by George Clifford
My last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff, evoked considerable interest and comment. The comments seem to consist of four identifiable, sometimes intersecting, streams.
First, some responders do not seem to have grasped the severity of the problem I sought to describe. Yes, some congregations do great liturgy in traditional ways and are growing numerically. However, there are relatively few such congregations. The Episcopal Church (TEC), as a whole, is a denomination in which the majority of congregations are declining numerically while concurrently experiencing increasing financial struggles to pay full-time clergy and to maintain underutilized buildings. Those declines are facts, not assertions or hypotheses (cf. Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff for the data).
If doing traditional liturgy better – whether high or low, sung or said – were a panacea, then TEC would not find itself in this predicament. Traditional theology and Anglican emphases would have kept a majority of our congregations on a safe, healthy course. The minority of our congregations that are thriving will wisely stay their current course (though an unknown number of these congregations have already begun to reinvent themselves for the twenty-first century). Quite probably, a handful of other congregations have the resources and context in which adopting a similar course will bring renewal.
However, thriving traditional congregations are exceptions to the norm. They represent a great danger if they distract leadership – lay and clerical – from recognizing that for the preponderance of TEC congregations staying the course will result in certain shipwreck. Each year the shoals of empty pews and fiscal insolvency become visibly closer and more threatening. Furthermore, underutilized buildings and clergy constitute bad stewardship of the gifts that God’s people have given (remember Jesus’ parable of the talents).
Secondly, contrary to many comments, technology is neither the problem nor the solution. Technology is only a means to an end. The English Reformation built on the technology of its day (the printing press) to make the Bible and Book of Common Prayer more available to all. The twenty-first century Church should adopt contemporary technology as a means for achieving the same end, a point some commenters grasped. Additionally, the new technology can benefit the hearing and sight challenged, which I had not fully appreciated.
Crucially, focusing on arguments about the pros and cons of PowerPoint vs. tablets puts the proverbial cart before the horse. If anachronistic technology were the essential problem, congregations that adopted modern technology while retaining traditional liturgy and theology would consistently experience renewal. This does not happen. The problems are much deeper and more basic than a dated form of presentation.
Our liturgy and theology are themselves earthen vessels whose form and design date to previous centuries. The immanence of God’s loving presence, which Jesus’ followers recognized as so powerfully manifest in him, is not defined, inherently and perfectly, by Greek philosophical thought (some moderns, for example, find process philosophy a more useful vessel) or the Creeds (e.g., the subtle, once hotly contested, distinctions used to define Jesus’ identity as God and human are irrelevant to, and ignored by, many in our post-modern world).
Many post-modern people hunger for a genuine spirituality. They seek a path that will lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They seek, often without realizing it, the treasure – the immanence of God’s loving presence found in the Jesus’ narrative – that the Church’s earthen vessels hold. Unfortunately, our ecclesial vessels too often impede rather than aid access to that treasure. For example, why should our theology depend upon thought forms that pre-date Jesus? Why should our worship use seventeenth or eighteenth century music instead of contemporary music? Ironically, Martin Luther’s hymns provoked ecclesial outrage in Luther’s own day because they set religious verse to popular drinking tunes, exchanging dated earthen vessels for more contemporary ones.
Third, some of the comments to my last essay remarked upon the economic plight of clergy formed and educated for full-time ecclesial employment. TEC has a problem. Our seminaries continue to produce well-educated clergy, many with significant indebtedness, all having made considerable sacrifice to obtain an M.Div. degree, who are committed to serving a Church that has a diminishing need for their services.
Technological and cultural transitions frequently create economic hardship for employees of affected concerns. Perhaps the highest profile example of this are rust belt and garment industry workers who experienced economic hardship when employers closed antiquated facilities or moved factories to lower cost locations. TEC, and other Christian bodies, rightly support displaced workers and advocate that government and employers provide appropriate transition assistance.
We need to take similar steps to support and aid displaced clergy. Consolidating seminaries and rethinking M.Div. programs can help seminarians graduate debt free (see A word on our seminaries: Consolidate! in the Daily Episcopalian). Emphasizing to people entering the discernment process for ordination as a priest that opportunities for full-time ecclesial employment are diminishing is another important step. Bi-vocational and other, non-full-time forms of clergy deployment will become increasingly common.
Diocesan and congregational leaders should not expend all of a congregation’s resources in usually futile last-ditch efforts to resuscitate an already deceased congregation. Instead, they should earmark sufficient resources to fund one or two years of secular education for the congregation’s last full-time priest, preparing him/her for bi-vocational work or a new career. Second career clergy may require less assistance to resume a previous career. The Church repeatedly calls for secular employers to support displaced employees in this way. Practicing what we preach would both add credibility to our social witness and encourage our ordained leadership to speak and lead with refreshing boldness.
Fourth and finally, a few people who commented – some Episcopalians and some from other denominations facing their own impending ecclesial fiscal cliff – actually grasped my message. (I’d like to think that these few represent the “silent majority,” i.e., readers who grasped my message, perhaps who even understood it and were taking action before they read my post.) The ecclesial fiscal cliff is real and we move alarmingly closer every year. In too many congregations, attendance declines annually while expenses inexorably increase.
Thankfully, we do not have to go over this cliff. Worn-out earthen vessels neither signify the death of God nor God having abandoned the Church. But choosing not to go over the cliff requires replacing the Church’s tired, dated, though often familiar and well-loved (by me, among many others) earthen vessels. Otherwise, God will sing a new song and act in new ways to achieve God’s purposes.
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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings.