Be Bold: restructuring TEC part 1

by George Clifford

PART 1 of 3

In 1854, a clipper ship, the JAMES BAINES, established a new record of 12 days and 6 hours for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic under sail. By the time of its historic voyage, steam powered ships that did not depend upon the vagaries of wind, could carry larger cargoes, and transit canals had already begun to displace merchant sailing vessels on the seas. Devising new sails and rigging for the JAMES BAINES to enable an even faster transatlantic crossing might offer an interesting challenge to engineers and sailing aficionados, but would never resuscitate the era of sail that clipper ships once dominated.

I wonder to what extent restructuring The Episcopal Church (TEC) is a similar endeavor, an interesting exercise to ecclesiologists, students of organizational behavior, and the small elite of Episcopalians who dominate our denominational life but lacking potential to resuscitate a dying organization.

The era of denominations, like that of clipper ships, seems to be ending just as denominations are achieving important new milestones. TEC, for example, is clearly on a trajectory toward greater justice, inclusivity, and fidelity to the fullness of the gospel even as its membership has declined precipitously (cf. my previous Daily Episcopalian essay, Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). All mainline Protestant denominations are declining, though at various rates. Numerical decline has also begun among evangelical denominations; U.S. Roman Catholics have avoided decline only through an influx of immigrants.

Pursuing denominational restructuring in lieu of addressing the more basic issues of institutional decline affecting TEC seems troublingly analogous to designing new sails and rigging for a clipper ship. Both clipper ships and TEC are magnificent examples of their genre. Both have achieved greatness. Yet the JAMES BAINES was constructed after marine engineering had crossed the cusp of the steam era; perhaps we will finish restructuring TEC after God's people have crossed the cusp of the next era in church history, a post-denominational era.

Several trends indicate the dawn of a new era (not, I hasten to add, the Age of Aquarius!). First, demographic shifts have left TEC with a legacy of many small congregations in the wrong geographic locales. These small congregations typically consume disproportionate amounts of diocesan and national resources, struggle to pay a priest and to maintain their buildings, and focus on survival rather than mission. Meanwhile, the population in the area from which the congregation once drew its membership is changing, declining, or both.

Second, increasing numbers of Christians prefer to attend a large rather than a small congregation. Obviously, not everybody shares that preference (I, for one, don't). However, the proportion of Christians who attend megachurches continues to swell; the proportion of Christians who attend small congregations (fewer than 100, perhaps even 200 average Sunday attendance) is shrinking. TEC, with mostly small congregations, is on the wrong side of that trend.

Third, growing numbers of people identify themselves as either spiritual but not religious or as an atheist. With respect to this trend, a comparison of denominational restructuring to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic might seem a more apt metaphor. Like the Titanic, if the trends toward atheism and spiritual but not religious continue, eventually no souls will remain in the Church, the ark of our salvation. That extreme seems unlikely, but the metaphor underscores the urgency of focusing on mission instead of structure.

Fourth, a diminishing proportion of the population is biblically literate. A generation ago, regular Sunday attendance connoted missing no more than one Sunday per month. Today, a regular attendee is someone who attends worship as infrequently as once a month or maybe once every six weeks. Preachers tend to concentrate their sermon on the gospel reading, no longer able to presume that their hearers know the biblical stories much less are familiar with the Bible's historical and literary context. Many worshipers mentally tune out during the reading of the lessons, cherishing a few moments of self-directed thought in the midst of an otherwise hectic life. Our liturgy, rich in biblical allusions and quotations, increasingly falls on ears, unable if not unwilling to listen.

Fifth, ever fewer people make their own music. Instead, moderns listen to music made by professionals. For most worshipers, congregational worship is the only time that they sing – unless s/he is singing to her or himself, perhaps while in the shower or accompanying a recording when driving a car, confident no one else is listening. Similarly, many vocalists now perform to recorded music, rather than live accompaniment. Our rich tradition of hymnody is foreign, not only in its theology and biblical allusions, but in its implicit expectations that worshipers both know how to read music and want to sing.

Every time that I write a column on this or a related topic, a handful of people responds by vociferously defending TEC and its worship. That's great. I'm thankful they like TEC and its worship. I also like our Church and its worship. However, myopically focusing on personal preference completely ignores the overarching problem. TEC is in trouble. Twenty years from now, and God willing I hope to be alive then, I want to be part of a vibrant expression of Christ's body engaged in vital mission, not a scattered remnant struggling against the odds to survive in overly large, unaffordable buildings.

Tinkering with TEC structure will not change that future. Decreasing numbers of people identify with our music, understand the fullness of our liturgy, and want to be part of organized religion, much less belong to a small congregation focused on survival instead of mission. And among people who do want to be part of TEC, discouragingly few invest their time and energy in the institution on a diocesan or national level. For example, out of almost two million Episcopalians, fewer than 200 responded to the Taskforce for Re-Imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) request for input (some of those responses may have been collective, representing a still insignificant response rate in a Church with 5000 plus congregations). If the prospect of restructuring has failed to excite and to energize our committed constituency, only the naïve or foolish would think that restructuring will reverse declining numerical trends.

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, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Comments (5)

I don't disagree with much here, but I haven't been working under the impression that restructuring itself fixes very much, but that it makes the system a bit more responsive and puts some money back in the hands of the dioceses and congregations where the fixes will or won't take place. I see restructuring as necessary but not remotely sufficient.

George,

I think this adds to what you've written here, though it's also shifts perspective a bit - liturgical communities that I know of that are connecting with young adults (whether they go in a direction that's liturgically innovative or an old-fashioned high mass) seem to have begun and or found their way to renewal and thrive (if they do) almost despite our structures. And the places I know that are thriving seem to have broken out of our culturally entrenched norm of "providing products and services" to "consumers." Wherever you look in their congregational/community life, they're doing something together. And that's counter-cultural. What you write about music points captures one part of that with poignant accuracy -

"...ever fewer people make their own music. Instead, moderns listen to music made by professionals. For most worshipers, congregational worship is the only time that they sing – unless s/he is singing to her or himself, perhaps while in the shower or accompanying a recording when driving a car, confident no one else is listening."

Most people in our culture are, as John Bell of the Iona Community says, "vocally disenfranchised." They judge themselves unworthy of singing in the presence of others. It looks to me like the megachurch phenomenon in part thrives because it's a good cultural fit, a consumerist church to fill people's spiritual/religious needs. I don't think it's ultimately a question of religious style or taste. To stay with singing as an example, I've seen vital, inter-generational congregations with a jug band for their blue grass mass, vital congregations whose music is plainsong and renaissance polyphony, and vital congregations that use standard Episcopal Church resources and sing familiar hymns to organ accompaniment. What's consistent among these various styles or modes is a genuine invitation to participation. People aren't coming to be served but to join in making an offering together. And in that setting there's a natural flow from the engaged, working together in liturgy, in congregational life (like vestry and staff meetings, project teams, etc.) and in the initiatives people take in their work outside of church (which includes what we like to call "mission").

Jesus as we see him in the Gospels empowers people to act ("go and do..." "feed them," "great works than these..." etc.). He appeals to wisdom and experience they already have at hand ("you know how to read the sky..." "what parent among you would give your child a stone if s/he asked for bread..?" etc.).

George, I've read your essay several times, and I find little with which to disagree. I cannot engage with the reports on restructuring TEC, because I see hard-working people of good will ignoring the realities we, as a church, face in the soon-coming years.

The one exception is your use of the word "mission", which in today's church talk has become pretty much meaningless to me. Thank you for your essay.

June Butler

I wonder what the Episcopal church would look like if it moved beyond traditional church buildings and expensive, full-time, paid clergy. I know that the need to pay staff and keep the building upright sucks up 3/4 of my parish's budget. I do believe staff and building help us to the work God has put us here to do, but the disproportionate cost of these two items keeps us from innovating in any way that might require funds.

I imagine a church untethered from expensive buildings (including our beloved pipe organs) and the demands of paying full-time clergy packages. Our liturgy, ethos, community and vision might survive in that new context. But George is right ... if we just work on trimming our sails, the steam ships are going to pass us by and we will be nothing more than a historical curiosity.

One small point, please. I just read a couple of studies regarding clergy burnout, in which 50% don't make it past their 5th year of ministry. They pointed to lack of pay, overwork, and lack of appreciation as the primary reasons for the drop-out rate. And did I just read the phrase "expensive, full-time paid clergy", describing them as some sort of burden to the rest of the faith community?

Well, I may be taking this all out of context, and if I am, I apologize. But, I don't think the notion that our priests are expensive and overpaid. They are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. From what I can see, a drive to *make* priests bi-vocational is to drive a stake through the heart of the very church people here want to save. Are some bi-vocational priests necessary in some areas? No doubt. But as a normal condition of priesthood? I think we REALLY need to reassess that one.

Kevin McGrane Sr.

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