Friday, January 18, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

I just finished reading the convention program for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. I grew up in North Carolina and attended two churches there as a child (St. John's, Charlotte and St. Francis, Greensboro). My parents were very active laymen until they retired and moved to my mother's hometown in South Carolina. I have a connection with North Carolina.

I noticed several things. First, the diocese now has three bishops. This is two more than they needed when I was growing up there. Second, diocesan contributions from parishes are now mandatory. Third, plate and pledge income is up. Fourth, North Carolina is now apparently a “mission oriented diocese”.

What really struck me was what I did not see: Any discussion of the systemic decline in membership and average Sunday attendance (ASA) for the diocese and the national church. North Carolina's ASA is down around 7% for the past five years.

The official church line is that numbers do not matter. The only growth that truly matters is individual growth. And that is true, so far as it goes. But if what you are doing is worthwhile, then you will wish to share it, to get others to participate in your activity, be it bridge tournaments, baseball games, helping children or feeding the hungry. That is human nature. And if what you are doing is meaningful, then others will want to join in. That is also human nature.

The resistance to discussing the elephant in the room stems, I think, from the recognition that the Episcopal Church no longer has any meaning. We are a church of familiar faces, whose only remaining function is to be a circle of mutual admiration and self-love. We make all the right noises about serving others, about doing good. But in the end notice how little of the church's work at the diocesan or national level is about volunteers helping others and how much of it consists of paying someone to do something.

In the past the Episcopal Church was seen, rightly or wrongly, as being all about sin and guilt. The 1928 BCP is replete with phrases such as “have mercy upon us, miserable offenders”. The Episcopal Church has backed away from that in the past thirty or so years. The word from our clergy is that sin is largely irrelevant. That God loves us regardless. That we have nothing to feel guilty about, and nothing to worry about. We're good, right?

It's true that God loves us unconditionally. But it is not true that we love God in the same manner. We separate ourselves from God on a regular, almost minute by minute basis. And if we do not repent, that separation will continue and even grow. A church that does not believe in sin will also not believe in repentance and will thus offer no counsel on how to get closer to God.

As its members have withdrawn from God, so has the Episcopal Church. It no longer repents of current actions of intolerance, or bigotry or injustice, but instead repents of actions that none of its current members had any part in. Such repentance reaps its own reward in acclaim in the press, but accomplishes nothing.

The Episcopal Church seems to exist to make its members feel good about themselves. It no longer seems willing to help us be better than we were before. If I have a blister on my foot, telling me that I'm a nice guy really isn't helpful. Pricking the blister with a needle and then applying a bandage is what is needed. So too with sin.

We don't evangelize”, I've often heard said. In the past we didn't need to yell from the street corners, because everyone knew what the church stood for: Well mannered and well meaning Christianity. Now we do yell from street corners and it doesn't help, because everyone knows what we stand for: A certain radical political progressivism coupled with a worship of the United Nations as well as certain totalitarian regimes. And no one needs to go to church to participate in those causes.

The main sin of the Episcopal Church is not lust, homosexual or heterosexual. It is pride. It is our stubborn refusal to admit that there is anything wrong. And there is something wrong. Our leadership says that there is something worthwhile about being an Episcopalian. And some of our members are buying the company line. But no one else is. That is the elephant in the room. As long as we refuse to admit our sin, we can not and will not do anything about it.

We have become a church without sin. We are also a church without God. And we are rapidly becoming a church without members. And our leadership does not or will not see a connection between those three statements.

We are a proud church, and no matter what happens that condition is not likely to continue. Either, as a church, we repent and humble ourselves before an almighty God, or we won't be a church and so will no longer be proud.

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