Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Coronavrius Chronicles 2, Electric Boogaloo: What do we do next?

I find myself muttering every morning, as I head upstairs to my home office and endless Zoom meeting, "What are we going to do today, Brain?  The same thing we do everyday, Pinky."

It's been almost six weeks of the stay at home lifestyle here in Massachusetts.  We have now had a
Sometimes you make my head hurt, Pinky.
stay-at-home advisory since March 26.

We have not had Sunday worship in the church since March 8.  I suspended in-person worship on March 11 even before the bishop and the diocese did so.  As it seems that we are reaching the peak in Massachusetts, I am getting a sense here that I think we all will at some point:  this will end at some point. (Keeping in mind the very definition of a peak means half the cases come on the downslope.)

Thing is, difficult times do come to an end.   The Jewish exiles in Babylonia were allowed to return and build the Temple.  Sometimes it ends unexpectedly: I've done research into Christianity in Eastern Europe post-Communism, and in the oral histories I recorded the persons I interviewed all said they had no idea that in barely 2 years, from 1989-1991, the Iron Curtain and Soviet Union would collapse. My mother grew up with a sense America had always been in deadly crisis, at war, with the survival of the nation at stake.  She had grown up in elementary school knowing nothing but rationing and air raid sirens and blackout curtains and people on the block getting telegrams that would make her mother rush over to the person's house.  When she heard the cheering and came downstairs and found out it had ended in August of 1945, she asked my grandfather, kind of stunned, “Well, what do we do now?” 

It's a question we all need to ask, at some point:  "What do we do now?"  We will emerge from our various shutdowns and stay-at-homes and suspension-of-worship.  My diocese, the Diocese of Massachusetts still has the suspension of in-person worship through May 31, and, while it could be relaxed, parishes are told to plan as though this is the case.  I've been doing my best to try to continue the mission, ministry, worship, and outreach in the midst of all of this.

It’s time to begin thinking about how we will re-start church after this suspension of all in-person church activties.

As we do, let's start with this:  I think it is essential to say that this will not be flipping a switch, and we will not be able to go back to the way things were, until there is a vaccine and/or some kind of approved, recognized, effective treatment.  When there will be a vaccine and/or treatment is anyone’s guess, but likely 12-18 months before there is a vaccine and/or a recognized, effective treatment.  I've had parishioners tell me they can't wait to have a big, huge celebration back in the church the first Sunday we are worshipping there again.  I've said to say, gently and kindly but clearly, "If you think we're going back to have 200 people packed into the church the first Sunday we're back, we are not.  It's likely we will not be able to do that for Christmas in 8 months, let alone the Sunday in a few weeks when we can resume worship.

Pandemics and crises have at times profoundly reshaped how society functioned and was ordered.  The Black Death of the 1340s had enormous political, cultural, social, economic, and theological impacts on European society.  The teenage years my Mom grew into after the war were in many ways different from her childhood years before and during the war.  The Christians in Eastern Europe emerged into a post-Communism society that ended up looking very little like their pre-Communist pasts.  We are not going to come back from this into the same pre-pandemic world, and, like our predecessors in the past, we don't know exactly what that new world is going to look like.

As I think have been thinking about planning, I have had roughly three different models in mind of what the restart might look like.  I didn't invent any of these, they are culled more or less from reading actual, reliable information and listening to competent, trained experts in the area.  My diocese has been extraordinarily helpful in having clergy Zoom gatherings with public health and epidemiologists available for discussion.  

a)         A best case scenario:  We have slowed the spread.  With less strict social distancing, some kinds of limits on gathering size, widespread testing for antibodies to see who has had the virus and may have immunity, along with rapid testing, tracing, and quarantining when cases emerge, we can moderate future spread and contain the virus when it does pop up until treatments and a vaccine are available.  Many things will be able to reopen with physical distancing, testing (temperature checks, etc), and limits on numbers of people gathering.

b)         Less than best case:  We have occasional, significant flareups as the virus spreads again when restrictions are loosened. Between now and when treatments are available we could have several 4-6
Yes I'm that guy who never does the wave at baseball games. Sit the he** down!
week (or longer) periods of shutdowns. This is what some call the “wave” scenario, where we may go in and out of shutdowns for 12-24 months until a vaccine and/or treatment are widespread.

c)         Worst Case Scenario:  Virus comes roaring back after we come out of this, we have to return to strict distancing measures, and are essentially on some kind of shutdown through the rest of 2020.

What does this mean for churches?  I have been thinking of this as I read my own parish for what post-shutdown life may be like.

It is important to point out that churches have been hotspots.  This is why we have to take this seriously and address what changes we may need to make.  In South Korea, France, California, New York, and other places we have epidemiological evidence through tracing of contacts from infected people that churches were significant spreaders of the virus.  In South Korea, a single infected person attending her church infected 37 other people.  Congregations often have larger numbers of persons in high risk categories and thus the potential for more complications.  I have been particularly shaken by seeing on social media how funerals have led to illness and death for those who attended either just before, or in spite of, stay-at-home orders.  One of the nation's largest African American congregations, the Church of God in Christ, has seen its leadership devastated, with literally dozens of bishops and senior clergy succumbing to the virus.

As we move forward over the next 12-18 months, churches will need to be ready to respond to a situation that may change several times, sometimes rapidly.  This will likely not be a linear, smooth trajectory from pre- to post- pandemic church life.  We may need to make decisions again and again based on subsequent flareups or changing situations.  Rather than constantly be reacting, I have been proposing the following to my own parish as principles for a values-based decision making process as we look into future where we cannot know exactly what will happen:

--Jesus summed up the entirety of what it meant to be his follower as “Love God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourself.”  We will continue to look to God as our strength, our comfort and our hope.  And we will love our neighbor as ourselves.  Loving our neighbor means looking out for them, caring for them, and holding onto something other than own individual needs or wants.  And Jesus also closed a loophole in his Parable of the Good Samaritan by reminding us that everyone is our neighbor.  Everyone.

Decisions we make should place on emphasis on how those decisions are loving actions towards our neighbors. All our neighbors.

--Jesus said we will be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable in this world: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  Churches have disproportionate numbers of persons who are in at risk categories.  We also need to keep in mind you cannot know if someone is in at at-risk category just by looking at them.

Decisions should be based on an abundance of caution as a guiding principle, with the care and safety of people as paramount, especially the most vulnerable, without assuming or judging who is vulnerable or not.

The Rev. Cotton Mather led the drive toward smallpox vaccination in Boston nearly 300 years ago.  Church buildings have installed fire prevention alarms and sprinklers.  Religious groups have adhered to and followed governmental public safety mandates, ordinances, and regulations.  Churches should lead and model this
"A monarchical modalist says 'what'?"
behavior in our current context.  This is why, when the stay-at-home advisory was issued in my state, I switched to live-streaming from my living room rather than from the church.  It feels weird, like a middle aged episode of Wayne's World, but I thought it simply essential to lead by and example with regards to the stay-at-home advisory.

We will abide by recommendations and guidelines issued by state and local Boards of Health.

As Anglicans, we are part of a larger community: members of a diocese, of the Episcopal Church, of the Anglican Communion.  We are mutually accountable to one another in those relationships, as well as being able to share resources and best practices.

We follow all directives from the diocese.

I've been thinking about the above to guide decisions my Vestry and I need to make.  Well, what kind of decisions might we need to make?

What follows are some considerations I have offered to my Vestry to discuss.  This is not meant to be comprehensive, exhaustive, or take into account every possibility.  We will likely receive guidelines and recommendations from our states, from county Boards of Health, from our dioceses or judicatory bodies that will impact and shape our actions.  These were just a starting point for us as we think about how we are going to have to do some things differently for the foreseeable future.   

Worship:         We may need to implement distancing within the church based on our overall capacity.  Like that tape on the floor in the supermarket.
                        No physical passing of the peace.
                        No kneeling at the altar rail:  single file, socially distanced, coming up for communion.
                        No more intinction.  Seriously, despite what people think, CDC studies have shown it is less sanitary than drinking from the cup.          
We could add a service that is only for those who are in high risk groups, like those early morning shopping hours at the supermarket.
Continue to record/livestream worship since there still may be members who may not feel comfortable attending in-person worship for some time.
No physical passing of collection plates.
We may not be able to have every service be a celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
No more social hour/coffee hours after services.

Operations:    Implement social distancing requirements for all other outside groups using the church, revising our building use agreements to incorporate this requirement.  Just like groups can get booted if they use thumbtacks that wrecks the paint job on the wall, or steal the church's coffee, we need to make groups accountable for implementing physical distancing and abiding by group size limits.

Formation & Christian Education:  For Youth Group and Sunday School, follow and adapt whatever models the public school systems might implement.  Consider continuing to hold other activities (Bible Study, for instance) online, or in larger spaces with physical distancing. 

Finances:       This is going to profoundly disrupt our financial picture.  Many churches will likely have suspended in-person worship for 10+ weeks.  That's 20% of the year.  This impacts plate offerings.  This impacts other sources of revenue -- our church has two major fundraisers that we may not be able to hold, as well as a Thrift Shop that has been closed for weeks.  Members' ability to give will be impacted by job losses.

How do we deal with these disruptions in ways that are fair and justice?  I have blogged here before on the profound economic disparities we have in the church between full-time clergy and part-time clergy, and between clergy and lay employees.  In many settings, lay employees are treated little more
Even Scrooge's employees got Christmas off.
than serfs, with hours manipulated to prevent benefits being offered and sometimes laid off with no severance (and normally unable to file for employment, though not in this current context given recent legislation passed).

We cannot speak to the financial injustices of our society if we treat our own employees no differently.

I have deferred a salary increase for 2020 so that we do not have to consider reducing lay staff hours at this time.  I'm not a martyr or a hero, am not humble bragging, and am not fishing for praise.  I think over the years on this blog it should be pretty clear I don't care much what other people say (Lord knows I've burned enough bridges, but mostly to places I didn't want to visit, anyway).  I just don't see how I could have the integrity to comment on the injustices of our society with a full time job with a raise and a pension and health care while cutting part time lay staff who do not have the same kind of benefits or hours.

And I have seen it in the church when we have had to deal with other kinds of crises.  I served in a church setting where I was laid off and my department's budget was cut.  While that happened, other departments did not lose a single staff person, and others had the temerity to lobby for increases while people were losing their jobs.  

I lived through the 2008-2009 financial collapse and saw its impact on all levels of the church -- local, diocesan, and national -- and often the size of your endowment or or how well connected your supervisor was ended up being more important than any considerations about priorities, goals, or mission.  I was actually re-hired after being laid off.  Two previous positions had become one position, and the budget for program work was 30% less than it had been in 2001.  Yet not once was there ever any kind of strategic discussion about what to prioritize or do differently.

I will not remain silent this time around if those with closer access to power and privilege in our church are shielded and cuts are on the backs of the marginalized, less connected, and less powerful, or when there are no strategic discussions about how we will do things differently, or set goals and priorities to guide the difficult decisions we may make.

For instance: as of today, April 19, 2020, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2021 is basically two weeks: 10 legislative days plus organizational committee meetings beforehand and travel days on either.  

If we think we are going to get several thousand people together for a 14 day meeting in the midst of financial collapse and global recession, with perhaps no vaccine in place, we are out of our freaking minds.  We have simply rejected every reform proposal and refused to do change much of anything about General Convention.  No other Christian denomination, even ones larger than the Episcopal Church like the ELCA and United Methodist Church, have their governing bodies meet this long. 

Rather than being too long and costing a ton of money, a Convention held in the circumstances of a major recession and global health crisis would be a mockery and an affront, the Episcopal Church's own version of those people holding "My body my Choice" signs while refusing to wear masks in public.  Are we honestly going to ask people from dioceses closing churches and laying off staff to pay for people to spend 14 days rewriting resolutions already submitted by Executive Council and Task Forces?

If we think we're all going to jump back on planes to go to meetings where we talk about what to do about climate change, we are out of our freaking minds.

Repeat "if we think..." as necessary.

I said on this blog years ago much of our structure will not change, because most folks don't seem to want it to.  Some people even derive their power, privilege, and status by their connectedness to our structure and ability to navigate it.  The 2015 General Convention eliminated almost all Standing Commissions and other committees.  By 2018, they had added back EVEN MORE committees, spending MORE money for them to meet, and without the clear lines of communication and mandates that the prior canonically defined commissions and boards had.  

I also said years ago on this blog that we will not reform our structure or governance because so much of our church is just addicted to meetings, so rather than change eventually it will just cease to be able to function.  I have written more times than I can count how in many ways the collapse is already in here, in slow motion, all around us.

This pandemic may be the impetus that brings much of it all tumbling down.  The extinction event has begun.

As my Mom said on August 14, 1945: "What do we do next?"  

It's time to ask the question.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Crusty's Coronavrius Chronicles: We Have What We Need

Welcome to what I expect will be an occasional posting from Crusty's Coronavirus Chronicles, or:

C - C - C!

As has gone around the intertwitterfacesphere, people finding things to do when isolating during times of has been quite common throughout history: from Boccaccio's Decameron to
C&C Music Factor was only one C short...
some of Shakespeare's plays to Newton discovering how the world works to Nobel Prize Laureate Bob Dylan and The Band making some of the greatest music ever recorded while Bobby was recovering from his motorcycle accident.  I'm keeping a personal diary as well, but in the spirit of self-isolation will be offering an occasional more public reflection on where we find ourselves in these strange times.

There's a mantra I've been saying to myself as I wake up in the morning.  It's what helps get me through the day, then the week, and whatever next steps in this unfolding reality we find ourselves in.

Here it is, goes something like this, though the words may vary.  "We will get through this.  We will get through this because God has already given us all we need.  We will love God, we will love each other.  You're the same priest you were (last week) (two weeks ago) (insert upcoming length of pandemic).  You just need to take all that made you the priest you were then and find ways to be that priest now."

It's worked so far, helped give me some perspective.  I've used it to close out a number of my sermons in the streaming worship service we are doing on Sundays.

And it builds on other things I've talked about in this blog over the years, this notion that we are not entirely destitute or bereft in situations we find ourselvews. In various postings over the years, where I've talked about the challenges the church is facing right now, I've often noted that we have all the tools we need to face this secularized, post-Christian world in which we find ourselves.  The real challenge is how we look to our past, our tradition, our theology, our liturgies, figure out how we adapt to this new reality.  The church has done it time and again, and we are called to do so now in our own time and place.

Here's something that has sticking in my head, in the midst of figuring out how to be a parish priest while under a stay at home advisory:

The damage that our eucharistic piety can do.  Now please here me out:  I am NOT anti-Holy Communion.  These past few weeks are the longest I have gone without receiving Holy Communion in nearly 30 years.  But I do think the past 50 years of the Episcopal Church has moved almost TOO far in the other direction, to the notion that somehow the only way we can be church is the celebration of Holy Communion.

This movement has had two consequences that loom large in our current situation:

i)  This has led to a clericalization of ministry and parish life:  a bishop of as diocese with a lot of small, rural parishes he was struggling to fill once said to me, "How did they ever do this back in the late 1800s when a lot of these parishes were founded?"  I replied, "Because the lay people did everything: they raised the money, they organized the Sunday School, they helped the poor in the parish, a lay reader read Morning Prayer.  Women had important roles in all of this, way before women's ordination was on the horizon, along with an occasional deaconness.  A priest would come by every 4-6 weeks to baptize and celebrate Communion."  The rapid domestic expansion of the Episcopal Church from the 1880-1960 period happened in many places in spite of a chronic shortage of clergy and because of a massive expansion of lay ministries.  We now need a great mobilization of lay ministries, and in many ways are hampered because of the clericalization of worship and ministry through the hegemony of eucharistic worship.

ii)  It has led to a loss of our other, non-Eucharistic traditions of worship.  I was serving in a diocesan school for ministry once and was on the committee planning graduation and commencement.  The commencement would be on a Sunday afternoon around 5 PM.  I said, "Since everyone will have gone to church in the morning for Sunday services, why don't we do Evensong for commencement?"  A student instantly said, "I didn't go to this school for three years and give up so many weekends just to graduate at Evening Prayer."  No one else on the committee said a word, and we just plowed ahead with planning another celebration of the Eucharist.  The derision with which many view non-eucharistic worship is combined with ignorance that any alternatives exist, at times a truly potent 1-2 combination.

Well, like it or not, we are looking ahead  to weeks of an enforced Eucharistic fast for many in the church.  My own diocese has suspended worship through May 31, so I am now looking at a possible 11 weeks without celebration of Holy Communion.  Let's ask, then: what is there in our past that can help us in the present?

First of all, some perspective.  The centrality of eucharistic piety is pretty recent, within the last generation or two.  It was not until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that celebration of the Eucharist was declared the principal act of worship.  In the parish I currently serve, it was not until the late 1970s that Morning Prayer stopped being the main 10 AM worship service.  So people were able to figure this out as recently as when Steve Martin classic The Jerk premiered in cinemas.

Second of all, we have plenty of tools in our Anglican toolkit.

So here's something from our Anglican toolkit: very infrequent Eucharistic reception was the norm in Anglicanism for hundreds of years.  In the 1700s and into the 1800s, quarterly celebration of Holy Communion in parish churches was the standard.  Communion would be celebrated only four times a year.  And:  Confirmation was a pre-requisite for receiving Communion in the Episcopal Church until 1967.  For nearly two hundred years, from 1607-1785 or so, during the colonial period of Anglicanism in this country, eucharistic reception was even more infrequent.  For one, some parishes did not have regular clergy.  For another, the whole quarterly communion thing.  Plus the fact that there never was resident bishop and hardly anyone other than the clergy had been confirmed.

There's two aspects to this nearly 200-year period of infrequent communion that I think can be of help to us as we are engaged in a eucharistic fast right now.

a)  They developed workarounds.  A common workaround in colonial America involved the concept of intention as outlined in sacramental theology, a concept dating back to Augustine in the 4th century.  If someone wanted to be confirmed, but couldn't through no fault of their own, shouldn't that mean something?  So many Rectors would do Confirmation instruction and keep a list of those "desirous of Confirmation".  Those persons would be able to receive communion, even though they hadn't been confirmed contrary to the discipline of the church, because they had received instruction and were "desirous" of Confirmation if it had been possible, building on understandings of intention in sacramental theology.  Augustine had not been thinking about 17th century colonists, but lo and behold, his development of the centrality of intention as part of sacramental theology was helpful in developing a workaround in a very different context.

b)  They leaned into the infrequency of Holy Communion and explored the spiritual dimensions of that.   Since communion at most would have been four times a year, it became a special, important, sacred occasion that needed preparation. There were devotional guides people would read as the next celebration approached to prepare themselves spiritually.  This is the reason for the lengthy exhortations to Communion in prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer.

So let's think about what we can mine from these aspects of this previous experience in Anglicanism:

c)  What workarounds can we think of?    And I am not talking about drive-thru Communion; I see that less as a workaround and more trying to take the models we have and force them into a different situation, like how the first suitcases with wheels were just regular suitcases they attached wheels to and didn't actually redesign the suitcase.  I had one of these and it just fell over all the time. I'm not talking about that.

Here's an example in what I'm doing for Palm Sunday:  The Bible doesn't say they are actual palms that are spread in front of Jesus, and until clergy supply companies began shipping them to churches, parishes didn't use palms unless they were locally available.  Most people would just use whatever was lying around in their particular context.
You must bring us...A PALM SUNDAY SHRUBBERY

Intention matters.  It's not whether you have a palm or not -- for me some kind of drive up Palms is not only not encouraging social distancing, I think it's fetishizing the palms -- it's your intention to enter into that Holy Week experience.

So I'll be encouraging folks in my parish to get whatever leafy branch they can find as part of the streaming Palm Sunday worship we'll be doing.  (I recognize that context is essential:  I minister in a largely suburban/rural area where most people have a yard, or, if not, can find a tree of some kind, and this helps with the workaround I'm developing.)

d)  How can we lean into this eucharistic fast?  What can it tell us about ourselves, about our relationship to Jesus?

I lived in Moscow, Russia, for 6 months in 1990 in the last days of the Soviet Union.  I had to cobble together different kind of worship experiences, even though some restrictions on religion had been eased, it's not as if there was a church on every corner.  I would sometimes go to the local Orthodox Church down the street from my dormitory, but I could not receive Communion there since I was not Orthodox and it was in  archaised Russian Church Slavonic (kind of like Shakespearean English but not an exact analogy; I could only follow about half of it).  I would sometimes make it to services at the Church of England chaplaincy, but the chaplain at the time was an evangelical Anglican more interested in altar calls than Holy Communion.  I received Holy Communion once, when I went to a Sunday service at the New Zealand Embassy.

I spent 6 months only receiving Holy Communion once.  But I didn't wither and die inside.  In fact, I learned a lot about who I was as a Christian and what it meant to be a Christian. I talked to Russians whose faith had survived decades of persecution.  I remember one old woman telling me she remembered when there were only 5 open, functioning churches in the entire city of Moscow during the height of the Stalinist purges against religion.  I experienced forms of worship I never would have otherwise.  Ironically I was a STRONGER Christian after 6 months of a forced eucharistic fast.

That's where Crusty is right now, friends.  Be safe, take care of yourselves, remember that you don't constantly have to be doing something all the time, and make room for how Jesus might be present in the midst of our sorrows as well as our joys.  We'll get through this: by loving God and by loving one another.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time? The UMC Separation Proposal, Explained

I try to keep these blogs under 3,000 words and
that's no lie...it seems to make my readers sad
each time I try.
Back in the 1990s, Crusty was in a relationship that just wasn't working out.  We both knew it, but neither had the courage to say it.  I was at the train station, heading back to where I was going to school, and just couldn't take it anymore.  I called the person up on a pay phone from the station (hard to imagine a day before cell phones?) and told her I just couldn't do this anymore.  There was silence on the other end, and she said, "I didn't think you'd be the one to say it."

These lines from the Delfonics R&B classic popped into my head, and I said to her, "Didn't I blow your mind this time?" 

The lines came back to me as Crusty read about the separation proposal unveiled earlier this week by leaders in the United Methodist Church, and had his mind blown.  So COD put on his playlist of greatest R&B and hip hop breakup songs of all time as I prepped this blog.  (With this soundtrack on as I wrote this blog, I did not mean in any way to trivialize the events involved.  Division in the church is contrary to God's will, and always a difficult thing.  Yet unity also cannot be grounded on injustice or at the expense of the marginalized. Far from trivializing it, for me this grounded the sadness from this division in some of the greatest music ever written.) 

The text of the Separation Agreement can be found here, along with a news release and FAQs.

If you don't like then just go Crusty on it...
--A little background on me: Many, many years ago I served as assistant ecumenical officer, then ecumenical officer, to the Presiding Bishop from 2001-2011.  I've served on the United Methodist-Episcopal Church official dialogue team since 2002.  I was one of the primary drafters of the full communion proposal, "A Gift to the World: a Proposal for Full Communion", which can be found here, and the summary theological statement produced in 2010, "A Theological Foundation for Full Communion," found here, which gives greater historical and theological background to the proposal.  So when it comes to United Methodist-Episcopal Church relationships, no worries Queen Bey, Crusty can walk and talk at the same time.

--A little background on how we got here...Crusty explained this in depth in a previous post, but since COD pretty much encapsulates TL;DR, I'll summarize it below and you can read it all in depth here.

The United Methodist Church has language in its governing document the Book of Discipline which specifically states that "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church."  The Discipline also has language specifically forbidding clergy from performing same sex marriage ceremonies.

Proposals to change or amend this language have been made at the last several United Methodist General Conferences (equivalent to General Convention in the Episcopal Church).  Despite this language, there have been numerous examples of openly gay persons being ordained, and celebrations of same sex marriages, as local authorities have found work-arounds, for lack of a better term, for the language in the Discipline.

After extended, passionate, and wrenching debates at the 2016 General Conference about these sections of the Book of Discipline, the delegates asked the bishops to try to find a way forward despite the deep divisions in the church.  The bishops eventually decided to call a Special General Conference to deal solely with trying to determine a way forward on the issue of human sexuality, prior to the regularly scheduled General Conference to be held in 2020.  

The bishops put forward three plans for consideration at the Special General Conference.  The Special General Conference, held in February of 2019, approved the Traditional Plan. This Plan strengthened current provisions.  For instance, it called for mandatory sentences for persons found in violation of the Book of Discipline and required local boards of ordination to certify all persons for ordination were complying with the language in the Book of Discipline.  (Since the language was around "self-avowed and practicing", in some areas a kind of "don't ask-don't tell" emerged.) 

There were other proposals, and modified versions of some of the above proposals, in the mix as the Special General Conference opened.  In the end, after a lot of voting and
The Persuaders' version, not the Pretenders'.
debating and parliamentary manuvering,
 the Traditional Plan was adopted by a margin of 54 votes, 438 in favor, 384 opposed.  The debate became very intense, and emotional, and in the end Crusty found himself thinking "So here I am in a state of shock...I guess actions speak louder than words."

Several things to keep in mind:

i)  The United Methodist Church truly is a global church, and is becoming more so.  It has jurisdictions in Europe, Asia, and Africa and an enormous overseas presence.  In 2004, 19% of delegates to Annual Conference were from overseas conferences, called Central Conferences.  In 2016, that was over 40%.  I tell Episcopalians, "Imagine if nearly half of the Episcopal Church lived in Province IX or non-US dioceses." While far from being monolithic, the Central Conferences overall tend to be conservative theologically.  For those USA-based General Conference representatives, approximately 60-65% of delegates have voted to either remove the restrictive language or against plans to enforce these aspects more stringently.  A minority of USA-based United Methodist delegates, combined with a majority of overseas Central Conference, have reaffirmed the language, and so the Traditional Plan passed. 

ii)  These overseas jurisdictions, the Central Conferences, have substantial autonomous self-governance.  The can legislate for themselves.   However, the US-based United Methodist Church does not have this provision for self-governance. The Central Conferences thus can vote on measures in General Conference which are binding on the US-based church, but not on themselves, while the US-based church does not have this ability.

iii)   The United Methodist Church has a Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) which can issue binding decisions on whether what is passed by General Conference is in violation of the Book of Discipline.  The Episcopal Church simply has nothing even remotely close to this.

Since then, some Annual Conferences (roughly equivalent to dioceses) have announced they will not comply with aspects of the Traditional Plan.  The provisions are set to come into effect in 2020.  And the regularly scheduled General Conference of 2020 could revisit all of this and consider any proposals which could come before it.  

With all of that, a group of United Methodists met over the past several months and negotiated a proposed a plan of separation.  

--Who was involved?

Both LGBTQ+ affirming and conservative groups were present, along with bishops and a professional mediator with extensive experience.  They are listed as "Traditionalists", "Centrists", and "Progressives," representing both annual conferences, congregations, and affinity/advocacy groups.

--What are they proposing?

It's kind of mindblowing, but here it is, in a nutshell.  Crusty is not an expert in United Methodist governance or polity, and welcomes any necessary corrections:

1)    General Conference in May of 2020 (in four months!) will vote on enacting the provisions of the Separation Agreement;

2)    United Methodist entities will have until May of 2021 to form new Methodist denominations;

3)    The default position is remain in the United Methodist Church; that is, if an Annual Conference or congregation does nothing, they remain United Methodist.  If an Annual Conference or a congregation votes to leave, it must be by a majority vote of 57%.  This number seems to be a compromise between 50% + 1 on the one hand and 67% on the other.

4)    $25 million is set aside for a Traditionalist United Methodist denomination to get started.

5)    $2 million is set aside for other denominations to get started.

6)    The provisions of discipline on openly LGBTQ+ clergy and same sex marriages will voluntarily not be enforced.

7)    Everyone keeps their pensions.

8)    Congregations that leave keep their property and assets.

9)   $39 million it set aside "to support communities historically marginalized by the sin of racism...The goal of these earmarked funds shall be to strengthen ministries by and for Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander Communities."

10)  The parties involved agree to stop supporting any other plans and advocate for this one.

11)   Annual Conferences will not to close any churches between now and May 2020 General Conference.

I'm sure that's not all, and that I didn't get or phrase everything correctly, but I think the summary captures the overall sense of the Proposal.

--What's Next?

Some observations:

--It's pretty mindblowing that those communities impacted by racism, named in the agreement, and who have $39 million allocated...were not present in a formal way in the drafting of the Agreement.  Yes, there were persons of color involved in the negotiations.  But "Asian, Black, Hispanic-Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander Communities" did not have their networks present in any formal way, as, say, the Traditionalists were represented by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  For a denomination that had institutional racism and segregation written into its history, that's pretty mindblowing.  (The Methodist Church split in 1844 over whether bishops could own slaves or not; in 1939, when the northern and southern branches reunited, the demand was for legislated segregation and the creation of all-black conferences for African American congregations as a condition for reunion.  Not to mention historically African American Methodist Churches were created precisely because African Americans were not treated equally or justly in the then Methodist Episcopal Church.)

--By my count, at least one of the more progressive, LGBTQ+ affirming groups was not formally part of the negotiations.

--This is all a handshake agreement until May of 2020.  Nothing was voted on, these are individuals and members of affinity/advocacy groups.  All of this will depend on the goodwill of all parties involved between now and the General Conference in May.  That may be a lot to ask, given some of the passion, vitriol, anger, and hurt that have marked the past 45 years of debate over this question within United Methodism.  We
And so my heart is paying now for things I didn't do.
already know somebody manipulated the voting at the Special General Conference by using credentials of people who weren't there.  There have been examples of groups at times unwilling to demonstrate respect for others, grace, and goodwill.  Can they hold it together between now and May?  Or are some "shackled to a memory, and drifting apart" despite caring for each other?

--While not officially stated, it would appear that the $2 million for other, non-traditional denominations is intended for affirming and progressive United Methodists who will feel this proposal, and any United Methodist Church which emerges from it, will still not been fully inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons -- and that this money is for a liberal, progressive future Methodist denomination.

--What happens if it doesn't pass?

If this proposal is not accepted or approved by the 2020 General Conference, then I think we will end up with more or less those same Methodist bodies I outlined above, just with a lot more lawsuits, pain, anger, recrimination, and hurt spread out over a longer period of time.  It has seemed to me United Methodists have already been going through a kind of slow motion, cold war schism for the past 25 years.  The division is already here; it's just a question of how it plays out.

What'll happen next?

Being an outside but engaged observer to this for the last 18 years, included as an invited ecumenical observer to three General Conferences, it had become clear to Crusty then tensions within the United Methodist Church were too great for it to hold together.  I thought 10 years ago that some kind of separation was likely.  Given the depth of division within the United Methodist Church, combined with its increasingly global footprint, I just didn't see how it could all hold together.  Like some breakups, while still sad and not something to celebrate, it seemed inevitable.  To do otherwise would be asking somebody to do something they simply could not.

By Crusty's guess:

--There will be a centrist/progressive United Methodist Church of maybe 4 million or so members.  This could potentially be the largest LGBTQ+ affirming denomination in the country.

--A conservative, traditionalist Methodist denomination with 2 million - 2.5 million members in the USA, which will likely form either a new denomination including the overseas central conferences or form their own, USA-based denomination and have a very close covenant partnership with the majority of the overseas conferences.

--A couple of smaller denominations in the 250,000 or so member range.  One more conservative than the larger traditionalist body that emerges, and one that feels the centrist/progressive larger Methodist denomination does not go far enough in full inclusion.

What does this mean for the Episcopal Church-United Methodist full communion proposal?

Since the proposal was released back in 2016, there has been the significant concern raised about the Episcopal Church entering into full communion with a church that does not affirm LGBTQ+ persons.  

--It is my hope that the 2021 General Convention will approve the United Methodist full communion proposal in an amended version.  In the proposed agreement, The United Methodist Church agrees to adopt the historic episcopate, and full communion for Episcopalians is on the basis of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral.  (If the Episcopal Church wants to make full communion be on the basis of something else, it needs to say so and outline exactly what the basis should be -- the Quadrilateral has been reaffirmed a dozen different times by General Convention as the basis for full communion.) This amended version would have an affirmation of full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and would state that we will be in full communion with any Methodist body which adopts the same proposal without amendation.  

I believe the Episcopal Church should vote first for two reasons.  One is that historically ever single ecumenical outreach between Anglicans and Methodists has been rejected or put on hold by the Anglicans, from William White's response to Thomas Coke in the 1790s to the Church of England-British Methodist Church proposals of the 1970s, to the Consultation on Church Union in the USA.  

The second is that it will take several years for things to settle if this separation proposal is enacted by United Methodists, and it will likely be until 2024 before the contours really begin to take shape, with the new denominations formed and Annual Conferences and congregations sorting themselves.  Voting in 2021 will allow Episcopalians to stand in solidarity with those Methodists willing to be in common witness and ministry; otherwise we'd be waiting until 2027.

--This could create a mutual full communion partnership between the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Episcopal Church.  This would create an LGBTQ+ affirming network of nearly 9 million Christians.  At a time of weakening denominational affiliation, this is potentially a seismic reordering of American mainline Christianity.

--It is also my hope the Episcopal Church will continue to take seriously this commitment to full inclusion. We do not have full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our own church, and are in full communion with other provinces of the Anglican Communion which do not support inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons.  Many of our bishops will go to a Lambeth Conference which did not invite the spouses of openly LGBT bishops.  How can we demand something from our ecumenical partners we are unwilling to demand in our own communion?

On a personal note, it has been hard, as an ecumenical observer these past 18 years, to see the tension and discord among and between fellow Christians in the United Methodist Church.  Methodism has been a movement within Christianity that has understood itself as a fellowship and connection: what Episcopalians would call "clergy in good standing" Methodists call "elders in full connection."  To see those bonds of fellowship and connection in danger of being broken is a difficult thing.  

We in the Episcopal Church have gone through some of our own tensions, but it has not been anywhere on the scale of the United Methodist Church.  We have had significant conflict, with five dioceses attempting to leave the Episcopal Church, along with parishes attempting to leave their dioceses.  While not minimizing the degree of that conflict, it has been 5 dioceses out of over 100.  This is on a greater scale:  the United Methodist Church breaking more than in half.  I told an Episcopal colleague once the closest thing the Episcopal Church has had to this kind of disruption has been the American Revolution and its aftermath, which almost destroyed Anglicanism in what would become the United States.  It has been hard to see LGBTQ+ persons have their dignity, worth, and very being at times called into question as members of the body of Christ.  I have, and will continue, to hold my United Methodist friends in prayer.  I also have, and will continue, to pray that our churches may have the courage to join in common witness and ministry and come together in full communion for the healing of the world and adopt this full communion proposal.

And BTW, the greatest breakup song of all time is a tie between "Katie's Been Gone" by The Band and "When You Were Mine" by Prince.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Collapse Is Here.

Crusty has noticed some buzz in the interbloggerwebotwitfacesphere around the Episcopal Church's release of annual membership statistics. The news, friends, continues to be not good, very bad, alarming, four horsemen of the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, bad.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2016!  

Turns out the super rich are more numerous than Episcopalians.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2011!

Collapse, my friends.  That's what's coming. 

Hey!  I wrote that in 2012!

In what is becoming a Groundhog-Day esque experience, the Episcopal Church has once
As Phil predicted: It's going to be cold, dark,
and last the rest of your life.
again released its membership numbers, and once again, it is VERY bad.

Some of the current cover-your-eyes numbers:

From 2008-2018, average Sunday attendance has dropped nearly 25%, to about 562,000.  By comparison, in the year 2003, it was 858,000.

We have more parishes with an average attendance of less than 10 persons than we do with congregations with attendance of 300 or more.

And this is not taking into account other demographics, such as we are about 87% Anglo when the United States is about 62% Anglo, and the average age of an Episcopalian in 57 in when in the United States the average age is about 37.  We are old and white in a missional context that is less old and less white.

The numbers continue to be terrible overall.  Some provinces have declined 30% in average Sunday attendance in the past decade.  To be sure, these are aggregate numbers.  A couple of dioceses have shown small growth.  Some parishes, no doubt, are growing.  But overall we simply cannot ignore the trends.

In the past decade I have blogged on these issues here, here, here, herehere, and probably some other places I've forgotten. I've also given presentations at clergy conferences and even at a state Council of Churches annual meeting on issues of denominational collapse.  

I've noticed a kind of cycle here. When the membership and attendance numbers get released, what usually happens is there is a flurry of debate about the "reasons" for the decline: some of it on target, some of it ridiculous, but despite a general understanding of the state of our situation, overall a general state of unwillingness to engage the issues in any substantive ways has settled in.  The Episcopal Church membership statistic release conversation is almost like the way American society has its gun debate after mass shootings:  a flurry of the same statements being made, then the whole conversation just goes away in a week or so.

Here's a brief rundown of some of the reasons for the decline:

1)  The Episcopal Church did not keep up with movements in population.  Approximately 12-13% of Episcopal Churches were founded after 1968.  We have had massive population shifts to the South, Southwest, and West, and simply never kept up with those shifts.  New Haven, CT has a population of 130,000 and 7 Episcopal churches.  Mesa, Arizona, has a population of nearly 500,000 and 2 Episcopal churches.  (Yes, I know New Haven has a greater metro population -- but so does Mesa.  Not an exact analogy, just an illustration.)  I once was living in a diocese whose generally population had nearly doubled in 30 years but had not planted a single successful church in those 30 years.

2)  Demographics.  As noted above, we are older and whiter than the society as a whole.  Of course we're shrinking when we're old and white in a country that's less old and less white.  There's a similar dynamic in seminary enrollments.  Looking at the aggregate numbers of the 200+ seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, the number of people enrolled in accredited seminaries has dropped.  Yet if you look at the seminaries that are the most diverse, their numbers have increased.

3)  Conflict.  This one gets spun a lot: the whole canard that liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing, and liberal churches are shrinking because millions are leaving over disagreements on human sexuality.

Conservative churches are shrinking.  The Southern Baptists have been losing members for nearly a decade.  The Catholic Church's Anglo-membership numbers track very closely with the Episcopal Church's losses, and the Catholic Church is only barely holding steady because of growth among non-Anglo members.

Yes, the Episcopal Church has lost members due to conflict.  We shouldn't be pollyannish about that.  But making it somehow the central, core reason simply doesn't hold up to any reasonable demographic or statistical scrutiny.  For instance the single biggest drop in Episcopal Church membership in the past 40 years -- 400,000 + members -- has come not from conflict, but from former overseas missionary dioceses becoming either independent or linking up with other Anglican provinces (Philippines, Panama, Liberia, etc.).

4)  Secularization.  Church attendance collapsed in Europe in the past 75 years as it has become a largely secularized, post-Christian society.  It has collapsed Ireland in the past generation, going from having one of the highest rates of church attendance of any culturally Western society to now looking more and more like the rest of Europe.  We are well into the post-Christian secularization in the United States.

5)  Toxicity of Christianity.  To a large portion of the un-churched culture, Christianity is seen as toxic.  The Pew Research Forum and Barna Group have both done extensive studies of un-churched attitudes towards Christianity.  In a Barna Group survey, the top words associated with Christians by un-churched persons are "hypocritical" and "judgmental".

6)  The end of denominationalism, with the whole model established in the 1500s coming to the end of its historical life cycle.  (And BTW -- good riddance, denominationalism!  It was birthed out of empire, ethnicity, class, and regional differences.  We can still share our different Christian charisms and leave that balkanization of Christianity behind!)  In fact, we need to go all-in on ecumenical cooperation and collaboration precisely at a time when many are privileging our distinctivenesses.

This is not an exhaustive list, there are many other factors; nor have I done justice to all the aspects and elements of the ones I outline here.  Scroll through the old blog posts referenced above, check out the very good work of Pew and Barna in these areas.  (Note: while Barna does important demographic and statistical analysis, I do not often agree with the strategies the suggest for addressing the decline.)

So we actually don't need a lot of think pieces:  members are dying and we are not replacing them.  It's pretty straightforward.

And what's even more terrifying: the many folks just don't seem to care.  I've been in parish ministry for several years now and frankly have been terrified by most of the reaction when we have conversations about this stuff.  It seems to fall into several areas, these are comments I've heard in various places in the past 4 years since I've been in parish ministry:

--Refusal to engage.  I had a clergy person stand up and say (paraphrase): "Attendance doesn't matter, what matters is the ways in which we are changing the lives of our members
Actual photo from most church conversations
about membership statistics.
for the better."

--Technical fixes.  Another colleague who said, "What we need is a new hymnal, people don't like old hymns from the 1800s."

--Understanding the situation perfectly well but not caring.  Another colleague said, "I'm only 5 years from retirement I just don't have the energy to do any of what we need to do to grow the parish."

--Knowing perfectly well what needs to be done but unable to do it.  I have a bishop who's a friend who said, "I need to create yoked congregations and pair up about half the parishes in my dioceses yet given our polity hardly any of them will do it so they're probably just going to close and we'll have a bunch of empty buildings in 25 years."

--Worshipping our governance as a way forward.  I've seen dioceses reorganize their deaneries thinking that'll do it. We spend millions on General Convention which has done next to nothing on church revitalization and growth.  We decided to be "nimble" and got rid of all almost all of the Committees, Commission, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) in 2012.  At the end of the 2018 General Convention, we had re-created and re-established more task forces than we had CCABs in 2012.  We were also spending more money on them than we did in 2012, and all without the clearly defined mandates, membership composition, and lines of accountability that the old CCABs had.  General Convention does what it is set up to do, and addressing our collapse is not one those things.

In his systems theory work, Ed Friedman identified two aspects of anxious religious systems that come back to me again and again:

--Just because you may be right about something, don't think that will get you anywhere or convince anyone.

--A system may clearly know exactly what they are facing, may be well informed as to their options, and may still choose to do nothing, or even choose the option that will lead to their death.

Crusty sees plenty of both of these behaviors Friedman noted in many explicit and implicit statements and actions, both in the Episcopal Church and with ecumenical partners.

So after 8 years of blogging on this, and four years on the front lines in parish ministry, I have become more convinced that we are well into The Collapse.  I wrote this from the blog several years ago:


For Jared Diamond [in Guns Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies], there are a number of reasons why societies collapse.  Some are outside, unexpected, and catastrophic:  how would Native American cultures, some large and elaborate like the Aztecs, know that in a few years some outlandish looking people from out of nowhere would suddenly arrive and decimate 90% of their population with germs they had no immunity to?  Many, many societies, however, collapse due in large part to decisions of their own making.  For instance,

Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and are unwilling or unable to adapt when things change.  As an example of this he cites Native American civilizations in what is now the American southwest.  Scientists have been able to demonstrate that, at times, the American southwest suffers through catastrophic droughts, lasting years and years, almost like the seasons on Westeros (read Diamond to see the science, read George R.R. Martin to learn more about seasons on Westeros).  Native American cultures overbuilt during good years, and, when the drought set in, were unwilling to believe what was happening or unwilling or unable to adapt -- and thus the civilization died out. 

So one problem is taking the blips, the anomalies, to be normative.  COD is convinced that the Episcopal Church has, in a way, done something similar.  We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period -- what it means to be the Episcopal Church is what occurred during this period -- when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.

Any perusal into the history of the Episcopal Church prior to this period will reveal a litany of concerns.  Just to name a few:  For one, it wasn't until the period around WW I that the Episcopal Church had more ordained clergy than lay readers.  The church had a chronic and persistent clergy shortage for most of its existence, which, in turn, impeded its ability to engage in domestic and foreign missions, which, in turn, impeded effort at growth.  For another, there were chronic struggles adequately to establish institutions.  Colleges, schools, and seminaries opened and closed.  William Augustus Muehlenberg, considered one of the foremost presbyters of this church in the 1800s, founded a series of institutions that flopped for every St Luke's Hospital that eventually thrived.  Dioceses were established that were unsustainable and had to be re-merged with other dioceses (Duluth; Western Nebraska; we could name some more).  Seems, at times, we have forgotten all of this.  The thought of a diocese merging with another is seen as some unimaginable failure rather than something which happened not unfrequently.  We fret about finding enough resources to meet missional needs, without remembering that the first incarnation of the DFMS was so woefully underfunded that the whole thing was scrapped.

The experience of Anglicanism in the United States has been one of chronic struggle for most of its existence.  The same William Augustus Muehlenberg presented a memorial (in essence a resolution) to the 1853 General Convention lamenting that the Episcopal Church was simply missing the boat on what was happening in the USA and was going to lose out on the opportunities for mission and evangelism, thus jeopardizing its future (any of this sound familiar?).  The General Convention referred it to a committee, and, three years later, rejected any of the suggestions for more dramatic, structural changes and basically only approved the option of allowing Morning Prayer and the Communion service to be used as separate and distinct forms of worship (at a time when MP, Litany, Ante-Communion/Liturgy of the Word, and Communion were often the order of the day on communion Sundays).  Hmmm...General Convention reluctant to act on a proposal for significant change in the face of struggles of the church to accommodate to massive changes in society?  Thank goodness that'll never happen again.

So one major problem is that we embrace the blip -- 1950-1990, when the church grew, in part because of positive steps and actions taken, but in part due to factors utterly beyond our control, like a population surge in our core demographic -- as normative.  This includes taking things like establishing a large centralized church organization headed by a CEO in New York City as the normative way to organize for mission, because the 1950-1990 period was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society.  We look back on this period from 1950-1990 as normative, when one could argue, if anything, it was out of the ordinary for our experience.  For almost all of its existence prior to 1950, the Episcopal Church was a collection of affinity based networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.

It's important to note there's nothing inherently wrong with assuming the anomaly is normative, it happens to almost all organizations and cultures at some time.  It's how you react when the real normal comes back, or when a new normal emerges, which is important.  

In fact, if you want to draw the circle even wider, one could argue that we are witnessing the end of another blip:  the whole period from 500-1900 or so when Christianity held a privileged place in North American and Western societies.  First beginning in Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, waves of secularization are coming ashore in the USA.  This is going to wash away many notions in the West of what the church should be: a building belonging to an organization people join and hire a clergy person to minister to them which in turn is part of cluster of churches holding vaguely similar beliefs that pretends the culture as a whole thinks it has something to say.  That blip is over as well. 

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011.  The scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can't use Excel properly).

Collapse, my friends.  That's what's coming. 

So COD offers the following:

1)  Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.

2)  Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance.  General Convention is going to be unsustainable eventually, anyways. Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to 

3)  Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do mission, formation, and evangelism.  We have some assets:  $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks.  Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years.  We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support -- maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.

Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge.  Or maybe it's already here and we can't fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.
4)  End those parishes as clubs for members, provide a congregational hospice chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees.  Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close?  How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered?  How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support?  How many dioceses are struggling to function?  We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.  Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:

A cursory study of the history of the Episcopal Church shows that at many times people lamented whether it would survive, and at other times showed a constant litany of concerns about growth, organization, governance, and finance.  

Yet we can also learn from the past that, despite all of this, many believed the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism have a charism to tap into something greater.  By being a church catholic and reformed; by not being tied to a particular ethnic group; but not defining itself solely by theological confessionalism; by combining historic catholic order and representative governance.   People like William Augustus Muhlenberg, William Reed Hungington, Julia Chester Emery, and others argued this in the 1800s.  In our own time people many are pondering whether Anglicanism is missing out on exploring how it can tap into a new Great Awakening in the religious trends sweeping our way, instead wrapped up in internal squabbles.

We can do so again.   However, the only way to be resurrected is to die.

So I wrote that part years ago, in 2012.  The Collapse continues to unfold, and, as a whole, we continue to do not much about it.  I'm honestly not sure why every single meeting of Diocesan Convention, every single diocesan Standing Committee,  every single meeting of Executive Council, does not have the membership numbers report given to them as an agenda item and have a discussion on how we are going to outline a coordinated churchwide effort at renewal and evangelism. 

I wrote what follows years ago as well:


Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).
So it's not about one generation over and against one another.  Since we [all] are the church, we need to BE the church together.  Millennials need to understand how institutions are helpful in furthering goals -- you can put up all the online petitions you want, but more substantive organization is essential to effect change.  Boomers need to get just how different things are, this isn't like not knowing how to work a DVR or which input button lets you watch DVDs on TV.   Xers, I think, can serve an important bridge function in how we straddle the divide between Boomers and Millennials -- I said to a colleague once I felt my whole ministry might be like the Steward of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (well, without the homicidal mental illness): striving to preserve something until someone else (the Millenials and Gen Z) comes to claim and transform it.   How much of the church can we preserve, how can we let what we have and know and are, be resources to the Millennials and Generation Z?  The church has looked very, very different from age to age:  from house churches in Dura Europos in the third century to a Gothic Cathedral in the 13th to Methodist circuit riders in the 19th, and so on.  The 21st century church will look very, very different from the 20th century church.

And I say, God help us.  Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?  The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that. 


And hey, I've practiced what I preached: I became academic dean of a seminary I thought would not survive, and realized that resurrection was the only option. I worked with many other faithful, committed folks to merge it with another seminary and transform it from a nearly 100% residential model to 100% low-residential model (online courses, short-term intensives).  It didn't make everybody happy, to be sure, but the seminary survives, has more than tripled its enrollment, and is serving people most of whom would not have been able to engage theological education.  I've been in parish ministry for four years and through lots of effort we are holding the line, not growing but not shrinking; winding down some legacy programs and outreach but beginning new efforts; all in a town that has not seen any overall population growth in 20 years.  

I've written and blogged and presented on these issues for nearly a decade, and now have realized I have moved into acceptance mode.  And let me clarify what I mean here:  this is not weak resignation to the evils we implore, as the hymn warns us.  Acceptance does not mean I am OK with the church's generational failures in mission, evangelism, and formation.  I am going to go down swinging.  I have, however, accepted the fact that a good portion of the church will choose to die rather than change or adapt.  That is the acceptance I have come to.  It's why I don't blog on structural change or give the kind of long breathless General Convention recaps that I used to.  Because our dioceses and congregations are going to close or merge and Convention will look different in 20 years by necessity.  

I said years ago I thought around the year 2035 the Episcopal Church's attendance numbers would bottom out in the 400,000 attendance range, and will have closed 20-30% of the parishes to give us south of 5,000 congregations.  It's then that the church will either begin to slowly rebound, or continue to slide towards irrelevance.  

The church as we know it is dying.  But the church itself is not dying, because it can't.  The church is God's creation.  It's not ours to kill; God help us we probably would have already if we could have.  And that rebound in the 2040s, if there is one, will be because have seen the new way of being church that God is calling us, and have embraced it.

So I ask again: for those of us active now, to whom God has entrusted the church in this transitional moment: will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?