There have been a number of emails sent round in the last few days about the demise of the Episcopal Church. These emails cite as an example of the demise, the crumbling budgets of parishes and dioceses, and lay blame for this demise on the liberal influences on church teachings and thought. Much is made of the idea that liberal thought has watered down Jesus until he has become meaningless. In response I have some thoughts, most of which are grounded in the studies of sociologists (Diana Butler Bass, among others) concerned with the state of Mainline Christian Denominations and the Episcopal Church in particular.
To understand the situation with some depth it helps if we begin by looking back some 150 years ago and then progress forward to the situation today. Beginning about 150 years ago the world was adopting what has become known as the “modern” philosophical and sociological view. This point of view asserted, following a scientific methodology, that for every question there was an answer. By 1870 scientific reason influence theology and the idea of ultimate truth developed. For example, it was during Vatican I (June 1868) that the Pope was defined as infallible. During this same period of time people began to speak of the Bible as inerrant. Prior to 1870’s no one considered the idea that a human, even the Pope, might be infallible nor would they have imagined the Bible as inerrant.
The scientific method of an answer for every question eventually polarized society into extremes of right and wrong, truth and untruth, black and white. It set up the means for groups of people to divide along the poles. Following in accord, churches became divided between liberal churches on one end and conservative churches on the other end.
Subsequently, historians have posited a two-party system in religious history framed by the efforts of liberals versus conservatives to control the dominant voice in denominations. Specifically this division organized itself around issues of race and science with liberals advocating for freedom of slaves, a corporate responsibility for social justice, biblical criticism, – in other words accommodating itself to modern culture and new sources of human experience and knowledge.
In the meantime conservatives advocated for a biblical basis of owning slaves, and developed strong arguments for biblical inerrancy. They argued that the Bible was the literal word of God, without error – the Bible was a changeless theological handbook and moral guide. Conservatives also organized missionary work, focused on faith healing, and argued for moral strictness…shaped by a central belief in the eternal and unchanging truth, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
Many of the mainline churches divided over these issues: Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists. Around that same time, from about 1870 until 1960 another phenomenon occurred in Christianity: there began a rising up between the liberal and conservative polarities something which can be called the “Established” church.
The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years. Churches formed themselves somewhere on the liberal to conservative line but all with the same kind of voice of authority of what was good and right and gave people clear understandings of what they were to do.
Christian spirituality during this time was focused on church buildings, family faith, and generations of families who worshiped in the same church and or the same denomination. The minister’s job was to performed certain spiritual tasks (baptism, weddings, funerals, Sunday worship), the church blessed the social order of society, comforted people in need and raised children in the faith.
In the United States the surrounding culture supported the Christian church as the voice of authority and a homogeneous closed system developed. This was true across denominations. The established church created a voice of Christian authority and tradition that held people in place and gave Christianity the dominant voice in this country for 90 years.
But around 1960 society began to change. Culturally Americans grew wary of all voices of authority and a shift occurred from an established centralized authority to many individual voices, each of us able to be our own voice of authority. This shift of authority from Institution to Individual has had the most dramatic impact on the Church. Add to this the reality that world is no longer “homogeneous” but recognizes a vast diversity of ethnic, religious, and social realms pulling at the seams of Christianity as a dominant voice in the world. This shift is further challenged by the recent economic decline the likes of which have not been present at this magnitude in decades, if ever. Other challenges to the church include global terrorism and violence, and the tragedy of sexual abuse in the church. The issue before us now is not how does “The Church” respond? Rather how do churches respond to the shift? How can churches adapt while not losing their identity? How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of their lives? How can churches offer people a way to make meaning out of the very real challenges before us?
In stressful times like these there is a push to assert that “everything was OK before” and “the problem is the new leadership, or the liberalization of the church.” This push affects churches most dramatically when three things are present: the community is stressed; it hasn’t accepted the direction it is moving into; and it enables unhealthy communication patterns.
It’s helpful to remember that stress is cumulative and typically is not coming as much from within the community as from without. Stress comes from a sense of a loss of control and anxious people feeling stress tend to resist change at the level where they feel they have the most control. Church is an area where people think they should have control. People tend to think that the church exists to meet their needs and forget that the church exists to do God’s work of love and reconciliation. In times of stress people will try to return to the “good old days” and are not willing to deal with the real stressors of the present situation.Some of the stress may be perceived changes in the congregation, new leadership style, new rector, perception of significant changes in worship, loss of members, growth in members, change in worship times, change in building structure. Any of these place stress on a community and asks it to be adaptive. Communities under a lot of stress resist the need to adapt.
The greatest influences on the stress of a community, which cause it to resist adapting, are the stressors from outside.These stressors occur from major changes in the macro community, the city, state, country, and or the world, in terms of the economy, politics, and violence. Because these changes are in the larger world context individuals develop a feeling of helplessness. Individuals in a church community may also be feeling significant stress from illness, death, finances, or family issues. These issues may be personal or in the lives of close family and friends. Often the people who are “acting out” are either the most stressed or the least able to tolerate stress. The chaos from these kinds of challenges feels too immense and as a result people feel impotent. These feelings of helplessness and impotence increase the level of stress and decrease the ability to adapt. They have nothing to do with what is going on inside the parish community but can impact its ability to function in healthy ways.
Stress in a system can be reduced by understanding that much of it is coming from outside the system, and that the changes to the system are relatively small, purposeful, and reasonable. It may be helpful for people to discuss the changes they have experienced in the last two years and their personal feelings around these changes.When an awareness of the whole system is not present there are three ways to address the reaction to stress: 1. stop the changes, which is like giving into a child’s temper tantrum, and may not be possible if the real stressors are outside the community. 2. allow the stressed person to find a different setting where they feel more safe 3. place boundaries that define how individuals must act – even when stressed – as members of a loving community. When a community can learn to do #3 they become a healthier stronger community prepared to face the future.
The Episcopal Church, like other denominations, will face some financial hardship due to loss of members and the economy. It will be helpful if we can remember that these losses are not the result of some simple thing we can “change back. ” The losses are deeper and more systemic and require a comprehensive understanding of societal changes. As often happens in times like these the losses may actually become the source for new life, new growth, and a healthy church.
Becoming a healthier church community enables us to focus on the real issue of what it means to be a Christian today. For us Jesus is not some watered down meaningless person, but a savior who points us to the hard work of love and reconciliation. The love Jesus points us to is not romantic love. It is God’s love – love in the face of challenges, love in the face of anger, love in the face of divisiveness, love in the face of hurt. A love that seeks to restore hope, instead of fear, and peace, instead of anger. It is a love that welcomes all instead of excludes. Loving as God loves, loving as we see manifested in Jesus is hard work. It is not meaningless, but meaningful and meaning making.