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WHAT WENT WRONG?

I used to have a picture of a sign. It read, “The Bishop is Coming. Hand in your guns when you come to meet him”, or words to that effect. The sign was probably a fake. It was supposed to be an advertisement for a visit of a ‘missionary bishop’ to a community in Montana, I think, in the 19th. Century. That was the age of expansion for the Episcopal Church. Bishops like Wipple and my favorite John Hobart Hare of the Dakotas followed the settlers west or sought to evangelize, and champion, in their own Victorian way, the Native American nations conquered by an application of Manifest Destiny. Men like Hare, despite his championing of dreadful boarding schools for the Lakota and Dakota, were vilified by white settlers, hungry for Indian land for their championing of their converts. When one reads of these bishops, traveling endless miles often in awful weather, using horse and buggy, one is astounded by their stamina and bravery. I love to re-read my copy of Hare’s biography particularly when I grumble about driving between missions in my air-conditioned car. 

 

It was said that the Baptists walked west, the Methodists came by stagecoach, and Episcopalians waited for the Pullman car. It’s a calumny with a basis in truth. Baptists and Methodists travelled light, full of Gospel zeal, to evangelize a largely unchurched populations who had lost their ties to community and their churches by moving westward in search of a new life. While these Christians organized for mission, the missionary activity of Episcopalians was burdened by a structure which had developed in the original colonies as established churches or at least members of long-established parishes. William Reed Huntingdon complained at Episcopalians were wedded to their colonial and gothic style buildings always looking back with nostalgia to English Anglicanism, a genre whose missionary memory was long dead. 

 

So Episcopalians were tied to creating a diocesan system, based on one church in one state, with a bishop, his staff and a collection of parishes. Many missionary bishops created cathedrals for themselves in the most unlikely places. The Constitution and Canons assumed a highly structured parochial and diocesan structure which if anything impeded mission and growth.

 

The pattern of evangelism was for a missionary bishop or priest visiting a community and calling a meeting of Episcopalians. In many of these places the wealthier settlers identified themselves with the church. They were merchants, bankers, lawyers, the upper crust in local towns and cities. Until about sixty years ago, this constituency of well-off people and their descendants kept parishes going. Many were attracted to our parishes from other denominations, particularly those who were upwardly mobile or whose livelihood was linked to wealth in a community. 

 

There are obvious lessons to be learnt from this history. Our present decline and systemic dysfunction is inherited from our ‘missionary’ strategy now deeply embedded in our collective DNA. The world has changed and if Episcopalianism is to survive, it must decide whether it is to be a missional church or stagger on as a structural church, yearning for former days when we were the wealthy and privileged at prayer.

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