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The Church’s tension: tradition and change

January 24, 2012

The article below is reposted from the website of the Washington Post. Tully is absolutely right here: the real work of the Church is in the worshipping life of its congregations, and in the work of evangelism, witness, and pastoral care that can be given to the faithful and seekers alike. If we read about the megachurches which Tully mentions, we will find that they have attracted such enormous membership by meeting people where they are. Whatever we may think of their theology, these churches have met the real, pressing, material needs of those who come to them. Indeed, they have gone into their communities to find those in need, and they have done so with more than a nickel’s worth of free advice or some watery spirituality. (For more on the megachurches, see Jeff Sharlet’s excellent article from the May 2005 issue of Harper’s.) Jesus was many things, but “spiritual” cannot really be considered chief among them, for his earthly ministry was corporeal. He healed the sick, fed the thousands, broke bread with his disciples, and loved even the least socially acceptable neighbor as himself, commanding all men to “Go, and do thou likewise” (Luke 10:37). As Tully argues, this is where the ministry of the Church must lie.

Bill Tully

IN AN Episcopal parish where I once worked, the custom was to give the Christmas plate offering to local charities. A generous, very progressive leader of the parish objected. “Maybe it makes you clergy feel good, but I give money to my church to build it up so it can do its own unique kind of good.”

He was expressing the no-nonsense wisdom of air travel: “If there is a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down. If you are traveling with a child or someone who needs assistance, strap yours on first and then help the other.”

God knows the Episcopal Church needs some oxygen for itself if it has a prayer of helping anyone else. While we’re not exactly on life support, we are diminished and in danger of becoming what the new bishop of Washington calls “a boutique church.”

I remember repeating the prideful mantra, “We may be statistically small, but we have influence out of proportion to our size-more members of Congress, the Supreme Court, past (and then current) presidents.”

That was when we claimed 3 million members in a nation of 200 million. Now we’re less than 2 million among more than 300 million. The old mantra is laughable.

Though generally theologically progressive, we Episcopalians often envy the largely conservative and evangelical megachurches. While 85 percent of our congregations have fewer than 200 members, megachurches range from several thousand to tens of thousands.

Can we learn from them for our own good? Yes.

But there’s a fundamental difference between our way and their way. To be ignorant of that difference would mean we wouldn’t learn much.

Progressive in doctrine, Episcopalians (and our “mainline Protestant” peers) are often deeply traditional. We’re good at liturgy and music, and at bringing authentic ritual to life’s rites of passage, but we get fussy and downright implacable if someone tries to change our ways. We find acceptance and a sense of grounding in our local congregations-and those are truly good things-and then cling to the Way We’ve Always Done Things until we begin boring people to death, or running them off, and wake up to find ourselves to small to thrive.

The megachurch pastor thought up his idea for a church. Perhaps, like Bill Hybels, who turned a youth group into the granddaddy of all megachurches, Willow Creek, the work was based on tireless research on what people wanted or were missing or had been turned off by in churches.

It will be interesting to see if these new creations can navigate the transition to the second generation, when there well may be people who remember the good old days and want to hold on to them.

Episcopalians are the ultimate and extreme “legacy church.” No matter how committed the local rector is to change, no matter how deft she or he is in managing it, there is a huge and nearly immovable weight of tradition. Some of it is so good that it might- rightly reinterpreted and freshened- be the way forward to real growth in size and health. But it takes a lot of energy. We almost inevitably tilt backward for every step and a half we take forward.

Bishop Budde of Washington is absolutely right about concentrating on the meat and potatoes of local congregational life: worship, music, compelling preaching, education, pastoral care. Taking stands on issues at the national level (where few people pay attention to us any longer) might be satisfying, but we’ve just about spent ourselves doing that.

Even on the issue of homosexuality, where I believe our generous and enlightened thinking and practice are making a signal contribution to society (and to other churches), the real power is seeing people at the local level hear and accept one another honestly, and then move on to the common questions every human being asks. To what Tip O’Neill said about politics, we might add: All religion is local.

That’s what my friend taught me many Christmases ago. Do it here where we are, build up a community so it will be here for the next person through the door, and don’t take my money and send it away. Let me support it where it counts. That’s what leads to growth, and as we learn from history, you either grow, or go.

The Revd William McD. Tully was, from 1994 through January 2012, rector of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue in New York.

One Comment leave one →
  1. MAG permalink
    January 29, 2012 18:35

    The Church exists across time and space, spanning counties, provinces, states, nations, and continents — as well as generations. This is what we mean by “catholic.” This is how we are The Body of Christ. So, it is true that no congregation can (or should attempt to) exist in isolation, pretending to be its own self-standing entity.
    That being said, the Church catholic cannot but be catholic, even in spite of itself, so long as the Word is rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments duly administered. Our “issues at the national level” — or, better, international level — occur every week (in some parishes, every day) when we gather to worship in Common Prayer and Sacrament. That is where we truly reach across and unite ourselves to fellow Christians in Baltimore, Sedgemoor, Broadmoor, Bangalore, and Singapore. Christian Unity is achieved at the font and at the altar more thoroughly and more powerfully than any other place.
    It is when we rise from our knees, “go[ing] forth in the name of Christ,” to “continue in that holy fellowship” and to “do all such good works as [God] hast prepared for us to walk in,” that our religion is most effective in turning local — we are embedded within our own local communities, and are called and bidden to work and serve therein.
    This is the beauty and power of Common Prayer: common worship that spans space and time, but taking place in unique places with unique needs met by unique Christians.

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