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.