Nero fiddled and Rome burned

by George Clifford

According to legend, Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. That legend provides an apt (although, like any analogy, imperfect) metaphor for today’s Church. Nero connotes we who are Christian and our ecclesial structures; fiddling suggests a focus on something other our real mission; and Rome signifies the mission to which God has called us.

People have lamented the numerical decline of The Episcopal Church (TEC) in particular and Christianity in general for decades (cf. Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). Yet the decline continues apace, unchecked. In the meantime, TEC quibbles about who may receive Holy Communion and whether to continue restricting ordination and certain church offices to confirmed members.

Few, if anyone, outside the Church really cares. The preponderance of persons interested in joining TEC recognize that TEC, like any organization, cannot exist as an organization without “borders,” i.e., without membership requirements. Lowering or removing TEC’s already minimal requirements for membership, if it achieves anything at all, may have the unintended consequence of communicating to prospects that TEC has little to offer because membership requires so little effort or commitment.

In the civilian parish that I most recently served, many adults had affiliated with the congregation without having been confirmed or received. Encouraging these adults to take more active leadership roles, a step that required the adults to attend confirmation classes and then attend a special confirmation service, required some time and effort. Nobody demurred. If anything, my sense was that these busy and talented individuals recognized that the parish, like any worthwhile organization, had reasonable and valid membership requirements. The classes afforded an opportunity to deepen relationships and to explore their spirituality and spiritual journeys together.

Likewise, a woman to whom I had served Holy Communion for over a year in a Navy Chapel was surprised to read in the bulletin one Sunday a note that Holy Baptism was a prerequisite for receiving Holy Communion. The note had been in the bulletin every Sunday for a year; it had simply taken the woman months to notice it. She then began to wonder whether she had been baptized, consulted her parents, and shamefacedly told me what had been happening. I explained that her actions posed no problem. Neither God nor the Church was offended. She wanted to receive the sacrament of baptism; the instruction classes provided a greatly appreciated opportunity for her husband and her to explore their beliefs and the Episcopal Church. She, her husband, and the congregation experienced her baptism as a moment of grace, something that theoretically happens at every baptism. Then she and her husband surprised me by inquiring about joining the Episcopal Church. I provided instruction and arranged for confirmation. When the man retired from the military, the couple enthusiastically joined an Episcopal congregation in their new community.

These anecdotes typify what I consistently have experienced and continue to experience in my ministry. Having reasonable rules and policies does not inhibit numerical or spiritual growth. The real barriers to entry in the Church include congregations and facilities that do not communicate a genuine warm welcome to all comers, clergy with poor interpersonal skills, and ministry/mission focused on anything except caring for the hungry, thirsty, hurting, alienated, and dying people all around us. I have no strong feelings about the particulars of amending the canons with respect to confirmation or the requirements for Holy Communion. I do feel strongly, notwithstanding any anecdotal evidence to contrary, that if we think any of these changes will reverse TEC’s numerical decline we are at best mistaken and at worse deluded.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned.

Late in the twentieth century, Episcopal concern over the numerical decline of TEC and Christianity coalesced in a designated decade of evangelism. That initiative fizzled badly. Concurrently and more recently, some Episcopalians (and others) have advocated the emergent church movement, Dina Butler Bass’ ideas about Christianity after religion, and other revitalization efforts as the answer. In my diocese, our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, recognizing the need and energized by those efforts, has focused on encouraging his clergy and congregations to carry the gospel to Galilee, i.e., to meet people in the world where the people are. The report of the Standing Commission on Ministry and Evangelism in the 2012 General Convention Blue Book is yet another effort to address numerical decline.

I commend all of these efforts. However, reversing the numerical decline is not one task among many. TEC’s numerical decline poses the only immediate existential threat to the denomination. Unless we reverse the decline within the next twenty years, the denomination will implode. Administrative requirements will immobilize any attempt at forward movement; administration costs will consume all available funds and rapidly deplete the endowment (cf. Part 1: The story the budget tells and Part 2: The story the budget tells).

The issue is not whether TEC should have a virtual governance process, a unicameral structure, or preserve the status quo. Unless we reverse the numerical decline, TEC’s governance structures and processes will become progressively more irrelevant and meaningless. Across TEC, only a relative handful of people are genuinely invested in denominational governance; the vast majority of those individuals serves as deputies, delegates, or fills other formal roles in diocesan, provincial, and national bodies. In other words, reforming the structures and processes entails people voluntarily surrendering roles they perceive as positions of power, but roles that perform tasks few others value.

What if General Convention (or a diocesan convention) devoted just sixty minutes to all of the canonically required business and spent the rest of its time addressing one question: what can we do to reverse the numerical decline of Christianity and TEC? Attendees would commit to produce a series of specific action steps, fully funded, with the individual or group responsible for taking the action identified, deadlines established, and accountability reports due at the next General Convention (or diocesan convention). The product would not be just another denominational program but a re-visioning and re-directing of the organization that promoted multiple responses (nobody has a definitive, single answer) by mobilizing the entire organization.

What’s the cost of doing this? We would cancel many good programs and many meetings that generate few tangible results. We would set aside many important items, e.g., whether to revise the hymnal, changes to the liturgical calendar, ecumenical conversations, and proposed canonical changes. Staff would find their jobs realigned.

What’s the potential benefit? TEC might move to the cutting edge of spiritual and religious life, reverse its numerical decline, and more fully incarnate the body of Christ. Repositioned and revitalized, TEC could once again become a positive force for change.

Reading the 2012 General Convention Blue Book does not make me optimistic about the probability of genuine renewal. Overcoming institutional inertia is incredibly difficult. Congregations more frequently die rather than reinvent themselves. In the next few decades, denominations, probably including TEC, will die, refusing to reinvent themselves.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned.

Christendom is no more. Yet the Church continues to act as if Christianity were the official religion in the United States. For example, clergy retain a vestigial role as state functionaries by officiating at weddings. I did not fully appreciate the irony of this in a nation that prides itself on not having an established religion until I, a U.S. naval officer and citizen, while serving on exchange with the Royal Navy in London officiated at the wedding of two British citizens on behalf of Her Majesty’s government. I could do this because the Archbishop of Canterbury had licensed me as a Church of England priest and authorized me to serve as a Royal Navy chaplain.

If the Church was fully secure in its identity as the Body of Christ and had the integrity and courage to recognize that Christendom was no more, then many of the complexities surrounding the blessing of same-sex relationships would disappear. The Church could bless all permanent, monogamous relationships using a single liturgy; the state, not the Church, would solemnize legal contracts pertaining to domestic relationships.

Contemporary debates about marriage and same-sex relationships generally conflate into the legal contract (this is what the state cares about), the sacramental relationship (this is the Church’s proper concern), and an interpersonal relationship (out of which emerges the legal and sacramental) between two people into a single issue. Ending the pretense that the U.S. remains part of Christendom would free the Church to focus on its mission of becoming God's people.

With the de facto as well as de jure end of Christendom, other past practices are unsustainable in a secular democracy, perhaps even counterproductive for Christians to try to sustain. Among these ill-advised cultural legacies are bookending public events with an invocation and benediction, displaying Christian imagery on public property, and the legislated observance of Christian holy days. In this same vein, formal denominational efforts to influence national and international policies and legislation have achieved proportionately few results for the resources invested. Single-issue ecumenical organizations, such as Interfaith Power and Light, have enlisted greater support, received larger resources, and produced greater results.

Successfully re-visioning and re-creating TEC will produce an organization focused on its strength (building local communities of God's people who join in worship, caring for one another, and offer hospitality to strangers) that networks with other Christian organizations to achieve other aspects of the gospel mandate. The end of Christendom suggests that a strategy loosely linked multiple organizations may be more effective than the monolithic church of the past. The Church’s unity will be seen in relationships rather than structures.

Similarly, efforts to impose a greater degree of structural unity and conformity on the provinces of the Anglican Communion will fail. Globalization and the internet promote diversity and autonomy rather than conformity. Debating the proposed Anglican covenant wastes time and resources. Building bridges to other parts of the Anglican Communion through visits, conversations, and joint mission/ministry will produce the only form of unity sustainable in the post-Christendom twenty-first century.

Nero fiddled. Rome burned.

What will we do?


George Clifford is a writer, 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 .

Comments (5)

I wonder if Chaplain Clifford thinks, in light of the demise of 'Christendom' that the U. S. government should end the pracice of providing chaplains for military personnel.

Dennis Bosley

George: Wonderful essay. I'll be mulling this for days.

Kevin McGrane

Excellent essay! You know that old saying, "The best things in life are free?" Well, ain't that the truth. None of what Episcopalians really need to do to save our Church costs money. And it's not about reinventing or revising our expression of Anglicanism, it's about reinventing the way we see ourselves, and revising how we treat ourselves and those around us. "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," well of course, but do I welcome you? Does this Vestryman or that chorister welcome you? How about that deacon, or this priest, does she welcome you too? What am I welcoming you into, a bunch of people who don't know what they're doing, or confident Christians bringing the love of Jesus and reconciliation to everyone and everything?

"In other words, reforming the structures and processes entails people voluntarily surrendering roles they perceive as positions of power, but roles that perform tasks few others value."

Never was a truer word spoken...

Dennis, in response to your question, as long as a significant percentage of the military are religious, then the military should provide chaplains. A chaplain personally provides ministry in as an inclusive a way as her/his faith group permits, cares for everyone (the sailor whose parent/partner/child just died usually wants someone who cares – that is not a moment for evangelism or teaching but caring), and facilitates for all. This last function keeps the chaplaincy constitutional and comprises a set of duties that the military would need someone to fill even if there were no chaplains. Chaplaincy does not represent an entanglement of state and religion but a secular state providing, within the context of a total institution, for the religious needs of state personnel.

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