On Wednesday morning during our daily devotion of Morning Prayer at St. Alban’s I was overcome with an uneasy feeling. I was partaking in the benevolent tradition of theology and liturgy that have made The Episcopal Church of The United States of America a church that has contributed countless blessings to the faithful and non-faithful alike; I sat knowing that I was a member of a church that has brought release to generations of the oppressed; I sat knowing that I was a member of a church that has endeavored through theology and liturgy to inspire its membership to respect and revere “this fragile earth our island home.” I sat remembering our church’s historic and progressive involvement in the social gospel and our long-fought battles (many of which have been won!) combating slavery, racism, bigotry, antisemitism, sexism, clericalism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. And yet I also sat in a church whose decline in membership would seem to be a harbinger for its own extinction.
In 2011 The Episcopal News Service reported drastic losses among Protestant churches in the U.S. ECUSA has experienced a 16% loss in membership since the year 2000; in 2010 the ELCA experienced a total loss of 5.9% in membership and more than 1000 congregations in the last 22 years (2010 representing the greatest loss during those same years); the PCUSA website reports a total loss of 20.2% in membership over the last ten years and a loss of over 61,000 members between 2009 and 2010. Coming full-circle, in 2010 the Episcopal Church reported a loss of 54,436 members – that’s equivalent to losing the entire membership of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, plus another 14,436 members, in one year. (source: http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/80263_130420_ENG_HTM.htm).
Engaged in the venerable tradition of Morning Prayer defined by The Book of Common Prayer last Wednesday – a guidebook to corporate worship that has united our church since the days of Thomas Cranmer (and given us the theological and Christological framework within which to courageously and boldly pursue our faith with conviction amidst various historical and cultural contexts) I couldn’t help but wonder: If I knew nothing about what it meant to be Christian, if I knew nothing about holy scripture, liturgy or the church, and if I found myself sitting here with these people, what would I think? Would I feel welcome? Would I be compelled to return? Would I be inspired, even in an inchoate way, to begin a life of faith? At that moment the venerated (with good reason) liturgy of the church, beloved among many of us, seemed old, tired and secretive.
As a priest in the church, as a devotee to the Episcopal tradition and as one who believes that, at least in part, the Episcopal Church has been ordained by the Maker to be a blessing to future generations, I found myself to represent a man (a church?) called Jacob in the 28th chapter of Genesis, caught somewhere between a conscious and historic past and a dream-like future; in a present where God has promised to remain until accomplishing what has been promised.
I’m sure that I’m about to mix too many metaphors and more that this post might work better if we found ourselves in the season of the Incarnation rather than Lent, but here goes: The place where we find ourselves – our present – is, for the church, like it was for Jacob. It’s a frightening place. But it’s also an awesome place… “How awesome is this place! (Gen. 28.17). We are living in a time of great promise and opportunity for the church but also in a time when some of our liturgical waters, so to speak, may have become tepid for a new generation. Yes, we must be careful lest we throw out the baby with the bathwater. If we live, as we have in the past, into our future as the church, we’ll make new friends and keep the old. We’ll live boldly into the future, making new friends but keeping the old because one is silver and the other is gold. But dream we must, and boldly so, lest we wake and realize, that surely God was in our place, but we didn’t know it.