Friday, March 1, 2013

"Lost in the Fities Tonight"

The title of this blog is also the title of a nostalgic popular song about the 1950s.  For those of us who
came of age in this decade, it takes us back in time to sock hops, white buck shoes, big bands and a girlfriend who wore pleated skirts and cashmere sweaters.  It also takes us back in time to the church of this decade, when Christian churches were either full or almost full on Sunday mornings.  World War II veterans, many having gone to college on the GI Bill, married their sweethearts, got a decent job, started a family and joined and attended a church.  This was the Eisenhower era of "peace and prosperity" despite his warnings about the military-industrial complex.  Sermons seemed to be either about the eschatalogical fulfillment of the Kingdom of God now or a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Episcopal Church was no exception.  Our churches were full too.  We were mainly a church of the upper middle class or the wealthy.  Many of the community leaders, industrialists, leading business people in town, politicians and professionals were members of The Episcopal Church.  Many of our clergy came from these same groups and were sophisticated and well-connected.  We also had our share of middle class and poor folks too, but they were not the majority.

When I was ordained in 1961, there was still a marvelous carryover from the fifties and the future of TEC looked good.  We had one Holy Communion service and our members could be certain that anywhere they worshipped, the liturgy would always be the same.  Consistency, uniformity and Via Media were the hallmarks of our faith.  The vast majority of our clergy were seminary trained and there was even a shortage of priests.  We knew the service by heart and we were respected members of the community.  As Archie Bunker so plaintively sang, "those were the days."

Things began to fall apart in the mid to late sixties.  The church moved from emphasizing a personal relationship with God through the Sacramental life to a horizontal stress on positive and equitable human relationships.  The church did some great things under this umbrella.  We worked diligently for civil rights of women and minorities, we protested the Viet Nam War, we introduced new worship services and we became purveyors of positive human relationships.  All of these things were good to do, but we went over the edge as they became the official guiding policy of the national church and many dioceses.

Demographics aside, these were the principle internal changes that fostered a climate of decline for TEC.  Here I am not judging or second guessing the church of the sixties.  After all, I was active in and supported all those ministries.  But I am merely stating the obvious.  The less we stressed our relationship to the Holy Trinity through the Sacraments, teaching and pastoral ministries of the church, the more we declined.  However, I am not suggesting that we return to the church of the fifties.  We can never go back.  But I do have an idea.  If we are going to "reinvent" the church for the 21st century, perhaps we could look back to that more docile time and recapture some core principles upon which to build our future church.  Are you ready?  Here we go.

1.  While we will probably never have one liturgy again, we can present carefully crafted worship services, minimizing informality and refraining from extraneous comment.  Emphasize our relationship to God through prayer, the Sacraments, and personal relationships.
2.  Preach lectionary based expository sermons that elicit of response of faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Please minimize personal stories.
3.  Instead of planning "seeker friendly services," seek to draw people into the very heart of God through excellent liturgy, utilizing good music and the arts.  Believe me, small churches can do this too.
4.  Tell your Bishop to encourage the House of Bishops and General Convention to drastically reduce Executive Council, make a Diocesan Bishop the Presiding Bishop and structure the national church in a way that stresses mission as the conversion of souls.
5.  Appreciate our historic efforts to promote social justice but eliminate them as Executive Council Mission Statements.
6.  Clergy, get out of your offices and do personal evangelism.  Target your prospects and show people the way to God and how to have meaning in their lives through a personal relationship with Jesus.  This may sound crass, but there is no shame in evangelizing the wealthy and upper middle class as well as the middle class and the poor.
7.  Promote the unity of TEC in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In no way are these suggestions meant to be taken as a panacea for TEC.  None of my suggestions will in and of themselves reinvigorate and increase membership.  But we do need a baseline and anchor for mission.  Perhaps these and other "old" ideas can guide us as we try to practice obedience to the Lord, salvage what is left of TEC, and move us forward into the rest of this century.


  1. Fine essay, Bob, on target. For instance, at the twilight days after the 50's in 1972, at St. Thomas-Whitemarsh,PA, we could call our neighbor Episcopalian in Princeton, George Gallup, to help us do a parish survey and it financially supported by people such as the makers of Tylenol and also McNeill Laboratories right across the fence from our church sponsored community gardens! That survey was also used in part by Gallup to do national studies. It was a time of an American culture of Christian, aesthetic, ethical and economic values that had great synergy, not at all perfect but workable .

  2. Bob--I appreciate what you have said and I certainly don't disagree with you. But let's place a portion of the problem on seminaries. Pastoral care isn't something that clergy do with any great commitment--many don't do it at all. Preaching has become boring in a lot of parishes, with story telling that doesn't have as much to do with gospel and Bible, but telling stories about my 8 year old kid. Teaching in parishes is largely Bible study where everyone's opinion is equal to the next person--it appears more like sharing of our Biblical ignorance. And our seminaries not only condone this, but also teach it. Too bad!

  3. You ignore demographics, and cultural changes. After the 1950's the upper middle-class realized they didn't have to go to church. The 19th Century was the century of evangelism; that worked so well that everyone thought they had to be part of a church. The 50's killed that kind of cultural obligation.

    Mainline denominations had low number of births per parishioner and did not replace themselves. Perhaps social ministries drove off some people, but they were replaced by others who felt that that was the right emphasis. But birth rates are more likely than social ministries to have turned the tide.

    We live in a midwestern culture that emphasizes a personal relationship with Christ, but that has never been culturally much a part of Episcopal tradition. That's Baptist and Bible Belt and not most of the people I know who are Episcopalians. Geo. H W Bush has been a great churchman, but I have never heard him mention his personal relationship with Christ, and he is typical of traditional Episcopalians. Genuinely committed to doing one's duty for the world and living up to one's obligations and living a good life is more like it.

    Finally, the Episcopal Church has been attractive and home to many introverts. Not many of them are priests, but most of the faithful prefer what goes on inside their heads to what goes on outside them, though they work toward external solutions to familial and social problems. Stop with the personal relationship crap, it is not what makes us who we are. It doesn't emphasize the high degree of personal freedom in which Anglicans in general believe. And stop blaming social ministries for cultural and demographic changes to the church. Stop blaming what makes you uncomfortable for the woes, if they are woes, of the church. I am sick and tired of social ministries taking the blame for birth control and relaxed attitudes toward church membership.

    I appreciate your attempts to sound moderate in your tone, and I'm sorry that it has produced a sharp reaction in this comment, but clap-trap is clap-trap. You can do better Bob. I appreciate your maintaining this blog and note that it is a typical dutiful response that I would expect from any Episcopalian following his or her religious bliss.

  4. Actually Geo HW Bush declared in his campaign, when pressed, that he considered himself a born again Christian. Russ, maybe you need to be writing your own blog. Where are you by the way? I also did not read Bob's essay as a complete and linear cause and effect theory of social issues causing membership loss. The factors of loss are, as you indicate, multiple and complex. The deep issue is not loss of numbers to me as loss of an ethos that did, as you note, combine personal, familial, church, and social duty by those who largely did control vast areas of the American economy. The Episcopal Church of my experience since the 80's has become much more "personal/emotional/subjective" as has most American Christian expression. The HBO series, Parade's End, well portrays an earlier expression in British culture of somewhat similar and radical change. Miss your photography by the way as well as your presence.

  5. Bob, excellently written post and am in full agreement with your recommendations; perhaps you will indulge a few piggyback comments to your list. First, most liturgical services in the Episcopal fail the ‘due diligence’ test; sloppy is the new normal and scholarship in preaching has been replaced by egocentrism. Secondly, any bishops that are not actively seeking to reduce the diocesan budget and at the same time working to merge jurisdictions, should hang their head in shame

  6. Paulette PaulsonMarch 3, 2013 at 4:53 PM

    Well said, Bob!


  7. I like what you have said very much. I think I will save my deeper opinion to my next Blog. Thank you, Bob.