Another General Convention of the Episcopal Church comes to a close.
There are a lot fewer Episcopalians in the United States today then there were when I was born. The numbers have been dropping dramatically over the past decades regardless of all the efforts of so many revisionists who have been systematically revising the doctrines and practice of the Episcopal Church in order to make it more “relevant.” The fact that the number of Episcopalians is falling so precipitously makes the leadership seem a little ridiculous when they maintain the fantasy that more “openess” and “inclusivity” is what will draw the people in.
The leftward drift of the Episcopal Church cannot be held solely responsible for the numerical decline of the Episcopal Church though. Like the rest of American Christianity, The Episcopal Church suffers from the dramatic moral and spiritual crisis that is happening within our culture in general. Even were the Episcopal Church to hold today to every single view that the average person in the culture holds, it would not be enough to prevent further decline. This is so because there is no widespread understanding in our culture that religion matters. It is this sense that it just doesn’t matter that prevents people from getting up on a Sunday and going to church. And that is the reason that we can see those who imitate the prevailing values of the culture disappearing even faster than those who don’t. Every denomination except the Mormons are in a numerical downward spiral right now. The downward spiral is caused by the fact that we are still operating as if we are the Church in Christendom rather than the Church in a post Christian mission field.
Episcopalians are foundering about in a sea of faddish theologies precisely because we have lost touch with what classical Anglicanism actually is. We have no idea who we are and thus no one else does either. We don’t know why we exist, and so we have been steadily ceasing to do so.
In the Diocese in which I serve, the clergy most often act as if they are simply community organizers. Meetings of clergy take on the air of ward meetings of the Democratic party. I don’ think that many of my fellow clergy are capable of giving any coherent definition of the Church’s mission. For many in the Episcopal Church, real theology is irrelevant and what has replaced it politics. This church, is in deep trouble and is running at top speed toward disaster. General convention is a dreary event that is held every three years. and every three years there is a spike in the number of people who leave saying enough is enough. The doings of the national church and General Convention are like an anchor dragging the church down and driving away sensible people. The General convention just ending will mean the loss of even more people who just can’t do it anymore. This church has a special genius for self sabotage.
This is very saddening to me, as a member of the Episcopal Church. I can see why it’s happening, for both demographic and spiritual reasons, but it’s no less disheartening for all that. I made an attempt a few years ago to move to what I thought to be a more more faithful church in which to exercise my priestly ministry. I found out that it was not more faithful and I returned to the Episcopal Church because it is where my heart is. Maybe it’s the case that we all remain loyal to our religious traditions for reasons that don’t, at their core, have to do with arguments, logic and theology, but more out of “heart speaking to heart” (John Henry Newman’s phrase)
I am moved to tears by a great deal that goes on within the Episcopal Church, but I feel I have reasons, to stay. I don’t fully accept the authority claims of Rome or Constantinople, particularly after seeing just how corrupt and abusive the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies can be. At the same time, I can’t accept the way the Reformed churches threw out the sacraments, and refuse to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Anglican Church, drawing on what is best in both Catholicism, and Protestantism, and the teaching of the Church Fathers, has long seemed to me to be the place that made the most sense to be. It was a place where I could learn about, relate to, and be fed by the person of Jesus Christ.
The membership of the Episcopal Church is declining. I don’t actually think it is directly caused by the fact that the Episcopal church has moved away from the historic faith. The loss of Catholicity is a tragedy for certain, but many of the biggest heresies, ancient, medieval and modern, attracted great crowds of people in their day, and flourished for a time in spite of, or because of, their flat rejection of the teachings of the Apostolic Faith. Faithfulness to the Apostolic Witness isn’t, alone, a guarantee that people will find a church compelling, nor is lack of that faithfulness a sign that they won’t. The true faith might be preached every week by a faithful priest, and the sacraments offered with reverence and holiness, yet people still might reject what is being offered on account of their hardened hearts.
I seems to me that the real cause of the numerical decline isn’t that Episcopal Church stands for something different than the historic Faith. Instead it’s that in to many of our dioceses, and parishes, and at the national level it increasingly stands for nothing at all. In a great many Episcopal churches, not all, but many, you will hear literally nothing of any importance preached in their Sunday morning sermons, and along with that the liturgy is being dumbed down to the point of absurdity.
The Roman Catholic Church has a well thought out, compelling, and coherent doctrine about what sex is for, and what makes it moral or immoral. Even if you think the Catholic church is wrong you still have to recognize that they have a coherent worldview. Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have a very different worldview, as did, for example, medieval heresies such as that of the Albigensians. One needn’t agree with them to see that they set forth a coherent alternative.
Most Episcopalians, these days, seem incapable of putting forth any coherent alternative worldview to explain their innovations about sexuality. They appear unable to provide a coherent response, or an alternative vision, to things like the Theology of the Body, or to the Scholastic, natural-law arguments about sex. It’s not that it’s impossible for them to do so. Some individual clerics, Rowan Williams for instance, have addressed the question. But if you were to put the question to most Episcopal clerics, the response you could expect to hear all to often would be something like, “these are good questions, what do you think?’ Too many Episcopal churches have become places where people focus on questions, rather than answers.
It should probably be remembered that Christianity never was perfectly united, and that there are, and were, plenty of competing doctrines at every moment in history. It is it that I really prefer the reliance on scripture alone, or the kind of ecclesiology that groups like the Quakers have, relying on personal experience alone, though each of those is a coherent alternative on its own terms. It’s more that the Episcopal Church looks to all three of those sources of authority, and is stuck in between them, and can’t decide which it trusts most. And, stuck in the middle, it flounders, without securely committing either to rely on tradition, on scripture, or on the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit. In too many churches, the faith isn’t presented in such a way that it provides a genuine challenge to the culture: not in terms of sexuality, not in terms of economics, and most of all, not in terms of the naturalistic, rationalistic ethic that too many people have nowadays. Too many Episcopal parishes no longer preach on the miracles of Jesus, on the spiritual realities underlying the material world, and most of all on the greatest event in the history of the world, the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, his conquest of death.
This year at General Convention it was decided that the church will not tolerate any discrimination against transgendered persons seeking ordination. It was also decided to allow the use of rites for the blessing of same sex marriages. There was, perhaps, one small but significant victory, coming from the House of Bishops. It came as a resolution re-authorizing, with the diocesan bishop’s approval, the use of the lectionary in the 79 Book of Common Prayer. Two General Conventions ago, it was voted to phase out the BCP 79 lectionary in favor of the Revised Common Lectionary. The decision to step back a little from that, over the objections of the Legislative Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Church Music, came about as a “generous pastoral response” by the majority towards those who longed to hold onto to the more traditional lectionary of the Prayer Book.
They threw us a bone, apparently.