by Linda Ryan
Today being my furlough day from work, I had a little more discretionary time after I got up than I usually do. I found a video I’d been meaning to watch and promptly sat there mesmerized for nearly half an hour. The video featured the Very Rev. Ian Markham, Dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, speaking to the convention of the Diocese of Delaware on “the Myth of the Decline of the Episcopal Church.” He was articulate, spoke directly and without ducking his head to check his notes, was charismatic, amusing, animated and it didn’t hurt that his English accent was lovely to listen to. Over and above those characteristics however, what he said made me do a lot of thinking on my morning walk after watching the video.
Dean Markham spoke of two bishops who had been visitors to the Seminary, almost polar opposites on a number of topics, the direction in which the Episcopal Church should go at or near the top of the list of differences. As far apart as the bishops’ theological differences are or could be, their common theme seemed to be that the Episcopal Church is dying. They take opposing sides on the same issues, each assuring us that the opponent’s supporters are causing the decline; however, they agree that the Episcopal Church numbers have been going down and they are sounding a death knell. Dean Markham, on the other hand, doesn’t see it that way. As a result of this video, I have begun to think about what that means to me as an Episcopalian. I hear that our numbers are declining and I have something of a sense of acceptance that such pronouncements are gospel, causing me to figuratively wring my hands and think there’s nothing I can do, short of suggesting the church offers bread and circuses and hope people are searching for those same kinds of bread and circuses. I think perhaps we as a church have allowed a lot of what we see in the culture around us to dictate how we see our church in terms of numerical growth, or lack thereof, around us, namely fear, despair, anger and overwhelming helplessness in the face of it all. There’s a lot to fear in this world around us, judging from news reports and commentary on the sad state of things such as the string of disasters and events that seem to be plaguing our world recently: threats, famine, drought, explosions, earthquakes, shootings, and so on. It seems to me that culture and the church are somewhat like the two bishops, very different in outlook but with one single negative vision as an outcome.
Our numbers, whether declining, improving or flat lining, are based on Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) which is calculated based on reporting from each parish in every diocese as to attendance on four key Sundays during the church year. We’re not counting a lot of Episcopal church experiences that don’t happen on the particular Sundays upon which the ASA is calculated. For instance, the Dean pointed out two specific examples of these missing numbers: attendance at worship services held during the week at Episcopal schools and colleges, and those in Episcopal retirement communities. His total came out to something like 16,000 people involved in worship each week that didn’t happen on those four Sundays and therefore weren’t counted in the ASA. That made me stop and think that he’s right and that maybe we need to find a new way to count the number of people who join us not only on Sunday, the most active day of the week for our churches, but also all those services we hold during the week where we may not have a huge attendance but we do have people joining us for worship, whether in a church building or not. What if our churches came up with an average weekly attendance instead of just counting the four particular Sundays? Granted, it would probably involve more math, which a lot of people try to avoid, and it would be a little more inconvenient perhaps, but it would probably give us a more accurate number of those for whom we provide worship services and in which people participate. Also, some people who attend during the week don’t go every Sunday just as some don’t go on the Sundays where the counting is done. I wonder how many people we are discounting
Something else he brought out was the fact that Episcopal churches usually have two services and they often differ in flavor, in a manner of speaking. It isn’t always so, especially in smaller, more rural congregations, but usually if the church has two services, they generally offer one using Rite 1 and another using Rite 2 (or possibly Rite 3 in combination with one of the others), and each have their own communities within the church. There’s the old joke about an 8 o’clock worshiper showing up at a 10 AM service and being greeted as a newcomer even though they’d attended the same church for 30 years and never met anyone from the other service. Churches sometimes offer additional worship opportunities, like Taizé or drumming or meditation, and those services sometimes attract people who don’t come to other services. Shouldn’t their worship experiences count?
As a corollary to that thought, I believe that perhaps if a certain kind of worship is something that nourishes my connection with God, I will attend one that features that particular kind and not some other as a general rule. The church may offer different worship experiences at different times (even sometimes in the time when I am accustomed to a particular style or manner of worship), but that doesn’t mean I have to attend it – or have the right to veto it for others who might find it to be their connection to God. That’s one of the strengths of the Episcopal Church, this variety of worship that is possible. Variety is the spice of life, and the Episcopal Church definitely offers that spice in many different forms and at many different times. It’s almost a trademark of TEC and the “broad umbrella” we like to think of as our particular way of doing church, one which is not always shared by other churches or denominations where there is a “one size fits all” that works for them.
As a personal statement, I love the Episcopal Church. I have flirted with others since my confirmation forty-eight years ago, but I always seem to end up back in the Episcopal pews with the feeling that God is saying, “Sit! Stay!” Even though I’m more cat than dog, I get the message. I’ve listened to the despairing talks about the dying church and after listening to the Dean, I decided I’m not going to listen to them anymore. I refuse to acknowledge the thought that this church might cease to exist due to the perception that my generation and the generation that preceded me are dying and not being replaced in the pews. That refusal fits with what I observed last Sunday when I went to relatively new church that had been planted in 2006 by a priest-friend who had a passion and a mission. I looked around the congregation on Sunday in a well-filled the worship space, and I noted adults of varying ages, singles, couples, children, teens, and even a babe or two in their parents’ arms. It didn’t look like a church in a dying denomination to me, in fact, the energy level was amazing. People were there because they wanted to be there, they belonged there and they seemed to enjoy being there; they were invested in the mission and ministry of that church. I think that when I see or feel despair, I need to think about the Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale. It’s a success story built around contagion – a contagion for the gospel and service. There should be more of that kind of contagion around.
I’m Episcopalian. I’m proud of it and I want people to experience what I have with the Episcopal Church. Most of all, I want this church that I love so much to continue on for many centuries to come. It’s gone through rocky times and it’s gone through relatively tranquil times. The thing is that growth is not a painless process; sometimes something has to hurt in order to grow, like a callous on a guitar-playing hand or new skin and nerve endings over a healing wound. Our church has gone through some painful times over the last few decades, seeing (or not seeing) the need for changes in our liturgy, in our clergy, in the way we see others, and the way we work with others. Some have adapted and some, regrettably, have chosen to leave for places more suited to their beliefs and feelings. We’ve wished them well and moved on in the direction we believe the Spirit has led us. We undoubtedly will have rocky times ahead of us again. In the meantime we have the opportunity to grow simply by refusing to bow to the climate of despair and by seeking to present ourselves to the world as a church that cares about people more than we cares about how much money they have, what their social status is or even whether their beliefs are totally in sync with what some might consider orthodox beliefs.
Another old saying is about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day while teaching him to fish will feed him for a lifetime. I think the Episcopal Church is in the process of learning how to teach people to fish rather than simply giving them fish. That, I believe is a key to keeping our church alive and growing. I’m betting on it.