Centuries ago I was obliged to take a course in public statistics. The lecturer was utterly crazy. The only thing I remember about the course was being driven by that extraordinary fellow, along with my class mates to a “new town” in County Durham. We spent a good deal of time on the wrong side of the road and when the shattered students arrived at the place it was the wrong day! As a result of this experience, or rather of the course which I found unintelligible I am the last person to consult on the subject. I have always believed math to be an obscure branch of black magic.
I’ve just tried to fathom the statistics presented to the Executive Council of TEC about current evaluations of our church’s strengths, or rather weaknesses. You may see them at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/79692388/TECdata. Even someone numerically challenged discovers the figures depressing. The sun belt does better than elsewhere, but that may at least partially explained by the continued migration of the population to warmer climes. This has been going on for years. Many of the migrants are older people seeking warmth and comfort. The one glimmer of hope is that people seem to be giving more to their churches than was once true, but even this doesn’t do much to bridge the gap caused by a loss of parishioners.
These figures paint the backdrop to the reported conflict between the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies, conducted in public in what seems to be a turf war. The conflict is unedifying, involves not only different proposals for a new budget but also who has the right to address which House of General Convention. If nothing else it demonstrates just how the mechanics of governance threatens to undermine a desperately needed overhaul of our structure, an overhaul I’ve urged long before we reached this moment in time. Yet how we govern ourselves as a ‘particular church’ is less important, much less important than who we regard ourselves to be as a microcosm of the Church called to minister in the United States.
No doubt our loss of parishioners – i dislike the word “member” – has been compounded by the desertion of so many since 2003 and the ensuing law suits. However what seems clear is that the greater problem is our inability to retain younger people or to seem to offer a faith which inspires people who believe in growing numbers that what we offer in our parishes has not a thing to do with what they believe to be the reality of daily living. We have become victims of the culture wars which divide Americans and we don’t seem to speak to those who want something more than a ritual affirmation of their political views.
It seems clear that those who want a religious community which says Amen to their politics tend to be politically conservative, while those who regard themselves as “progressives” are less likely to feel they need a church to pursue their aims. In short our church offers itself to a narrowing constituency of liberals and chases away those who believe the Gospel is a religious version of right-wing politics. It’s not that conservatives believe that the Gospel is best framed through the lens of the Republican Party while progressives peer through Democrat spectacles, or it shouldn’t be, but that we seem unable to understand that the Gospel, given its head, both informs and judges all our temporary political and social theories and in a way which disturbs and challenges all our slogans and causes. True, people devoutly believe that what they assert is Gospel based, but truth be told, our church has lost its cutting edge, the courage to preach, teach and worship a faith grounded in the fundamental realization that while Christianity must be enculturalized to speak in a language and context which meets people where they are, it cannot surrender to popular culture uncritically.
In the 19th Century, at least in Britain and the US, we lost working women and men because we wrapped ourselves in the culture of affluence, ‘conservatives at prayer’. We were the church of the wealthy and the upper classes, the people who built or adorned most of our church buildings and paid the rector. Nowadays we appeal to upper middle class intellectuals and where these people are in short supply, in cities and towns where the businesses run by such people have evaporated and where their proprietors have gone elsewhere – to the sun – a dwindling, graying minority struggle to keep the roof on crumbling piles and meet the significantly growing cost of paying a priest.
Around our buildings, or on the edges of communities now distanced from our buildings are a new constituency, made up not of unchurched families, but of no-churched families, a generation or more from the their ancestors who filled our buildings and regarded them as significant centers of their lives and devotion. The burning question is just how we frame our ministry, lay and ordained, to contact this pool of people to whom the Faith is as mysterious as the goings on in a masonic lodge. We continue to try to attract by our causes people who look with growing distrust to politicians and political parties. What we don’t seem to offer is a faith which changes lives and gives them the strength to navigate the bewildering complexities of modern life. Christian faith has much to say about relationships, how to raise children, how to cope with tragedy, how to minister to the poor and those made victims of unemployment and financial disaster. That Gospel begins with introducing people to God, the relevance of Jesus and the life of the Spirit.
Christian Faith presents the Way through the complicated reality of daily living and yes daily dying. Our Prayer Book wondrously supplies that Way within the community of those called out by God to herald the Kingdom and winsomely demonstrate God’s compassion and purpose. Yet we seem to be offering the stone of adequate governance rather than the Bread of Life.
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