it The Benedict Option:

This is the gist of the Benedict Option: creating the conditions and habits necessary for our faith to live on in an anti-Christian society in which the dominant culture is so overpowering. Going along to get along is not going to suffice. How do we do this? I don’t think there is one set way.

While such alternatives may be attractive to some, there must be other options. In essence, I’m asking what open and inclusive Christian community might look like in a post-Christian culture. I suspect we’re already seeing it coming into existence in congregations across America, with a core of significantly committed members and wider circles of people with lower levels of commitment and engagement. The congregational development gurus are all about increasing the engagement and commitment level of the people in those wider circles. But what would happen if we were to see this pattern as evidence of people fashioning their own religious identities rather than their lack of commitment to our community (congregation) and their resistance to accepting the identity we wish to impose on them? We would have to engage them on their terms, listen to their questions and needs, and respond to them where they are, rather than set preconditions on their involvement.

I suspect this is why I had such a negative response to the Memorial. While its calls to prayer, bible study, and evangelism are all laudable, the language it uses often sounds more like a manifesto for a nineteenth century missionary movement than a strategy for engaging the world in which we live. The movement in the document, for all the talk of decentralization, networks, and local initiative, is from center to periphery: “laborers into the harvest,” “learn to follow Jesus into all of our neighborhoods.” Do people in those neighborhoods understand themselves as fields readied to be harvested—commodities to be exploited, if not as pledging units, then as data points?

How do we proclaim a gospel that demands ultimate allegiance to people who cannot give their ultimate allegiance, who may not even be able to spare an hour a week? How do we share the Good News with people who want it, but on their terms, not ours? Do we abandon them and form our little communities, whether neo-Anabaptist or neo-Monastic, or do we continue to engage them and risk that in our encounters and life with them, we are transformed as they are?

One in Christ, Sent in Christ: A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, 2015

Tuesday was a busy, emotional, and exhausting day. It began with a web conference with architects, members of the construction management committee and master plan steering committee, contractors, and subcontractors. In the middle of a three-hour conversation, I stepped out for another meeting. Then I met with representatives from 100 State, a think tank, business incubator that helps individuals and organizations brainstorm. I’m hoping to involve them in our process of imagining our ministry and mission at Grace in our newly-renovated spaces and in our neighborhood. Continue reading

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.

 

How to interpret the Pew Survey results

This week’s publication of the latest Pew Survey of the Religious Landscape has provided bloggers, pundits, and religious leaders much to ponder, opportunities to engage in conversation and debate, and voluble commentary seldom seen outside of national sporting events like the Super Bowl.

The survey reports a precipitous decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “mainline Protestant” has declined 3.4%, from 18.1% to 14.7%. Roman Catholics have seen a similar decline, from 23.9% to 20.8%; while self-identified Evangelicals have decreased from 26.3% to 25.4% of the population.

The only group that has increased significantly is the percentage of those who identify with no religious tradition, the group commonly referred to as “nones.” That percentage has increased from 16.1% to 22.7%, growing by over a 1/3. The growth in the latter group is overwhelmingly driven by “millennials”, people born since 1981. 78% of Baby Boomers identify as Christian; the percentage of millennials who do hovers in the mid 50s. 36% of those born between 1990 and 1996 are religiously unaffiliated according the Pew Study.

I came across a piece by a former colleague, Steve Ramey, who now teaches at the University of Alabama. Ramey points out the limitations of surveys like the Pew:

All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

Ramey is pointing to something very important. People have reasons for answering survey questions in particular ways. They also have reasons for identifying themselves in certain ways. We have long known the tendency of people to over-report their church attendance. What the Pew Survey, and others like it, show, is that there’s no longer any social incentive to self-identify as Christian. For younger people, for millennials, there may even be disincentives to self-identify as Christian.

These facts do have a significant impact on the future of mainline Christianity (and perhaps also Evangelical), but from the answers to these questions, it’s important not to draw the wrong conclusions. It would be interesting to follow up, to ask of those millennial “nones,” whether they still attend services from time to time, whether they think about God, ponder questions of ultimate meaning, and explore those questions using religious language. I’m always struck, on Christmas Eve, on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Easter, by the numbers of young adults who come to services at Grace. I don’t know their names; I don’t know anything about them, except that they choose to come to church on those days. Surely that’s a sign of some religious “practice” or “tendency” in them.

Sociologists and survey creators want clarity. They offer limited options; they don’t often delve deeper into behavior, practice, beliefs (and doubts). Surveys that offer a limited range of possible responses can’t account for the ambiguity and plurality of religious practice and belief. My academic background has given me a helpful perspective on those who would understand contemporary trends in religious practice and belief. As a scholar of Religion in Early Modern Europe, I was especially interested in all the ways in which men and women sought to create meaningful religious lives for themselves. They often did it in resistance to the dominant religious and political authorities. They lived on boundaries between Catholic and Protestant, and sometimes Anabaptist or heretic. They might have been confirmed Lutheran, but when in need, they sought out the shrine of a Catholic saint, or holy water, or an amulet. They might have been Catholic, but also been attracted to Lutheran preaching. Whatever confession, they might have been reluctant to attend services except when absolutely necessary. Whatever the case, such behavior was regarded as irreligious by the authorities. Even as I read the religious and political authorities’ criticism of such behavior, I was moved by these people’s efforts to construct meaningful religious lives for themselves over against the official line. Sometimes, it cost them their lives.

What we have today is something analogous. With no social, economic, or political benefits to identifying as religious, and with a wide range of religious options legitimized by our culture, there is no longer any stigma attached to identifying oneself as “religiously unaffiliated.” Similarly, there are no cultural or social benefits attached to attendance at religious services, no stigma if one stays home on Sunday. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There are now cultural and social disincentives to identifying (and practicing( religion.

That’s what the Pew Survey tells us. It’s significant, of course, because we in the religion business can no longer count on a captive audience. But it doesn’t mean that people no longer have religious lives, or that they seek deeper meaning in their lives. It’s just that they don’t automatically look for it in a place of worship or a community of faith. They find it in lots of different places and ways. We’re now competing in a marketplace of ideas and practices, and we will never be able to command the kind of allegiance we were able to command a generation or two ago. People are as likely to find meaning and meaningful spiritual practice in a coffee shop, on a bike trail, at a yoga studio, or with a group of friends, as they are in a place of worship. We can’t compete by becoming those things. We can only compete if we’re able to provide places where they can explore their questions with authenticity and where they can encounter God in Jesus Christ.

We are not witnessing the end of Christianity, or the end of religion, in the United States. We are witnesses to a transformation. There will be some people who will find ways of being religious, Christian, in ways that might not look that much different than religious patterns in the past, creating close communities in which all of life is shaped by the gospel. But there will be others, probably many more, who will create religious lives for themselves that make space for Christian practice but place that practice alongside other practices. They will fashion lives for themselves that are authentic and help them make sense of themselves and their world, but may not fit comfortably into institutional Christianity. The challenge for us on the inside of the institution will be how to remake the institutions in light of the very different ways in which people relate to them. If we can get that (and alongside of that figure out how to create sustainable communities), we will ensure that our particular witness to good news of Jesus Christ will continue to be proclaimed in a new context.