I have read with great interest the recent post about Baby Boomers and Control of the Church. I have not commented up to this point, as online commentary has, quite literally, gotten me a great deal of trouble at my parish. Even mentioning the fact that my comments online have gotten me in trouble is potentially fodder for more problems, and indicative of the challenges faced by members of an open-culture generation.
Indeed the idea of requiring anonymity is anathema to who I am and what I stand for.
However, neither I nor my family can afford the emotional and spiritual burden of being asked to leave a parish. We have wandered like nomads, exiles from the Church of our childhood (Roman Catholic), and as broken and abusive as the Episcopal Church can be, it is a home we do not want to be kicked out of. Neither can we afford to lose the small amount I am paid for my two part time jobs, nor can we risk the anger of those who sit in judgement over priestly vocations on Parish and Diocesan discernment committees.
In this alone – the context requiring anonymity – you can begin to see the problems for people of my generation.
My spouse and I work, in various capacities, both officially and unofficially, for the parish and the diocese. We are paid a little, we volunteer a great deal. We attend Vestry and Committe meetings. We have taken the time to meet and develop relationships with the Bishop and with others in leadership throughout the diocese and within our parish. We are as close to “model church members” as you are likely to find among our generation.
So what has our experience been? On many levels, very positive. We love the parish, the people, the community. I personally enjoy Sunday Liturgy more than I have in a very long time.
On the other hand, disagreements are generally not explored, dissenting opinions are dismissed with statements like, “we have to be practical,” or “if you [fill in the blank] you would understand.” Legitimately supported arguments from scripture are often dismissed because “we don’t quote the Bible at people here.” Enthusiasm is seen as being suspect. Social Media and open forums are frowned upon, because all messaging needs to be approved by the relevant authorities. Complaints aginst our work or decisions are dealt with in secret, the results then pronounced to us: you will do X, and you will not do Y; rather than being discussed openly in a community forum. Raising questions about the morality or wisdom of certain courses of action bring accusations of being “too judgmental,” or “too idealistic,” or of being disloyal, or simply being an outsider who wasn’t there when the problems began, and so has nothing to say about the present situation. Passion for justice, passion for growth, passion for good liturgy, passion for evangelization, even passion and love for the community, the parish, and the Episcopal Church itself- these passions are mistaken as somehow having a bad attitude or an argumentative “tone.”
I will not get into the specifics of what the disagreements may have been- it isn’t particularly relevant. Every parish, every comunity has its own issues, and if there are young people around, there will be disagreements: on the nature of tradition, on the meaning of scripture, on musical preferences, on liturgical style, on the very essence of the Gospel message. If you happen to be so lucky as to be attracting people from other denominations (something my parish does VERY WELL), those disagreements will be even more pronounced. The old guard needs to take seriously the witness and the wisdom of people my age. Whatever you want to say about the sorry state of my generation (and it’s bad out there, I agree), the few of us who have bothered to show up for organized religion represent the best and brightest. We are educated. We take both organized religion AND personal spirituality very seriously. Our theology tends orthodox. Our liturgical preferences tend AWAY FROM turn-of-the-cenutry mainline Protestantism, toward our ancient roots in Anglo-Catholicism on the one hand and/or toward progressive emotion-driven contemporary worship on the other. Our missional understandings tend toward social justice, toward the inclusion of the marginalized. We take the Bible seriously, and are largely outraged by the casual dismissal of it in favor of secularized religious play-acting. We are not afraid of church growth, we do not think “evangelism” is a dirty word. We think churches exist for the people outside of them, not primarily for the benfit of their members.
And we love our churches. Indeed, given the frustrations, you should assume that those of us who are still around are deeply committed to our relationship with the denominations and parishes we associate with. Unlike our parents’ generation, racked with divorce and infidelity, we take our vows VERY SERIOUSLY, and do not enter into them lightly. We love our parishes, and the accusations that our desire for change or our disagreements bring – that we are disloyal, that we are immature – grieve us deeply, making us question whether it is worth it, whether we shouldn’t just pack up and go home, maybe start a little worship service in our house and feed the poor on our own time. But we don’t just leave. At least, some of us don’t. We who stay, stay because we feel God has called us to this work. We stay because we have known no other home than a parish community, and we are tired to the bone of feeling like nomads and exiles. We stay because we know that if we let our wavering faith shake our commitment, it will mean that the less spirtiually fortunate members of our generation will never have the opportunity to find Jesus in community.
Religious baby boomers raised a generation of kids that fled from churches as soon as they got the chance. Those of us among their children who escaped the cataclysm of being raised in the 80s and 90s, those of us who are still here, you need to listen to what we have to say. The decline of mainline Protestantism, the lack of religious conviction (or even basic Biblical knowledge) among the vast majority of my age cohort should be proof enough that whatever has been going on for the last 40 years or so has been an unmitigated disaster. The handful of us who actually understand this AND still have hope deserve to be listened to.
But it requires that those who have presided over the decline recognize that they are responsible for it, an admission of culpability that I do not see anyone readily being willing to admit to. It further requires that we understand that resurrection only comes through death. Church leadership seems to be very good at calling other people to “stand in a crucified place,” but when it comes to their own institutions, their own buildings, their own ideas and opinions about what all this means, many would rather wage lawsuits or threaten to excommunicate and fire, rather than accepting the death that comes with following the Gospel of Jesus Christ- and by fearing death, resurrection is denied.
I have no big answers for how to change the culture of our Church to listen better to the voices of youth. Heck, I’d be thrilled if we could change the culture so we listen more to the voice of the Gospel.
I do have a small handful of recommendations:
1. An Indaba-like process the gives youth – and really, anyone outside the existing power structure – the opportunity to share their ideas and concerns in a safe place without fear of being fired or excommunicated or called disloyal. These need to be ongoing, not a one-time and we accomplished it sort of thing.
2. Reverse mentoring. Older leaders need to find younger people in the church and build a relationship with them centered on the older person asking the younger person for advice. Again, this needs to be an ongoing process, not a one time event.
3. The path to ordination needs to be made shorter and less burdensome. Further, concerted effort needs to be put toward developing priestly vocations among high school and college students. We cannot have a church where every new priest is a retiree in a second career. We cannot have a church where an enthusiastic twenty-seven year old doesn’t become a priest until she is an exhausted and disillusioned thirty-seven year old.
Beyond that, we can only pray and trust that Holy Spirit will open up our doors and windows for a breath of fresh air and the aggiornamento that our Church badly needs.
We at the Café don’t usually publish anonymous essays – but feel that this one was a voice who added something to the conversation. Hoping those who comment will discuss the issues raised and give ideas for our future.