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Amidst all the chatter about mitres and primatial perambulations my mind has been focused on a smaller irony.  I attended as a guest the synod of the local diocese of the Anglican Province of America, whose primus I was for twenty-five years.  This year marks the fortieth anniversary of my election as a bishop and the survivors of those days wanted to say nice things about me and so I let them!

There was much talk about how these scattered churches might be able to purchase buildings and pay priests. The Diocese of Mid-America is a poor relation of the Diocese of the East, where in most cases buildings have been erected and clergy are full-time.

While these people plan for a future which includes buildings, we in the Episcopal Church, rather like the USA, are faced with an aging infrastructure and little money to maintain our buildings, let alone diocesan and national church institutions and seminaries. We are stuck in the past. We just cannot envision Anglicanism without its trappings and so our time and money are spent on propping them up. Often our Victorian piles are no longer on sites best suited to evangelize the community. The secularized community outside our buildings has no more insight into what we do on Sundays than they do of what goes on in a masonic lodge. They have little or no biblical knowledge and what they know about the church is largely based on the scandals they see revealed on CNN.

So we plan for mutual ministries, or team ministries, simply because we are too conservative and old-fashioned, too entrenched in what the church has been for hundreds of years to adapt to a new reality. The pattern we adhere to is that which emerged as America grew. It could be described as the “shopping mall” pattern. Our different denominations have offered their products to people who are shopping for something new, while attracting regular customers attached to our brand names. There has been for hundreds of years a sort of ecclesiastical game of musical chairs, in which the Episcopal Church has thrived by attracting upwardly mobile Christians uncomfortable in their less tasteful denominations. Our Liturgy, musical tradition, ceremonial and culture have been the “store-window” attractions by which TEC grew and thrived.

The problem with this method, however we adapt to find cheaper ways to staff our “stores” or train our leaders is that fewer and fewer people are visiting the mall. They are buying “on-line”. They are not attracted to our stores and see no connection between that which we show and sell with the lives they lead. Brought up to believe that something is only worthy if it serves “me” and only true if “I” believe it, the connection between organized Anglicanism and what for them is reality seems slim. This is not to suggest that this form of utilitarianism eschews mystery, or what might be termed “spirituality”. But such attractions are more a blend of sci-fi plots and new age programs. In some ways they resemble the sort of superstition the first Apostles encountered when they decided to evangelize the gentiles.

While history is said not to repeat itself, the church now is placed in a situation not unlike the one experienced in the first century. The impulse is to stay in the synagogue where familiarity breeds security. (Those who have left TEC like the APA or ACNA are busy trying to construct something which feels familiar.)  The challenge of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem for the church is not that it is a paradigm for admitting same-sex couples, but that it presents a challenge to obey Jesus and actually “go into all the world” beginning in Jerusalem but soon going further.

That “further” is for most of us just round the corner. St. Paul looked for the academics in Athens or the pagan country folk in Lystra.  In another place he hired a lecture hall because going to lectures was a popular thing to do. Our pressing task is to dare to evaluate our real estate for its utility as launching grounds for an “invasion” of secular life and culture. Our obsession with what we do “in church” and the safety and security of our “tradition” ironically obscures the mission of the church.

For many years we have been taught that evangelism is naughty, that sharing our faith and above all sharing Christ to others is an invasion of their “space”. We have not been so coy about invading their space with our social and political ideas!  However the task of the church is not to proselytize, a word misused, for the world we seek to speak to is no longer a world of “other faiths and religions” for a large part, and more and more a world of people with atomized vision and odd superstitions.

So far our impulse has been to conform to this secular culture hoping that a version of Christianity spiced up with the moral expectations and “spiritualistic” hobbies of the secular world will prove attractive. This approach is failing and failing dramatically.  Conversion, however defined, requires a radical re-ordering of life and thought, not an easy accommodation to usual lifestyles.  Christianity rings true, works, if you like, when it transforms.

The Great Commission, for centuries described as “Come join us, help us pay the parson and the bills” must now be taken at its original face value. Leaving the security of what we have to encounter and challenge the world outside is a difficult sell to Episcopalians, who, whether traditional or progressive are thoroughly conservative about structure and mission. Perhaps we may be driven to face this reality as our numbers dwindle and our finances dry up?

One Response

  1. Fr. Tony, if there’s a book I’d recommend to help the church in that end, it would be James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009). It comes from the Reformed tradition, but there is much that is theologically and pastorally fruitful for Christians of different persuasions.

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