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Lessons for TEC in the “Book of Mormon”

Lessons for TEC in the “Book of Mormon”

I recently attended a hilarious production of the Broadway hit musical, “The Book of Common Prayer.”

 

Oops! There is no such musical. However, I did attend the “Book of Mormon,” a riotous and poignant musical.

 

Why has nobody written a Broadway musical about The Episcopal Church (TEC) or our cherished Book of Common Prayer? Encouragingly, perhaps few outsiders find us sufficiently obnoxious to be fertile soil for humor. Less encouragingly, in comparison to the Mormons, TEC has a lower public profile, our institutions are less energetic, we expect less from our membership, and our liturgies are more common than unique, representing a (if not the) principal root of most English-language Christian worship.

 

Unexpectedly for a genre that tends toward entertainment rather than theological insight, “The Book of Mormon” left me with three takeaways.

 

First, the musical emphasized the imperative of being relevant to people’s needs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints assigns a pair of young elders, the show’s stars, to an African village for their mission field. There, they join several other Mormon missionary teams, and discover that after months of effort these missionaries have baptized nobody. The villagers perceive the missionaries as untrustworthy and unhelpful. Non-Mormon missionaries have visited the village for many years, telling their Bible stories, and then returning home. Meanwhile, the African villagers must still cope with widespread AIDS, a murderous warlord who requires female genital mutilation, and other problems. The Mormon missionaries succeed, where others have failed, by allegedly finding verses in the Book of Mormon that present practical solutions to those problems.

 

Second, the musical reminded me that our theology and liturgies are not living water or light but merely earthen vessels. The Mormon elder whose preaching reached the African villages had not read the Book of Mormon. An experienced prevaricator, he fabricated stories that spoke to the villagers’ situation. When the villagers write and perform a play for visiting Mormon leaders reveals the missionary’s fabrications, the Mormons are devastated and ordered home. The missionary’s dishonesty did not upset the villagers. They knew that there was no paradise named Salt Lake City (if you have not seen the musical, the ending alone is worth the price of admission!). Religious truth, they declare, is always metaphorical. Conflict is essential for allowing new life to emerge.

 

Third, when the audience exited the theater after the musical, actual Mormon missionaries were standing by to engage anyone interested in discussing the Book of Mormon or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The elders’ presence underscored that any publicity is good publicity.

 

In visiting Episcopal worship services, I commonly hear a sermon that fails to connect with the congregation. Preachers seemingly prefer platitudes to doubts, tough questions, and real problems. More often than not, the preacher adopts an uncritical approach to the text, further eroding her/his credibility. Afterwards, I wonder whether walking the Jesus path has any practical relevance for living authentically, relationally, and spiritually in the twenty-first century. Although I do not commend the “theology lite” of growing megachurches, I do applaud their ability to speak transformative words of hope and life to their congregations.

 

In the same vein, TEC can shout, “All are welcome,” as loudly and frequently as we choose. However, that message will remain unpersuasive until we not only embrace all races, ethnicities, genders, and gender orientations but also (in no special order):

  • Update antiquated physical facilities to allow the physically challenged access
  • Devise ways to conduct our liturgies so that the literate and illiterate are both comfortable
  • Ensure safe, convenient childcare
  • Utilize a liturgy that makes space for believers, doubters, and seekers, i.e., non-believers
  • Accommodate persons from the right and left ends of the political spectrum in the same congregation
  • Enfold the washed and unwashed, i.e., the economically affluent and the poor, homeless, hungry, addicted, and released prisoners who live on the margins of our communities.

 

Welcoming all similarly requires discarding growth that targets, and thereby values, particular demographics unrelated to a local geographic context. For example, congregational leaders stereotypically regard young couples with children as the “holy grail” of church growth. This presumes that regular Sunday School attendance produces mature, committed Christians. If that premise were correct, TEC and other U.S. denominations that in the mid-twentieth century had large, well-attended Sunday Schools would not have more recently suffered decades of numerical decline.

 

Alternatively, some Episcopalians attribute a significant amount of TEC’s numerical decline to adverse media attention related to the Church taking strong social justice stands in the 1960s, the ordination of women, Gene Robinson’s consecration as Bishop of New Hampshire, and controversies about same-sex marriage.

 

No publicity is bad publicity. Adverse attention does not have to dishearten us. Instead, media attention affords us an opportunity to tell our story, a story of a people transformed from being the establishment at prayer to being a community of Jesus’ followers who welcome everyone, a community of pilgrims who together are learning to walk in the light and to live more abundantly.

 

 

 

George Clifford is an ethicist and designated supply priest for the Church of the Holy Nativity in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

 

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George Clifford

Richard, I did not intend this piece as a bad news story. I think TEC can have a bright future if – and its a big if – we decide that we want to minister to hurting people in the twenty-first century. We have a great story to tell. Instead, we too often (but thankfully, not in all places and times!) prefer to maintain the status quo while lamenting the loss of a pass regarded as the “golden age.” Advantageously, people in 2016 mostly participate in a congregation because they want to be part of God’s people, actively engaging in ministry to one another and to their neighbors near and far. Let’s stop trying to regain a lost past and celebrate the exciting future opportunities.

Richard Warren

George,

Don’t take this the wrong way but I get a little bit fatigued by all of those folks out there who find fault but never seem to want to offer up a good solution. I see and hear comments about how TEC is slowly circling the drain, okay then what’s the magical answer to get the church back on track? Maybe TEC is an anachronism and it’s days are numbered, should we sell off all of the real estate and give the money to the poor and then what ……..?

Paul Woodrum

Episcopalians are experts at hiding their light under elegant bushels, preferably faux Gothic, and archaic language preferably set to medieval chant. Heaven forbid that Common Prayer should actually attract common folk.

M. J. Wise

“Utilize a liturgy that makes space for believers, doubters, and seekers, i.e., non-believers”

If this is meant in the way I usually hear it, I could not disagree more. Good liturgy should be challenging and represent an aspiration to all present. Watered down, feel good liturgies designed to please all and challenge no one should be left to the megachurches and the universalists.

“No publicity is bad publicity.”

This seems a rather vapid statement. I think the Roman Catholics would disagree, at the very least.

JC Fisher

“Watered down, feel good liturgies designed to please all and challenge no one should be left to the megachurches and the universalists.”

EXCUSE ME???

I’m a universalist Episcopalian, and I’m FAR from the only one. I could easily respond, “Watered down, feel good liturgies designed to please the self-selected elect and not challenge them” should be left to the smug Turn-or-Burners.

Having a universalist theology of salvation has a long and noble history. It’s the way I interpret Scripture (with and through Tradition and Reason)—but there’s nothing “Watered down, feel good” about it (Just think: everyone you believe to be MOST evil, is going to enjoy God’s eternal embrace WITH YOU. That *should* give you pause!)

Every Episcopalian has the freedom to choose their theology, consistent w/ their own conscience (as brought to S,T&R, and while professing the Creeds). There’s no need to bad mouth a theology that’s different from yours.

M. J. Wise

I was clearly talking about liturgy, not theology. Explicitly universalist liturgy (like you’d see in a UU church where most people would barely even consider themselves theists, if that) is quite bland and empty. There’s really nothing to aspire to through worship (since it does not really matter what is said or done) so in my view, it becomes a rather uninteresting and arbitrary stage show. YMMV.

Jay Croft

“Physically challenged?”

A mixed marital arts fighter is physically challenged when he or she steps into the ring. A person in a wheelchair isn’t.

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