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.

Forming and choosing new priests

I sit on the Board of Trustees of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and we’ve devoted considerable time in recent meetings to the question of what kind of priests the church needs in this era of its life. This is of more than a little interest to me as, God willing, I may one day be one of those priests.

So I found the resolutions submitted to this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church interesting in this regard. By my count, there are two that propose changing what candidates for the priesthood should be trained in. (You can see the text of these on this page.)

  • A071 changes the language regarding inter-cultural training. I’m not sure I see the force of this resolution other than to specify what groups priests should know about. (The resolution does seem to leave in place the implicit assumption that priests will be white Americans and they need to know about these “other” groups.) The explanatory text says seminarians aren’t receiving enough training in this area (which is likely true) but the solution to that is more money for seminaries, I think, not changed wording. Berkeley sends lots of people overseas and into other inter-cultural settings. The school needs more money to make sure everyone has that opportunity.
  • A072 adds a requirement that new priests be trained in “the practice of ministry development and evangelism.” The resolution makes no reference to the existing (and, in my experience, neglected) canon that requires training in “missiology and mission theology” (III.5.g.3), which seems to be of at least overlapping interest. The resolution also crams in as many popular buzzwords as possible—”storytelling” “building capacity” “engaging God’s mission”—and, in its list of resources for evangelism fails to mention the Bible.
If the Episcopal Church—and mainline Protestantism in general—is, as we continually hear, truly at a point in which everything needs to be re-considered as we build the church of the future, surely that includes the priesthood as well. Just as we are (hopefully) considering church structure from the bottom up, I think we should be considering the formation of new priests in the same way.

This seems to be what resolution A148 accomplishes when it calls for establishing “a committee to initiate and coordinate a Churchwide conversation regarding what essential learnings (knowledge and skills) The Episcopal Church expects its candidates for priest and deacon to have at the time of ordination.” Although I have a default suspicion of committees and commissions, I find this to be a pretty good idea, particularly if it succeedes in initiating a truly churchwide conversation.

But I think A148 doesn’t go far enough. When we talk about the future priests of the church, I hope we talk about how they are chosen as well, not just how they are trained. The current system of picking priests begins when people decide they are called to be a priest. There is then a lengthy process of testing that call within the church. One result of this is that since the 1970s, when the current ordination process really came into being, the number of priests ordained each year has stayed steady even as the number of Episcopalians has declined precipitously.

What if we began the process of choosing priests not by letting applicants initiate the process but by actively recruiting those we thought had the gifts the church needed? To some extent this is true already: I wouldn’t be a deacon were it not for people who actively encouraged me to go to seminary and enter a diocesan discernment process. But I think we can go farther in this direction. Rather than making priests of people who say, simply, “I feel called to be a priest,” I hope we can shift the conversation in the direction of “The church is need of these particular talents/gifts/experiences and I believe I can provide them because close friends/mentors/advisers have told me so.”

It is clear that the choosing and training of the church’s ordained leadership is as much in need of review as the church’s structure. I hope A148 passes and I look forward to the fruits of its labours.

The distinctiveness of the Episcopal Church

Samuel Seabury asked a question on Twitter recently:

(Isn’t Twitter wonderful? Dead Episcopal bishops tweeting. Seabury’s old foe William White is online as well.)

I think Seabury asks a good question here. If I remember my history correctly, at the time the Episcopal Church was being born, there were no other churches in the new United States of America that had bishops. Congregationalists, Methodists, Quakers all stressed local governance.

In this context, naming the church “Episcopal” is something a bold move. “Look at us,” it says, “we have bishops and we are connected to the historic, true church. We are distinctive.”

So as the Episcopal Church once again struggles to find its way in a changing world, I wonder if asking Seabury’s question again is helpful: in the current religious marketplace, what makes the Episcopal Church distinctive?

Relatedly, is highlighting our distinctiveness the way to go? Or should we be stressing what we have in common, not only with other Christians but with all folks everywhere?

Search for a Gospel that is both Good and New

Let’s say I’m a twenty-something with a college degree, living in Brooklyn. I kind of have a job but no benefits. I get by with money but I have lots of debt. I don’t see what the big deal is about gay marriage and it’s obvious that the earth is getting warmer. My parents dragged me to church a few times when I was growing up so I know something about all that religion stuff, but now my knowledge of religion is mostly based on people like Rick Santorum. I just don’t see the point of faith and I certainly don’t see the need for it in my life. I’m part of the “Rise of the Nones.”

Now let’s say that one day I’m surfing around the Internet and I come across the interview Katharine Jefferts Schori recently gave to the Huffington Post. The words “female” and “bishop” are so rarely connected in my mind that I click on the link to see what she has to say.

Stepping out of the Brooklyn millennial conceit, here’s the question I want to pose: as our fictional twenty-something peruses the interview, does he find anything that is genuinely Good News? That is to say, does he find any of the life-altering, world-changing, drop-everything-and-follow gospel of Christ Jesus?

(Let’s note, of course, all the provisos. Of course, she was responding to questions, of course the interviewers wanted to ask her about hot-button subjects—sex, creation, Scripture—and of course an interview is not a sermon.)

I think the answer to this question about the Good News is no. Our fictional Brooklyn resident wouldn’t find much to disagree with. Bishop Katharine is in sync on same-gender marriage. Good. The church wants to respond to the poverty of the world. Good. She calls it “God’s mission,” but whatever. We agree.

The thing is, while our fictional millennial may think what Bishop Katharine has to say is Good, none of it is New. He already believes all this stuff already. The church is arriving late to the party. Glad to have you here but you’re old news. You do your thing, Bishop Katharine, and I’ll do mine. None of what Bishop Katharine has to say would, I think, make our millennial think, “Wow, I’ve got to learn more about Jesus and get myself into church!” In fact, by my count, the presiding bishop is quoted mentioning General Convention (once), more than she mentions Jesus (none).

Again, all my earlier provisos apply and nothing in this post is a comment on the presiding bishop herself. This interview, I’m sure you will agree, well represents the dominant working theology in the Episcopal Church in the early twenty-first century.

If you read the Gospels or Acts, it is clear that when people heard the proclamation of the Good News, their lives were transformed. Not just adjusted or modified but completely reoriented towards Christ. The fact that the gospel had such an impact is, to my mind, one of the best confirmations of its truth.

What is the Gospel message in the twenty-first century that is both authentically Good and authentically New, the proclamation that seizes the attention of the hearer and brings about dramatic life change?

How do we preach the unique witness of Jesus Christ in a way that makes people who’ve never heard about Jesus want to devote their whole lives to following in the Way he first showed to us?

That, it seems, are questions we still need to answer.

How? or Why? And what’s the mission?

A friend who has read Diana Butler Bass’s latest book told me the other day about a point Bass makes repeatedly. Basically, as I understand it, Bass argues that the church has been too busy asking how questions that it no longer asks why questions.

I haven’t read the book but the insight struck me as true. We ask ourselves how we are “doing” church but we don’t talk about why we are bothering with it. Ashes To Go, an exciting idea that takes the imposition of ashes out of the church on Ash Wednesday, is still basically a how conversation. How do we impose ashes, not why are we bothering with this liturgy? What does Ash Wednesday mean in this day and age? (Why and what questions are closely related.) Perhaps, we think, the answer to the why questions are obvious but few things with Christianity ever are.

These questions are particularly pressing in the Episcopal Church as we prepare for a General Convention this summer that will be asked to make decisions about restructuring and pass a budget that deals with the painful reality of substantially diminished income.  Both these questions—restructuring and budget—are how questions. How do we be a church and spend our money in light of the realities of church life in 2012?

The answer that has been given to the underlying why questions is, simply, “mission.” We are told we must be structured for mission and we must spend our money on mission. But what is mission? Why is it important? This conversation does not appear, to my knowledge, to have been had. And it is a particularly important conversation to have because mission is in danger of becoming a buzzword, meaning different things to different people and so losing its force in dialogue.

To take one example, the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, Stacy Sauls, last year proposed a resolution calling for a special convention on church structure. It reads, in part: “The Special Commission shall be charged with presenting a plan to the Church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this Church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk. 4:18) in a way that maximizes the resources available for that mission at all levels of this Church.”

The text thus claims to answer the why mission? question. It does so in a way that is faithful to scripture by pointing to Jesus’ “inaugural address” in the Gospel of Luke. (We should note, of course, that Jesus is here quoting the prophet Isaiah. There is little thought given in this resolution to what Jesus “adds” to this Isaianic mission, though of course he must add something or the Gospel would no longer be good news but good olds.)

But is Luke 4 the only way to think about mission? Hardly.

What about when Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly”? (John 10:10) Or when Jesus is asked what to do to perform the works of God and he replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”? (John 6:29) What about when Abraham is told that if he follows God’s commands to get up and go, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), a promise repeated in Genesis? What about Jesus pre-resurrection commands to “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2) and post-resurrection commands to, famously, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”? (Matthew 28:19-20) There’s a whole whack of Pauline passages to consider as well, of course.

None of these are contradictory and all form a piece of the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ. Nor is God’s mission necessarily something best learned by pointing to individual passages. Rather, I’d have us consider the entire witness of the people of God as recorded in the Bible. But these few verses certainly complicate the picture of mission put forth in the Sauls resolution.

The recently-released budget for the next three years of Episcopal Church spending points up exactly why we need to be having a conversation on what we mean by mission. While the narrative to go with the budget mentions mission in its first paragraph, there is almost no explanation as to what the budget drafters think the word means. The result is that the conversation about the budget has been almost entirely about how questions, not why ones. Every decision in the budget is one rich with missional implications—cutting funding for youth events but increasing it for policy advocacy is a missional decision, for instance—and I want to talk about the what and the why before talking about the how.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of questions I’d like to think about in the run-up to General Convention

  • What is the mission to which we are called as followers of God in Christ?
  • What does the church have to offer the world in this generation?
  • Why is the Christian witness significant/important/meaningful in this time and place?
  • Why does the Episcopal Church exist? What is the unique offering that Episcopal followers of God in Christ can make to the world?

I have some thoughts on all these questions and hope to get around to sharing some of them. For now, though, I hope we can change our budget and structure conversation away from one that pits Episcopalians against one other in a scarce fight for money and power and towards one that starts asking what and why before asking how.