By John B. Chilton*
The Episcopal Church is not a church that evangelizes well.
In colonial times it was an establishment church and clergy were supported by taxes rather than through success in evangelism. Membership and Sunday attendance was poor in part because establishment and the involuntary taxes that went with it were resented. Despite our national myths surrounding the Plymouth Colony and Jamestown, the colonialists were, to put it mildly, not particularly religious.
With the advent of freedom of religion after the Revolution the established churches did not compete successfully with the newer sects like the Baptists and the Methodists. Neither the clergy nor the organizational structures nor the theology of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians were well adapted to a competitive religious economy in a frontier country. It was not so much that the established churches declined in membership but that they did not grow at the pace of the upstarts. In market share terms the established churches declined dramatically.
The Great Awakenings – the dramatic increase in religiosity amongst Americans – were not somehow driven by the transforming effects of the frontier or freedom of religion on the hearts of the people, but came from disestablishment, unregulated open competition for souls and the success of the evangelism methods (lay preachers, circuit riders, camp meetings) adopted by sects like the Methodists. Ironically, in Britain the inheritors of the Wesleys’ Methodism – faced down by the established church – became conformist in evangelism methods, and never had the same success as their American counterparts.
At least as ironically, as the Methodist Church in the U.S. matured it let go of the methods by which it had succeeded. It became a mainline church with a seminary-trained clergy, and a less convicted laity (after all, fewer demands were made of them). Fervent evangelism appealing to the heart rather than the mind was viewed with embarrassment and was actively suppressed. Going by market share, the Methodist Church today is a shadow of its former self. The Southern Baptists had passed the Methodists in membership in the South in the last decade of the 19th century, and passed them country-wide in the 1960s.
To put it harshly, the Methodists became Episcopalians without a quality liturgy. (Nonetheless membership in the United Methodist Church is still five times ours.) But what is more important for Episcopalians is what the arc of the Methodist trajectory tells us about ourselves. Membership in the Episcopal Church did not follow the dramatic rise and fall in market share terms that the Methodists experienced. Once the Methodists became so much like Episcopalians in terms of organization, methods, demands of membership, and a professional seminary-trained clergy they became just as unsuccessful as we’ve always been in terms of evangelism.
Evangelicals in the lexicon of today embrace four doctrinal statements: (a) faith in Jesus as the only way to salvation, (b) inerrancy of the Bible, (c) personal conversion (born again), and (d) active individual participation in the conversion of others. There are Evangelical denominations (e.g., Missouri Synod, Southern Baptists), and there are substantial evangelical factions within the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian).
In contrast to its evangelical wing, the majority in the Episcopal Church and in its leadership (a) decline to take a narrow interpretation of “one way”, (b) likewise, decline to take a narrow view of inerrancy, (c) do not emphasize personal conversion as something that occurs dramatically or suddenly, and (d) place less energy in (superficial?) inducement of conversion and more in bringing the Kingdom closer (the social gospel). We actively encourage people to doubt and to work out for themselves what they believe.
There’s no accounting for tastes (de gustibus non est disputandum). But the evidence suggests that the passive evangelism methods of the Episcopal Church are not effective in appealing to the tastes of the majority.
Most people, it appears, want to be told that it really matters to their salvation what they believe, how they came to believe it, and what they need to do to grow in grace. They want a charismatic leadership that professes no ambiguity or uncertainty. They want to see a clear boundary between those who are in grace, and those who are not. They desire membership requirements, and an intolerance of those who do not meet the requirements. They are inspired by unshakeable confidence, not by the encouragement to question and doubt. To most of us in the Episcopal Church all this is way too close to Amway for comfort. But we appear to be in a minority amongst believers in the U.S.
You might think that a tolerant church with modern attitudes, a willingness to experiment even with its rich tradition in order to be accepting, and an orientation to bringing about the Kingdom would appeal to those who remain unchurched in secular American society. But there’s no sign that we do appeal to the unchurched, at least not in large numbers.
Many are going to call it a cheap out, but my belief is that numbers are not the only measure of success. We are not a mass market church. We are a niche church with a rich liturgical tradition that brings some closer to God’s immanence, transcendence and longing for a relationship with God’s people. But our style doesn’t work for everyone – even if they agree with us on social issues – and that’s okay.
If it is not in numbers, what can be our measure of success? Are we doing a good job of encouraging our members to deepen their relationship with God? Christian formation is an area where I have witnessed growth and improvement in the Episcopal Church in recent decades. We’re pretty good at it (in my experience). But, in my view, we are not sufficiently demanding on this front. Evangelicals are successful in part because they create a tension with secular society. I propose that we could create more healthy tension with secular society by asking our members to grow in formation, perhaps even to adopt a rule of life. There is an aching spiritual void in secular society and adopting these kinds of standards would attract some seekers among the unchurched.
There is at least one other important measure of success. The Episcopal Church is often accused of merely being a liberal lobby group and thereby largely indistinguishable for secular society. “Social gospel” is used to describe us disparagingly. But not so long ago when society resisted change in attitudes towards blacks, women, and homosexuals the renewal of gospel attitudes in the Episcopal Church moved it into tension with the secular world. As a consequence, American society has moved in our direction on those issues; the Episcopal Church is following the call to bring heaven to earth.
It is evident that our mission now is to be that city on a hill for the Anglican Communion.
Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates.) In the summers he resides near Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.
* I have drawn considerable inspiration from the research of Finke and Sharp.