by George Clifford
The Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention, which met in Austin a couple of weeks ago and which I did not attend, interested me more for what did not happen that for what actually transpired.
Don’t misunderstand me. Lots of good decisions were made. In no particular order, some of General Convention’s decisions that I applaud include:
- Readmitting Cuba as a diocese
- Authorizing use of specific inclusive language at places in some of our Eucharistic liturgies
- Authorizing the use of same sex marriage rites in all dioceses
- Indefinitely deferring publication of a new prayer book (I’ve previously argued on this website here and here that any new edition of the prayer book should be electronic, not printed)
- Support for justice for the Palestinians
Given the controversial nature of some of these decisions, your list of good decisions may vary from mine.
Regardless of one’s opinion of General Convention’s decisions, what deeply concerns me is that Convention spent the preponderance of its time and effort focused on issues internal to the Episcopal Church while largely ignoring the elephant in the room. Even resolutions that appear to deal with external matters (e.g., support for justice for the Palestinians) are important primarily because of these resolutions authorize our representatives in Washington, at the United Nations, and elsewhere to take actions on our behalf.
The convention’s agenda represents an excellent example of the urgent supplanting the important. The Episcopal Church is dying. Short-term numbers notwithstanding, the Episcopal Church has hemorrhaged members for decades. That long-term decline is the elephant in the room. Reversing that decline is our most important, though not necessarily most urgent, agenda item. Unlike many other agenda items, no group of advocates has coalesced around reversing our numerical decline. The issue generally languishes unaddressed, in vestry, diocesan, and church-wide meetings.
General Convention did pass a triennial budget that emphasizes the Presiding Bishop’s priorities, one of which is evangelism. However, as I have previously contended on this website, the amount of money programmed for evangelism is insufficient if we really want to make evangelism a genuine priority. Resources are inadequate for us to continue business as usual while prioritizing evangelism.
Obviously, our goal as Christians who live in the Episcopal tradition is not simply perpetuating The Episcopal Church. Our goal is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. Our Presiding Bishop repeats this message over and over in his preaching and other communications. If collectively we are truly to be about God’s business, then the rest of us, our denominational structures, and our budgets need substantial realignment to reflect these two priorities.
Realigning our efforts will inescapably entail sacrificing “rice bowls” and “sacred cows” in pursuit of more effectively and efficiently loving God and neighbor. The issue is not whether a particular effort, program, or theme enhances love for God and neighbor but whether there is a way to produce larger results at a lower cost. Business as usual has failed for decades to reverse our numerical decline. We must change or The Episcopal Church, its dioceses, and their congregations will die.
Unfortunately, most diocesan convention and vestries agendas are similar to General Convention’s agenda. These agendas too frequently focus on business as usual and ignore numerical decline. Even when a diocese or vestry addresses problems, the problems are typically internal (e.g., improving communications or balancing the budget) and ignore the overarching problem of numerical decline.
Color me an optimist. I believe that the arc of history bends not only toward justice but also toward love. Externalities such as terms of address for the deity or the prayer book’s format may change, but individuals and the world as a whole not only need and but also want what Christians claim to offer, that is, experience and knowledge of God’s loving, healing, reconciling, life-giving presence.
Therefore, numerical declines indicate a failure on our part to go and make disciples of all the world. I’m not advocating the type of evangelism practiced by more conservative Christian denominations. One blessing in retiring from the military chaplaincy was no longer daily having to deal with chaplains and laity from those denominations. What I am advocating is prioritizing marketing The Episcopal Church and its message of love in ways congruent with our Anglican understanding and practice of Christianity. This involves hard work, trying new initiatives, risking failure, and de-prioritizing if not abandoning business as usual.
The Presiding Bishop’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle afforded the Episcopal Church an unparalleled opportunity to share the message that God calls us to love God and one another. Since that event, the Presiding Bishop has sought to capitalize on the attendant publicity to further market both The Episcopal Church and our message of love.
Most Episcopalians will never have the opportunity to market The Episcopal Church or communicate God’s message of love to such a vast audience. We can, however, look for more quotidian methods of incarnating the gospel, of becoming a people in whom and through whom persons experience God’s love. The protest against separating children from parents at a detention center for illegal immigrants by General Convention attendees was one small step in this direction. What can you do today to communicate God’s love to another person? And what can your congregation, your diocese, and our national structures do differently to communicate God’s love more effectively and efficiently?
God has called us for this time. Today is the time for us to set aside the urgent and the comparatively easy (although some ongoing issues are admittedly challenging). Now is the time for us to concentrate on the far more important and difficult task of loving God and others so outrageously and unreservedly that we grow both spiritually and numerically.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy and blogs at Ethical Musings.