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The malady of the irrelevant

May 25, 2017

Episcopal-Church-signTHIS WEEK, I attended a meeting during which the rector of a parish and his staff reviewed the past program year. On the table were those things done well, and those things where improvement seemed warranted: a good exercise for any parish workforce.

I was surprised – perhaps naïvely – to find so much time devoted to what seemed largely symbolic and impractical concerns. One participant noted that only one of the church’s two main entrances has a handicapped ramp, leaving unsaid the fact that this ramp fronts the main parking area. What followed was a great deal of discussion of the various ways in which participants imagine that the parish marginalizes the unseen. No evidence was cited, mind you, and no concrete instances of unintentional discrimination were named. The analysis was an entirely speculative endeavor.

This may be, in some cases, all very well and good. But the speculative, and largely self-flagellating, discussion of the absent ramp almost entirely obscured the real area where improvement is needed. This parish, other than the Sunday liturgies, boasts almost no congregational life, and even less lay leadership. There are no foyer groups, no table fellowship, no inquirers’ classes. If a newcomer doesn’t want to be an acolyte, or if his children wish to attend Sunday school, that newcomer will find his interest in this parish unfulfilled, and many actual, flesh-and-blood newcomers have arrived and quickly departed for precisely these reasons. Enrichment of parish life – separate from the liturgy – seemed to offer the chance to work for substantive growth and is a topic on which hearty discussion ought to have been focused.

Two phenomena were on display in this staff meeting.

First was the rector and staff’s resistance to facing programmatic weaknesses head-on. Real improvement is hard, and it frequently involves breaking some eggs. Episcopalians are often more comfortable spending their way toward a solution than asking for human action. If ushers are unfriendly and annoying, rare is the rector who will speak to and, if necessary, dismiss them; much better instead to install new and more “welcoming” signage. It is easier to talk about buildings and grounds than about human behavior.

More insidious, however, was the bizarre combination of glee and dolefulness with which the conversation of the handicapped ramps unfolded. Many of the staff were unyielding in their belief that merely by existing, this parish was somehow, in some way, profoundly alienating to unseen seekers. The longer the conversation went on, the less it had to do with the needs of disabled visitors; what the staff were really engaged in was the ostensibly canonical ritual of corporate self-reproach and self-censure. The litany of Christendom’s sins was rehearsed, the correct responses were made, and the inevitable conclusion reached: We are oppressing those who never darken our door.

What an extraordinary conceit.

The Episcopal Church in the present day seems to want to do two things: (1) insist that it has given up its hegemonic past and now welcomes all people, and (2) function as if it must incorporate all people in a hegemonic way. These two impulses do not hang together easily, and they produce in what should be our fine old church an astonishing schizophrenia. We not only welcome all, we insist that all must be present, as if the Episcopal Church is the only game in town.

Some years ago, I knew a parish that rented its church and parish hall to a Spanish-speaking Pentecostal congregation on Sundays and several weekdays. This congregation and its members were cordial, respectful, and demonstrated not one iota of interest in joining the Episcopal Church. Many of our Episcopal schizophrenics would interject here: BUT OF COURSE. YOU WERE UNWELCOMING! The parish was no such thing, and the suggestion that of course everyone would want to become an Episcopalian were it not for our congenital inhospitality is a classic demonstration of the hegemonic instinct. There is a wide economy of churches, which the better ecumenists among us know, and these Pentecostals were quite content to nourish their own tradition on American soil. A few months later, when the local First Presbyterian Church closed its doors, the Pentecostals bought it up, and the next weekend, they were open for business, the parking lot packed to overflowing. Sadly, the Episcopal rector never reached out to find opportunities for shared ministry.

And yet in this parish as well the customary ritual of self-flagellation was oft undertaken, and with relish. Nevermind that an opportunity for real Christian ministry and engagement across lines of difference was literally two blocks away. Episcopalians seem desperately wedded to the notion that that they cannot help excluding others. In fact, they seem comforted by it.

All of which brings us back to conceit, and to the title of this post.

As Elesha Coffman argues, neither the Episcopal Church nor the Protestant mainline has ever been the norm in American Christianity. Even at its largest, the Episcopal Church never comprised more than a tiny fraction of the American population, and the fact that its members were disproportionately influential in public life actually indicates relatively little about the church itself. The prestige of its members conferred prestige on the church, not the other way around, at least not since the Revolution.

The church’s insistence that it is excluding outsiders is a sad and twisted fond hope, not a reality of any consequence. The best clubs have stable memberships and long waiting lists; the worst have signs on the road, announcing “Memberships Available.” I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to determine the company to which the modern Episcopal Church belongs.

If we say, We must be dying because we’re actively turning people away, even as we announce “Memberships Available,” then we get to feel perversely good about ourselves. Episcopalians’ persistent belief in our own exclusivity is a way of preserving a sense of our own prestige, not a way of undermining it. Prestige is comforting, maybe not in dark nights of the soul, but in parish and diocesan gatherings, and God knows at General Convention. Our conceit that we are exclusive and therefore desirable underpins the smug self-satisfaction that our Protestant peers lampoon and the unchurched are too indifferent to notice.

Absent that prestige, on which the Episcopal Church has too long been sustained, we would have to face the fearsome task of actual evangelism, of actual welcome, of preaching Christ, and him crucified. We would have to address the vacuum behind our Sunday morning liturgies, and many parishes lack even the elementary language with which to discuss this and the knowledge with which to effect it.

Episcopalians’ belief that we are exclusionary is vainglorious, and it is a straw man in the self-diagnosis that is always needed in any organization. Our excessive self-flagellation and bemoaning an exclusivity that we no longer possess clouds the church’s witness, and it is time to give up our protective conceit, which is the malady of the irrelevant.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2017 06:25

    I must agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of your words. Too often as a young Episcopalian have I seen this sort of self-congratulating obsession with welcoming everyone obscure the reason we are supposed to welcome people in the first place; to be a part of Christ’s Church Catholic, to hear God’s word, and to receive the Sacraments and the benefits of grace received thereby. And it’s a problem that thoroughly frustrates the younger churchmen like myself. I’ve met many others who just want church to be welcoming, but still be The Church, not a mere social club with a serving of Christianity on the side. It is a robust, generous, but still definitive orthodox Christianity that draws people in, not so many gimmicks and trendy marketing ideas to try to draw in people. Modern churchgoers are a thoroughly cynical lot, and for a good reason. By and large, we want, more than anything, sincerity- people who believe with conviction in the things they preach, have a firm, intelligent grasp of what they believe in and why, and live it accordingly.

    I was myself first drawn to the Episcopal Church by a group of pious women who were doing food drives for other university students at the campus I was at. I attended one of the drives day, and, being a conflicted Roman Catholic, I was not sure what to say when they invited to join them for Evening Prayer at their church. I did so, since I had a breviary and figured this was merely an abbreviated form of the Roman vespers, and thought it would do no harm. Soon after, I was regularly attending Evening Prayer, which eventually led to me being invited, by one of the ladies who probably sensed my slight trepidation at attending a ‘Protestant’ communion service, especially with my strong belief in the Real Presence, to a weekday Eucharist to test the waters. I remember sitting there in the pew, reading through the Book of Common Prayer and thinking: “This is nothing objectionable at all. Here’s the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Creed, the Confession, albeit in a different place. Here’s the offertory. And this Eucharistic Prayer reads like a simplified version of one of the Eastern anaphoras. This is as Catholic as any Mass I’ve ever been to.” Of course, I was still rather nervous when I finally decided to actually approach the Communion. I think the priest was rather confused upon seeing me with my mouth open, as I thought the Episcopal custom was same as that of Traditionalist Catholics, but he said nothing and went with it anyways. From that point on, I decided the Episcopal Church was the place for me; not because it had tried to pull me in, but because it was simply a church doing, honestly and piously, what churches are supposed to do; preach Christ crucified, by word and deed, and administer the Sacraments.

  2. Fr. carlton Kelley permalink
    May 25, 2017 22:47

    I could not agree more. This article brought to mind the practice of offering Holy Communion to the unbaptized -even though it is uncanonical and requires the resident priest to disregard his/her ordination vows – as a cure to all the ills that face us. Our ills are largely self-inflicted because instead of offering robust catholic religion some of us would prefer to offer a pastiche of domesticated religious practices. We think that, of course, people are knocking down the doors to receive Holy Communion who are not baptized, because they desperately need holiness but do not want to identify as religious. It is complete bunk.
    If we are dying and God is in charge of our growth – as St. Paul tells us – then perhaps God wants us to try a genuine way of being church rather than pursuing popularity and welcome at any cost.

  3. Aaron Fraustro permalink
    May 26, 2017 14:37

    This is a wonderful, insightful article. Thank for your writing, posting, and putting into words my frustrations with TEC.

  4. Sherry Lind permalink
    May 26, 2017 20:00

    I moved to a new town 5 years ago as a 62 year-old divorcee and immediately got involved with the local Episcopal church by volunteering, getting on the vestry and attending services every week. After 1-1/2 years I gave up. No one befriended me, I was not included in any private social events, even the rector ignored me. Many older congregants do not want to make new friends and a single older woman is distrusted as competition. This was the 2nd unwelcoming congregation I have met and I am hoping that I find one more welcoming.

    • Fr. carlton Kelley permalink
      May 27, 2017 19:04

      I admire your persistence. Please forgive our bad behavior. God is with you.

    • Jay Croft permalink
      May 29, 2017 12:14

      If the rector ignored you, a Vestry member, then something is very wrong with that rector and that parish.

      I hope you find a more welcoming Episcopal church, even if it means driving a bit further.

Trackbacks

  1. Church, Flagellate Thyself – Charles H. Featherstone

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