A Baby in Bathwater

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.

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5 Responses to A Baby in Bathwater

  1. Birgit Haylock says:

    It’s a fine line, Jim, between keeping tradition and not becoming hidebound, between attracting new generations and not losing the old. Change is scary to all of us and while the routines may be warm and enveloping to some we have to consider that they may make no sense. But we have to take that leap of faith and walk out not knowing that the path is beneath our feet ( a la Indiana Jones) and trust that God is there with us.

    Miss your insightful preaching, friend. But change is good for us too!

  2. Thank you for confronting this sobering data and putting it in context, Jim. Sadly, a shrinking St. Alban’s reflects the national trend. If we were a business, you could say we’ve lost half of our “paying customers” over the past decade. I’m hopeful, however, that as we change–as we must–we can become a place that says “yes, and…” rather than “ok, but…” Glad to be on this journey with you.

    • Earl Metheny says:

      Jim, Have you considered whether the needed changes are really in the hearts and minds of Episcopalians, rather than in the Church’s liturgies? It is an easy matter to fuss around with liturgies. They are easily changed. Needed changes in the hearts and minds of Episcopalians are much harder to effectuate. Lyndon Johnson said at the height of the controversial Vietnam war, “The Vietnam War will be won or lost in the hearts and minds of the American people.” And indeed it was so lost. Our Diocese and the national Church are once again focussed on trivialities — the liturgy — and ignoring its own real, deep-seated problems, a major one of which is how we treat one another in our lust for political change.

  3. Jo says:

    Jim, that about sums it up.

  4. Jon O. says:

    It shouldn’t be a mystery that congregations that spend such a significant amount of resources dedicated to liberal political causes end up alienating their conservative members. The same goes for the ELCA and the UCC as well. Any church that strikes out into the relm of politics on either side of the political spectrum is going to alienate approximately half of its membership. The membership losses experienced is the loss of socially conservative members who are not comfortable with the Church’s political activities…plain and simple.

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