There’s a lot to be said—though as a conservative I hate to admit it—for the sheer passage of time. Change can elevate as well as degrade. We don’t have to believe in the bauble Progress in order to know that established orders require and invite house cleanings after periods of complacency and foolishness.
Which is another way of saying how much I look forward—even if I’m not around for it—to the inevitable collapse of the existing order in the Episcopal Church: of which I am, yes, a committed member. The present order—resting on pride, sophistry, self-delusion, and a commitment to loosey-goosey theology—cannot be sustained. It doesn’t work anymore. This being America, what doesn’t work will fail. I’ll return to this point in a minute.
First, I must confess to hanging out for a week and a half in Indianapolis this summer with some very nice Episcopalians—deputies and bishops attending our triennial General Convention—who either don’t know or decline to acknowledge that the ceiling is about to fall in on them. It’s about to fall on account of deeds such as one the latest convention perpetrated: the approval of “provisional” rites for the blessing of same-sex unions.
Theology aside, the basic enterprise is nutty. A “provisional” rite is . . . what? A liturgical form that maybe works, maybe doesn’t work, depending on where it’s used and by whom?
Surrounding this new rite is an air of indecisiveness. General Convention, having never gotten around to working out the theology of “gay rites,” settled for smiling warmly at hopeful gay couples, promising that bishops may either authorize or not authorize same-sex blessings. The issue of marriage for gay couples was never on the table: too much uncertainty regarding state laws, too much anxiety among clergy as to what might be the results of suddenly throwing out the old marriage doctrine. (“We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony.”)
Not a few advanced Episcopal spirits, after the modes of the 60’s and 70’s, would gladly do for anyone whatever that person asked in the name of Fulfillment. The modern church’s interests seem mainly to concern incorporation of everyone, without expectations as to faith and manner of life. “Diversity” and “social justice” are the Episcopal establishment’s favored themes. I didn’t manage to attend a single General Convention Eucharist that involved confession of sin and apostolic absolution from the same. Good intentions were assumed. We didn’t need to talk about that old “we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” stuff. We were bringing the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations to fulfillment: “gender” equality, sustainability, and such like.
Honest. That’s what turns us on nowadays—the social stuff. At our wrap-up Eucharist, the presiding bishop, Mrs. Katharine Jefferts Schori, admonished us that we are to “Take what you have learned here about Deep Hospitality and keep moving toward The Other.”
Easier said than done. “The Other” seems not to find us very entrancing. The church’s own Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of the Episcopal Church reported to convention that we’re losing members right and left. Our affliction is “continued, systemic decline.” Total Sunday average attendance fell 16 percent between 2006 and 2010. Seventy-two percent of Episcopal parishes experienced financial stress during the century’s first decade.
Notwithstanding, the latest General Convention spent most of its time on same-sex blessings and eagerly awaited spiritual pronouncements such as, hey, let’s increase green energy use and let the District of Columbia elect U.S. senators.
It is odd to find a bulwark of the American religious establishment devoting relatively little time these days to the things churches are normally supposed to do, such as proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Then again, it seems not so odd, once you’ve considered the spiritual disarmament most American churches undertook 30 or 40 years ago in response to the demands of the counterculture for, yeah, man, Relevance! Suddenly the Gospel wasn’t the churches’ business; social change was. The various secular schemes and devices of the emerging culture—feminism being one such, environmentalism another, gay rights still another—became the regnant assumptions. It obviously hasn’t paid off very well.
But the wheel of history turns. Is it ever turning right now in Episcopal circles! All of us know young priests, young seminarians, youngish bishops coming up fast on the ecclesiastical inside: tired of decline, eager to return the church to its old-time moral seriousness; to make its tastefully appointed church buildings places of spiritual refreshment and holiness once again.
I think it’s going to happen. Look at the now-dominant architects of Social Justice Christianity. They’re nearly as old as I am, and I remember five-cent Cokes and Fibber McGee and Molly.
An intelligent, devout, evangelically oriented generation is poised to ascend—slowly, oh, so slowly—to the seats of power and spiritual influence warmed at present by elderly devotees of the Millennium Development Goals. What goes around comes around—a reminder that, as we old fuds used to affirm and believe, the Lord’s in charge of this whole shebang.