A calling card for the Episcopal Church?

Here is the Facebook page of the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, where my business partner and I had the pleasure of giving a communications workshop on Saturday. You'll notice that the cover photo features Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and another woman giving Holy Communion. (PS: why not "like" it while you are in the neighborhood.)

In Quincy, where women were not allowed to be ordained until the breakaway faction relinquished its control of the diocese and set up its own shop, this image is a powerful one. It communicates that the diocese is under new leadership, and that this new leadership is open to the gifts of women (and, by extension, other previously marginalized people) in the way that the previous leadership was not.

The question I hope we can chew on this morning is how effectively images that highlight the ways in which the Episcopal Church is different from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and some of the more conservative evangelical Protestant churches, would communicate in dioceses that don't have Quincy's distinctive history.

On one hand, it is possible that a critical mass of people know all about the fact that we have ordained women for more than 30 years, that our Presiding Bishop (who was featured on The Simpsons, after all) (correction: turns out it was American Dad) is a woman, that we are working toward the full inclusions of LGBT people in the life on the church and that unlike many more conservative churches our polity is fairly democratic. On the other hand, it may be equally possible that this knowledge, while readily available, has not penetrated the popular imagination as deeply as we might think it has, and that it remains an effective way to differentiate ourselves from more theologically conservative churches in the minds of a certain segment of folks who might find us interesting.

Some people argue that it is our theological liberalism that is fueling our decline. But it can also be argued it is our failure to make it clear that we do not practice the kind of Christianity that much of the American population finds repressive, anti-intellectual and bigoted that is at the root of our problem. (It is also possible that we have differentiated ourselves successfully, but still strike some people as a novelty act, and that a lack of gravitity is our problem, but that is a different converation.)

At any rate, the question on my mind is whether the leading role played by women in our church, our progress toward full inclusion and the democratic polity that made these things possible are an effective calling card--as they are in Quincy--or whether these are so widely known that they seem yesterday's news.


Comments (11)

We, of the Episcopal Church, need to highlight our strengths, as outlined by Jim Naughton. We must stop being a shrinking violet and proclaim our distinctives. Let's not hide our light under a bushel.

Barry Chitwood

I am not sure we are declining. In fact, my strong belief is that the future is bright for TEC.

One of the reasons early Christianity got such a strong foothold was its fluidity and ability to adapt, while holding to certain essential truths. Today, however, as a "mature" faith, we see large swathes of Christianity that are not open to a growing understanding of the gospel message.

That reluctance to grow in understanding will be problematic over time. Surveys show, for example, that young people -- even those who consider themselves to be Evangelical -- are often much more open on issues of inclusion than previous generations.

Even as I think about my parish's teen event last night, which was very well attended, I was impressed by the love and respect that our young people showed each other.

So, to those who say that progressive Christianity is doomed to fail, I'd say, "Think again." Indeed, the opposite is true: Science shows time and again that systems that cannot evolve ultimately fail.

To those in TEC who are conservative, I'd say you are welcome, too, as long as you respect the right of others to hold differing views and respect the rights of minorities. This notion of attempting to disrupt the larger church, or to take assets that belong to TEC, is troubling in the extreme and undercuts the moral authority of any argument you may make.

Eric Bonetti

I have never understood the argument that theological liberalism is fueling the decline in mainline Protestant churches, given the increase in support for gay and lesbian rights that opinion polls have unambiguously shown in recent years, as well as the increased acceptance of women's equality. Rather, I think that the decline is at least in part the result of a declining interest in spirituality and religion in general among younger people.

On a lighter note, I think you mean American Dad rather than The Simpsons. http://americandad.wikia.com/wiki/Bishop_Schori

Paul Owens

I'm not sure this is as well known as we think it is. When the vote happened in the C of E, Rachel Held Evans asked on Twitter whether or not the Episcopal Church had women bishops. She knew about women priests, but bishops...that was not on her radar. Are we hiding our light under a bushel, or just assuming people know?

Laura Toepfer

Oh no, Jim, these things are not widely known at all. Furthermore, even where they are widely known they are commonly misunderstood. For instance, despite our permissiveness about divorce, remarriage, gay marriage and what have you, if I remember correctly, if you are divorced and want to get remarried in the church, the Bishop still gets involved in a process of permissions and authorizations. This is more of a compassionate conservatism than a stereotypical liberal free for all. And second of all, OK now you're a woman bishop, but you still say the ancient Eucharist according to an only slightly rearranged Roman Rite, wearing the ancient vestments of Christian presbyters and bishops. Third of all, how many Episcopalians have really read the statement on abortion? It's not as stereotypically liberal as some might prefer, even within our own church. Contraceptive use is framed as a tool for the responsible use of the procreative power, not as a further license for promiscuity. The Big Picture of the Episcopal Church is ultimately one of a pragmatic integrity, rooted in the Love of Jesus Christ and modeled after his own way of healing and dealing with people and approaching Scripture and religious tradition. And on doctrinal matters about the Invisible, we admit our limitations, let people work out their salvation with respect and seriousness, and put faith in the center of the relationship between people, between a person and God, and between the Church and God. It is a conservatively pessimistic acknowledgment of human limitation and of our ability to put God in a box or on paper, and an optimistic appraisal of God's merciful love in spite of our misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

Is the Episcopal Church really liberal? Does anything go? Be a great essay for Daily Episcopalian.

Hey Ann, if you want to write a piece for the Daily Episcopalian on that topic, I'd write a companion piece in response--what do you say? :-)

Hoping maybe Clint would do it!! And thanks Derek - good idea

Between you, Jim and Clint, I think you've touched on the reasons why I love this Church and find it such a great "home" for my faith in Christ to be nurtured, challenged and grown. An ancient faith and practice rooted in both Scripture and tradition interpreted in the light of reason, inclusiveness, intellectual engagement, a nuanced ethics, "pragmatic integrity", a democratic polity and a deep humility about matters of theology, faith and discipleship. Also, typically, pretty decent coffee. ;)

But to your question: no, I don't think we do a good enough job telling people and the culture about it. If someone would have told me about a place where I could find the depth of tradition and liturgical and devotional mystery and beauty of the Roman or Orthodox Churches with all of that other good stuff listed above, I'd have seriously wanted to check it out! Instead, I found TEC by accident. A happy accident, but still!

To answer your question:

As a person who's lived in a few parts of the country (and the world) and has asked a lot of people what they know about religion:

I'm pretty sure that most non-Episcopalians, especially those outside the USA, don't know how inclusive our Church is. Many don't even know it's part of the Anglican Communion (or, for that part, don't know what the Anglican Communion is). I'm just guessing this based on a sort of surveying in my head of all the people I can think of.

This question actually came up recently in a seminar on evangelism (the "e" word!) and it became pretty clear that it's easy to be in the Episcopal "bubble" and not realize how many people don't know really who we are.

Which raises the question: are there no official studies or statistics like this? I'm not sure which office would be in charge of it, or if any sociologists of religion have dealt with it. But it would be very worth trying to get some more exact numbers.

Erik Campano

the question on my mind is whether ... our progress toward full inclusion ... are an effective calling card---or whether these are so widely known that they seem yesterday's news

In my experience, it is either NOT widely known, or seen as a kind of sugar-coated poison pill (the same judgmental condemnation lurking "as soon as" one commits to the church).

Finally, "progress toward full inclusion" is measured (by many) ONLY to the extent of vigorous and effective condemnation of those other "Christians" who OPPOSE full-inclusion (i.e., we have to drown out/silence Southern Baptists, Vatican-subordinate Catholics, etc, somehow). It's a sticky wicket. *

JC Fisher

* It's hard to explain our Christian nonviolence (towards those Baptists, Catholics, etc) to those who have been on the receiving end of Christian violence.

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