There’s something about a new year that invites a reckoning. We want to understand what has happened, we want to imagine what might lie ahead, and we make commitments to change and do differently. How successful we are at these surely varies, but that won’t stop us from peering into the tea leaves.
A number of issues face Christianity in America today; erosion of legal supports for church, rising secularism, vicious disunity, and partisan capture of Christian entities. Other issues affect the Episcopal Church specifically, especially aging congregants and buildings, a clerically centered view of ministry, inflexible canons, and a churchwide structure mired in the mid-twentieth century and disconnected from parish life.
At the same time, to give into pessimism would be a kind of disavowal of the central promise of Christian life. We are, after all, a people of hope. This also isn’t the first time the Episcopal Church has felt itself in dire straits – check out Tom Ferguson’s great book The Episcopal Story: Birth and Rebirth if you don’t believe me. The most recent stats on church membership show a beginning of a leveling out and highlight bright spots of growth all around the church. The Episcopal Church isn’t dying and there’s reason for hope that the church on the other side of this Great Transition will be spiritually stronger and more nimble in its continuing mission to be Christ in the world.
So below are my thoughts on where we are and where we might go.
Paying for it all
Church is expensive, and Episcopal Churches may be more expensive than average (debatable). We rely almost wholly on donations by individual members and the patrimony of the saints to get us through. Just like glebe farms and pew rents, this model is on the verge of breaking down. An immediate threat are changes in the tax code recently enacted which many economists predict will reduce charitable giving overall, but especially to congregations. On top of that, those entities that have endowments they rely on might suffer if the stock market declines from recession, or declines precipitously if the United States engages in a significant conflict (in say, Iran or North Korea). There is also a long term danger to the US economy from foreign investors removing their money if governmental and economic stability continue to decline.
Further tensions arise from how money is shared upwards to diocesan and churchwide coffers. Many places seem to either resent what they give or refuse altogether to pay it. This is part of a broader cultural trend towards distrust of institutions, but also reflects conflicts within the church, especially over the issue of LGBT+ inclusion. At some point a broader sense of Episcopal community will need to emerge to overcome these narrow parochial views.
It seems pretty clear that the model of parish finance we have clung to, with every parish on their own and dioceses mandating a take off the top isn’t going to support our ministry. Fundraising activities drawing dollars from outside the membership, some kinds of commercial activity, and seeking outside grants will be larger pieces of the income pie moving forward. On the spending side, clergy benefits and compensation are the biggest costs in most congregations, so creativity in clergy deployment will need to be a part of the solution. We should also expect to see a rise in part-time clergy, but that will require a corresponding rise in active lay leadership.
We have inherited from the Church of England the notion that our goal is a “gentleman in every parish.” Blame George Herbert if you like, but our canons and prayer book are structured around the ideal of 200 or so people living in close proximity to one another gathered together with a single clergyperson (and maybe a deacon), governed by a vestry in a geographically defined “parish.” This model worked pretty good for a long time, and still works in lots of places. Increasingly though, it doesn’t work in many places and it doesn’t match the vast majority of Episcopal congregations, most of which have fewer than 50 people. Many of our parishes are in places where lots more people lived a hundred or two hundred years ago, or were founded when folks walked a block or two to church, but certainly no more than a half mile. Where I live, in upstate New York, there are four parishes within a five-seven mile radius of my own, all of which are getting by, but which are relatively small. That made sense in 1880, or even in 1960, but maybe not so much today. In my previous diocese, West Virginia, 80% of the congregations were founded before 1890. West Virginia has experienced massive depopulation – the largest city has only 51,000 people, and parishes of 20 members are not uncommon. Priests to serve them all, on the other hand, are even harder to come by.
Given the percentage of population that attends Episcopal churches, a nearby population of approximately 20,000 people is needed to support our traditional parish model. I wonder how many of our churches are in places where there are at least that many people within five miles or so without another Episcopal church nearby?
We are likely to see more mergers and consolidations of parishes in the future as well as many outright closures. One possibility is the partnering with some of our full-communion partners (like the ELCA) in shared facilities or even in merged congregations. I can tell you from experience, the canons do not easily support this. Membership when the congregations join is easy to define, harder when new folks join – are they Lutherans, Episcopalian, Lutheropalians? On whose member rolls do they go? The Council President in an ELCA congregation has very different authority than a Senior Warden – likewise for Pastors and Rectors. And how much money goes to the Synod and how much to the diocese? It’s a thicket that isn’t easy to clear.
Another model is the yoke, where multiple parishes combine into a kind of federation. My (limited) knowledge of these suggest problems with differing cultures, civic antagonisms, and an unwillingness to share resources. Again, our canons don’t easily support this model because each body of the federation is still considered an independent entity. A better model might be a hub and spoke system where relatively large and healthy parishes are merged (one entity) with smaller congregations to affect real sharing of resources.
Real work needs to be done to define and facilitate these types of cooperative parishes and dioceses need to be incentivized to make them happen and work well.
Worship is just one component of a spiritual, Christ-centered life. In too many places I suspect it is the only component on offer. Similarly, increasing individualism and affluence among traditional Episcopal types is a challenge to the parish as the focus of individual Christian life. We read wonderful books and magazine articles, listen to On Being and watch thought-provoking TED talks, have the leisure to explore the life of the mind, etc. Unless you’re blessed with a really gifted preacher, church may pale by comparison as a source of insight and spiritual nourishment.
A further problem is that most churches still only offer a major worship opportunity only on Sunday mornings. Increasingly, many people aren’t able to go to church even if they want to. Fully 20% of Americans are working on Sunday mornings each week. Expanding beyond the traditional Sunday morning schedule is a real challenge though. It takes time, from clergy, musicians, and volunteers to plan and it would take significant time and effort to essentially launch a whole new congregation in every parish across the church.
Expect to see more churches try to expand worship outside of Sundays, but also expect to see more non-Eucharist services in these times. Though many now feel that only eucharist is “real” church and anything else is only a consolation, our tradition thankfully has a rich treasure of excellent non-eucharist worship to draw on. Evensong services are rising in popularity in the UK as an example. At the same time, there will likely be increasing efforts to engage people online and combine the best that’s available web-wide with a local touch and local connection to help met folk’s spiritual needs. We really are only on the cusp of what is possible in our online engagement. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the rise of “superstar” preachers and teachers within the Episcopal church, something we have not really seen much of in the past.
Aside from more flexibility in how we form and govern local worship and ministry centers, how we structure the whole of the church needs to change. Our current structure is terribly expensive. We spend around 42 million dollars each year just at the church center level, and it is fair to ask what the average parishioner gets from that spending? A great deal of the money is spent on various grants to dioceses and parishes of course, but 42% of the budget (almost $18,000,000 annually) goes to administration and governance. The twentieth century saw the rise of a corporate-governance model of church that required a central HQ (in New York City, for us) a big central staff, a government lobbying arm, lots of lawyers, and a communications apparatus (now sadly diminished). It was only in the early 2oth century that being the Presiding bishop became a full-time job – lots of other Anglican Communion provinces still manage without this, by the way.
Centralization was the impetus of 20th century American business and the church followed along. Maybe it’s time to break away from this particular piece of cultural appropriation and return to our roots as a more decentralized federation held together by the Prayer Book, General Convention, and the Apostolic Succession. We see this already in the rise of affinity networks (Integrity, the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, Forma, Episcopal Appalachian Ministries, etc) that link congregations and dioceses together. It might also be time to let go of the Provincial structure and trust that diocesan cooperation will continue without it where warranted.
Expect to see a continued impetus towards getting rid of the HQ building (815) in NYC and the rise of more networks with a corresponding focus on the unifying structure of General Convention itself. Don’t be surprised, though, by an effort by the bishops to insert themselves as a unifying body similar to what has been happening at the Primates meeting.
Prayer Book Revision
There will be continued calls to at least update the Prayer Book with inclusive language options and inclusion of rites for same sex marriage. The last General Convention (GC) got the ball rolling and the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music looks set to offer at least two alternatives to this coming GC for a plan to move forward. Don’t expect to see a major revision along the lines of 1979; there is clearly no appetite for that across the church and too many who were exhausted from the effort of forty years ago are still in positions of authority and influence.
There is dissatisfaction all around though on the increasing multiplicity of resources available and strong desire for simplification and clarity over what is and is not authorized. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a clarification in canon on what is authorizable by parish, bishop, and GC to tag along with any potential revision plans. In fact, I would expect to see this regardless of whether revision moves forward at GC2018 or not.
Across American society there is an ongoing changing of the guard in leadership. The Baby Boomers who have been the driving force for at least fifty years (and likely beyond) are aging out and frustrated cohorts behind them are eager to see them go. It is hard to estimate how much this will change things, but I expect it to be significant. The issues that Baby Boomers have cared about are not necessarily foremost in the minds of younger generations. Pendulums swing, expect this one to make a wide arc in a new direction. Social justice will likely remain a major concern and desire, and things like racial LGBT+ inclusion are givens, but a desire to blow up institutions and do away with tradition will fade away. I imagine a bit of a retrenchment in matters liturgical lies ahead as many younger members seek to rediscover and reimplement older worship styles.
Turn, turn, turn…
Ecclesiastes has been my go-to book for 2017, its combination of stoicism, cynicism and surrender to God has seemed to capture my experience of this past year perfectly.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
These words, I think, echo the experience of the Episcopal Church since about the time the Byrds borrowed them for a pop song. I think we are nearing the end of the beginning of the Great Transition in church life, what Phyllis Tickle famously described as a “giant rummage sale,” deciding what to dispose and what to keep, making room for new things.
Though it’s still unclear what exactly the paradigm of “church” will be at the end of this century, its fuzzy contours I believe are beginning to take shape. It will be more decentralized, it will be less concerned with denominational boundaries but deeply invested in denominational traditions, it will be less geographically focused while more focused on local mission and ministry. It will be more concerned with orthopraxy than orthodoxy and will likely feel more sectarian, more “other” than the Christianity of today and certainly as compared to a generation ago.
The church is not in decline, not meaningfully anyway, and not spiritually. Its social status is in decline, for sure. But as a movement begun by a radical preacher and healer executed by the state for fomenting rebellion, that’s probably not a bad thing. Let us remember, like Laurence the deacon, that the treasure of the church isn’t in dollars or real estate, but in the hearts of those who follow Christ.