By George Clifford
A February item reported at the Episcopal Café’s Lead intrigues me: Methodist Church in the UK to go out of existence? The Rev. David Gamble, President of the U.K.’s Methodist Conference said that he was willing to end the separate status of the Methodist Church for the sake of the “Kingdom.”
From a sociological perspective, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has suffered both a striking numerical loss in membership (almost 30%) and an even larger decline as a percentage of the nation’s population (almost 60%). In 1960, TEC had 2.9 million members, equaling 1.6% of the U.S. population. Forty-eight years later, TEC had fewer than 2.06 million members, or only 0.65% of the U.S. population.
From an organizational perspective, TEC struggles with declining revenues. For example, the national Church budget for the 2010-2012 triennium is $23 million smaller than for 2007-2009. The current recession, especially for entities such as TEC that are heavily dependent upon endowment income, has accentuated financial difficulties. Underlying the recession, the real cause is declining membership.
Less obvious although pervasive, a huge proportion of TEC’s revenue and fixed assets yield small returns in congregations whose primary organizational focus is survival. The median average Sunday attendance in TEC congregations was 69 in 2008, continuing a long-term decline. My point is not that small congregations are of less value than large congregations are, but that small congregations necessarily devote a far greater percentage of their resources to maintaining their physical plant than do large congregations. In fact, keeping the building open and maintained often consumes such a large portion of available revenue that insufficient funds remain to pay clergy adequately, let alone fund ministry and mission programs. The building, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the congregation’s de facto raison d’être.
These are not newly identified problems. Richard Kew and Roger White wrote about these dismaying trends in their 1992 New Millennium, New Church and 1997 Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey. Numerous articles, blogs, and speakers have all addressed the same concerns. Yet the downward trends persist, perhaps even accelerating in spite of the earnest efforts to reverse them by many individuals and Church organizations.
So … what if we think the unthinkable? What if we followed the lead of the Rev. Gamble, President of the U.K. Methodist Conference, and wonder whether TEC should go out of business – for God's sake?
Rather than immediately react with a heartfelt, uncompromising negative couched in expletives, pause for a couple of moments to reflect on some realities and possibilities instead of the impossibilities. First, fifty years from now the church in the United States (its worship, community, structure, facilities, and leadership) will almost certainly look vastly different than today’s church. The shift away from the way of being church that I personally cherish is already underway. In the last couple of decades, thousands of mostly non-denominational congregations, many with rapidly growing membership and diverse patterns of being church, have emerged. Living in denial benefits neither God nor the growing non-Christian majority. Pro-actively adapting to a rapidly changing context and constituency will afford the church more leeway in defining and shaping its identity and form than reactively struggling to survive.
Second, TEC is not alone in facing these challenges. Other Churches – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ to name a few – have experienced similar, large declines and face parallelchallenges. While not wanting to underestimate differences in ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology that divide these Churches, the substantial commonalities between various Christian denominations dwarf those differences in contrast to the competing forces of secularism, new age spirituality, and eastern religions. Businesses that pro-actively respond to changing markets and merge from strength tend to thrive. Businesses that react to market changes and merge in an effort to survive rarely recover.
Third, the real work of the Church – becoming God's people by striving to increase the love of God and neighbor – occurs primarily in local congregations. A dismayingly small and decreasing percentage of diocesan, provincial, and national expenditures supports missions and ministries that would not happen if left to local parishes. Endorsing and supporting chaplains for federal ministries (military, Veterans Affairs, and prisons) is an example of one such ministry. Much of the work of Episcopal Relief and Development is another example. Instead, most of what happens at the diocesan and national levels is “overhead,” essential as a means to an end but not, per se, why the Church exists. Bishops, for example, perform critical tasks teaching, confirming, ordaining, organizing and deploying ministries but those instrumental tasks support the life and work of local congregations. As much as I love and appreciate my bishop, my parish does not exist to support him. Similarly, most diocesan and national staff offices exist as a means to support the life and ministry of local congregations.
Imagine … several small, geographically adjacent congregations of various Churches laying aside their idolatry of buildings and accoutrements to unite as the people of God, worshiping in homes, served by a single member of the clergy, and using their consolidated resources to engage in expanded ministry and mission.
Imagine … large and medium size, geographically adjacent congregations sharing a single physical plant while retaining their distinct identities, cooperating in diverse projects that might include feeding the hungry, offering different styles of worship, establishing an institute for lay spiritual formation, etc.
Imagine … seminaries and judicatory staffs of different denominations consolidating to reduce expenses on physical plant and internal administration while better serving their constituent congregations.
In 1991, while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I conducted a feasibility study for consolidating the Navy, Army, and Air Force Chaplain Schools into a single school. I concluded that consolidation would save as much as 35% in operating costs per annum, provide a more comprehensive program, better prepare chaplains to function in the joint environment predicted to become the norm for military operations, and still permit each service to meet its unique needs. The Chief of Chaplains rejected my recommendations. Neither the Navy nor the other services wanted to surrender control of any aspect of their programs. Several years ago, budget constraints and the new standard of joint operations forced the three chaplain schools to consolidate.
Over the last century, the pace of social change has accelerated and will most likely continue accelerating. We Episcopalians, with our emphasis on incarnational theology, should recognize that the Church, the incarnated body of Christ, is no more immutable than is a human body. Indeed, the Church remains faithful to its call as the intentional community of God's people only by adapting to changes in the larger society.
Visions of the future Church vary greatly. I proffer my intentionally provocative imaginings as a catalyst for further creativity. Nobody has urim and thummim (or even the twenty-first century equivalent, a reliable computer model) with which to discern the future. Furthermore, I’m far from sanguine about the prospects for any unified body that might emerge if several American denominations unexpectedly achieved organic unity in the next few years. I’m also mindful that most of the ecumenical movement’s twentieth century momentum foundered on doctrinal and structural shoals. On the other hand, I know that staying the present course will only lead to continuing declines. (Remember the definition of stupidity: repeatedly performing the same actions, each time expecting a different result.)
Genuine renewal requires new wineskins. Ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology are all part of the wineskin, human efforts to savor and to communicate God's ineffable, transcendent love manifested in the Christ. Change necessarily entails conflict. Out of creative, well-managed conflict over the church’s future new wineskins will emerge from which the next generation can drink deeply of God's timeless and unconditional life-giving love.
The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).