Gimme-gimme Golfball

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Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Central Phoenix

The Central Phoenix neighborhood I grew up in had its fair share of characters. It would not be inaccurate to say that we were a virtual pantheon of the idiosyncratic. One of our eccentrics was an elderly gentleman we knew as “Gimme-gimme golfball.”  (I use “gentleman”  loosely as he may have been Phoenix’s most ill-tempered resident.)

Yesterday a few elementary school friends and I were catching up in the pizza joint of our childhood. Over thick slabs of Sicilian style, one friend, as old friends do, looked over and made the insider reference: “Gimme-gimme golfball.” At the mention of his name all four of us, middle-aged men decades removed from the old man’s maltreatment, groaned in unison. Anyone who grew up near Chris Town Golf Course can regale you with stories of the places on their anatomy that Gimme-gimme marked with his golf club, an ancient 2 iron. None of us seems to have escaped his withering stare, his snarling curses, or the wack of that 2 iron. At least not in our memories.

Gimme-gimme’s 2 iron might have been the inspiration for the multi-purpose tool. The well-worn club was used mostly as a cane. But it doubled as a retriever of errant golf balls, and, far too often for our tastes, was pressed into service as a device for the bludgeoning of the local preteen male population. Gimme-gimme used that old club for many things…unfortunately, none of them was golf.

2 iron

How is it, you ask, that an elderly man was attacking boys with a 2 iron in a perfectly nice middle-class neighborhood? We boys had ended up on the losing end of a vicious territorial rivalry over our community golf course and the fruit it produced, errant golf balls. The neighborhood nine-hole had been fashioned on the cheap from an old sheep farm. It was acres of open space with trees dividing the fairways, a small lake, a driving range, maintenance sheds beside the abandoned farmhouse, and a grain silo that begged to be climbed. It was next to the source of our most enduring form of entertainment, a large family owned citrus orchard separated from the eastern edge of the course by a long line of ancient and gnarled salt cedar trees. Can you imagine such a place not becoming the stomping-ground of boys for blocks around? Unfortunately, Gimme-gimme thought so too. We were there for mischief. He was there for money.

Chris Town Golf Course

Chris Town Golf Course

One morning in the summer after the fourth grade, I was perched in a salt cedar watching golfers and pretending to be a WWII radio operator defending a Pacific island from bagcart towing invaders. I heard a golf ball bounce off of a cedar trunk and lodge in the rusting iron mesh of the farm fence the cedars had spent five decades attempting to engulf. I scampered down from my hiding place. Reaching into the cedar needles just inside the fence for my newfound treasure, my fingers wrapped around a coveted Titleist ball when, WACK, a blazing pain erupted in my temple. I rolled on the ground, grabbing my head in agony. Through tears I saw the old man’s grizzled arm reach through the fence. “Gimme that ball, kid.” He said, as he pocketed the ball and ambled off, not bothering to look back and see if he had inflicted lasting damage on my now dented noggin.

One day I complained about the old man to a friend when we were in the clubhouse buying candy from the 10 cent vending machine. The golf course manager, within earshot behind a rack of collared shirts for players who showed up in inappropriate attire, barked, “That old man provides a service to the golfers…you should probably stay out of his way.”

Gimme would clean the balls he found in a washtub in the back of his old camper truck, carefully repaint them, and sell them for a dollar through the golf course’s north fence while seated on a 3-legged canvas camp stool on Maryland Avenue. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was bolstering his retirement income. Maybe both.

Of course we didn’t tell our parents that the old man was marking us up with a 2 iron whenever we got too near his income source. We also didn’t tell them we swam in the lake after hours, or snuck over to the clubhouse and sampled bottles of warm soda from the cases stacked in the shed, or tried to get the night crew to chase us in their gas powered Cushman carts either. Kids didn’t give away their secrets in those days. And parents, well, they didn’t really want to know. But I did ask my dad about the old golf ball salesman once. His reaction was telling. “The old grouch works hard enough. He would make a decent living if he wasn’t such a joyless, angry old cuss. We would rather hike all the way back to the clubhouse and pay retail.” Which explained another mystery: Why the golf course manager was so fond of Gimme-gimme.

I learned an important lesson from Gimme-gimme golfball, lumpy temple and all: When you do a job, do it with smile on your face. After all, a joyless service is no service at all.

What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?

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A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America 

We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.

Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'”  This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…

Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.

Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.

How should the church respond to culture shift?

We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.

Or…

…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…

Lessons from the first Christians

First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.

Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.

Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.

Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.

Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.

Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”

So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.

The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”

Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.” 

So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)

We have work to do. Politics is not that work.

*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.

***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.

What now? The Episcopal General Convention and the SCOTUS Same-Sex Marriage decision

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A generational explanation of lgbt church engagement and my conspiracy theory that millennials will be used to drive a boomer/Xer agenda.

If you are new to this blog you should know two things: First, I am an ecumenical pragmatist. I am always looking for a way forward in unity. Second, I am a futurist. I am always wondering what the unanticipated consequences of today’s actions will be tomorrow. Things are never as rosy as they appear to the winners, nor as grim as they appear to the losers. With those caveats out of the way, let me offer a reflection upon this morning’s SCOTUS same-sex marriage decision upon our church deliberations this week…

For thirty or more years the Episcopal Church has championed the cause of lgbt people. One of the Episcopal Church’s charisms is the desire to push the boundaries of the tent of grace as far as it can be pushed. This charism arose from our English established church roots that put Protestants, Catholics, and those for whom the church represented the national aspirations of a people at prayer in the same building. Into this “we can all worship together” ethos came the Builder Generation and their “what people do is their own business” ethic. The Builders were followed by Boomer generation “justice” clergy who gave lgbt people voice when they were at the periphery of the culture. Conservatives sneered that lgbt folk only joined churches for social acceptance. And, given the very human and universal desire for inclusion, surely there was some truth to that suggestion.

But the world changed. Lgbt people have gained cultural acceptance. This change coincided with generational shifts: Millennials, for whom the old categories of “right” and “left” only work if you are a product of either a progressive or conservative fundamentalist university, think much more like the Builders (“your life, your business”) and much less like Boomers and Gen Xers (“I am right, you are wrong. And since you are wrong, you need to be fixed.”)

In these shifting generational sands, I noticed an increasing number of lgbt people joining churches that are welcoming but not affirming. Then I noticed an increasing number of evangelical churches becoming affirming: two poles appear to be merging. This is not received as good news by either suburban evangelical power brokers (for whom this represents a loss of cultural status quo) nor mainline power brokers (for whom this represents the potential loss of a carefully cultivated constituency). But it is surely happening.

What does this new world mean for young lgbt Christians? I suggested a year ago in a post entitled “Will the Episcopal Church keep gay Millennials?” that lgbt Millennials would not stay in a church that is not theologically robust and is politically narrow. Lgbt Millennials, like other Millennials, are voting with their feet that they want sermons with stronger scriptural underpinnings, more rooted in the ancient wisdom of the church, more theological content…sermons that are deeper and, gasp, longer. Lgbt Millennials, like other Millennials, have no need to engage the church for social acceptance. They have that. In other words, Millennial lgbt people think more like their generation than their minority identification. If you accept that orientation is a minority, like race, lgbt Millennials think more like assimilated immigrants than first generation immigrants. In light of this changing milieu, I suggested that lgbt millennials might bail out on the Episcopal Church because we are too fuzzy on our scriptural and traditional roots – too much about Boomer and Generation X division politics and not enough Builder and Millennial generation “agreeing to disagree.” I watched this firsthand in a meeting a month ago between lgbt business leaders and twenty young evangelical clergy. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian said, “Look, we don’t want to go to mainline churches with a fuzzy gospel. We may be gay, but we are evangelicals.”

My post last year had an interesting outcome: Nearly a dozen young gay clergy contacted me offline to say that they were having trouble staying in our church because of the rampant heterodoxy of their clergy elders. If two people contact me on a post privately I struck a nerve. But this was nearly a dozen. Clergy!

Why share all of this? Because in the euphoria of today’s SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling, our convention delegates, who tend to see the issue of sexuality as their Selma, will feel a groundswell to change marriage canons and begin the process of prayer book revision – Two issues that threaten to squeeze another 100,000 Episcopalians quietly out of our midst over the next decade. People, I might add, that are serving, tithing, faithful church members.

To my progressive friends: You got what you wanted – both in the culture and in the church. From today forward, same-sex marriage is the law of our land. Lgbt people are already, and in the future will increasingly be, either joining us or leaving us because we are a church that proclaims the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. You don’t need canonical or prayer book changes.

What we really need today is for an lgbt delegate to stand up and say, “The world just changed. We don’t need the church for acceptance. We have that. We need the church to be the Jesus loving, God worshipping, body of Christ she once was. That is what will bring us and that is what will keep us.”

No matter what you are about to be told at GC, this is a generational shift not a theological one. In your Convention deliberations, I fully expect (and accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist on this point) that an uber-politicized, super-minority of progressive-fundamentalist millennials, fairly un-representative of their generation, will be the ones tasked by their Boomer and Xer elders with carrying the legislation and begging articulately for canonical and liturgical revision. They will be given the heady task of marching forward to microphones to exuberantly implore you for “long overdue sacramental justice.”

When that happens (and I am certain it will), delegates, resist them. Remember the reams of data you have read on the Millennial generation. Real Millennials like old words and traditions. Real Millennials like diversity. Real Millennials are ok with disagreement. Real Millennials live in a world that lacks neatness – they do not need canonical consistency. Real Millennials, to quote a Millennial friend in the midst of a disagreement with another Millennial, say things like, “I think you are really weird on that issue and I’m not really sure what the solution is, but I know a great craft pub in an old warehouse around the corner. Want to grab a beer?”

So resist the urge to make the world a neater, cleaner place for a generation that is looking for a more ancient, higher quality, more relational church. …A church that is a lot like the one we already are.

Justice: The Episcopal Church riding a one-trick pony into the ground?

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

Photocredit: Paul Hebert, Symbolist.com

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There is an old expression from the days when entertainment starved small town Americans waited for the traveling circus to show up, only to be left flat by the disappointing show: one-tent, one-clown, and a one-trick pony. The one-trick pony was a let down, even for farm kids who spent their afternoons watching summer storms roll through from the porch. Reading reports of the testimony from the General Convention it seems to me that, although we may shrink our structures, we have already shrunk our vision. We have become the ecclesiological expression of the one-trick pony. Our pony is “justice,” and we are in grave danger of riding that horse into the ground.

Our church was once characterized by evangelical and reformed theology, ecumenical dialogue through the Lambeth Quadrilateral, ancient catholic practice, and engagement with the world as a natural outgrowth of the first three. It now appears the pressures of our decline and the narrowness of our seminaries* training have left our laity and clergy unable to argue from the Holy Scriptures informed by the tradition, only from feelings and opinions. The words reported from last night’s “Special Legislative Committee on Marriage” are filled with, “I feel,” “I think,” “I want,” “I believe.”

We seem to be unable to view issues through any lens but the lens of social justice – to the point of public shame. Last night a cathedral dean equated the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rite language to the flying of the Confederate flag over Charleston.

Here is a money quote from The Living Church’s coverage, “‘How long are we going to allow documents like the Book of Common Prayer to contain language that is explicitly discriminatory?’ asked the Rev. Will Mebane, interim dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Buffalo and a member of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage. ‘Demands for the Confederate flag, a symbol of hate, to come down have been heard. … It is time to remove our symbol that contains language of discrimination.’”

The dean from Buffalo actually equated the language of the prayer book marriage rite (lifted directly from another “hate document,” the bible) used in a church in which 3/4 of our diocese’ have same-sex commitment ceremonies to the racially motivated murder of nine faithful Christians assembled in their church to study the scriptures? That is patently irresponsible, thoroughly insensitive, and wholly unexplainable to my African American friends.

But I cannot really blame Reverend Mebane. To quote a well-worn expression, “When your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail.” When we read the scriptures only through the lens of justice, everything begins to look like a justice issue.  We seem to have reduced ourselves to this one-trick pony. And, dogonnit, we are going to ride that thing until it folds under our weight.

Luckily, and as usual, it is the bishops who ride to our rescue. Bishop McConnell of Pittsburgh pointed out, “A substantial range of voices was excluded in this task force…” Such as the voices of traditionalists, and those of both our ecumenical partners and the other Anglicans in our world-wide communion.

We are fond of quoting our African brethren’s proverbs in our meetings, so let me suggest one: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” If we keep riding our justice hobby horse fast and alone, it will do what horses ridden for too long do: collapse.

We have same sex blessings. That horse is out of the barn. Now, for the love, can we throw a saddle on something else for a bit? The actual mission of the church: the evangelism of the 2/3 of the world who are outside of the faith and the discipleship of the 1/3 inside it, would be a good place to start.

vintage-circus-show-bus

*Biblical languages, systematic theology, historic exegesis are all absent on the Courses of Study I have seen.

The roomy church: Uniting around what unites us.

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photo credit: Oh My Apartment. http://tinyurl.com/o4ouzg2

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A somewhat sarcastic yet serious call to our GC78 delegates to under react.

This post might be the blogospheric equivalent of whistling in the dark. You are pretty sure it won’t really help, but you do it because it makes you feel as if you are at least doing something…

To those of you packing your bags for General Convention let me share a story: Last year I was at the gathering of province VIII ministry leaders. (For non-episcopalians “the province” is episco-speak for one of 9 geographical regions in the Episcopal Church.) At the meeting we were discussing how difficult it is to get folk from the 19 diocese’ and jurisdictions in our province to work together. There was a good deal of frustration at parishes lack of participation in collaborative efforts. We discovered the reason was a lack of understanding of what we were united on. “We aren’t sure other folk are the same kind of Episcopalians we are?” several said. I suggested, “It might help us get buy-in if we had a statement of what we do agree on.” The consensus in the room was that we were such a diverse church that it would be impossible to agree on any kind of a statement. I pushed, “Can the youth people give it a try?” It took one draft and three edits for two liberals, a conservative, and a moderate to hash out a statement of “shared values.” Task completed in one day.

As we showed it around a fascinating thing happened: Other provincial ministry areas saw it and asked if they could use it too. An even more fascinating thing happened when I showed it to two groups of friends. One a group of progressive youth ministers from a variety of traditions (including those the Episcopal Church is in full communion with), the other a group of senior youth directors who lead the group that left us…you know, the grumpy quitters who say we drove them out. Here is where it gets really interesting: Those we are in “full communion” with said, “Those don’t describe us at all.” One, a person with a PhD in theology, said, “I’m not sure I know what half of those points are even about.” The response from the group led by former Episcopalians? “Those are fabulous. Far more descriptive of us than what we wrote!” Now the punchline: The former Episcopalians asked, “Can we use your statement?”

Insert snark: Yes, the theologically pure schismatists asked to use the shared values from a liberal province of the heretic church, while our other pure and undefiled progressive partners, with whom we have so much in common, didn’t even understand the statement.

My point: What unites Anglicans as Great tradition formed, prayer book using, rejectors of the modern pattern of song and sermon for the ancient pattern of scripture and supper, is still far greater than what divides us.

Please remember that as you travel to Salt Lake City. For all of our lawsuits and counter-suits and leisure suits, what unites Episcopalians, even today, is greater than what divides us. That will not be true, though, if you over-define and over-canonicize us. When you go to general convention, do work hard to shrink our national structures to keep resources in the parish for evangelism and discipleship. But PLEASE resist the urge to over-define and consolidate progressive “wins.” Because, as the Reformed Episcopal Church who left us in the 1870’s over two candlesticks and one word (“regeneration” in the baptismal liturgy) show us, what we are arguing about today is not what we will be arguing about tomorrow. Just ask someone from the REC. They put “regeneration” back into their baptismal liturgy in the 1980s. They put the candlesticks back on the altars in the ’60s. No, we will not be arguing about these things in fifty years. Or even twenty. Time will sort out our sexuality stuff. Canonical over-definition and prayer book revision always peels off another 100,000 Episcopalians. And in case you haven’t checked recently, we don’t have them to peel off.

So please, deputies and bishops, as you meet and deliberate our future, please make the hard decisions to shrink our top heavy structures. But when it comes to theological and canonical decisions, especially decisions around marriage, remember that success strategy that you learned in your parish ministry: the power of the under-reaction. You have the votes. You can win. But you can win in a way that creates so many losers as to erase that win. To quote a bishop friend, “Anglicanism, at its’ best is tentative, nuanced and compromised.”

Delegates and bishops, I beg you, under react. Keep us roomy. In a roomy church everyone wins.

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The Future of the Episcopal Church: Being “poised for growth” is not growth

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Old joke: “What do you call a leader with no followers?” Punchline: “Someone taking a walk.”

With General Convention just around the corner there is much talk in Episcopal clergy circles of internal restructuring schemes for our national church office. Interestingly, no one outside our tribe has ever asked me about our “structure issue.” When I speak with other clergy they ask about another issue: “What are you guys doing about your leadership issue?” They see us as having a pressing problem that most of us do not seem to be able to see: A significant number of our “leaders” don’t have many followers.

The numerical decline of the American mainline has left the offices of the historic denominations in a state of continual “restructuring” (a.k.a. “downsizing”). These efforts cost piles of money, take years to enact, and generally leave us with more of the ineffective same. There is a reality instinctively understood by independent churches: churches are neither planted nor grown from national headquarters but by local leaders and their local followers. Church planters know the leadership equation:

 Talent + Preparation + Opportunity + Expectations + Effort = Results

Or as Scott Haas the planter of Substance, a Minneapolis church exploding with millennial generation parishioners says, “The right person, at the right time, in the right location, with the right methods, with the right inner circle of leaders, equals success.”

Our results stare us in the face: In numeric decline for thirty years, we are now in numeric freefall. Episcopal churches have lost a quarter of our Sunday attendance over the past decade: 823,000-623,000 per week from 2003-2013. And, lest you believe the rhetoric our decline has bottomed out, in 2013, the last year we have statistics for, the decline was 2.6%, an increase over the 10 year average of 2.4%. Conclusion, we have shrunk, are shrinking, and the rate of our decline is accelerating.  To make matters worse, this summer our General Convention will contemplate new rounds of canonical and prayer book revisions that threaten to marginalize whole groups of parishioners, threatening yet another slow trickle from our churches. And, as if we have not had enough bad news, we are about to enter what church statistician Lovett Weems calls “the tsunami of death” as our builder generation attendance core become, paraphrasing St. Paul, “absent in the body to be at home with the Lord” over the next decade.

So, If our results do not “equal success,” where in the equation are we falling short? Is it the right people? The right location? The right methods? or the right inner circle? Because our leaders have been telling us for a decade that the Episcopal Church is “poised for growth.”

And, although the first half of this post might seem to indicate otherwise, I actually believe them.

I do believe that with our inner-city locations, historic buildings, broadly creedal ancient-future faith, communities shaped in daily immersion in the scriptures and weekly sacramental worship, our willingness to form communities that help one another strive for personal holiness with grace toward others, of agreeing to pray together rather than agreeing to sign the same doctrinal statements, that we really are poised for growth.

You should know, however, that I myself was once poised. I was a freshman in high school. It was in the swimming unit of second hour Physical Ed. I was poised on the end of the high dive. Every sinew of my skinny body twitched in readiness to propel myself off that board. However, fear won out over the desire to impress the girls below. Fear and the awareness that I did not know how to dive – I lacked diving talent and preparation. So I turned around and slunk down the steps of the board to the jeers of my pre-sensitivity era friends. The point: Being “poised” to do something doesn’t get it done. One still needs talent + preparation + expectations + effort in order to go get the results that opportunity leaves us “poised” to achieve.

Will we Seize Our Episcopal Moment?

Will we turn it around? As “The seed that grows on its own” parable (Mark 4:26-29) taught us this past Sunday, the kingdom will keep growing. Last year, for instance, the Sunday attendance of 10 American churches grew by 2000 people or more. But we will only reap the harvest into our churches if we cast the seeds of the Word of God and wield the sickle to bring in the harvest. We will have to overcome our hesitation at using the God given tools of evangelism and discipleship if we are to bring in the harvest God has prepared. The kingdom is growing. God sees to that. But I see a potential pitfall in our (much needed) restructuring efforts: That of staying in the shed “sharpening” the tools to create what has been referred to as a “leaner, meaner, more responsive instrument.” But then never using it.

Will we seize our Episcopal moment and join God’s harvest? Or will we leave it to others?

General Convention 2015 – Will history repeat itself?

photo credit Susan Snook

photo credit Susan Snook

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002

It is a business meeting that inspires either the deepest anxiety or absolute apathy: General Convention – the triennial business meeting of the Episcopal Church.* This July we will have another of these enormous shindigs in Salt Lake City. What happened at the last one encouraged me.

My perspective on General Convention 2012 was somewhat unique: I was not a member of any of the “usual suspects” at General Convention. I was not a “deputy” (elected lay and clergy representative), although I listened privately to the perspectives of many deputies. I was (obviously) not a bishop, although I spent a fair amount of time privately listening to the widely divergent viewpoints of four bishops and their spouses. Neither was I a member of one of the many lobbying groups that show up at these events to push the church toward greater “justice.” Why was I there? I manned a booth with several friends attempting to rally adults to take the Good News of Jesus to youth outside the walls of the church. In other words, I was about as dispassionate an observer as one can be as an insider in our institution.

What encouraged me at GC12? The legislation that summer fell into three basic groups that illustrated trends:

Group One: legislation for theological change

-Allow Communion for people who have not been baptized. (A no brainer for evangelicals, but a big deal theologically for the church historic.): No

-Remove Confirmation as a barrier to holding parish leadership positions. (i.e. some semblance of Christian commitment prior to church leadership.): No

-Updating the 1982 Hymnal (A political precursor to revising the prayer book): No

Trending down: Theological change.

Group Two: legislation for political change 

-The bishops voted to continue making statements on moral issues such as the plight of Palestinian Christians, the use of drones, world hunger, etc. (This is an attempt to “speak truth to power.” Not to be snarky, but it strikes me as somewhat humorous that we think anyone is listening when we, 1% of the countries’ Christians, tell the government to stop shooting cruise missiles.)

-We voted to include the word “transgendered” in the list of what will not prevent someone from seeking ordination.

-We voted to have same-sex blessing rite liturgies approved for use by those who choose to do so.

Trending up: progressive politics

Group Three: legislation for mission and overcoming organizational stasis

-Sell our church HQ building in Manhattan: Approved

-Establish a committee to restructure church governance: Besides our bicameral legislative body, the General Convention, we also have a large national church office and hundreds of national committees & commissions. This new committee to “restructure” was tasked with shrinking all of this.  Approved

-Remove the stipulation that the Presiding Bishop must give up their diocesan bishop role (An attempt to roll back the ever-increasing hierarchical structure of our church since setting up of the national office in 1947.) Approved

-Perhaps most interesting of all: The bishops re-established themselves as the fulcrum in our three part divided form of government by writing a letter to the courts in Fort Worth and Quincy. Skip bracketed paragraph if you are not a church geek. 

[How does a letter rebalance power? A group of conservative bishops had written a “friend of the court” letter (Amicus Brief) to the courts in Fort Worth and Illinois defending the ancient church practice and traditional Episcopal understanding that the diocesan bishop is our church’s highest authority. The majority of the bishops were very angry about this as it undermines our lawsuits in those diocese. However, in a stroke of brilliance they chose to write a letter supporting the new bishops and the churches that remained in the Episcopal Church in Fort Worth and Quincy, without mentioning the substance of the letter written by the conservative bishops. This is dense politics, even for Episcopalians, but our bishops, by affirming the new bishops and NOT addressing the substance of the letter, re-affirmed the traditional view that bishops are the highest authority in our church – rather than a metropolitan such as a Pope, prophet, Archbishop, or even our own Presiding Bishop.]

In one swoop the bishops appear to have re-established themselves as the locus of power in the church, rather than the other two groups (the national office/presiding bishop, and the House of Deputies/Executive Council) who each behave as if they are the prime authorities. Practically speaking, in an institution with balance of powers, someone always gets a vote with just a little more weight than the others. I think it is a good thing if our bishops, who are closer to the mission field than the national office, and in recurring collegial relationship with one another, unlike the deputies. It makes for a safer, more catholic church that the bishops would be the ones with tie-breaking power.

Trending up: The scent of a revolution to drive the church back toward mission.

Summary: We seemed to be becoming a more theologically conservative, more politically progressive church that is irritated at resources being siphoned away from mission to national structures.

Why is this important for this summer’s General Convention? Because this summer we will make decisions that strike at the heart of what many perceive as our orthodoxy: marriage in our prayer book and in our governing documents. These changes will be pushed for “consistency” sake. Indeed, we will be more consistent if we, a church where many are performing same-sex marriages has that practice canonically in place. We will also be a much smaller church if that happens. This will be a bridge too far for many of the 150,000 or so remaining social conservatives in our church. In 2003 823,000 people worshipped in Episcopal Churches on Sunday mornings. In 2013 that number was 623,000 people, numbers that do not include the loss of another 10,000 Episcopalians in South Carolina. Do we really have another 100,000 Episcopalians to peel off to make us, to quote one of our seminary professors, “a leaner, meaner church”?

Far better would be to resist the urge to over-define ourselves. As Nick Knisely, bishop of Rhode Island says, “Anglicanism is tentative, nuanced, and compromised.” The tendency to over-definition is characteristic of other traditions: fundamentalism with detailed statements of faith and Rome over-defining the Eucharist in the 11th century come to mind.

My hope this summer is that cooler heads will prevail. That we will continue our previous trends toward holding the line on matters theological, being open politically, and that the scent of revolution that wanted to drive mission from a national vortex back into thousands of local communities to proclaim the Good News of Jesus in word and deed would be the place our leaders will focus this summer.

Will history repeat itself? One can only hope.

 

*Bunny trail: Episcopalians will tell you, chests heaving with pride, that our General Convention is the second largest legislative body in the world. When one considers that Episcopalians now comprise less than 1% of the Christians sitting in American churches on any given Sunday morning (623,000 in 2013), it raises one’s eyebrows at the hubris necessary to think that we need a decision making body second only to the group representing the one billion people of India.