My dear Episcopal Church

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by Maryann Younger

 

 

You’ve heard the depressing statistics.

You’ve looked around on Sunday and seen it in the pews.

Heck, you may even be charged with trying to rejuvenate your church, or worse, figuring out how to shut it down with grace.

 

You’ve sat in meetings about how to become more welcoming.

You’ve brainstormed about how to reach those elusive millennials.

Or how to improve the website to become more accessible and friendly to all.

You may have even reworked your mission and guiding principles to refresh and recharge your congregations.

 

And still. Folks are missing.

 

I’ve also heard and read enough conservative thinkers – and there are many loud voices in this camp – to know that the evangelical church thinks we’ve lost our way. One even asking, ‘What does liberal Christianity even stand for but for legitimizing homosexual desire and approbation for sexual permissiveness?’

 

Um, wow.

 

Here’s what we stand for: we stand for the dignity of every person. We stand for loving each other, and especially those who aren’t like us. We stand for a loving inclusive God who is all about standing with the oppressed and the marginalized. It’s that whole Matthew 22:37-40 statement about loving God and loving each other.

 

But here’s the thing – we need to do more than stand for something.  We need to move with it, too. It is not enough to wait for folks to walk through our door and to make sure they have a good experience when they arrive. (Make no mistake, that initial experience is really important, but let’s save that discussion for another day.)

 

And we need to admit that we’ve hurt folks. Hurt them enough that they don’t want to be a part of any religion at all. Hurt them with rules and doctrine that have no basis in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In fact, they seem to be motivated more by power and control of the Church, than grace and forgiveness in the Church. And to make matters worse, the middle-aged folks (full disclosure: this is my demographic) that walked away wounded have raised children who share their contempt and distrust of the institution.

 

So, what are we to do?

 

Let me tell you a story about one small way that I’ve learned to do church differently. I am a seminarian at a Lutheran, but largely ecumenical and racially diverse, seminary. I am humbled to be one of two sacristans of that institution which basically means that I get to help the worshiping community ‘do’ church. Except, for a bunch of reasons too complex to go into here, attendance at chapel services (which is not required at this institution) is declining. So, we decided to move to them. On Tuesday evenings, we have Dinner Church in one of the public areas in the main building. (While the name Dinner Church is often associated with a Eucharist, our is not. It is simply church with dinner tossed in.) Here’s the format: the volunteer leader chooses scripture, which can be lectionary based or not; adds a song or two; and then develops a few discussion questions based on the above. That’s it. Oh, and there’s food because we need to be fed. And we’ve watched attendance in this service steadily increase.

 

Ed Setzer recently said in the Washington Post, “If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past – not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old.” So, let’s go back to proclaiming the teachings of Jesus Christ and to breaking bread with one another.

 

Is Dinner Church going to resurrect the mainline church? I don’t think it’s that simple. But in this one tiny corner, we have increased enthusiasm and have grown in our conversations with one another. And that’s a good thing.

 

What are you doing in your one tiny corner that’s working? Would you be willing to share it with me? With the church?

 

I’ve read the statistics. I’ve heard the doom and gloom about our future. I’ve recoiled at the hypocrisy of the actions of many conservative churches. But I remain undaunted.

 

I know that God is very much alive in our world. The teachings of Jesus Christ are great examples of how to live. The Holy Spirit continues to breathe life and love and transformation in amazing and grace-filled ways. And that’s a good thing.

 

So, my dear Church: let’s stop our navel gazing and turn a deaf ear to the naysayers, and move out into the world together.  You know, to love and serve the Lord.

 

 

Maryann D. Younger is an Episcopalian studying religion at a Lutheran Seminary after a career in educational leadership and a lifetime of applied sociology. The Holy Spirit has not yet revealed what direction her mid-life call with lead, but she thinks it might be in reconciling the hurt with the church. She and her husband live in an old farmhouse in Delaware with three pets of questionable heritage.

 

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34 Responses to "My dear Episcopal Church"
  1. Maryann, thank you! Your experience at a Lutheran seminary is a hint at what we Mainliners need: to rebuild a collective denomination from the ground up--in the style of the United Church of Canada or the Churches of North and South India--and to start work now, before it's too late. Our Mainline denominations are, for the most part, rather homogenous vestiges of faithful generations of 16th through 19th century immigrants. You're correct in suggesting that we need freshness in worship expression; I'm adding that we should go farther: start from the ground up with a new, fresh statement based on the 39 Articles and Augsburg Confession. Follow it up with a catechism, a united name, a prayer book, etc. Yes, there are legalities and it will take decades to sort out. This is exactly why we need to start now, and put in the time to do it right.

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  2. Thank you, Ms. Younger, for raising this issue; it seems we never get beyond the question. I'm glad you reminded me

    Perhaps I'm naive, but I'm not sure a smaller TEC is necessarily a bad thing. Certainly, if people are departing our parishes because they have been hurt and wounded by what they hear in the pulpit, that is a cause for serious concern. But I would want to understand the nature of their injury: Do the parishioner ears smart because their world view does not include women, communities of color or LGBT in positions of leadership? Or--- are the parishioners in question reeling from assaults to their dignity and self-respect? The former group may be leaving TEC in droves, but that doesn't concern me. Since the Windsor Report kerfuffle years ago, I've accepted the fact that their will be no reconciliation between the evangelicals and the progressives because the evangelicals insist on cherry-picked "Scriptural conformity".

    I personally welcome their departure ONLY because they continue to insist that we bow to their doctrine; smaller, less contentious and truly welcoming parishes may be just the kick start TEC needs in the 21st century.

    I also fantasize about the additional assets TEC would now have access to; assets that would be devoted to messaging a single voice: "The Episcopal Church (unequivocally) Welcomes You".

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  3. Here here! I completly concur with what you are saying. The Episcopal Church needs to get out into the community and we must never waiver on being the church that welcomes everyone. I also think having a renewed diaconate to engage with the world will greatly benefit us.

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    • Michael: I couldn't agree more. Long before bishops and priests, there were DEACONS carrying the Good News.

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  4. What a great thread! Many thanks to Ms. Younger and Mr. Spivey.

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  5. I would add that all ordained persons should remember that they never stop being deacon, I.e. look for Christ in all others,being ready to help and serve those in need.

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  6. This is good stuff! We don't have to be complicated about all this; just take a step or two outside the box. If it doesn't work, take a step in a different direction. Just keep steppin'!

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  7. As the son of a priest who was deeply involved in progressive Christianity and urban outreach in the 1950s and 60s, and as a religious who lives and works with men dealing with mental illness and substance abuse, I fully agree with Ms. Younger's main points. I would only add three points:

    1. Though membership may be declining, the level of commitment among current members are much higher than they were in the so-called "golden age." Tensions in individual parishes almost always seem to center on conflicts between the more conventional vision of "religion" as being a compartment in a series of societal norms -- the classic civil religion -- and those for whom their faith is the raison d'etre of their lives, the basis of their entire lifestyle.

    2. The institutional structures of the church, from the parish, through the diocese, through the national church, seem desperately trying to play catch-up, and instituting programs and policies that are amazingly tone-deaf to the experience of the average Christian.

    3. In my experience the vast majority of active and committed Episcopalians don't really care all that much about being an Episcopalian. They are members of a local church, and if that church happens to be an Episcopal Church, it's because it's the church where they feel they are best fed and have the most scope to exercise their own vocation and ministry. Being Episcopalian in incidental, not essential.

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    • I couldn't agree more. You have reached into the heart of how our Church can survive and thrive in this new century. We really do have to reinvent ourselves, but can do that only if we are willing to shed the weighting of "Being an Episcopalian", and exchange that for "the welcoming Church for those wo may not welcomed elsewhere."; for those who may be victims of other bully pulpits. In Presiding Bishop Curry's words, we can offer a Jesus Movement Church. I think is was Primate Browning who believed that in TEC, "there are no outsiders."

      The Episcopal brand no longer attracts the way it used to; it's not high on the relevance list of this generation. Instead, this generation is looking for a worship and spiritual experience that is right-sized within the context of this complex and changing world. The young don't want easy answers; they want the tools and guidance to find answers for themselves in communion with our Triune God. They want to be challenged to think and question. What better place to do that than in the progressive wing of the Church that prides itself on faithful adherence to Scripture, Tradition and Reason.

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      • Yes, it was PB Browning who said, "There are no outcasts."

        There's a difference between outcasts and outsiders. The first are those who have been "cast out" and the second are those who never were "inside" at all.

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  8. Thought-provoking to be sure, but I am concerned that seminarians need to be lured to faithful attendance at weekly worship. I'm also suspect of weakening our Anglican identity as some kind of enticement to "the young" who are talked about and whose interests and preferences are assumed, but yet are too often underrepresented in these pieces. In fact, if one looks at those who want more traditional liturgy and parish life, we might actually see quite a few young faces. I think much of the thinking about the church still seems to be burdened by the now bankrupt ideologies of the post-war generation that ultimately did more to undermine the strength of the church than surrounding secularism did.

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    • I don't think the Anglican identity can be weakened much more than the global North and South already have (Scripture); and I wouldn't think of flattening diluting our exquisite liturgies (Tradition); but, just as disaffected Romans are returning to their Church under Francis, I believe disaffected Anglicans can find a safe harbor in TEC (Reason).

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  9. Two additional thoughts: One, I hope we don't over-think this; stop talking and start doing. Two: don't be too concerned about seminarian chapel attendance, because fewer and fewer priests are coming from seminaries anyway. Seminary is a 19th centurty concept that badly fits the needs of the greater church. Too expensive, too demanding, and ill-suited for the needs of a pastor-priest.

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    • Agree, at least in part. As I've said here before: more and more clergy are second-career and have already made their financial pile. Note the biographies of candidates for ordination in any diocese.

      Clergy like me, who went straight from college to seminary, are a vanishing breed.

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  10. When I was younger I attended a (very) large Roman Catholic church, and while it was full every Sunday, there wasn't a lot of involvement in the church beyond Sunday attendance.

    Now I attend a mid-sized Episcopal church with a VERY active congregation. Most people there are involved with at least 1 church related activity outside of normal Sunday services.

    I think a small group that is active has just as much potential if not more to affect the community around it. We shouldn't despair over the size our communities, but feed them spiritually, and they will grow.

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    • Amen. Lest we not forget that twelve multiplied exponentially.

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  11. Note to bishop in Orlando. It is not Christian to cast out people and that is what you are doing. Get over yourself and get out of the way of parishes who wish to welcome all.

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      • In Orlando (and Dallas... and Nashville... and Albany), same gender marriages are not allowed. LGBT people also wouldn't ever be able to make it through the ordination process. In this way the Episcopal Church is a church of unequals, where LGBT people are marginalized in some areas with the consent of the entire church. What we need to do is to strip bishops of much of the power they have and return it to both laypeople and clergy. This would prevent us from both situations like St. James the Great in Newport Beach and bishops who do not welcome all.

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  12. Don't know but what you didn't just find your voice and your path! Do know we'll miss you at St. Peter's!

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  13. I like to tell people that I'm an Episcopalutheran. They tend to think that's weird, but I feel equally at home in both traditions.

    I believe that "both/and" thinking, which is more inclusive than "either/or," can often take us out of the limiting boxes of Twentieth-Century churchy-ness and into an expansive future.

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  14. One good thing about the Lutherans: they don't have the phrase, "And now, as our Savior taught us, we are bold to say . . ." before the Lord's Prayer in the Eucharist.

    At that moment in the service, I feel like Ed Sullivan
    introducing the next act in his "really big show."

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    • That introduction to the Lord's prayer goes back to the earliest eucharistic liturgies. The "bold" in our translation goes back to the "parrhesia" in the Greek originals, which means "boldness, frankness, openness, outspokeness, freedom of speech" -- signifying the new directness one has with God as part of the body of those baptized into Christ, by which we became sons and daughters and thus heirs, rather than slaves.

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  15. I think a portion of the answer must include a consideration of martyrdom. For what would [you] be willing to lay down your life?

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  16. --I'm an x-Episcopalian church goer. When I look at progressive churches, it seems like the pastors are trying to talk themselves out of a job. When all beliefs (& no beliefs) are accepted & not corrected, where's the power? I don't see it as a faith that goes much beyond one Generation. It's been defanged.

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      • There are snake-handling churches in the Appalachian mountains. Plenty of fangs there.

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    • TEC hasn't been defanged. TEC's former incisors t have been removed by St. Luke, the physician; a painless procedure, I might add. 🙂

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    • Nothing defanged or fangless about the Episcopal church I attend, leslie marshall. The building practically shakes when the congregation exclaims "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" during the Eucharist. And its constant encouragement to love God, love neighbor, love enemy and treat others the same way we want to be treated is utterly vibrant.

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  17. Acts 2:1-3

    Americans are great at selling most anything. If they can't turn fire, wind and water into commodities and market them, nobody can. The problem today is the fire has burned down to embers, the wind become a gentle breeze and the water calm. No amount of new branding is going to change the situation. But then, that's why we have the Holy Spirit if we'll only live into it.

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  18. PS: Browning said, "there will be (not are) no outcasts." At the time he said it, there were plenty of outcasts, and still are. It was his prayer and challenge for the future into which we still have a lot of living to do.

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