Being a Good Loser

It's no secret that many mainline churches have been losing members in a steady stream since the 1960's. (I guess I should take comfort in knowing that it had already started before I was ordained!) The issue is far too complex to be addressed here in this post, though I've seen many attempts to convince us that it's due to a single cause, usually something a particular parish or denomination is doing wrong. The thread I'd like to pick up is a double ply one. First, the assumption that losing is bad and must be related to something bad that's being done, and second, that gaining members and having full pews is a sign that a church or a denomination is healthy. The goal then becomes to do whatever increases the numbers, and to stop doing whatever is making them go down.

Perhaps we obsess on this here in this culture more than in others because of our American indoctrination that bigger is better, the more the merrier, etc. I can remember ads in the past that employed phrases like "50 million people can't be wrong!" to convince potential consumers that a product was good. McDonald's still uses this tactic in its "billions and billions sold," to imply that if so many people keep going for this thing, it must be good.

All this has its influence on our minds, not to mention our souls, even when it comes to what we decide to believe, or what church we'll align ourselves with, or how correct our theology is. The majority rules is our touchstone, and going counter to the direction that the rest of the crowd is traveling takes us way out of our comfort zone. This is especially true if, having made the decision to take the road less traveled, we lose something: friends, a church, a way of life, a clear direction.

I see this dynamic working in the present turbulence within the Episcopal Church and the so-called Anglican Communion. It's a fact that the Episcopal Church has lost members over certain decisions it has made, and this is a cause for glee among those who have chosen to set up alternative choices to being in the Episcopal Church. The assumption is that TEC is losing members because it is doing something wrong, and that it deserves to lose people. After all, this is only to be expected of a church that goes its own misguided way, counter to the road the crowd has decided to take (the "right" one, of course).

It's hard not to falter in the face of this widely-held belief. But as I wrote on Mark Harris' blog, in response to his question, How important is it to belong to the Anglican Communion?:

"In all the hoo-ha about covenants and restraints and consensus, etc., I keep thinking about the life of Jesus and how, as he went about challenging the unhealthy systems, his group of supporters got smaller and smaller. He didn't wait for the system to come to consensus about him. In fact, the only consensus it came to was to get rid of him. It feels to me as if something like that is happening to TEC. If we believe that we're following in the way of Jesus, then we may have to come to terms with being crucified. We may end up as a very small group, at least for a while. I feel our challenge is to decide if what we believe is worth "dying" for. Quoting The Rev. Darryl Dash, 'Jesus may want to lead us as churches to places that will hurt our church's growth and health. He may want to lead us to places in which our churches won't even survive. The issue isn't church growth or health. The real issue is whether or not a church is willing to follow Jesus. What about this - a church that is willing to die to its own interests and welfare, to pick up its cross, and follow Jesus? What about a church that, if faced with a choice between following Jesus into unknown and dangerous territory, and taking a safe route that would lead to growth and health - what about a church that would willingly take the dangerous route in order to follow Jesus?' "

Is it possible to believe that we can lose because we're doing something right, not because we're doing something wrong? W.R. Inge says, "We are distressed because our churches are half empty; and many of them would be emptier if the Gospel were preached in them." Perhaps we should take heart that we're losing. It just might mean that we're doing something right.


Me and My Shadow

Well, I finally did it--I cancelled my subscription to The Living Church, something I probably should have done years ago. I hung on for a long time, feeling that it was important to know what others in the Episcopal Church were saying and writing.

Though my high blood pressure is familial, reading The Living Church certainly didn't help it any. Now I've decided that I don't need to read any more issues of TLC (there's an anagram for you!) to know what's being said. It's the same, issue after issue. The blame for the mess the Church is in belongs to Katherine Jefferts Schiori and Gene Robinson. The final straw came when I read an editorial in the last issue taking Gene Robinson to task for his prayer at the inauguration activities. The article was headlined "Gene Robinson had an opportunity to witness for Christ and he didn't." Mind you, Gene Robinson is someone who, in the minds of schismatics, isn't worthy to witness for Christ yet he merits a full length editorial when he allegedly doesn't.

Quoting Duncan Macleod at PostKiwi.com: "The very act of pinning the weight of evil on a character, be it Saddam Hussein or the molester in the news, prevents us from dealing with our own shadow - our own capacity to distort God’s gift of life. In the time of McCarthyism in the 1950s, the enemy was communism. Individuals and groups were singled out for harsh treatment and rejection - because of their perceived lack of loyalty. I’ve seen the same dynamic at work in churches sick with mutual suspicion and fault-finding."

Our Church is certainly exhibiting its shadow side, yet we seem to be the only ones who don't see it. In our anger, confusion and distress, we look for someone to blame for the situation we're in. Very human, very understandable. But I'm reminded of the old Pogo cartoon that others of my generation will remember. "We have met the enemy and he is us."

We are a Church that is behaving badly--all of us. Pulling in every direction away from each other. It's hard to walk through this stuff, but the going is better if we join hands rather than curl them into fists. Someday perhaps there will be a publication called The Healing Church, to which we could all happily subscribe.


The Sounds of Silence

Words, words, words,
I'm so sick of words.
I get words all day through,
First from him, now from you.
Is that all you blighters can do?

Eliza Doolittle, in "My Fair Lady"

I went to the Friends (Quaker) Meeting this morning. As I sat in the shared silence of a simply furnished room, I was wishing that the Anglican Communion--or whatever it is now--would be able to just sit in silence for a while and let each other be.

I'd been reading the St. Andrew's Draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant just the other day, plus various multi-paged responses to it. It just seemed to me such a misdirection of energy to be writing in hundreds and thousands of words what never needed to be put in words for hundreds of years. And when everyone is finished rephrasing this section and that section, and finesse-ing this thought and that thought so that, supposedly, no one can take offense and everyone gets to have a say, what will we have? From my little corner, I foresee another document that everyone will read from whatever stance he/she now reads the Bible. We'll have the literalists and the progressives, the fundamentalists and the free interpreters, and instead of--or perhaps, in addition to--throwing Bible verses at each other, we'll now also be throwing Covenant verses at each other, as well.

I also foresee that what we'll have is something in writing--always more binding than mere ties of affection and hospitality--that we can poke at each other in proof that someone has broken the Covenant and thereby has relinquished their position in it, whether they wanted to or not.

When all have signed onto whatever version of the Anglican Covenant is eventually ratified, will Peter Akinola kneel at the same Communion rail with Gene Robinson, or even be in the same room with him? I expect we all know the answer to that. And if this isn't what being in "communion" is about, then what's the point?

When I think of an Anglican Covenant in a graphic sort of way, I'm reminded of a picture of the Tower of Babel in the King James Version of a Bible I received in childhood. We'll have those at the top who believe they're closest to God, and the rest in descending tiers (or tears?).

Instead of a covenant, I wish we'd all just take a three year vow of silence, where no one says--or writes--anything about anything, or anybody, and we all just get on with God's work in the way we feel called. It wouldn't surprise me if the world, and the Anglican Communion, would be in a much better place than it is now.