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What is healthy about The Episcopal Church?

What is healthy about The Episcopal Church?

by George Clifford

A recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed column by Episcopalian Jay Akasie asked, What ails Episcopalians? Akasie’s column, along with several others including some posted on the Daily Episcopalian among which are a couple that I’ve written, highlights The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) declining membership and other challenges the denomination faces.

The time has come to change focus. Instead of emphasizing problems, TEC and its members can profitably begin to ask, What is healthy about The Episcopal Church?

Appreciative Inquiry, an organizational development strategy utilized by some businesses and congregations, shifts attention from problems and problem solving to telling stories about what the organization does right and how it benefits people. Out of the storytelling, an awareness of the organization’s strengths and a positive vision for the future emerge from the process, sparking growth and new achievements. Similarly, Norman Vincent Peale’s emphasis on the power of positive thinking and Robert Schuller’s possibility thinking proved effective catalysts for transforming thousands of individual lives.

On the one hand, I’m not advocating that TEC attempt to implement Appreciative Inquiry across the denomination. No single tool fits every task. TEC has too many components in too many disparate places, each with its own identity, story, and energy for any single method to prove a panacea. Positive and possibility thinking, while powerful in helping some people live more abundantly, also have limited applicability and arguably overlook important aspects of Christian theology.

However, I am suggesting, using an old metaphor, that honey attracts more flies than does vinegar. Reports of declining numbers, financial struggles, and other problems will draw few visitors and prove decisive in incorporating few of them into the life of TEC or one of its congregations. Emphasizing negatives tend to promote a negative ethos more likely to accelerate rather than reverse decline. Problems and challenges may constitute appropriate agenda items for particular meetings and internal communiques but external communications will more beneficially accentuate the positive.

What is healthy about TEC? What does TEC offer people?

The questions about what is healthy in TEC and what TEC offers people are important for more than organizational health. About half of all TEC members come from other Christian denominations. These people, of whom I am one, found something in TEC that first beckoned and then proved sufficiently fulfilling to make changing denominations worthwhile. Far fewer people join TEC from the ranks of non-Christian religions, atheism, agnosticism, or the spiritual but not religious. Even more than dissatisfied members of other Christian denominations, the unaffiliated and never affiliated can potentially benefit from what TEC offers.

So, what is healthy about TEC? What does TEC offer people?

First, TEC combines theological openness with healthy liturgical and spiritual praxis. We Episcopalians are a people united by common prayer rather than common theology. We know that God is irreducible to human language and regard the Bible, the sacraments, and other religious acts as windows through which people can perceive God’s light. Not insisting on doctrinal uniformity – indeed, intentionally being a “big tent” that welcomes diverse theological expressions – is attractive to many in this highly individualistic era. Furthermore, our liturgical and spiritual praxis affords historical continuity, affirms God’s mysterious life giving and loving presence, while allowing creative expression.

Second, TEC – in its dioceses and the vast preponderance of its 6700 plus congregations – seeks to be an inclusive community that practices radical hospitality. At our best, we truly welcome everyone. We commit to journeying together while treasuring individual identities and freedom, as was evident in last month’s debates at General Convention over whether to endorse open communion. Speakers and votes expressed the importance of Holy Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Church. No organization survives, much less thrives, without clarity about the scope and terms of membership. Speakers and votes also valued the pastoral fidelity to Jesus of not turning away the unbaptized who seek to receive, e.g., a homeless person or a young child. The altar rail is a place of grace and not a place of inquisition. Every rule has exceptions. Instead of eliminating the rules or trying to codify acceptable exceptions (both common secular solutions to this type of problem), TEC decided to trust those who distribute communion and those who lead congregations to do so in a manner that honors our traditions, builds genuine hospitality, and best communicates God’s gracious love.

Third, TEC’s incarnational ministries invite and encourage people to walk the Jesus path by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. TEC rejects equating superficial evangelism, politics, institutional maintenance, or personal prosperity/success with the gospel. My experience of TEC is that of committed people – thousands and thousands of laity and clergy –engaged in trying to build a more just society, becoming a loving community, and developing genuine spirituality.

This list is far from exhaustive. You may highlight different indicators of TEC’s health. You may cherish other aspects of TEC. Your description of what TEC offers people may differ substantially from mine. But for this time, this season of TEC’s life, let’s start talking, perhaps even shouting, about all of the things that are healthy and right about being Episcopalians. God has brought us together that we may journey together and serve together in mission. Thanks be to God, God is not yet done with The Episcopal Church.

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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings .


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Harriet Baber

Look, I’ve been to lots of churches, in various parts of the country, some of which are great, many of which are not so great and all of which—like all human institutions—could use improvement. I’m noting what I think are some fairly widespread though by no means universal problems.

One problem is clericalism, which is rooted in the nature and history of Anglicanism because the Church is hierarchal, maintains a bright line between the ordained and unordained, and has a tradition of an educated clergy. Given this structure clericalism in an objectionable sense isn’t inevitable—priests can, after all, recognize that what’s distinctive about their position is the role they play in liturgy, and obligation to do social work and administrative tasks, rather than the ability to preach, teach or provide intellectual leadership. But do you know any priest who would say, “Hey, I don’t know any more about theology or ethics or any of this intellectual stuff than most members of my congregation. I just do the magic act on Sunday, take care of secretarial work for this parish, and do some amateur therapy and social work.”

Another problem is invisibility. Free advertising from “good works”?

Give me a break. For most Americans the Episcopal Church doesn’t even have name recognition. This “advertising” is ineffective. Compare this to what growing Evangelical megachurches do—going door to door, doing direct mail (in particular for Christmas and Easter services when people might be receptive) putting up billboards, manning booths at street fairs and other public events. The most visible form of religiousity for most Americans is Evangelicalism—which just turns people off. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Church which has all the aesthetics anyone could want and none of the unacceptable moral and political agendas hides its light under a bushel.

I’m earnest, I’m committed, and I am herein “witnessing.”

Clint Davis

Dr. Baber, if that is your perception of the Episcopal Church, why are you still here? And I’m sorry your local situation isn’t ideal, but you refuse to hear anyone whose experience of a congregation of Episcopalians is different than yours. At the churches I’ve known and loved they get lots of free advertising from all the good works they do and the good music they promote both in church and through concerts and collaborative events. Likewise the laity are highly active, some to exhaustion (seriously, one guy I know on a search committee had health problems because of it!) and none of them, nor the clergy who minister to them, would have it any other way. And it’s a packed house at the principal Eucharist.

So maybe it’s your community and not the Church as a whole that is the problem.

Bill Dilworth

Wow. (backs slooowly away)

Harriet Baber

Excuse me? I didn’t propose ONE fix: I suggested several—for starts. Like less clericalism—and more respect for the laity as educated, competent adults. More religious belief by clergy—instead of the current assumption by most that theism is naïve and that we lay people are just ignorant. And more advertising. I could continue the list.

So what is wrong with that? Maybe the most important reason why the Episcopal Church, and other mainline churches are dying is that they’ve lost the will to live—the leaders and those who have influence simply don’t believe that church is important—i.e. that buildings and services with warm bodies in the pews matter. I’ve heard this for a few decades now—that what really matters is doing good, not church as such. Every grain of incense is bread from the mouths of the poor. The whole purpose of church is to promote “community” in order to energize people to do political action and do-good work.

OK, fine. If that’s what you want, close up shop NOW. Why waste any more time or money? Sell off the buildings and give the money to Oxfam. If you think that what matters is do-good work, why bother with the church at all? Church doesn’t make people do more good—atheists do as much good as religious believers. If the goal is to make the world a better place, to promote social justice and compassion, religion is a waste of time.

Bill Dilworth

“I never said, and do not believe that there’s any one fix for the decline of the Episcopal Church.”

You could have fooled me:

“But the TEC is dying, because it isn’t willing to invest big time in advertising and that’s because the leadership are a bunch of atheists who don’t believe that religion, or the Episcopal church in particular, is worth promoting.”

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