Consequences of the Decline of the Mainline Church?

I’m not sure if there is causal or correlative, but I wonder if there a link between the decline of the mainline church and:

1) Less political involvement

2) Higher levels of stress, anxiety and frustration

3) A decline in voluntarism

4) Higher rates of depression

5) Greater concentration of wealth

6) Balkanization of our social networks, by class, age and interest

I’m not sure of church is a “cure,” or what an antidote is.  On the other hand, our desires can now be more easily gratified.  We can avoid the difficulty of people in the flesh through the ease of people online.  But it seems that this merely has the impact of concentrating power in the hands of those who control the platforms to which we’ve become addicted.

A Litany for the Blessing of a Car

A Car Litany

Priest: Let us pray to the Lord.

Response: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Lord our God, You make the clouds your conveyance; You travel on the wings of the wind; You sent to your servant Elijah a fiery chariot as a means of conveyance; You guided man to invent this car which is as fast as the wind: Therefore, O Lord, pour now upon it your heavenly blessings. Grant unto it a guardian angel that it may be guided upon the rightful road and be preserved against all harm. Enable those who ride in this car to arrive safely at their destination. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all things, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

Or

Deacon: Let us pray to the Lord

People: Lord have mercy

Priest: O Lord our God, You make the clouds your chariot. You ride on the wings of the wind. You sent to your servant Elias a fiery chariot to carry him up to heaven. You guided man to invent amazing means of transportation.  Therefore, O Lord, we humbly ask You to bless our cars. Send to their drivers Guardian Angels to guide them and to protect them from all harm.  May they arrive safely to their destination through the intercession of Our Lady of Guidance and St. Elias-the-Living and all your saints. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all good things and to You we render glory, thanksgiving and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  People: Amen

Celebrant, Will you remain attentive, forgoing eating, talking, or texting while driving?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you drive safely at the speed of traffic?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be sober when you drive, and offer your keys when requested of you?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you forgo rushing red lights or stop signs?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you change lanes safely with space in between your vehicle and others?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you follow cars at a safe distance?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you relax when other drivers show bad judgment?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you pull over and rest when you are tired?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be humble enough to forgo driving in bad weather?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Almighty God, we give thanks for our reason and skill.  Let us remember that our ability to drive is a risk and that we are to remember the precarity of life in this world.  May all who drive do so with humility, attention and grace, so that we may be able to travel and visit the places we desire to go.

Or

O Lord God, listen favorably to our prayers, bless this …  and send your holy angels, so that all who ride in it may be delivered and guarded from every danger. And as you granted faith and grace to your deacon Philip, and to the man from Ethiopia who was sitting in his chariot and reading Holy Scripture, show the way of salvation to your servants, so that they may, after all the trials of their pilgrimage and life on earth, attain to everlasting joy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

AMEN

9/18/2012  The Collect is adapted from a Melkite Prayer; the closing prayer is adapted from a Roman Catholic prayer.

On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960′s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

A Response to Amanda Marcotte on religion’s death throes

Amanda Marcotte got the memo.  Religion in America is dying, and the religion of bigotry is finding it hard to maintain its followership.

We liberal protestants have known institutional decline for about forty years.  Since Sgt. Pepper’s and Vietnam, our communities have slowly been devastated by all sorts of economic and social forces.

But it’s not the old order.  The old order she refers to is young.  It arose in reaction to liberal Protestantism’s social victories, especially around race.  Once, fundamentalism was considered by the elites a backwater worldview held by hicks and southerners.  Its theology was historically condemned by the church Catholic.  But after race was confronted institutionally in private schools by the federal goverment, Ralph Reed and his associates organized conservative churches into their current political force as a cohesive wing in the Republican Party.  Like Amanda, I look forward to its self-destruction.

Overall, however, I’m not as sanguine about what a godless country means.    For the American religion has also been diverse, sometimes thinly held, and pragmatic.  In particular, I’m thankful for liberal Protestantism, once a powerful part of American politics.

For at the Ohio Wesleyan Conference in March, 1942,  the Federal Council of Churches created the moral framework for the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, decolonization, and civil rights.   It’s leaders included industrialists, policy makers and heads of churches.  In England, the Malvern Conference gave the spiritual support for the modern British welfare state.  It is no coincidence that the most important successes of liberalism came with the support of powerful religious institutions.

Yes, I know.  Religion’s horrible.  Remind me, again, about the children’s crusade; the religious wars and the inquisition, Galileo’s excommunication, and the Scopes trial.    But I’ve yet to read a serious scholar who argued they weren’t also about resources, personality and urbanization.

Yet while the power of religious institutions has declined, citizenship has not improved.   The country pays lip service to Martin Luther King, but the plutocrats read Ayn Rand.  The elites themselves have been delivered from even paying lip service to Christian virtue, jettisoning the justice of any kind of restraint.    While the patriarchy has diminished, evolutionary psychology is now the faith of young men.   While liberal religion is mocked, it has been replaced with a much more powerful faith in tax-cuts.   And believing in tax-cuts is just that:  a faith, a faith that is more powerful than the burdens of Christian conviction.

I’m skeptical that this is improvement.

The collapse of religious institutions will not necessarily mean enlightenment or justice.  Instead we may be rewarded with competitive cynical technocrats, shielded by a cool irreverence, disinterested in any sort of ideals save the power of the market or the military.  I’m skeptical that we should be cheery about the Brave New World that may replace it.

We remain creatures who need hope, meaning and a just imagination to limit the power of those who consider the restraint of religion arduous.   Religion provided that language, however insufficiently its institutions followed its own rules.  The dismantlement of the sacred and reverence may merely mean more people who worship consumer culture.

Surely, the end of ignorance means the capitulation of some traditional religious teaching.  Let those particular traditions whither on the vine.   But it will not mean that superstition and illogic has been defeated.  Nor will what comes next be an explosion of peace, charity, or wisdom.   Those will remain rare, the narrow road, the eye of the needle.  Fortunately, we need only a mustard seed’s worth for the world to keep moving, for redemption to remain on the horizon.

I trust that the churches may still, in perhaps a much more modest form, cultivate apostles who can speak truthfully, be charitable to their opponents, be open to conflict, and willing to change their mind when proven wrong.    Perhaps we can dispense with ideology, and return to seeking what wisdom remains in our precarious, broken, and imperfect world.

Do Churches Need Denominations?

A few weeks ago, The Lead at the Episcopal Cafe quoted an article by Ken Carter, who argues that churches need denominations.   He contrasts denominations to sociologists who argue that we are entering a post-denominational phase.

Certainly the particular denominations that make up the mainline traditions are losing their distinctiveness.  Episcopalians are no longer only prosperous WASPs who enjoy early cocktail hours.   Lutherans chant.  Congregationalists use the BCP for weddings.   However, individuals raised in one denomination will go to any church that has a strong leader or a vibrant Sunday School.

But as Ken Carter implies, churches are more effective when they organize together.  They can harness resources.  They can protect hard working pastors from poisonous congregations and hard working congregations from narcissistic pastors.  They assure some modest degree of reliability by establishing set norms amongst the professional clergy.   They can assist congregations, who work as volunteers, by providing professional help when they need it.

So yes, churches need denominational structures. Continue reading

The Bills

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting some bills.

It started with false fire alarm bills.  A couple hundred a shot.   Then the rectory was set a sewage bill.  More recently, the city mistakenly invoiced churches a few hundred dollars for a service.

I’m not against charging churches for services.  I think we’re lucky to be tax-exempt, and cities have a right to establish some criteria for churches who benefit from the support of the community.  But as the Wall Street Journal reports, there is a major shift on the horizon, and it will put pressure on our institutions.  Enormous pressure.

About thirty years ago, churches often benefited from the noblesse oblige of wealthy members.  They would sometimes pay down the end of year budget.  They might pay the first check at the beginning of the year.

Ironically, when tax rates were higher, churches probably received more donations from its prosperous members.  But over the last couple of political generations, we’ve not seen a rise in donations among the powerful.

In part because our assumptions regarding how the prosperous spend money are wrong.   Nobody has an instinctive urge to give.   As classes interact less the powerful become a little more arrogant and impatient.

The second is that an individual with money behaves rationally with their money.   Money does not bestow wisdom; it does not insulate from error.  They can be tyrants or indulgent.   They can be whimsical or intentional, magnanimous or miserly.   But there is no reason to idealize their smarts or energy.

What does this have to do with churches paying more bills?   As the “resourced” abdicate their responsibility to maintain the social contract, states are too afraid to ask them to pay their fair share.  This means more will be expected from those who are active in not-for-profits, churches and other institutions that rely on public support.    Lower taxes upon property owners and the well-paid means that we’ll be expected to pay for more.

It’s optimistic to assume that lower taxes mean that people will be more generous with what they do have.  I’m sure some families will do so.  But we are inclined to adjust to our incomes, and at some point what was once an unexpected windfall becomes our perpetual expectation.     It’s easy to think we deserve our wealth, and that we are instinctively generous toward others.   The church, however, teaches that it’s all a gift of God, and that we our generosity is never enough, except through His grace.

I think there might be good criteria to keep ourselves off the public dole; but we’ve implicitly rejected the idea that there is a common good worth having, or that the prosperous might willingly sacrifice for the sake of others.   The survival of the third sector economy, and its ability to take care of the least fortunate, requires the commitment of all stripes.  But alas, too many think they give enough.