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.