by George Clifford
Depending upon one’s age, The Episcopal Church (TEC) today is clearly not your father or grandfather’s Church (and in those days, TEC was unmistakably male dominated). Mid-twentieth century caricatures of TEC as the Republican Party at prayer now lack credibility and power, except perhaps among a nostalgic few who yearn to return to what they believe to have been TEC’s glory days. TEC, after all, was the Church to which many of the nation’s founding fathers belonged and its members in subsequent generations frequently dominated politics and business.
TEC now firmly stands for social justice, having prominently advocated for civil rights and against poverty, hunger, and the death penalty. Illustratively, a once exclusively male clergy has become fully integrated; the outgoing Presiding Bishop was the first woman to occupy that position. 1950s opposition to remarriage after divorce has become 2015 support for marriage between two consenting adults, regardless of gender. And a church that remained unbroken across the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War, implicitly tolerating slavery by not explicitly denouncing that evil, has just elected its first African-American Presiding Bishop.
Some critics believe that these changes substantially contributed to TEC’s significant decline in numbers and influence. That erroneous assessment reflects two mistakes. First, correlation is not causation. TEC’s more assertive commitment to social justice did not cause its numerical decline. Concurrent with TEC’s increased emphasis on social justice and internal ecclesial changes, society has become more secular. This trend affects most churches, not just TEC. For example, the trend is now evident among evangelical and conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists. The Roman Catholic Church has avoided declining only because new immigrants have filled its pews at a rate that exceeded the ongoing exodus of longer term US residents.
Second, to the extent that people have left TEC because of TEC’s emphasis on social justice, TEC is arguably healthier, stronger, and more Christ-like. TEC inherited from the Church of England a Christendom model of the Church that presumes everyone in a community is, by default, a Christian. In today’s globalized religious marketplace, that premise is no longer true – if it ever was. Furthermore, skeptics have long carped that some people attended church to make business contacts, gain social acceptance, etc. I no longer hear that canard; the emphasis on social justice has caused such persons, whose affiliation with TEC was more nominal than genuine, to seek more congenial fellowship elsewhere. In other words, the decades of transformation may have been like a refiner’s fire that burns away impurities, leaving behind those who are more committed to incarnating the gospel message of God’s all-inclusive mercy, love, and justice. Our central ecclesial model has shifted from the Church as the exclusive ark of salvation to the Church being God’s hands and voice at work ministering to broken people, broken structures, and a broken world.
Like a boxer training for a championship bout, TEC is getting close to its prime fighting weight. Changing metaphors, the crew is nearing the peak of its training and the decks are almost cleared for action. Some work remains to be done. Moves to empower the laity need additional effort and resources, better equipping them for mission through deeper, lifelong programs of spiritual formation. TEC’s internal reorganization needs completion, transforming TEC from a slow-moving, unresponsive bureaucracy into a nimble, electronically connected missional force.
General Convention overwhelmingly elected the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry as TEC’s next Presiding Bishop. Bishops and deputies deeply resonated with Bishop Curry’s vision of taking Jesus to the world rather than expecting that the world will come to the church.
Bishop Curry’s election is a step in the right direction, but the journey ahead is long. And it will be difficult. Nobody, not even a person of God’s choosing, can make this journey alone. Pausing for more than a few brief self-congratulatory moments, content to allow our leaders to bear the burden of mission in this crucial time post-General Convention, will result in TEC becoming increasingly irrelevant and soon dying.
The real proof that TEC has experienced a positive transformation is what happens next. Will congregations and dioceses become more entrepreneurial? Will they prioritize people over buildings? Will they streamline structures, reduce overhead costs, and risk spending 10, 20 or an even larger percent of their time and money on local mission? Will they creatively continue to reframe and communicate the good news in ways appropriate to a post-modern, twenty-first century world? Will they see and feed the hungry, see and give drink to the thirsty, see and heal the blind, see and visit those in prison, see and clothe the naked?
Ruth tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Where you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16). The Church is Christ’s bride. Let us resolve that where TEC goes, we too will go. Like Ruth, we do not know what the future holds nor that we will always be pleased with that future. But, like Ruth, we do know that God has not brought us this far to abandon us. And like Ruth who went unbidden to her kinsman Boaz at night, dare to risk much. TEC has become more just, more Christ-like, and more rooted in Jesus. Now, let us dare to proceed onward, to let go of things that helped us journey this far (e.g., some of our buildings and inherited theological formulas) and to grasp those things, perhaps still unknown, needed to continue our journey.
We can see in Bishop Curry and hear in his words, as well as in the lives and words of our other visionary leaders, God’s calling. I hope that we will boldly follow these leaders, emulating Ruth, who once having committed to journeying with her mother-in-law, bravely followed her advice to risk everything by going to Boaz at night.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.