I really don’t get it. Every weekend, leading up to and following Sunday morning worship celebrations, I see a sufficient spattering of good news and joy across the Episcopal Church. Well, let me clarify: scrolling across my Facebook news feed (like many, I’m ‘friends’ with lots of folks in the Episcopal Church whom I’ve never met, and maybe never will) I read about baptisms and confirmations and well-attended adult forums and good Sunday Schools and great teachers and strong attendance and dynamic worship involvement. In the context of my own parish, as well, our numbers are up and have stayed up and our giving is increasing and participation in ministries is strong and, most important of all, there’s a real spirit of joy and openness and laughter and spiritual growth and exploration.
But the other numbers, the real numbers, some may say, keep going down.
We know the state of those numbers all too well. The National Council of Churches, for instance, reported that between 1992 and 2002 the Episcopal Church lost 32% of its membership, dropping to 2.3 million. At the close of 2012, in fact, membership dropped to 1.89 million, a loss over the course of one year of nearly 29,000 people. Between 2011 and 2012, 69 Episcopal congregations closed, leaving 6,667 parishes in 2012, an average of only 283 ‘members’ per parish. 2012’s total Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) was 640,142. Given that 68% of the congregations have an ASA of fewer than 100, whereas only 4% have an ASA of over 300 that means the median Average Sunday Attendance is only 64 people, and I’ll bet they are increasingly getting older.
Wait a minute. In the midst of all those truly depressing numbers, I forgot my point.
Oh, right. Who do we blame?
Given that these declining numbers clearly show that we were getting it right not that long ago — in 1960 there were nearly twice as many (3,269,325) Episcopalians as there are today — somebody’s got to get blamed. Somebody failed. For those who remember 1960 and its apparent heyday and those who have some modicum of investment in the maintenance of major American cultural institutions, the hierarchical leadership of those obvious institutions are, obviously, most at fault. The conclusion, therefore, is that we blame the seminaries, bishops, and clergy. Their apparent failure of leadership has dwindled the flock; they aren’t offering much of anything so the people walked. (There is probably some truth to this argument.)
In turn, the leaders of those institutions generally offer some vague and fluffy retort about cultural shifts and the ways in which the world fundamentally changed between then and now, coupling that argument with complaints about how little power they actually have and that they’ve never really been able to bring about the changes the world so desperately needs anyway. (There is probably some truth to this argument, as well.) So seminaries remind us that they’ve only got these potential leaders for three years, and it matters so much more where they’ve come from and where they’re going. And bishops complain that they can’t act unilaterally until and unless parishes and clergy say they want it. And clergy on the ground say their hands are tied by unwilling lay leadership. And the vast majority of lay leaders are increasingly walking away, such as the numbers suggest, while those who remain are hunkering down into positions of guardianships of what once was.
Can we stop now?
Look, nothing positive is going to happen until we do the work of restoration from within. We know the trend that’ll continue if we keep up our present patterns of blame and behavior.
There’s no lack of great work being done in liturgical renewal and leadership development. There’s no lack of great ideas. There is, however, a fundamental lack of real and genuine trust, especially between the orders of the church: bishops gather with bishops, clergy with clergy, laity with laity, all planning and strategizing and, yes, we know it, complaining about the other bunch.
What we haven’t tried, thus far, is to restore the whole, to restore some basic level of trust. We haven’t been so good about wondering aloud and venturing together and putting forward a proposition and seeing where it lands and where the Holy Spirit might take it. We haven’t been so good, frankly, at thinking the best of the ‘other’, so we try something new — we may even find life in that thing — but we’re all too quick to remind ourselves of the one or two people who will resist it and crush it, in time, so we go into the situation guarded, ready for a fight. Guess what we get as a result?
What I suspect I’m seeing, at least anecdotally on social media, is the emergence of a new order of business. I’m hearing about people, laity and priests and deacons and bishops alike, who are thinking out loud and asking truly open-ended questions: Why do we do Christian formation only on Sunday morning? Why do we do our pledge drive this way? Why do we only worship in a church building and only on a Sunday morning? Why do we hold our Annual Meeting / Diocesan Convention this weekend? Why don’t we share ministries with other local congregations? Why do we say that only these people are ‘members’ of this church? In countless parishes and communities and dioceses, there’s a growing interest in paying attention to the banal, the day-to-day, the lived experience of those people in that place. And that’s been a long time coming.
For the first time, I’d say, we’re starting to carry forward into the local, lived experience of Episcopal Christians the ideas and ideals of the 20th century liturgical renewal. That movement which gave birth to an ecumenical Council as well as, for us, a new Prayer Book had much more to do with the nature of church, writ large, and the vision of what it means to be the People of God, the Body of Christ than it did with how we worship, what furniture goes where, and what words we use. The Rev’d John Oliver Patterson, then headmaster of the Kent School in Connecticut, wrote in a 1960 volume about liturgical renewal that “we deal…more with the rather drab realities of the situation at hand. ‘Mystery theology’ must somehow be related to an 8:00 AM service; the doctrine of man must somehow be applied to Mr. John Jones’s specific situation; liturgical art must be thought of in terms of an exisiting building; and the holy fellowship, the mystical Body of Christ, in terms of St. John’s or St. Paul’s or Grace Church parish, its vestry, auxiliary, and men and women in the pews or absent from the pews.” “My task,” he wrote, “is perhaps to bring that satellite out of orbit, back to earth in such a way that it will not disintegrate and disappear when it comes up against the friction and hard reality of this world’s atmosphere — nor land on a church and blow up the very people it is intended to inform and assist.” (“The Pastoral Implications of the Liturgical Renewal,” in The Liturgical Renewal of the Church, 1960, pp.123 and following)
Patterson’s thinking is really quite creative and, from what I can tell, hardly put in practice; not then, not now. He spends no small amount of ink, for instance, writing about creating a parish council — a collective group that would meet periodically to coordinate the interests of the whole, a group which would pay as much attention to relationships as the vestry does to those necessary and important fiduciary concerns. A parish council could become, he argued, “an exciting, effective technique for drawing out and expressing the loyalty and talent of every cell of the body, if it is used as a means toward the great end.” Why is it that in so many parish churches the vestry is the be all and end of all power and decision making? The Canons have very prescribed duties for a vestry, and they are quite few. Even if we’re not going to create another level of parochial bureaucracy (God help us!) couldn’t we organize ourselves in such a way to better share power and ministry and oversight, a vastly more decentralized system than we’ve had to date?
“Until we have set up the kind of parish in which each member has a chance really to be a parishioner, we are not going to get very far,” Patterson contends; continuing: “Until we have faced fairly and squarely the nature and function of the parish, we cannot successfully move forward in our work.” It’s on this point, then, that he goes on to talk about worship and liturgical renewal — the list including architecture, furniture placement, involvement of children, Morning Prayer versus Holy Eucharist (this was 1960, after all) and a whole host of other issues. That our worship life should reflect our common life and that the functions of the organization we’ve created should show forth what we believe about power and authority — whose it is, ultimately, and how we share it, being given it — seem, to me, to make perfect sense. “Just as we must rethink our techniques of organization and administration, so that our parishes will show a sound doctrine of the Church,” Patterson writes, “so we must rethink the whole matter of ‘common prayer’ so that our services will reflect what both Scripture and tradition agree to be the Christian liturgy.” In fact, I’d say, not only do these need to happen together but attention to the relationships and power and structure of the congregation, itself, has to happen before we go carelessly ripping altars from the east-facing wall or introducing new Eucharistic prayers or leading new songs. A budget or an Annual Meeting is just as much a sermon, or is potentially so, as what happens in that designated slot in the liturgy on Sunday morning.
In this ongoing transition perhaps what those communities and congregations I see experiencing renewal on my Facebook news feed, irrespective of whether they’re balancing their books or packing their pews, are really doing is centering their common life on a few profound convictions. For his part, the Rev’d Patterson offered three and they’re pretty compelling — enough, for me, with which to close this post:
“First: Jesus Christ is Lord. He is the King of Glory and loyalty to Him must transcend all other loyalties of Christians.”
“Second: The holy Church is the earnest of His Kingdom. In the holy Church, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians are to realize on earth what they will manifestly be when Christ appears in glory.”
“Third: the Eucharist is the great action of the Church. It is both the pleading of and the showing forth here and now of the accomplished act of redemption.”