June 12, 2006

…for the Episcopal Church of the USA, that is.

The Episcopal Church, circa 2006 finds itself at a crossroads, and this year’s General Convention – the gathering held triennially as a way to take stock of itself and set the direction for the next three years – promises to be a barn-burner, given the tremendous controversies and increased political infighting since the last Convention and the consecration of V. Gene Robinson – an openly-gay priest living in a committed relationship with another male – as Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson’s ordination has put ECUSA in direct conflict with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs and exacerbated tensions that had already been in place between the “liberal” (i.e., progressive) wing of the Church and those dioceses, parishes, and members considered “conservative” or “orthodox”, who wish to preserve the Church’s long-standing religious teachings and traditions.

It would be easy (and also lazy) to assign all ECUSA’s troubles to the debate over homosexuality – after all, this issue is being struggled with to one extent or another by all the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, in ECUSA’s case, the debate over homosexuality as sinful behavior and whether, as in Robinson’s case, the Church actually rewards behavior contrary to its historical teachings, has actually transformed itself into a debate over church polity – that is, how the church orders and conducts itself within its historical and ecclesiatical structure. ECUSA also finds itself hemorrhaging membership and facing pressures both financially and spiritually as its own self-declared message of tolerance, acceptance and diversity is increasingly rejected by younger families who no longer find church attendance to be important or are drawn to the more traditional teachings of rapidly-growing non-denominational “megachurches” and/or Roman or Orthodox Catholicism.

As ECUSA gathers in Columbus, it finds itself in open rebellion with itself on a number of fronts due to increasingly-bold actions by a growing number of priests and parishes who reject the more “liberal” (and in ECUSA, this means pro-gay and lesbian) views of its diocesan bishop, and either seek to have alternative oversight by a bishop with more traditional beliefs, or leave ECUSA altogether. (Traditionally, the bishop has all the power in his diocese, but recently, bishops from so-called “conservative” Anglican churches in Africa, Asia, and South America – by far, the fasting growing churches in the Anglican Communion – have started intervening without a bishop’s approval to plant new parishes in that bishop’s own diocese in the name of upholding traditional Church teachings where it is perceived from overseas as being persecuted or under fire by so-called “liberal” bishops.)

So, what you have right now is basically chaos.

The controversies and debate over the Church’s moral teachings and polity aside, far more damaging to ECUSA’s future is its declining membership. After all, the oil that runs the Church’s political, organizational, and evangelical engine is money, and declining membership means declining money. I believe this decline can be attributed to three specific areas:

1) The graying and dying off of regular church attendees without replenishment from younger families with children.
2) A general lack of vision and attention to mission at diocesan and national Church levels.
3) A disconnect between the political ideologies of the Church’s power structure (who, by and large, remain trapped in a late-’60s/early ’70s “we shall overcome” progressive timewarp) and the more traditional values of the majority of its churchgoers.

Hans Ziegler writes of one of ECUSA’s standing (permanent) committees and the damaging effect the Church’s liberal activism has had on its ability to attract and maintain new members:

The Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism may not be an orthodox outfit, but they certainly see the need to refocus the Episcopal vision. The Commission addresses the Bishops directly on this: “Bishops, please turn your attention to mission, and turn away from distractions like ongoing disputes and looming international meetings.”

For, as long as the Episcopal Church has been an agency of the far Left, it has been shrinking in numbers and diminishing in effectiveness. The Standing Commission on Domestic Mission and Evangelism cites an “alarming decline in attendance,” even as it aspires to double church attendance by 2020. Between 2002 and 2003, average Sunday attendance fell by 23,000. Between 2003 and 2004, average Sunday attendance fell by 27,000, to just 795,765. That’s only about a third of the Episcopal Church’s reported membership of 2.2 million. A new Gallup survey shows similar findings, concluding that Episcopalians are the least likely church attenders in the Christian faith. Only Jews and the non-religious go to a place of worship less frequently than Episcopalians.

What’s more, Episcopalians who do attend church regularly are not always readily identifiable as Christians outside of church. Many Episcopalians are Sunday Christians only. According to the Standing Commission on Stewardship and Development, “For many in our church, Sunday worship is the only venue for Christian formation.”

Even more depressing is this pessimistic view from Fr. Mark Lawrence, rector of St Paul’s Episcopal parish in Bakersfield, CA (Diocese of San Joaquin):

“The Episcopal Church in the United States of America is dying — a comatose patient on life support. The insufficient apparatus of aging communicants, and the evaporating wealth of prior generations will not sustain the patient indefinitely. Keeping vigil at its bedside, Episcopalianism, by which I mean the ethos of that body of Anglicans in the U.S., waits, gripped by a culture of denial, which includes its inability to look at either the declining health or the ecclesiology of the dying institution to which its constitution and canons tie it. Moreover, it has lost its Anglican identity, even while it has failed to reach its own American culture in any significant way. The average Episcopalian, parish church and mission, bishop and priest, seem to prefer to sleep at the bedside of the patient, thoughtless of the impending trauma, than to prepare for the inevitable or take swift action to avert it.”

What the Episcopal Church is suffering from, in short, is a crisis and vacuum of leadership. Lost in that time-warp of its own making, the Church has allowed itself to be kidnapped and held captive by a relatively small group of activists who, to be brutally honest, are simply more motivated, more passionate, and more energetic about their progressive (read: pro-gay and lesbian) agenda and the direction they want to take ECUSA than the “silent majority” who simply want to attend church, worship God in their own traditional way, and be left alone.

As they say, to the winner go the spoils. But in this case, there are no winners – well intentioned or not, everyone loses.

It will be interesting to see what happens at this year’s Convention. Will pro-gay and lesbian activists get their wish and have the Church make plans to develop formal rites for same-sex unions? If so, this would appear to guarantee schism both within itself and the Anglican Communion. A new Presiding Bishop will also be chosen to head ECUSA and represent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth; this too, will go a long way towards predicting the future of ECUSA and how current and future conflicts will be dealt with.

Having much experience with the inner workings of the Church, I have to admit I’m very pessimistic about this Convention doing anything to turn the ship around. Too many personal agendas, too much power-tripping, and much too little concern and consideration for those who have put forth genuinely thoughtful and creative proposals that seek common ground and a way out of the increasingly contentous and divisive morass we Episcopalians find ourselves in. Nevertheless, I hope all Episcopalians will pray for their Church in the days ahead, hope for the best, and cope with the rest. We’ll need to.

Filed in: Religion & Culture by The Great White Shank at 01:33 | Comments (2)
2 Comments »
  1. Hello!
    Do you really READ all of those blogs on a weekly basis? WOW – amazing.
    You have to understand, I have vertigo and reading is something of a challenge. So seeing a list that long is impressive at the very least.

    Thank you for the kind words – I appreciate them. And if you ever have any news re: the Gulf Coast, please email me! If I can make it fit into some category on my blog, I will!

    Leslie

    Comment by Leslie — June 12, 2006 @ 9:30 am


  2. Hi Leslie –
    Thanks for the comment! In regards to your question, no, actually I don’t, but I do try to check into them on at least a semi-regular basis to see what’s going on. Primarily, these are blogs that have added Goodboys Nation to their own blogroll, so I just reciprocate in kind. Glad you stopped by – I hope you won’t be a stranger here.

    Comment by The Great White Shank — June 12, 2006 @ 9:35 am


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