Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Modest Proposal: Episcopal Satire

I have often noticed over the last thirty years that as the Episcopal Church has been slowly becoming "more compact" in numbers that the dress of bishops has increased evolving into more elaborate, colorful and dramatic styles. Perhaps it might be something like certain fowl whose mating rituals require similar florid looks and jiggling movements, but I digress. When I was first confirmed in 1961, even our Anglo-catholic Bishop of Oklahoma never wore purple shirts, copes, miters and such. He looked stately in noticeable but comparatively modest ceremonial and street attire. As the years have passed, bishops have taken on all these ecclesiastical fashion elaborations and do look quite dandy indeed. Such decorative forms of symbolic changes got me thinking. . .

Then I also noticed that while we have embraced a wide authority for the selection of adult humans for the episcopacy, we have remained undiscerning about the potential call of a certain minority of person. We have not ordained to the episcopacy any "little people." I mean there are many very talented, intelligent, creative people whose stature is really small and even now have television reality shows. Why not the episcopacy?

Imagine. . . in procession at your parish church or diocesan convention, seeing a miter processing, gliding up and up the isle, three or so feet high of erect, splendid, gleaming gold pointed hat as tall as its occupant. . How fascinating to see the garb of episcopal office so revered that the humility of the human would not take away from the glory of the regalia! Small people are the next evolution of the episcopacy, I submit, where form fully supersedes function. Really little people are on the march, I believe, called to give proper perspective to our church, maturing, evolving smaller and looking more splendid all the time.

Besides, is there not a simple justice issue involved? While we can claim to represent all people, is it not fair and just, as we have with other gender, race, sexual orientation and ethnic folk to let our little people establish their place, however, modest on the seat of the episcopal throne whilst clutching fast a great large bulbous staff and topped off with miter? This is my diminutive proposal. Little people for bishop.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Death Tsunami To Hit Churches in 2018

Attention all clergy.  Brush up on your funeral conducting skills.  Why?  In a Christian Century blog, Lovett Weems, a researcher at Wesley Theological Seminary, has been talking about a "death tsunami" beginning in 2018 that will deliver a crippling blow to mainline churches.  Apparent he and another researcher, Hartford Seminary's David Roozen, have looked at the age demongraphics of mainline churches and discovered something that many of us intuitively know:   "MAINLINE CHURCH MEMBERS ARE MUUCH OLDER THAN THE GENERAL POPULATION." 

The average age in mainline churches is 58.  The average American is 38.  While this is rather striking, it is even more compelling to note that a third of our church members are 68 or older. I see this every Sunday when I attend church or serve as a supply priest.  Last winter I supplied in a small, rural Midwestern parish on several occasions.  The vast majority of the members were over 80 and  I felt like a youngster at 75.  When I attend services at my own parish, many of the people are my age and older. Given that the life expectancy in the United States is now 78, it means that one third of mainline church members will die over the next 15 years. 

According to Century Blogs, "Weems offers a practical suggestion to churches looking at the demographic changes ahead.  Don't manage your finances year by year.  MAKE A MAJOR DOWNSIZING EFFORT NOW, SAVE YOUR RESOURCES AND PLAN FOR A SMALLER, MORE VITAL FUTURE."  He goes on to suggest that "churches tend to do better after such a financial recalibration because energy previously sapped through maintaining financial survival now can be spent for outreach and ministry."

I have called for downsizing in my own denomination since I started writing and thinking about it.  But I don't see much happening yet.  Unfortunately, when congregations decide they can no longer afford to pay the diocesan or judicatory assessments, then downsizing on the regional and national levels will take place.  I understand that in my diocese the money is not coming in and the budget is facing a major shortfall.  Based on this, downsizing will be done by default, not by creative plans for a more vital future.

A well established formerly wealthy parish in my community is already rapidly losing members by death.  They conducted more burial services last year than ever before.  Not only that, their pledges and derivative income is down.  This may be due to both the death tsunami and lack of interest.  Nevertheless my brothers and sisters, brush up on your burial conducting skills.  You will be doing of lot of these in the next few year.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Celtic Model: An Answer To The Meltdown Of Mainline Finances

WE HAVE THREE YEARS TO FIGURE IT OUT reports on Episcopal Diocesan Executive as quoted in a webside called Knightopia. He takes an insightful look at the financial stewardship problems all churches face when the generational shift moves from the Baby Boomers to Generation X.  He writes that we have three years to plan for "the major generational shifts that are happening in the Church and the radical impacts they will have on faithful communities in the future."  Here is what he says.

The primary years that Episcopalians pledge and give to their church are between the ages of 50 and 70.

Around 2015, the oldest Baby Boomers will begin moving out of the 50-70 age range, and the oldest Generation Xers will begin moving into that age range.

There are far fewer GenXers than there are BabyBoomers and older, so there's no way they can "replace" those who will stop giving based on population numbers alone.

Generation X is the first generation that will no longer give to support anything based on affiliation (e.g. "I'm an Episcopalian/Disciple/Lutheran/Methodist/[fill in the blank], therefore I'll give to my local [fill in the blank] church."

The Diocesan Executive concludes that "churches for the first time ever will need to really earn people's participation and financial support, rather than simply expecting the members to remained engaged and cover all the costs.  The average small church requires about $220,000 to exist with a clergy person, and I am not sure that Generations X and Y are willing to pay the bills required for their wedding photos to be well-staged.  I love our churches...but I think the future of the church will be house-churches which us the church building as a meeting house."

Episcopl national statistics show that giving trends have been moving steadily south since their peak on 2007 as demonstrated in decreasing pledge and plate receipts.  In addition, 58% of all congregations in US Denominations are financial stressed, and 72% of Episcopal Churches are feeling the pinch.   Finally, congregational giving to Dioceses peaked in 2008 and then has fallen off sharply since then.

Our Diocesan Executive may be right in suggesting that house-churches are the wave of the future.  I also like the idea of shopping center churches too.  Whatever the form the future takes, the house-church or the equivalent is perfect for the Celtic Model.  Here is why.  Before long many congregations won't be able to support their buildings.  Already many can't afford full time clergy.  But the house church/shopping center model is perfect for the Celtic Circle.  There is no building to support.  With that burden lifted,  paarticipants worship with chairs in a circle and the altar in the middle.  The Presiding Elder/Bishop sits in the circle, not above it.  The liturgy is designed in such a way that all of the senses are involved.  In the circle, worshippers experience The Word while mystically seeing Christ in the other person.  Transformed though sensory and sacramental liturgy, worhsippers go out into the world seeking Christ in society.  Everyone is Jesus.  The Creation is Jesus.  The poor and rich alike are Jesus.  Then and only then can a true servant ministry become more transformational than it ever has.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Awake: The Postmodern Reformation is Here

Episcopalians in liturgical style of worship strive to open  the senses of mind and body, by means of Eucharistic pageantry, to an awareness of the calming presence of Christ. In a dialogue about worship with a young emerging Christian he said, "Father, your generation goes to church to hear the word of God, and my generation goes to church to feel the word of God." When young emerging Christians worship in a high energy contemporary service or a mystical Taize transformaize style service, it is about experiencing God with all the senses.

It is Marshal McLuhan's The medium is the Massage electronic media from the sixties. Western culture has entered into a process of media retribalization. Everyday, we are being transformed into a new global planet shaped by the transformative power of electronic/digital media.
We are returning, in the communication of spiritual matters, to Aristotle's discipline and practice of aesthetics as the main source of spiritual knowledge and awareness of the divine.Electronic aesthetics is the theological authority of a Postmodern culture. There is no hierarchical authority any longer; there is only persuasion  by means of aesthetics.

Western Christianity shaped by the theology of Catholic scholasticism and the Reformation steadily eliminated the many of the senses from Christian worship until it became predominantly a matter of reading and hearing the printed word. Religious aesthetics is about the transmission and sharing of our experiences and feelings of God by means of the senses. We are coming to a deeper awareness of the Body of Christ as opposed to the Left Brain Rational Print of God.
Driven by digital/media, we have moved from a visual print culture to an acoustical touching culture. Everyday, from waking to sleeping, we hear and touch the PC keys, the Kindle, ipad, ipod; we hear and text all day.

We are involved in a cultural cybernetics of feedforward/feedback of information at the speed of light. It changes our culture. It changes the nature of the interaction of the brain and the senses. It does more than change our worship and preaching; it changes how we conceive God by means of the experiential community and inner mysticism.

In such a culture we must continuously enter the process of the deconstruction and reconstruction of Anglicanism if it is to survive. Let's take an example of the House of Bishops. What does it become in an age of electronic aesthetics? Probably, about ten national Bishops who are gifted electronic artists. Rectors will have to forget most of their theological training. Seminaries and clergy education are counter productive defenders of the Church of the Printed word. The laity, in love with their Victorian/quasi Catholic pageantry will have to watch slowly it pass away. What's the answer. It is the call to an  Emerging Reform of western Christianity. The head trip is over. The electronic soul train is on the move.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Parish Clergy Are Still My Heros: Part 2

Last week I came across a comment by an Assistant Priest who, after posting a remark on Facebook about Whitney Houston's drug abuse, riled the Bishop to such a degree that the Bishop asked her Rector to fire her.  I must be having delusions, because I can't believe that a the Bishop is even close to reality.  Yet I see the reality very plainly. The Bishop is terribly wrong, overbearing and uncharitable  Whatever happened to the idea that Bishops are supposed to be pastors to their clergy?  OK, tell the truth.  I've had Bishops who were fantastic pastors, and others whose need for power and control dismantled any pastoral instinct.

In addition, parish Priests are sometimes caught between an overbearing Bishop and an angry group in the parish who would like to "get rid of this meddlesome priest."  (King Henry II asked his followers to  to murder Thomas a' Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury 1170.)  Once, a very angry group in  my parish  set out to murder my ministry because I refused to fire a gay organist who brought his partner to the Sunday Eucharist.  At the time I was a downtown Rector in a small Midwestern city.  The level of conflict reached an unmanageable level, but somehow I survived, only because 8 out of 12 vestry members backed me.  In the midst of this crisis, the Bishop was no help.  Some Bishops simply hold back and wait to see who who wins and he was one of these.  If the Priest loses, sayonara, which in Japanese means "have a nice trip" to the unemployment lines.   These kinds of experiences, reflecting on clergy life after 11 years of retirement, compel me to think of my colleagues still in the thick of active ministry with profound gratitude and awe for their amazing courage, tenacity and faithfulness.

Still on the subject, another phenomenon has emerged in recent years.  Jobs for full time seminary trained parish Priests have vanished and are still drying up.  When I was ordained in my Diocese 50 years ago, there were 23 full time positions which are no longer there.  4 jobs were added during the time, which makes a net loss of 19.  In the natural skepticism of my advancing yeas, I cannot help but wonder if this was planned obsolescence.  Years ago the church decided to expand the Priesthood to folks who worked outside the church as a means to supply small churches that could no longer support a full time Priest.  While I can agree that this was necessary at the time, these part time job have encroached into urban and suburban congregations that have fallen on hard times. Regarding this, it must be said that very few Bishops have lost their jobs and staffs during these times.  In fact until recently, Diocesan administrative staffs have increased.

For those seminary Priests who still have full time jobs, my advice is to hang in there and hold on to what you have.  With our declining church and the closing of churches, there may be few opportunities for you in the future.  And here is another thing.  If you have a former career, keep you skills up.  You may need them.  If you are one of the rare Clergy who was ordained young and have no other career history, find out what you do best and what you like to do and make them transferable skills into other job trajectories.  You may think that I am disrespectful here of your calling and your ordination vows. Not so.  I admire you and support you and wish you a long life of service in parish ministry.  But the data suggest that it "ain't gonna be easy."

It is very stressful to do ministry in today's mainline church decline.  Methodists, Presbyterians, ELCA Lutherans, The Disciples of Christ and the UCC are right along with us.  To all of you, my brothers and sisters in ministry, I take my hat off to you because YOU ARE MY HEROS

Monday, March 5, 2012

Celtic Model for Today's Episcopal Church

My first blog on the Celtic Model for the 21st century church is the most frequently read article.  I am, therefore, encouraged to write a followup.  I hope it will enhance the Celtic Model as a theologically sound and practical example for the church in today's non hierarchical, circularly flat digital world in which we now live.

Sometimes when we pray together we gather in circles and hold hands.  We do this in informal Eucharists and often when we join hands in prayer groups.  In this circle of agape' love, no one individual stands out above the other.  We are aware that the bishop or the priest may be present, but he or she is one equal partner with the rest of us as we lift our hearts to the Lord in prayer.  Pertinent to the idea of an equal circle, one of the regular commentators on this blog writes:  ""I  think the high-jacking of the episcopacy as the "top" order, that of bishops, is terminated by encircling the sacramental life, prayer and work of the church symbolically as the circle of the Celtic cross and the full life of the church liberated.  Something to ponder."

So in the Celtic Model we are not suggesting the eliminate the ministry of bishop.  As my friend writes, "I suggest a concept that unifies clergy and laity, what I call the episcopacy of all believers.  While we are familiar with the priesthood of all believers I think episcopacy implies the unification of the daily life, sacramental and administrative/governance legs of the church.  Episcopacy is in fact from which priesthood of all orders is derived but is easily misinterpreted as a hierarchy of function and authority.  The episcopacy of all believes makes it clear that we all have equal, if necessarily differentiated, roles to inhabit within the full community of saints."                        

In the New Testament Church we find a charismatic freedom in which all ministries were gifts given by the Spirit and exercised in the freedom of the Spirit. Some of these gifts were teaching, pastoring,  prophesying and evangelizing. Each gift is described as functional, not hierarchical.  While Jerusalem was the central authority of the early Christian movement, the Twelve had trans-local ministries of oversight.  Within this structure, there were roving ministries like Paul, Barnabas and Silas.  While these roving ministries also included traveling teachers and prophets, they very well could be thought of as presbyter/bishops who are very similar to the itinerant bishops of the Celtic Church.  There were also local leaders, known as presbyter/bishops, who were pastors of the entire Christian community in that place.  At this time there was a great deal of fluidity with respect to role identification.  For example the idea of seniority in years often means seniority of Christian experience, not in the modern connotation of seniority as privilege to lead from the top down. Thus, there is no evidence in the New Testament of a single presbyter/bishop occupying a position of primacy among the elders and people. 

Adopting the Celtic Model of early Ireland and Britain is a perfect fit for leadership that returns to the biblical model.  The Celtic circle implies by definition as communal experience that is equal, gifted, and ministry sharing.  Celtic bishops were pastors, not governors, and they roamed around the countryside, not connected to a geographical construct, and they served the people of God, much to the consternation of later Roman bishops who were trying to wrestle control by establishing a diocesan system. 

In light of biblical and Celtic theology, the current practice of a hierarchical bishop in a geographical diocese is self-serving.  Limited resources are mandated from congregations in order to sustain the offices and staffs of our bishops, thereby downplaying and denigrating the servant ministry presbyter/bishops of the Apostolic age.  Sometime early in the 21st century the hierarchical model will disappear, either intentionally with spiritually enlightened leadership, or by default due to the unsustainability of the present system.  Our national church statistics bear this out.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Church, The Steeple and Empty Pews

A few weeks ago an African Anglican friend asked me why so few people attended her Episcopal Church on Sunday mornings.  I gave her a few of my favorite reasons, set within the context of a rapidly changing world in which American Christianity is decreasingly relevant in a popular culture immersed in a digital, non-hierarchical world. But it wasn't until this past week when, I saw a survey in the Wall Street Journal, that I was truly blown away.

For many years I recall that the Gallup poll reported that most Americans believed in God and over 30% reported going to church.  The new WSJ poll is different in that it measures faith and attendance.  On the day I took the poll, 57% reported that they had no faith.  27% said they had great faith and regular participation.  8.5% reported faith but no regular participation and 7.5% said they had faith but no participation.  Results vary slightly each day as more people cast their vote. Roughly 17,000 people have taken the poll and it is still ongoing.

The startling thing about the WSJ poll is that it suggests that 73% of Americans are either without, faith or ambivalent about their beliefs and religious practices. The rest, 27%, are active participants in a religious group. Out of a US population of 311,800,000, 93,440,00 folks worship regularly. But only 687,831 Episcopalians worship on Sundays, which is 31% of our membership. These attendance figures for TEC have been shrinking rapidly in recent years, a trend that is likely to continue unless we do something different.

We can make anything we want to out of polls.  But allow me to suggest that the WSJ poll confirms what we already know:  Americans are increasingly agnostic and ambivalent about the Christian Faith.  This means that Christianity will continue to decline, which is consistent with recent trends in The Episcopal Church.  We are an ageing church and we will continue to die off.  That fact, coupled with an increased national agnosticism, spells disaster for our little niche church.

If we want to salvage the little we have while we renew a vision for this century, we must have enough resources left to allow the Holy Spirit to do her work.  This means that Dioceses and the Executive Council must cut costs dramatically. We can't afford all the bishops and their staffs.  We can't afford either Executive Council or General Convention.  If we are true to the gospel, we must trim our sails and wait for the Holy Spirit to unfurl them in a new way for a new generation.  If we don't do it now, then get out the Order for the Burial of the Dead, for we are all goners..