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 .