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EPIPHANY?

“Numbers don’t matter,” or so one hears when there’s a discussion about the dwindling membership of the national church or perhaps the local diocese. Only when there’s a possibility that the church is going to go broke does the subject turn serious. Box office is an easier concept to stomach than evangelism.

Of course we haven’t yet approached the lamentable state of Christendom in Europe or even Canada, although the Pacific northwest and the Atlantic northeast areas of the USA are getting close. Before the breakup of the Western church in the sixteenth century no one had worried too much about evangelism since Constantine’s day. Church and State were one, indeed in many places the church preceded the state and was instrumental in unifying petty kingdoms.

After the Reformation the English church inherited such a situation. Granted the clergy, or those with reforming zeal worried about the quality of religion practiced by their parishioners in a different manner than their medieval predecessors. Both worried about the eternal destiny of their flocks and had different remedies for sin, but neither presbyter nor priest had to worry about actually getting people into church. The state fined the recalcitrant and even the most irreligious paid their tithe to support the parson.

Even after the introduction of the free market system into western Christianity competing denominations could rely on a large enough quantity of religious people to fill pews and pay bills. It was in America of all places that evangelism really took off. As people drifted westward their ties to their home church and even denomination became tenuous. Even then Episcopalian missionaries tended to enter new communities and search for lapsed people of their own sort. Bishop Jackson Kemper came up to northern Indiana in 1837, stopped in Michigan City and gathered a group and the following day came her to La Porte to enthuse local Episcopalians who probably attended the already organized Presbyterian chapel before his arrival.

Those two strategies have remained ingrained. We still assume that there are enough people around who enjoy our sort of worship to keep things going and if that fails, the first people we think of contacting are those who have left the church for one reason or another or people of the right class and taste to enjoy our worship menu. Most of our attempts to get people to church assume that even if newcomers are not used to our form of worship they are practicing Christians who know at least something about the faith. Indeed we assume that the first taste such newcomers will have of us is when they “come to church”. “Go into all the world and preach, baptize, do this in remembrance of me, love one another” has been distilled into “Y’all come here and fit in.”

More and more people in our communities are not familiar with the Bible stories we learned as children and wouldn’t know a creed from a crutch or a sacrament from a sausage. Indeed they know more about crutches and sausages than about the Creeds and the Sacraments. “Christ” is a mild swear word.

Then there’s the problem of social convention. Some of us really believe that one should not discuss religion, politics or sex in polite society, a convention we ignore when politics or sex are concerned. Discussing ones faith is for holy rollers and fundamentalists, neither of whom have the breeding or the good manners to be numbered among our friends.

To compound the felony there are now those among us who truly believe that there is nothing unique about Christ or the Christian faith although the Episcopal Church is a useful club for those who dislike doctrine, love ritual and want to meet their liberal friends at prayer. Such people rightly believe that it is a Christian’s duty to feed the poor, bring medicine to the sick and hope to those in despair. They do not believe that even when all that is done -and just when MDGs look like the solution, the market collapses – human beings need to change and need the grace of God to change. A self-centered poor person who has becomes financially secure is in no better case unless there has been a radical change through God’s grace in Christ.

In any case, in this country a theory of the parity of religions is largely a red herring. One seldom bumps into a Moslem or a Buddhist unless one lives in a very cosmopolitan community and even then the vast number of unchurched people are either those who have left “organized” Christianity because they have been hurt by Christians or they have no religion whatsoever.

Most of our church buildings are forbidding, triumphalist or they look like halls for a club or the premises of a modern school. They are frequented by people who know what they are doing, or squabbling about what they should do and who haven’t the slightest idea of how to be a witness or an evangelist and anyway think such a task to be up to the priest or a small committee of oddities who bake bread for newcomers.

So what does Epiphany mean if we haven’t a clue about how to reach out into a growingly unchristian world, have reservations about “forcing my religion on others” -although we force our politics, sports or even recipes on anyone and everyone – or believe that any faith or no faith is OK as long as one gives money to the underprivileged? In the words of my patron saint, Epiphany is a humbug!  It will remain a humbug until we accept that evangelism is integral to the Gospel. Our Lord gave few commands, but among those he did give were the simple terms “Go tell; go baptize. ” Each Sunday we find ourselves in a place to which we have come. That’s a good start, for it is in community that we receive grace to be evangelists and lovers. If that is as far as it goes, our coming together is merely self-centered. We gobble up grace for ourselves, perhaps give some money to support a good cause and that is that. “I love Episcopalian worship.”  For what?

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