Recent polls have revealed a continued pattern of decline in the so-called mainline churches. Their aging congregations are being replaced by younger, more energetic Evangelicals and Pentecostals, and they are doomed to become mere remnants in the Protestant fold. Fortunately, trend is not destiny.
My Episcopal Church is indeed aging and our average Sunday attendance is falling. But that isn’t all bad. At a recent clergy conference, one of our young priests acknowledged that we were being pushed toward the edge, and the sooner the better he thought. What do you suppose he meant by that? I think of two things.
One is that recent national church conventions have been so consumed by big global issues that local worshipers felt left out and ignored. Successive resolutions proclaiming decades of evangelism, commitment to youth or the abolition of world poverty were great ideas but had no impact at the local level and did nothing to help local congregations with local issues of their own. I know that the homosexual question has raised the most headlines, but for most congregations in most dioceses it quickly became a fringe issue of limited local import. The main thing it did was illuminate how out of touch the national church was in the eyes of ordinary pew sitting church goers.
The second is that too many of our aging congregants and clergy have became complacent and defensive. Complacency has sapped the vitality of a faith that claims to follow in the way of a Jewish carpenter who was unafraid to proclaim God’s grace and love anywhere, at any time, to anyone. Defensiveness has become the response to an ethos of scarcity. We may talk a lot about a theology of abundance, but far too many congregations set that aside in favor of an ethos of scarcity, and they are very defensive about it.
Being pushed out to the edge means opportunity for rebirth and reenergization with new clergy and new leadership who will work from the bottom up, and not the top down. It does not mean that Episcopalians will become ersatz Evangelicals. I does mean that we will become more bold about proclaiming who we are as followers of Jesus Christ according to our traditions.
We are a part of the greater Body of Christ that treasures an expression of liturgical tradition anchored deep in the earliest practices of the Church. We treasure our tradition of a continuing conversation with centuries of theologians and spiritual guides in a fearless engagement with scripture that is not hemmed in by a literalist fence. We treasure the apostolic succession of ministry, but above all, we treasure the sacraments and none more than the Eucharist, the very presence of God in Christ in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Without that we cease to be Episcopalians. We may always be a relatively small American denomination. That’s not the point. By casting off old habits, complacency and defensiveness we can more richly feed the spiritually hungry in our own unique way.