Have Baby Boomers wrecked the Episcopal Church?

You’ve probably noticed, but there’s a lot of unrest in the world right now. No one seems particularly happy. In Europe, a number of non-mainstream, protest parties have arisen. Closer to home, though much less noticed, are the protests that have been roiling in Quebec for the last several months.

What’s becoming clear is the way in which the dissatisfaction/anger/resentment reveals generational tensions. Young people in the euro zone see little path forward. Older folks in Quebec are harrumphing at young protestors’ demands, even as they benefited from what the younger protesters are requesting.

There’s a sense in which it is now becoming clear that the Baby Boom generation, for all its talent and accomplishment, have brought about the crisis which the western world now confronts: promises that cannot be kept, an indulgent and polarized politics, and no compelling path forward. Have Baby Boomers wrecked the western economy? The verdict is still out.

Thinking in this vein makes one look anew at the trials and travails of mainline Protestantism and the church I know best, the Episcopal Church. The church seems headed for a cliff in much the same way that Europe is: declining membership, serious financial problems, bloated structures. There’s a world out there that cares less and less about what the church has to say. If current trends continue, the church faces further decline and irrelevancy, unless we get pushed off the cliff altogether.

So let’s ask the same question of the church. Are Baby Boomers at fault? Is it time for the current generation of leadership to step aside and let others try where they have failed?

Robert Hendrickson (not a Baby Boomer) indicts the state of the church in this way:

We are facing not just a collapse of large parts of the Church, we are facing a collapse of leadership, nerve, and vision.

The answer is not Hymnal revision, new governance structures, Communing the UnBaptized, a Kalendar of Saints with non-Christians, guitar Masses, digital Prayer Books, more liturgies about the Earth, or many of the other countless ways many seem to think will lead us to the dawn of a kinder, gentler Church that will usher in the Kingdom.

Robert’s comments remind me of something a (non-Episcopal) seminary colleague my age said to me a while back. “They’re all these pastors my parents’ age out there—friendly people, great pastoral care, they’ll hold your hand when you’re dying. But they never talk about Jesus or the Gospel.”

Susan Snook has noted how Baby Boomers bring with them a tendency to engage in conflicts over absolutes:

In the conflict over gays and lesbians, for instance, the “conservatives” see themselves as guardians of Truth, while the “liberals” see themselves as crusaders for Justice.  Well, in a conflict between Truth and Justice, no one is ever going to back down.  Compromise is hopeless.

For me, the jury is out on this question. The church is not in great shape (though it’s been this bad before and it may not be as bad as it seems) and I do think we—Christians—bear some of the burden for the shape we’re in. We can’t blame it all on larger forces like secularism. We’ve become too comfortable with the way things are and not seen the way things could be. We’ve become fixated on maintaining what we have.

And it’s also clear that Baby Boomers—who dominate the leadership of the Episcopal Church—have contributed to some of this: spending down endowments, flitting from one Big Idea to the next, taking stands on any number of political issues when few seem to care, turning the governance of the church into a game not much different than the governance of the country, taking on debt, turning the church into a social service agency, and multiplying worship resources without realizing, apparently, that the number of people there to use them is continuing its inexorable decline.

And in doing so, it can perhaps be said, the church has lost the focus on the truly big idea: the kerygma that is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ, the news that when people heard it radically and immediately transformed their lives and made them builders of the kingdom of God and evangelists of that same good news.

I’m not sure how far I want to press this line of thought. I’m inherently suspicious of arguments that made sweeping statements about undifferentiated groups. It’s not clear, anyway, that the argument is a convincing one. Baby Boomers, no less than any other generation in the church, have tried to respond faithfully to the situation they confront.

But perhaps it is time to start asking if in the Episcopal Church, as in our politics, it is time for a generational change in church leadership.

2 thoughts on “Have Baby Boomers wrecked the Episcopal Church?

  1. Jesse Zink

    Others are talking about this as well. On its Facebook page, the Chicago Consultation posts about a recent meeting of bishops and young adults and asks: “At our gathering of bishops and young adults, we wondered if the church can get its leaders to let go of their power voluntarily and support a generational shift in leadership by mentoring and partnering. What do you think?” With Facebook’s new Timeline format, I don’t know how to link to individual posts but scroll down to June 1 to find it here: http://www.facebook.com/chicagoconsultation.

  2. Jesse Zink

    Here’s another one talking about generational change in the church. http://grunewaldguild.com/blog/?p=1757 This particular part rang most true: “Churches have been reduced to elementary school playgrounds with the endless bickering and threats made by this faction or that one taking their proverbial ball and going home. And those playgrounds are getting noticeably more empty.”

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