For such a time as this

by

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.

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Mary Barrett
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Mary Barrett

When Rev Clifford wrote of ignoring the elephant in the room, I thought of what I learned as a first time convention visitor. The world around us, around the convention center even, is so full of misery and needs that require our loving attention, yet a lot of time was spent on navel gazing. I understand business must be done, but 3 blocks away from the meeting was the city's outreach center for the homeless. Apparently many just sleep right there. What a horrible, filthy block area it was. We did nothing for that area over the ten days, no trash pickup, no comforting, no nothing. I have left behind the worry of numbers for this church. I just want to be what Christ leads us to in my imperfect ways, to love and to serve as a Church.

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Bruce Cornely
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Bruce Cornely

I think it is very sad that the General Convention cannot comprehend what evangelism is. If done by "the church" it is advertising. Evangelism is sharing the love and truth of Christ by members of the church in their daily lives. This is one reason why we gather to worship God on Sundays. We need to be inspired and encouraged by more exposure to the life, teaching and example of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I do not believe that it is up to the church as an institution to encourage action by the government in world issues. The church does not have 100% agreement by its membership on any issue. It is up to our clergy to preach and inspire parishioners to read the Bible, pray and make carefully considered decisions which THEY then share with their representatives. The church should have no voice (or actually has no voice) in government. It is not a citizen, it does not pay taxes, it cannot vote. In essence, the Episcopal church has NO rights of world or national citizenship.

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Kathryn Glover
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Kathryn Glover

How do you bring people along with you if you use language such as "one blessing in retiring from the military chaplaincy was no longer daily having to deal with chaplains and laity from those denominations?" That does not sound like the Jesus Movement to me. In my personal, professional and church life I come across people with whom I disagree or simply people with whom I am challenged to find things in common. And sometimes I would rather not "deal" with those I find challenging. However, every time I hear the Gospel preached I am reminded that I am not being called to "deal" with anyone, but simply to love. I am human so I fail all the time at this. As long as we write about dealing with "those" people we will continue to be a dying denomination. The elephant in the room is also the concept of us/them. I am a proud Episcopalian and that pride is based not on what we are NOT, but what we ARE. Evangelism is about bringing in, not about rejecting.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

You may be happy to embrace the Trump Generation Evangelists, but some of us are not. Unabashedly, they espouse xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and a few more toxic "isms". and "obias". What's to love here? Forgiveness without repentance? Not in my DNA!

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Member

I think there is much merit in Rev. Clifford's essay. May I ask for some details, please? Could we get , say, 3 concrete action items to implement? I'm like a lot of other people and look for concrete suggestions.

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Anand Gnanadesikan
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Anand Gnanadesikan

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.

There is a certain disdain for evangelicals within the Episcopal Church that sees the worst in them, but not the best. As someone who was formed in such churches, I think Episcopalians could learn a lot from the best of the clergy and laity. In particular:

1. At their best evangelicals believe deeply in conversion and transformation, which then is "paid forward" in terms of evangelism. What is the powerful about this is the testimony of folks who have seen their lives changed by an encounter with Christ.

2. At their best, evangelicals are much more willing to adapt liturgy to different cultures. How many congregations has the Episcopal church planted that worship in Korean, Khmer, and Creole- never mind Spanish?

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

Excellent piece. I would entitle it: The Urgency of Now, and I will be more blunt. What disturbs me is that the Church has not sounded an alarm: "There will be no Church by the end of this century, Episcopal or otherwise!". Without bold action by citizens, the convergence of climate change; failed democracies and republics; and global scarcity will together, bring civilization as we know it, to its knees. I believe we have already passed the 12th Hour.

I heard a sermon, on this Transfiguration Sunday, by a young father who proclaimed: "I'm not afraid of dying; I'm afraid of what my two young children will face in the coming years."

It's said that "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem". How is the Church Universal, and TEC in particular, preparing it's followers to enter what will be the struggle of our lives? From now on, the greatest struggles won't originate in our vestry rooms.

Are we ready to be Transfigured, Church?

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John Rabb
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John Rabb

I agree, and am hopeful that we can put our energies into the full proclamation of the Gospel rather than mere survival. We need to stop making excuses or rationalize our falling numbers. These are the things what we need to do to both grow the church and proclaim the Gospel: strong preaching, well done liturgy, genuine hospitality including a fully just church, caring pastoral ministries and reaching out to a culture that desparately seeks meaning and truth. I, too, am tired of business as usual and most of all the rationalizing of why things are the way the are. Is not the Gospel what things are to be? We Episcopalians need to stop worrying and start doing that which we are called to do, and do it well.

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mike geibel
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mike geibel

With each passing year, the TEC has become more more political and each year has seen an exodus that cannot be explained by deaths alone. At the same time, there has been growth in non-political, nondenominational mixed congregations. Members consist of a few grey hairs but most congregants are young, probably more liberal than their parents, and who are searching for guidance on how they should live their lives and not who they should vote for or what “social justice issue” they should protest. These young believers are often straddled with college loans, the costs of raising a family, the daunting price tag of buying a home, and the relentless demands of more and more of their paycheck by federal, state and local governments. They are less able to give money to a local church, and they are less likely to spend one hour of their Sunday listening to a pastor instruct them on the "failure of democracy," open borders, politically correct pronouns, and that Israel is evil.

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Member

I would pose that the wealth gap you refer to among our younger population is very much a political issue, for only through govt can we hope to address this gap. Much of youth is getting tired of hearing "thoughts and prayers" about their challenges. And the notion that support for a social gospel is a turn-off runs headlong into 2 things: Matthew 25, and that a "conservative" church like the So. Baptists has seen decline in number for 10 straight years and a decline in baptisms for nearly 70 years ( their numbers, not mine). I think we need to think deeper than what we are today.

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mike geibel
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mike geibel

A non-denominational Christian movement has been growing for years particularly among young college students and young people raising families. I have visited several and now joined one such church where young couples with children outnumber the old geezers like myself. They all have something in common—umbrellas, cell phones and politics are left at the door, and the pastor teaches how we should live our lives and share God’s blessings.

Today’s politics are horribly divisive, and “government action” is a thirsty beast that can make us all equally poor and equally unhappy. Loving your neighbor means respecting each other and our diverse opinions, even if the political opinions differ from yours. It is estimated that 40% of the Episcopal membership are/were conservatives who voted for Trump, or alternatively, against Clinton. It is an odd marketing plan to spit in the face of 40% of the membership and then be surprised when the Elephants don’t come to Church the following Sunday.

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