The Episcopal Church breathed new life into my faith. The Eucharist, the liturgy, the people—I don’t know where I’d be in my journey without them. Most likely untethered, without a spiritual home.
Judging by the reaction to my last post, I’m not alone.
I’ve been part of this community long enough now that I should probably stop thinking of myself as a newbie. It’s been long enough for me to know there are challenges ahead. For all the good there is, we’re an imperfect community.
I don’t have answers to the challenges facing the Episcopal Church. But there are four things I hope will shape our response…
1. Don’t be afraid of the future.
The Episcopal Church is in decline, at least numerically. There’s no point denying or dismissing it. Yes, it’s part of a larger trend affecting all major denominations. No, it doesn’t have as much to do with the church’s position on divisive issues; it’s far more to do with demographic shifts and our failure to keep up.
But the decline is real. It cannot be wished away. My friend and Episcopal priest Nurya Love Parish has plenty of research providing the necessary context.
Decline is painful. We’ll see more churches close in the years ahead. We can either wring our hands about the future, or we can help shape it. Either way, things won’t be as they were before. Episcopalians will no longer enjoy privileged status in American society. And well… good. Privilege has a way of breeding apathy. God, on the other hand, has a way of diminishing the mighty to remind us of our weakness—often (and this is the good news) so he can work through us in new and better ways. We can resist, exhausting our resources to prop up a crumbling edifice, or we can build something new.
Death of one kind or another is coming. It always does. The question, as one of our priests put it, is whether we can “fathom resurrection” on the other side. I think we can.
— Steve Pankey (@stevepankey) November 4, 2014
2. Don’t be afraid to challenge people (as long as you have something worth challenging them with).
One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that it gave me space to just be. When I first arrived, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to sign up for this program or volunteer at that event. If you need a place to heal or acclimate or reset your spiritual journey, you can do that here. And you should.
At the same time, some of us have been coming for a while now, and we’re ready to be challenged. There’s a caveat, however: if the challenge you have for us is all about maintenance or survival, then we’re probably not interested. But if you have a vision for the future, a way to be part of what God is doing to renew and remake the world—then sign us up. We’re ready to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.
3. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the gospel.
OK, I’ll admit… I hate it as much as you do when the subject turns to evangelism. For me, it brings up too many memories of going door to door, handing out tracts and peddling Jesus to strangers. Episcopalians have good reason to be skeptical of much of what passes for evangelism.
We don’t have to manipulate people into the kingdom. We don’t have to be like Sandwich Board Guy outside Westlake Center in Seattle, with just about every doom-laden Bible verse scrawled onto his placard.
But evangelism, whatever else it may be, involves proclamation. Granted, announcing that a Jewish preacher came back from the dead doesn’t carry the same shock or novelty it once did. The proclamation that “Jesus is risen” doesn’t turn heads the way it might have 1,900 years ago.
The real challenge is to demonstrate how resurrection changes things. It’s a challenge that requires us to always move outward, engaging meaningfully with the communities and people around us.
Our proclamation will look and feel different. Thankfully, it’s not the heavy-handed sales pitch that others have used. (What do I have to do to get you into a relationship with Jesus today?) At its best, it’s an invitation to explore, to journey together.
But let’s not hesitate to share it. Let’s not forget, there are lots of people searching for something transcendent. (Check.) There are plenty of people who long to be part of a community where all are welcome. (Check.)
There aren’t many places that can say they offer both. We can. Let’s invite others to share the ride.
4. Don’t mistake “speaking up about injustice” for “standing with the poor.”
The Episcopal Church is not afraid to speak out on difficult and sometimes contentious issues: Ferguson, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis, domestic poverty. There’s a whole public affairs office dedicated to addressing concerns like these.
I love that about my church. The kingdom of God is every bit as much about life in this world as it is the life of the world to come. We should speak prophetically to our institutions of power, and we should do so in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society.
But we should not forget that speaking up about injustice is not the same as cultivating justice. Advocating for the poor is not the same as standing with the poor. As my friend Ian (one of my first guides into the Anglican tradition) shared recently:
The Church is called to stand with the poor, to be with the poor and even (as controversial as this may sound in our suburban bubble) to be poor in solidarity with those in need. Leaders in the Church should be modeling what it is to be with those in need.
This is not always easy when you have a reputation for affluence—or in a denomination where, according to the Episcopal Café, churches “that are truly flourishing are located disproportionately in affluent neighborhoods and have affluent members.”
Our best hope for nurturing justice is (again quoting Ian) by “modeling a better way, a new way of living that turns the conventions and values of the dominant society upside down.”
In the process, we may discover that some of our own conventions and values need turning upside down, too. We should remain open to that possibility.
I love the Episcopal Church. (But then, if you read the last post, you know that already.) I believe there is a bright future for us. But it depends on us seeing church as a movement first and an institution second. It will challenge us to reimage what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the 21st century—as each generation before us has had to do in their own time—without abandoning the traditions and practices that make our church such a life-giving place for so many.
Again, I think my friend Ian put it well: “The church is at its best when it is open, humble, and sacramental.” May we be all of these things and more as we move into an uncertain future.