Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff

by George Clifford

Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances. The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation’s number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office’s website.)

What can $162,000 – or even $244,000 – in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members’ expectations.

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I’m guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC’s equivalent of the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds’ principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived “essentials” (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians’ average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

I do not intend this essay to be an message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

Christmas is a season of expectant new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management – a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy – is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC’s anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:

(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;

(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);

(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today’s young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);

(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;

(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That’s okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity.

Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church’s practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

The promise of Advent – that God has not finished creating the world – offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God’s presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child’s birth. TEC needs leaders – our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members – who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God’s people.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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30 Comments
  1. Absolutely right on target, George! May many heed your wise observations.

  2. This does, however, beg the question of how those of us with M.Div. degrees and trained for full-time parish ministry (and thus out of training for anything else) make a transition to either part-time work (the Protestant model) or being in charge of multiple yoked congregations (the Church of England model, and not really catching on here). In my (albeit limited) exploration, I do not find a robust support base for tentmaker/bi-vocational clergy, or those of us who may be forced to become such.

    By the same token, if preaching, teaching, and sacramental services don’t consume a 40+ hour week (and I agree, they don’t) and administration and most pastoral care are properly the purview of the laity, then what exactly should clergy be doing with our “extra” time? Can we make a case for using increased continuing education time to train for another career? It’s a challenge–and I have 15+ years to go until early retirement!

  3. Clint Davis

    I don’t understand why a priest wouldn’t say a daily mass every day or at least most days, along with morning and evening prayer. This combined with personal meditation time, study and reading, visiting the sick of all faiths in hospitals and nursing homes, should keep a priest very busy. On Major Feasts there shouldn’t be any reason why there isn’t an evening liturgy said and sung (even with just one or two cantors) where anyone who wants to keep the holy day can come and receive the Eucharist. There are cathedral churches for instance who don’t celebrate an evening Eucharist on Ascension, which I find absolutely inexcusable, and it doesn’t matter if no one shows up, you do it because it’s on the Kalendar and you’re the parish church. These are the things I feel like I’m paying a priest for, because they’re things no one else can do.

  4. How many times have we heard this? BS, BS, BS.

    There are plenty of churches that cater for the taste for pop culture, trashy music and self-help platitudes. Let the garbage people go to churches that cater for their garbage tastes. The Episcopal Church has a niche market for those of us who like high art, fancy ceremony and “theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy.” Where else can we go?

    And, guess what: more people might come if you advertised, showed the church’s stuff–elaborate ceremonies, exotic rituals, fancy costume and silverware, an historical fantasy, an escape to a fantasyland of sheer aestheticism–a high church acid trip. That’s what I was involved for–and because the church didn’t provide those things any longer I left–and will never forgive the Church for taking these goodies away. Let it be known: the Church is for aesthetics, not ethics. Believe what you want, behave as you please, the Church provides the aesthetic experience, the fantasy world, the escape from dull reality that is the vision of God.

  5. Clint Davis

    Dr Baber, at least you’re honest, and the place in which you start is the place a lot of folks start. Even if the level of interior softening never increases, such a thing is nonetheless important to point out, namely that the splendor of the liturgy is found with us and other catholics, and nowhere else, and if we don’t do it, who is going to? What is not said is that there are very many folks who are not good at doing liturgy at all and instead of softening hearts a museum rite just hardens resistance. What in the world is a bishop looking for if not a person of constant prayer and zeal for the House of the Lord, and a heart to be filled with the love of God’s people?

  6. Shivaun Wilkinson

    I am tired of this information being disregarded with excuses about the Episcopal church being some elitist club. The church is an institution created for the people outside of it and right now, we are failing. Recognizing that information does not require a total selling out of who we are as a denomination, but we must get out of our own way when it comes to preaching the Good News. Our elitism is not hospitable but it is also working in direct opposition to the Gospel. Would it kill us to make our bulletin and worship services “app-friendly?” As a mother of a toddler, I can tell you, that having everything on an ipad instead of books and papers would be a God-send. Perhaps we need to re-examine our model of church which is overly programmed, poorly advertised and overly focused on ourselves. Maybe when we stop thinking that church is about satisfying everything I want and we start asking those people who aren’t in church what it is they want and more importantly, what they need, we will stop shrinking and start being able to focus again on the real work of the church.

  7. Djbarbara

    I so much agree with Shivaun Wilkinson for reasons of accessibility. Putting the text of the order of service with all the readings and hymns on ipad, Kindle, Nook makes the entire service available to people with a variety of disabilities. With earbuds and text reading software, the blind/low vision can follow aurally. People, such as myself with a severe hearing loss, can keep pace with the service by being able to read.

    Right now, there are churches which provide Sunday bulletins with the entire text of the service, readings and hymns. Convenient for a whole host of people, but admittedly not very good for the environment. Other churches’ bulletins provide the service in outline with page numbers. Economical, ecological, but not very accommodating for someone like me with a severe hearing loss. In order to follow the service, keeping up with the congregation, I need to be on the first word of text of the current piece of liturgy, reading, hymn. If I have to juggle the BCP and one or two hymnals, I’m going to fall behind and not feel part of the congregation.

    A few churches use Power Point presentations which, I gather, is the objection above. While I agree that the aesthetics leave something to be desired, nevertheless many people are served by such a hands free approach. While I am with Shivaun Wilkinson on the use of digital tools such as the iPad, there are some – such as the frail elderly – that might find holding our prayer book or hymnal too heavy and perhaps even the iPad might be too heavy, or the print large enough. (And I cannot say enough what a blessing I felt it was when two long-time parishioners in their nineties showed up regularly for church. And I would hope we would want to encourage these gentle pillars to keep coming to church as long as they are able.)

    I am deeply appreciative of aesthetics, but not at the expense of inclusion – whether it be of harried young parents, the disabled, or the elderly.

    Barbara Djimopoulos

  8. Mary Caulfield

    I think we are fast approaching the point where “app-friendly” can also be “inclusive.” In another forum last year I raised the concern that not everyone could afford e-readers, but was told (and verified for myself) that for many marginalized people the mobile phone is a basic lifeline. And e-readers and tablets are becoming more and more ubiquitous. So I think that it’s possible to go online with the order of service and not sacrifice accessibility and the experience of the book. We may not yet be at the point where app-friendliness is possible for every congregation and every worshipper, but I hope there is a group out there somewhere looking into this issue.

    The e-reader approach has more appeal for me than PowerPoint, for a couple of reasons. First, I would love to see more people have access to the full text of the Book of Common Prayer. Although the full BCP can be a lot for a newcomer to take in, especially if the first encounter is searching for the right place during Eucharist, it gives an interested and curious person the means to understand what we’re about as a church. Making the BCP easier to carry and search might open up opportunities for people to read and search the Psalms, Collects, and Daily Offices outside of worship time.

    In addition, putting things online would bring with it solutions that have already been devised for the visually impaired, such as the ability to make type larger or let blind people plug in an earphone and hear a transcription.

    There are already many editions of Bible online, including the NRSV. (Imagine the possibilities for a homily that could easily show a parish the varieties of ways that a word from Scripture has been translated over the centuries and by different editors.) If the hymnals we use could be put online, planners of the liturgy could easily put together a weekly app to replace the paper, all-inclusive bulletin. An electronic version could be an improvement as a teaching device, as it might contain not only the chapter-verse, canticle, or collect being used on that particular day – but also access to the full text and source.

    I’m not crazy about PowerPoint or a similar Big Monitor approach, as it has negative connotations of corporate annual meetings – and it doesn’t communicate the depth of the liturgy or an invitation for worshippers to go deeper. But I hope that e-readers and other online apps are being investigated as a way to make the richness of the tradition more accessible to everyone.

  9. Weiwen Ng

    There is a lot of Evangelical liturgy that is trashy music and self-help platitudes. There is a lot that is not. And people who are asking for changes to the Episcopal Church’s liturgy are not asking for trash.

    Harriet, please consider that your instinctive reaction does not help any dialogue on constructive innovations in our liturgy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people like me are not asking us to tear up the Hymnals and burn the organs, but every time we talk, people like you react as if that is what we are asking. In response, a lot of us walk out of church, and mutter about burning the hymnals and organs.

  10. barbara snyder

    If parishes can’t even afford a part-time priest, then they aren’t likely going to be able to afford tech people to create worship service apps with weekly updates. Even in the wealthier parishes, church office people are not necessarily technically trained or proficient – and many or most are part-time themselves. (BTW, the Book of Common Prayer is already freely available on the web; it’s not copyrighted so it’s out there at probably hundreds of sites.)

    If posting the bulletin on the church website would help anybody – I’m not sure why this is any different than using a paper one, I have to say – then I’m all for that, and I’m all for earphones for the heard of hearing, too.

    The liturgy is an integrated system; it exists to praise God, to teach, to help people pray and worship, to experience and absorb what’s going on in the seasons of the year, and to express and proclaim the heart of the Christian faith (among other things). I’m with Clint – big surprise – in thinking that daily worship is really rather important (if only to get the pressure off Sunday as “the big show”!), and that this should be emphasized and services should be more frequent. The massive draw of something like St. Mark’s Seattle Sunday Compline – to which 500 people come each week to sit in the dark and listen to a sung service – demonstrates, I think, that technology really isn’t at the center of things. (Personally, I think people welcome the time away from it.)

    The ancient liturgies obviously have something going for them. So I think before worrying about technology, the church should worry about whether or not it’s actually doing an effective job with the liturgy – and even before that, it ought to ask itself some questions like:

    “What exactly are we doing this for? What is the actual purpose of the church? Why would people want to come to church, anyway? How would it help them? What exactly are we offering that people can’t find elsewhere?”

    I personally think until the church really works through some of these questions, it’s going to be endlessly spinning its wheels. My advice is to try the George Bailey/”It’s a Wonderful Life” approach: “What would your life be like – what would the world be like, for that matter – without the church in it? What does the church actually do? What is its importance?”

    The answers to those questions are crucial, IMO….

  11. barbara snyder

    (Here’s a 2002 SeattlePI article about St. Mark’s Compline.

    It starts out this way:

    The Sunday service is about to begin, but this is no ordinary worship. For one thing, it’s come as you are, which often means fleece, jeans and maybe a head of green hair. People sit in the dark. There’s no pastor, sermon or offering plate coming at you. And then there are the clumps of people lying prone on the cold, bare, concrete floor.

    For nearly 50 years, hundreds of people have been coming to St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral every Sunday night to be lulled by the contemplative, liturgical music of the Compline Choir.

    The all-male choir chants the ancient Office of the Compline — the last of the Christian monastic prayers of the day — but has a decidedly youthful, untraditional following. Of the roughly 600 people who fill the pews every week, many are teens and twentysomethings who won’t go near a church Sunday morning, but come here every Sunday night.

    “It’s not like ordinary church. The pastor isn’t preaching at you, and you get a chance to think. It’s awesome,” said Stacy Hoggarth, who is 19 and moving to New Jersey to be a nanny. On a recent Sunday night, Hoggarth was in her usual seat: on the floor, facing the nave’s large, ocean-blue, rose-shaped window. Raised a Free Methodist, she no longer goes to church but satisfies her need to experience the divine through the Compline, a service of psalms and hymns that dates back to the first six centuries of Christianity.

    “The songs totally relax you,” she said enthusiastically. “I seriously spaced out this one time. I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s so crazy.’ It totally brings you closer to God.”)

  12. Djbarbara

    I added the issue of accessibility to the stream of comment on technology. I did so because I have been thinking about this issue independently of this comment stream due to recent increased hearing deficit and correspondingly increased sense of frustration and loss at my weakening connection to the hearing world.

    To people who are willing to accommodate people with disabilities and seem so sure of what will accommodate such needs I offer my experience. I am 73 now. I lost my first chunk of hearing when I was 36. That means I’ve spend half my life fully hearing and half my life hearing impaired. One of the things I discovered when I lost my hearing was that prior to that loss I didn’t have a clue about what such a loss entailed.

    So in trying to determine what people who have difficulty participating in worship need, churches need to consult the people whose needs are not being met.

    As far as the worship and praise of God, if you ask people like myself, I think you will find that many are anxious to participate in worship as they have known it. In other words, they tend to be quite traditional. It is the loss of connection to worship as they knew it that is so distressing.

    Also distressing is the apparent lack of interest in listening. And on that score, it seems that people who have other reasons for wanting some kind of change are finding the same response to their needs. So I find myself somewhat split here – a hearing impaired traditionalist having sympathy for people looking for change of maybe another sort who feel they are not being heard or maybe, rather, shouted down.

    Perhaps if the barriers were to drop, that is to say – if we think of terms of “both and” rather than “either/or”, and proactively listened to each other, a way might be found out of this dilemma. It may be that in order to keep what we want, we will have to make some changes to accommodate the needs and desires of some among us. For me, for instance, that state of my hearing is such that earphones will no longer do the trick.

    As for technology, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A word processing document saved as or printed as a pdf document will do the trick. I use a freeware program called Bullzip Printer.

    When I’ve finished a document, I go to File/Print and select Bullzip Printer. The program guides me to saving the document as a pdf. iPads, Nooks, Kindles – I’m sure, can all read pdfs.

    Barbara Djimopoulos

  13. Harriet, please consider that your instinctive reaction does not help any dialogue on constructive innovations in our liturgy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: people like me are not asking us to tear up the Hymnals and burn the organs, but every time we talk, people like you react as if that is what we are asking. In response, a lot of us walk out of church, and mutter about burning the hymnals and organs.

    Look, I’m no technophobe–in fact I don’t do paper. I don’t leave home without my mac air, kindle and iPhone. I have no interest in hymnals, or organs. I’m just saying that one thing that the Episcopal church can provide is elaborate liturgy, exotic ceremony, aesthetic experience–an acid trip fantasyland.

    What is the point of trying to do what the Evangelicals do? If people like that kind of stuff, it’s there for them: let them have it. The Episcopal Church can’t compete with Evangelical megachurches for that market and there’s no reason why it should try. Read down and see the description of Seattle Compline: manifestly there are people who like that kind of stuff–the exotic, the fancy, the out-of-this-world–were “The pastor isn’t preaching at you, and you get a chance to think. It’s awesome,” said Stacy Hoggarth, who is 19.”

    Why not try it? Put on the most elaborate, exotic, incense filled services, with NO PREACHING, and advertise, advertise, advertise. Process through the streets every week or more often in fancy dress. This is what we do: the most elaborate, fancy, ceremony–and we don’t care what you believe or how you behave. Come stoned. (As I often have.) If religion isn’t fun there’s no point in bothering with it.

  14. What is the actual purpose of the church? Why would people want to come to church, anyway? How would it help them? What exactly are we offering that people can’t find elsewhere?”

    The purpose of church is to induce mystical/aesthetic experience. There are other ways of getting this, but they’re either more difficult and less reliable, or illegal. Meditation I’ve been told is supposed to provide that experience, but it’s never worked for me. And it’s difficult. Church is automatic: step into the right kind of church and you just get socked with it without trying. Recreational drugs produce the experience but to get the full effect you need aesthetic content. So, e.g. as an undergraduate I read George Herbert and the Prayerbook on acid trips. And just last night watched a documentary on Byzantine art while stoned.

    What the church offers that people can’t get elsewhere–or at least can’t get reliably and without effort–is religious experience, the window into the Other World, the escape from the ordinary, the boring, the dull business of “real life.” And, unlike other aesthetic products, church is participatory–you can SING, and fool around trying all the parts; you move your body–sit, stand, kneel, bow, cross yourself–move around, and participate bodily. That’s what makes it different form a concert or opera. And church is gesamtkunst–music, visual arts, ceremony, myth–all in one package.

    As far as I know, you can’t find that elsewhere. If you can, please tell me about it. Most churches don’t provide this: they’ve taken it away from us. Why would people want to come to church anyway? To get that slam-bang mystical-aesthetic experience–to get the ultimate pleasure. If the Church doesn’t provide it, there’s no point in going. How would it help them? Help them to do what? Pleasure, in particular that mystical-aesthetic experience, is an end in itself–that window into another world, the experience of maximal intensity–metaphysical thrills. It isn’t there to “help” us in any way: it’s the end in itself.

    The Church has taken that away, though it’s stinking liturgical revision. So, ok, I’ll get stoned and watch documentaries on Byzantine art on my computer. But what a miserable loss–and what a pointless deprivation: taking away the chance to participate in the liturgy that produces that intense pleasure.

  15. Ann Fontaine

    For me church is for making disciples of Jesus – who calls us to follow him. The fact that some provide a “high” is beside the point. Nice but not really germane to the point of church. People like Dorothy Day or Bishop Tutu show us what we are to do. It is not “all about us” — it is about the reign of God on earth – bringing Good news to those who see and experience no good news.

  16. Heidi Haverkamp

    Ann, thank you for mentioning Jesus and the kingdom/reign of God! That is what I believe church is for. That’s why it exists at all.

    Honestly, I’m not sure it matters how we worship. My sense is that many, many people don’t feel church is for them, no matter what’s happening inside or outside, or what’s being advertised. They’re finding God elsewhere. And maybe that’s ok.

    Maybe small communities of believers, more like early Christianity anyway, have more integrity – can focus on the work of the kingdom with more purpose? Maybe there’s a reason clergy used to be paid in housing, chickens, and freebies at the local doctor and dentist! A spiritual community that can support a full-time professional seems like a strange thing, when it comes right down to it. Monks and nuns take a vow of poverty as part of their vocation to say the daily office, they don’t get paid with benefits like clergy do.

    I do think clergy have been saddled with way too many expectations for expertise: pastoral care, counseling, management, marketing, spiritual direction, music direction, interpersonal skills, strategic planning, administration, biblical exegesis, public speaking, networking, organization, teaching, hospitality, prayer, and spiritual maturity.

    No wonder we’re one of the most depressed professions!

    The life of the Church isn’t simple. And maybe we shouldn’t be popular, anyway? Let’s focus on our strengths and joys, with an eye toward hospitality, trusting in the Holy Spirit, and walking in the way of Jesus… it’ll all be fine. But maybe pretty different.

  17. barbara snyder

    For me church is for making disciples of Jesus – who calls us to follow him. The fact that some provide a “high” is beside the point. Nice but not really germane to the point of church. People like Dorothy Day or Bishop Tutu show us what we are to do. It is not “all about us” — it is about the reign of God on earth – bringing Good news to those who see and experience no good news.

    To me, this doesn’t answer the question, though; people outside the church don’t really have any idea what any of that means.

    For instance: what is the “Good News”? What is “the reign of God”? What is a “disciple”? These are all church terms that don’t make much sense – if they make any – to people who don’t already belong to the church.

    And exactly how has the church produced “the reign of God on earth”? In which church is that found, and where? What can we point to, for an outsider, that says, “Here you will find the reign of God”?

  18. Ann Fontaine

    You tell people about how God has acted in your life – just like disciples have always done and you listen to what they have to say about where holiness is in their lives so you can use their terms – not church terms — sorry I assumed people reading the Café would have some familiarity with the language.

    AND the church does not produce the reign of God – it is already happening – we join in.

  19. barbara snyder

    (I’m making these comments as somebody who spent most of my life outside the church – and in my short experience with it, the church has been nothing at all like “the reign of God on earth.”

    I’ve wanted to leave many times – and for quite a while the only reason I stayed was because I had some religious experiences. Some had to do with the liturgy, others didn’t. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all to “induce” religious experience; from my own experience, I know it keeps people coming around. And the very problem is that people aren’t coming around these days.

    I’m just hanging around at the fringes of the church these days, because the story itself has a hold on me. I don’t know what “the kingdom of God” is, but this world sure doesn’t seem like it.

    The story, though! It seems to say a great deal about the human condition – and that’s the reason it appeals to me, and I think to many others. Which is why, IMO, how we do worship is indeed awfully important; when the story itself is allowed to speak and do its work, people hear it.)

  20. barbara snyder

    BTW, to one of the points in the original article: I’m aware of at least some parishes who are renting out empty space in their buildings these days. That’s good in two ways: it brings both liveliness and revenue into the parish.

    The old buildings are a big problem, and a big drain on a lot of older parishes. And many parishes are really poor these days, and could use some extra money.

  21. barbara snyder

    What the church offers that people can’t get elsewhere–or at least can’t get reliably and without effort–is religious experience, the window into the Other World, the escape from the ordinary, the boring, the dull business of “real life.” And, unlike other aesthetic products, church is participatory–you can SING, and fool around trying all the parts; you move your body–sit, stand, kneel, bow, cross yourself–move around, and participate bodily. That’s what makes it different form a concert or opera. And church is gesamtkunst–music, visual arts, ceremony, myth–all in one package.

    I completely agree with this. And that’s what the kids at Compline are saying, exactly: they’re there for relaxation, some religious experience, and “to get closer to God.” Who could possibly object to any of that? That’s what the church has always offered to people; I thought “getting closer to God” was the actual point, in fact.

    It’s “all in one package” because at one time, the church was everything – and it would really be quite a shame, I think, to simply toss out all that accumulated wisdom and expertise in how religious/mystical experience works. Nobody doubts this when it comes to, say, yoga; everybody agrees that millennia of experience and the careful working-out of how certain practices affect people is a great and impressive thing. It’s weird, I think, that people don’t apply the same standard to Christianity….

  22. Clint Davis

    Barbara, you got it. What I don’t understand is why we can’t bring ourselves to trust our ancestors more, to trust that they knew what they were doing, and why we think we always have to be remodeling, remaking, redoing, reworking and what have you.

    The idea that the church building be only open one or two days a week for a couple of hours at a time, and all that ever happens there is a carefully scripted liturgy and then we all go home, well that’s a fairly luxurious and self-centered way of running a parish campus. Maybe people are going to church less because the habit of just being in the building for something is lost. The Roman and CofE model of the parish building being there not for just the church membership but rather is the property of the whole community, and is literally a leitourgia, a public work for the community, is a necessary attitude I think that we must begin to embrace. “Come to St. John’s Church, your parish church in downtown” and mean by that that the whole town is served by it, that it is there for them, that the round of offices and masses are there for them, that the sacred music is still sung for them, that children and adults can come there to be educated, that the poor can come for relief, that the musicians and artists can have concerts and shows there for the community, that St. XYZ church is one of the places you go when disaster strikes or wars end or what have you, because it is marketed as that. And because we’re Episcopalian, we can literally welcome everyone, wherever they are, with whatever beliefs they’ve formed, to come and see and be at home in their parish church. See, its not our parish church, we just run it. It’s theirs.

  23. barbara snyder

    I completely agree, Clint. And what you’re saying, I notice, is that it’s a system that has taken the whole world into account: children, adults, the poor, musicians, artists, the neighborhood, the world, etc. And to me, that right there says something hugely important about Christianity: all sorts and conditions of people have their place in this scheme. Nobody is useless or pointless; everybody has a role to play. That’s the essence of the faith right there, for me.

    Here’s another example of how the liturgy itself can work to speak to people: Apostates for Evensong, from the Sydney Morning Herald – written by an atheist.

    There are many crimes that one would flay the Anglican Church for. The heinous felony that concerns me today is an appalling sin of omission. I accuse the Anglican Synod of concealment.

    The secret of which I speak is Evensong. Daily in Anglican Cathedrals around the world, observant Anglicans sing and chant their way out of the working day in a short but outstandingly beautiful ceremony known as Evensong. It is a quotidian calming. It is an opportunity for rest and reflection at the end of a day’s travails. It would move the iciest atheistic soul as it indeed moves mine. In fact, I am a bit of an Evensong junkie having gravitated these Evensong ceremonies in the great choral centres of Anglicanism.

    More accessible than the Sistine Chapel, more inspiring than the Western Wall, more easily reached than the Dome of the Rock, sung Evensong represents at once the most rousing and soothing aspects of faith.

    One can sit there at the end of the day and drain your brain of all earthly distractions and let it recover in this precious anachronism. The cavernous acoustics carry the peerless multilayered choral offerings to you and through you.

    The irony is that when I speak to some Christians about Evensong they sort of pooh pooh it, arguing that such ceremony is about form not substance. They are Bible-centric believers for whom the archaic liturgy is a distraction from the text. I demur. Part of the power of faith is the excellent methods they have of helping the congregation transcend the daily grind. Music and architecture can be a legitimate method for reaching an emotional rather than logical state.

    Cathedral worship is picking up again in England, too – I’d imagine for just this reason.

  24. barbara snyder

    (And want to bet that guy doesn’t donate something at the end of the year to his local Cathedral? He knows that if he doesn’t give, something that helps him “transcend the daily grind” won’t be there at all.

    Meanwhile, here’s an atheist who has some incredibly great things to say about Anglicanism and about the church.

    Hard to complain about that, I’d say. It’s win-win for everybody….)

  25. Dulcenea

    As a very young person I left the church after finding a disappointing hollow core: beautiful music, lots of pomp, and great wine and cheese parties. On occasion, there was a nod to the outside, with a coat drive in winter or a canned food drive. But ultimately, I wasn’t rich enough or sophisticated enough to be noticed by parish elites to feel any real sense of belonging.

    I then practiced Buddhism and for 20 years learned how to discover what separates me from God and methods to overcome this. Through Buddhism I learned what Jesus truly meant by dying to one’s self – the whittling down of the ego is the chief work of spiritual development. TEC does not seem interested in denying the ego anything – thus its hollowness. So without Buddhism, I would have difficulty following a spiritual life.

    American Buddhism is for adults, at least so far. So I have returned to the church now that I have children, at a different parish this time, and for the kids it has been a good experience – a place to learn about God, ritual, and belonging. But I still find the church ever determined to remain as it is. I have recommended more quiet, more contemplation, simpler classical music mixed in with the organ pieces, and to leave the doors open during the day. But our church is full of older people, and they want it the way it’s always been for them. Silence needs bravery, as it often disquiets. Noise supports our habit of constant self referencing – thus the appeal of our noisy, chatty Sunday service. TEC does have the potential to be the contemplative protestant catholic church moderns are looking for; however, it clearly won’t reach them through its boilerplate prayer, constant recitations (blah blah blah to this parent’s ears), or worst yet, the chatter of announcements and promos at the end of the service.

    The beauty of the liturgy could be enhanced for this century through classical means as Barbara points out so well: moderns crave more silence and chant (evensong, compline, and Taizé). In silence and music we do make a connection to God that is beyond words. We need less spectacle. Keep homilies to no more than 10 minutes, and make it meaningful: what stops my connection to God? (And don’t be afraid to tell me, for fear of challenging my ego – which is the real work of the church!)

    Clint, thank you for saying it: keep the churches OPEN. Ours here is locked up like a cute museum when not in use, even during the day, and we live on an affluent island where the threat to the grounds is minimal. Everything is controlled by lock and key, and feels very proprietary. To whom does the parish belong? I love the fact that the Church of England and the Roman Church in big cities leave their doors welcomingly open all day for anyone’s reflection and quiet. I belong there.

    Our parish does the liturgy very well; we make such a pretty picture. The “show” is the main focus, along with wine and cheese. And this seems to be what many established Episcopalians really want: a pretty show that confirms their sophistication. I can’t tell what else is there. There are individuals in my parish who have it spiritually together, but the body for the most part is going through the motions they’ve always known, in a world that sees these motions as having less and less relevance or value. We have little outside social action, and there are few, if any, poor congregants. I can’t really say what the difference is between us and let’s say a “do-gooder’s club” like Rotary. I wish I could, because then I could encourage others my age to come and find something. But they couldn’t unless they know where to look, and most don’t. You know the real thing when you see it: is it love, a desire to serve, an ego tempering itself towards Christ’s humility? Or is it people who really like to wear the robes, hold the keys to the locked doors, and never sully themselves with grunt work? People can tell, and if we do not develop an ego-tempering, quiet, and in the TEC’s case, gorgeously spiritual core, it’s back to the Buddhist cushion for me once the kids are grown. But even so, I would miss the church. Jesus is home. There is a place of meaning there, but I have to see past a lot of smoke to get to it, and it has discouraged me enough at times to feel utter dismay and want to give up.

    [Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment Please leave your full name next time.]

  26. barbara snyder

    It pays to remember that most of the service has traditionally been sung, not said. This is still true at, for instance, St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square; the reading of the Old Testament, the homily (10 minutes, usually, yes! – and focused on the readings for the day), and the Eucharistic Prayer after the Sanctus are (if memory serves) the only parts of the service that are spoken.

    So: sing the Sunday service. Sing the Psalm, sing the Creed; sing it all – and use modern music, if you like. Saying this stuff is not as effective, IMO; music is fun, and helps with memory too. Lots of talk and “opinion” is not effective in helping people get hooked into the mystical (or even just into ordinary prayer).

    Said services are fine, too, of course – but they are, IMO, more suited to people already hooked into the faith.

    Really: the historical liturgy was on to something. It’s able to address all levels of commitment and participation – from those who simply want to get out of themselves for awhile, to those who want to experience God (or, perhaps better said, “the holy”), via the music and atmosphere, to those who are ardent believers. One thing can work for everybody because the church has had a couple thousand years to figure it out. That’s the beauty of the whole system, in fact – and it’s absurd to just ignore this, in my opinion.

    Compline is bedtime music – relaxing, contemplative. It does just what it was developed to do. The Sunday liturgy can do this, too, if it’s allowed to. If church isn’t fun – if it’s just a drag where people feel “preached at” – then who will want to come? And if they don’t come, they won’t hear the story at all, or ever have a chance for it to become taken into their hearts and lives.

  27. Ann Fontaine

    Barbara — maybe for your experience that is liturgy — but many have never heard a sung service – in Episcopal Churches of the rural West for instance – and the church grew and flourished mainly because women set up Sunday Schools where the story could be taught. Many churches founded hospitals and other agencies to make their communities a better place. Seeking the heart of Christ and being a witness to that heart wherever we live is our call – the bells and whistles are lovely — but not essential to becoming a Christian IMO.

  28. Clint Davis

    Ann, I think you make an important but incomplete point, but the point Barbara is making, and to some extent Dr. Baber, is that these aren’t bells and whistles, that there is something essential in a well-sung liturgy that communicates the emotional content of the faith liturgically in ways that other things just can’t. The language of the BCP is so excellent that for centuries this content was transmitted by recitation and hymn or anthem singing alone, which is still mostly effective. But the sense of otherness that happens in a well-sung liturgy softens the heart in ways that go beyond words, just like all the good works you were describing do. Your point and ours are two sides of the same coin, and both are incomplete without the other.

    To our Buddhist friend above, I totally understand, in fact I understand so much that I still practice Shin Buddhism. It is all about gratitude and softening the heart, about whittling away at those things we think we are in order to find out that what we truly are is as unnameable and difficult to pin down as God is, so all we can do is say is no birth, no death, no soul, no not-soul, gone beyond, hallelujah! As a Pure Lander, I look further at the truth that we cannot accomplish our redemption all on our own, but Other Power intervenes in ways we cannot imagine, clothed in light as the sun, with trains of bodhisattvas risen up from the earth to be the hands of the Undying and Immeasurable. Am I talking about the Pure Land, or the New Jerusalem? And all is made possible by true entrusting, that’s where it all starts. Faith alone, grace alone. Shinran, Luther.

    My overarching point though, is that all we need is there already, we just need the courage and imagination to be inventive and draw upon all our resources.

  29. barbara snyder

    Ann, we’re just not talking about the same thing here. My focus on this thread has been on people who aren’t already hooked into the faith or to churchgoing; you’re talking about people who are.

    Of course it’s not essential to sing the Creed or the Psalm; if people don’t want to do it, they shouldn’t. But the examples I cited here were of people outside the church who have found that it has something to offer, via its liturgy, that helps them psychologically. Both these people mentioned sung services; I think that’s kind of an important data point. (There were certain liturgical actions I saw when I first came around that blew me away, too, BTW, so I can totally identify with them!)

    Lots of people sing their way through liturgies, BTW. Methodists do, and Lutherans, too; both, in my experience, love music and sing with gusto throughout their services. Christians have always done a lot of singing in their worship; Psalms – the prayer of the church – are songs, of course, to begin with. I would guess that talking through the whole thing is fairly recent, in fact.

    Churchgoing isn’t compulsory anymore – but faith is helpful to people. That is the new problem, and maybe it’s only temporary; maybe the at some point people will return to the church, once it’s finally stopped trying to gain political power, having ruined its own reputation for at least a generation.

    Meantime, I think it makes sense to pay attention to people who say these services appeal to them and help them. It’s wonderful – and as Clint says: all we need is already there.

  30. barbara snyder

    (Come to think of it, the Episcopal Church may have the worst of both worlds at this point.

    It now has a Sunday liturgy that closely parallels the Roman Catholic mass – which was originally designed to be sung. The old book with its high liturgical language is gone. And TEC doesn’t have a strong hymn-singing tradition, either – at least not the way Methodists and Lutherans do. It does have, via the CofE, the strong cathedral choral tradition, though – so it’s no accident that that’s what people are talking about here.

    But that still leaves the local parish church with a talky – and, sadly, often “preachy” – Sunday service that’s ineffective at helping people to relax and pray, or to feel close to God. And that pretty much explains the results we’re seeing, I’d guess.

    Nothing a little Taize chant or something like it couldn’t help with, though, I bet….)

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