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In renewing the Episcopal Church, what exactly is up for grabs?

In renewing the Episcopal Church, what exactly is up for grabs?

We thought this exchange in the comments on an earlier item that made reference to declining participation in Episcopal Churches was worth highlighting.

Yes, there are fewer of us than there used to be. If TEC is to survive and grow, some fundamental changes will have to take place. Change is more than debating Gregorian chant vs. Taize, or 7 weeks of Advent vs. 4. As Walter Russell Mead noted in “Get Rid of the Holy Crap,” many of us are sitting in churches we cannot afford to maintain and listening to full-time priests we struggle to pay. In order to provide the props and actors for the traditional services, we call on a precious few to fill the roster of lay ministries. I don’t see as many people leaving the church because of doctrinal differences as from sheer fatigue.

What if we all didn’t have to support a full-time priest? What if we returned to a 19th century model of Eucharist once a month, with Morning Prayer on other Sundays? What if we decided that Lay Readers can, once again, lead Morning Prayer? What if we really expected vestries to administer parish affairs (with diocesan assistance and oversight) rather than rubber-stamping the decisions made by a priest who may have no experience of management?

What if we didn’t have an Altar Guild to change the colors, scrub the wine stains out, drape the crosses, and set up the foot-washing stations? As much as I love the effect of what we do, I don’t think Jesus needed embroidered linens and elaborate paraments.

What if we worked harder to preserve small parishes and to help them grow, rather than committing millions to expensive real estate in New York City, to a lengthy General Convention, to large diocesan staffs, and to travel expenses so bishops can, yet again, apologize to the ABC for extending basic human rights to out LGBT sisters and brothers?

What if we returned to the ancient concept of locally trained priests, whose education is focused on pastoral care and preaching, not the intricacies of medieval theology and Greek? What if we admitted that academicians don’t always make good pastors?

What if we concentrated a little less on our beautiful rituals and more on feeding hungry people? What is we finally listened to the laity that we have been educating all these years through EFM, Via Media, and Bible study?

What if?

Mary Anne Chesarek

Posted by Mary Anne Chesarek | January 2, 2012 12:19 AM

Interesting thoughts, Mary Anne.

But from my perspective, you have it backwards. Liturgy isn’t that which gets in the way of the real work of the church. Instead, liturgy is what feeds and drives it. Good liturgy–and all of its preparations which is a heck of a lot more than just “a/the priest”–is what connects us to the experience and reality of God in our midst. Our witness to the world is just that: a *witness* to the reality and the identity of the one whom we meet (and eat) in our Common Prayer.

Strong, vibrant liturgy has got to be central to what we do. And the laity have to be invested in how and why we do it. (Speaking as a layman myself…)

Posted by Derek Olsen | January 2, 2012 1:28 PM

I agree with Derek that we cannot do without the Eucharist. But much else is up for grabs.

Your thoughts?


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Cyberia Rune

Wow! More good ideas from lots of different perspectives! Now, THAT’S alive!

How about, instead of thinking “either-or,” let’s let those kinds of active, personally investing ideas carry TEC into a wonderful era of “both!,” and “all!”?

How about having regular, dependable, daily before-work MP led by lay-leaders, and schedule regular HE celebrated by priests. Encourage regular attendance by offering EP and a convivial, topical supper, regularly. The Apostles weren’t speaking metaphorically about “serving at tables,” you know.

Follow in their footsteps in every way, just as they followed Jesus. Offer real hospitality and you’ll get volunteers to keep it happening. Step up! TEC has an amazing universe of fabulous gifts and wondrous graces to offer, and when you offer them with enthusiasm, genuine openness, and love, your challenges change into the kinds of challenges that any church wants to have – like overcrowding!

Cast your bread upon the waters and you’ll find that you often get a lot more than soggy bread in return! That’s the Spirit!


REv. CW Brockenbrough


Perhaps a short description of the situation and current practice of the Old Catholics in Germany might provide some insight.

(Full disclosure: Raised Episcopalian and officially still Anglican, but a member of an Old Catholic parish since 2005 and served as a vestry member for five years and diocesan delegate thrice.)

The Old Catholics in Germany are a true diaspora – in a nation of 80 million, they number only 15,000, concentrated mostly in the southwest of the country and the Rhineland. They have just one bishop for the whole country, and many parishes have various missions which the rector also serves for regular services. Most parishes, but not all, have paid clergy, but in many cases the vestry does indeed do all the dirty work, and that is the expectation.

There is also a steady supply of volunteer clergy thanks to a flexible and fairly short distance learning program, which can lead to ordination as a deacon or priest, if a parish and the bishop and standing committee agree to it, which they often do without much fuss. Many parishes have one or two such clergy, who fill in when the paid clergy aren’t available.

Our parish in Hannover is a good example in extremis of how we live with this scattering of believers. Our parish boundaries are the entire state of Lower Saxony, which is about the size of Maryland and Delaware put together, with 1600 members in total.

We have one paid priest, one volunteer priest, one volunteer deacon, and for a year we have a paid transitional deacon. We have services every Sunday in Hannover and Osnabrück, with the rector doing most of them, but the volunteer priest occasionally handles Osnabrück (especially on feast days) and the deacons handle Hannover in his stead from time to time; as I recall, our rector easily racks up 50-100,000 km on the parish car each year. We also do Eucharist services in homes when requested, though that was reduced during our church building project (which, thanks be to God, is now done and we have a shiny new church).

And then there are vespers Fridays, ecumenical services and meetings, prayer meetings and such, all handled some or mostly by laypeople. We have no other staff – the rector and vestry have to handle all substantial the clerical work, like dealing with the state church tax system (which sadly eats up a lot of time…).

Thing is, we also have the reality that even with two full-time clergy, it is impossible to provide an airtight pastoral service, let alone have enough people on a regular schedule as vergers, acolytes, lay readers and so on. Licensing for such work is theoretically required, but in practice the local priest decides on it with the approval of the vestry, and laypeople from the parish assume various duties where the Episcopal Church still insists on lengthy training and even ordination.

I myself have often led vespers and Morning Prayer services, even preached at Sunday services, in spite of not having formal training beyond discussions with the priest. Several other members have done the same. The Bible lessons are generally just done ad hoc by whoever wishes to do so; the collection is also just someone there taking the basket and handing it around. No formal offices, just people taking up slack where they see it.

We are also all adamant about celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday, and that is why I and other laypersons also celebrate prayer services with distribution of Reserved Sacrament when a priest is not available. Again, I have no formal license, just the agreement and support of the rector and vestry. Lay presidency would be reason enough for me to leave or avoid a church, and it won’t happen with us any time soon. Even so, the Eucharist can still be celebrated with some flexibility and planning.

Meanwhile in Austria there is even less structure and rule-making. There, quite a lot of clergy are just volunteers or part-time, including the bishop, John Okoro, and it seems to work just fine.

With all these things that would be extremely difficult or impossible in TEC, the world hasn’t come to an end. Far from it, it seems that it has helped our parish bloom and grow, a rarity in northern Germany’s heavily post-Christian atmosphere. The many newcomers are often impressed at how involved and engaged our members are, precisely because they are not limited by unnecessary regulations and rules. New members in turn quickly begin helping out as well, in spite of great driving distances (well, by German standards…) and time constraints. The mere fact we built a church is something of a sensation here, and our attendance is noticeably growing. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

So why can’t TEC do the same? Why does it require ordination for so many offices that theologically do not require it based on any tradition? Why does it require such rigorous licensing?

God’s help is clearly there for our parish, working through many people who quickly apply their gifts without church apparatus getting in the way. Why does the Episcopal Church place such strong limits and requirements on those clearly called to serve?

John Grantham

Andrew Downs

I agree wholeheartedly with Juan, particularly #10.

It seems as if our focus is disproportionately focused on tweaking our liturgy, doing a little extra focus on mission, and some good ecclesiological change. It would be more helpful if we focus on the theological reasons for both changing and especially not. Most Episcopalians I’ve spoken with, that are firmly Episcopalian by choice, seem eager to do something but when confronted with the prospect of changing anything, they act as if they need not defend current practice theologically. And when they do defend it, they use only ‘practical’ responses that are wedded to a bygone (but not ancient) era.


Juan Oliver

I have been pondering Jim´s original post about the need for reform for several days, and just posted something like the following there. But since it has moved here, I´ll post it here as well.

The question is not whether we are not growing, but why. The simplistic answer is that we might not, after all, be so evidently the living, breathing Body of Christ. Instead, we are trapped in a series of self-fulfilling and self-referential habits of thought, feelings and manners that prevent that question from being answered.

These, IMO, may be summed up as the following operating principles:

1. The Church is a business–NOT.

It is free. “…for it has PLEASED GOD to GIVE you the Kingdom.” Clergy do not get a salary. They get a stipend if they don´t have trust funds (and must work so many hours a week to stay alive).

2. The clergy are “helping professionals” –NOT.

We are ritual technologists and psychopomps. (That´s NOT a pompous psycho!)

3. “People are naturally Christian” –NOT.

Blame Adam and Eve. Humans need to learn how to be Christian. We are not born that way, naturally watching out for the abused and oppressed. TEC sucks at forming new Christians. RC´s and ELCA are ahead of us.

4. We don´t need intellectual seminary training. NOT.

We sure do! Intellectuals are few and far between. My God, it´s prophetic to be an intellectual in this country! We don´t want to go the way of the evangelical right. What we might not need is a priest for every congregation of 50 people.

5. “Natural leaders make natural priests” NOT without training. The “Noble Savage” is dead.

6. “The Kingdom of God is God´s dominion over my heart, a spiritual reality” NOT.

It is that new world of truth telling, justice, peace and love that we ask for in the Our Father. We are not going there. It´s coming to us, –or so we say.

7. “The Eucharist is a symbolic meal.” NOT. It´s supposed to be a real meal that manifests (symbolizes) the “green shoots” of that new world.

8. “A church cannot run without meetings.” NOT.

It sure can –the Eucharist is a meeting! Perhaps we have so many meetings because deep down, we are working out power issues?

9. “Deacons are not to be paid.” NOT. They should be. Without them we have no leaders into justice-doing as a community. –And that´s hard work, taking much more than a couple of hours a week.

10. “Our liturgy is crystal clear.” NOT. It´s arcane, full of encoded shop-talk, and manifests a hierarchically-ordered world that we no longer believe in.

My fear, as you can tell from the above, is that we will speed ahead to become even MORE individualistic, emotivist, and anti-intellectual than we already are.

Juan Oliver

I think it´s sad that this thread has devolved into whether the Eucharist is necessary every week. That´s a no-brainer. As a volunteer supply priest, I lead a congregation of about 30 immigrants. We make Eucharist every Sunday. It takes me 2-3 (sometimes 4) hrs. a week to do pastoral care, plan & lead the liturgy, and occasionally appear at a social justice event. Alas, we have no deacon, and really need one. That will be our first paid cleric, when the time comes, not me. I rarely go to meetings.

Let´s talk about real reform, depending on answers to questions like, What is the church supposed to be like? What could we do to get arrested at least, if not tortured? What are the causes of suffering and death (yes, death) in our neighborhoods? What should we do about them? How can our eating together every week show forth a different kind of world?

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