If you read the newspapers, what you know about the church - any church, but especially The Episcopal Church - is this:
The church is in decline. We're 'hemorrhaging' members. All the mainline Protestant churches but even Roman Catholic churches are in decline.
We're informed that "brand loyalty" to a particular denomination does not matter to most people as much as things like the church being in close proximity to their home, the provision of child care, support groups, and a high entertainment value to the "service" (never referred to as a "liturgy") with "modern" music and "contemporary language" (Sometimes referred to, with notable an unhelpful disdain, by some church folk, as "Church for Dummies") .
To read the papers, you get the message that Christianity is passe and irrelevant while the number of Muslims is increasing daily. Some are interpreting this as a mild, subtle manifestation of the current wave of Islamophobia that seems on the rise. See? The church is failing and Muslims are on the rise. Beware!
The "answer" to the problem seems to be a return to the 'basics' of Christianity which finds translation in a "Religion of No": no sex outside of marriage, no women in authority, no LGBT people, no .... fill in the blank with your favorite prejudice cloaked in white robes.
There are variations on the theme, but you get the picture.
In February, the Wall Street Journal posted an article by Russell D. Moore entitled, "Where have all the Presbyterians gone"?
It would appear from both the article and the headline that the folks at the WSJ are practically gleeful about the travails of the mainline Protestant churches. Funny, but the article doesn't actually mention Presbyterians, except in a list of denominations with which fewer and fewer American Christians identify.
It seems that the current poster child for the "Failed Church Du Jour" is the Presbyterians. Sigh! I suppose everybody's got to have their turn in the 'Media Shed' with the hickory stick.
It should be noted that Russell D. Moore points out that, along with the growth of nondenominational churches, Southern Baptists have become the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
"Many of us believe denominations can represent fidelity to living traditions of local congregations that care about what Jesus cared about - personal conversion, discipleship, mission and community."Moore is confident that such is the case with the Southern Baptist Convention.
reports, in breathless, "breaking news" this morning that, the Ordinariate for Anglicans converting to Rome (will be) 'ready by the end of the year'.
Two Anglican 'flying bishops' will take up the special canonical structure, which allows groups of Anglicans to come into full Communion with Rome without losing their Anglican identity.
I don't know about you, but I'm really weary about being lectured - subtly and not so subtly - about what's wrong with the church. I long for any sign of honest inquiry and discernment from those in my church and other churches. You know. So there's some semblance of "fair and balanced" reporting.
So, let's start with the numbers.
Pope Benedict XVI announced the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus in November 2009. It came as a response to requests from prominent Anglo-Catholics and offered a new canonical structure, similar to military dioceses called personal ordinariates in order to allow groups of Anglicans to enter into communion with Rome without losing their Anglican identity. The personal ordinariate covers a geographical area but has its own leadership and answers to the Pope.
At that time, four Anglican bishops, seven Anglican clergy and 300 Anglican laity were reportedly ready to sign on.
On the other side of the equation, The Church of England reports that, since 2005,
"14 former Roman Catholic priests have sought to be received into ordained ministry within the Church of England. As there is also discretion at diocesan level for acceptance into the ministry, not all candidates are centrally recorded, so the national figure is likely to be higher."reported on his blog that:
Anglicans in Peru are setting up an Ordinariate for Roman Catholic priests who are keen to join the Anglican Church. Anglicans accept the validity of those priest’s orders. Exploration is also under way to incorporate independent catholic bishops. Many of these clergy may bring their congregations with them.According to the Episcopal Church Annual Report ("The Red Book"), twelve to fifteen (12-15) RC clergy come to The Episcopal Church each year.
In little over a decade the diocese of Peru has grown from having four priests to having 35 priests. 10 RC priests are exploring joining the diocese. Similar movements are happening in Uruguay, Ecuador, and Argentina.
William Godfrey, the Bishop of Peru, thinks that Pope Benedict XVI’s positive words about Anglicanism may have helped the move.
Around the world Anglicans are not keeping statistics about this, but estimates are that for every person moving from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism there are four moving in the other direction.
So, that's between 60-75 RC clergy who have become Episcopal priests in the past five years. It would appear that Dr. Peters' reported estimate is pretty close to being accurate.
Which, of course, doesn't include the numbers of laity - especially women - who have left Rome to become Episcopal priests. I was stunned to learn, a few years ago, that my name was still listed as a member of St. Elizabeth's Church in the city where I was born. Even though that church has been closed, the building demolished, and the land sold. I'm sure I'm still counted on the books someplace. Somewhere.
The media seem oblivious to the fact that The Via Francigena - the ancient road which served as a pilgrimage between Rome and Canterbury, passing through England, France, Switzerland and Italy - is a two-way street.
Is it their ignorance or is it that "swimming the Tiber" (going from Canterbury to Rome) is somehow more exciting than "swimming the Thames" (going from Rome to Canterbury)?
Or, are the folks at the national church level - The Episcopal Church or any mainline Protestant denomination - not media savvy enough to capitalize on this as a way to celebrate evangelism?
Or, is this an example of the sort of impervious, above it all, stiff upper lip, "tut-tut, there, there" which is in the Anglican DNA that communicates, without saying it, "Frankly, my dears, we don't give a damn."
Or, when placed side-by-side with the relentless reporting of Muslim being "the fastest growing religion in the world" is an attempt to awaken sleeping American Christians to a return to a similar, stricter religious experience? You know. The way it used to be "back in the day" when doing anything BUT going to church on Sunday morning was considered a step away from a slippery slide into debauchery?
Is the church in decline? In terms of numbers? Absolutely.
Why is that? I'm not exactly sure. Is it a call to metanoia - to turn away from the slick marketing techniques which bring people to church but doesn't feed their souls and sends them away even hungrier?
The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson says that:
"the great American innovation in congregations is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. It didn't take long for some of our brothers and sisters to develop consumer congregations .... (that convey) the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem solving, whatever". But as Peterson concludes, "this is not the way God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus."I certainly welcome honest inquiry and discernment from those in my church, along with other churches about how we have been doing this, how we haven't, and what we need to change.
I also welcome a rigorous commitment from our churches to "proclaim the good news" and "publish glad tidings, tidings of peace" that God "who made all nations is not willing one soul should perish, lost in shades of night".
Fr. Alberto Cutie, the former RC priest and television talk show host who left the church after being photographed on the beach kissing his lover (whom he would later, eventually, marry).
At the end of the day, I really don't think those kinds of stories are very helpful - except to sell newspapers.
Perhaps it's time for an Ecumenical Gatherings of Church Folk - not just the guys in purple shirts - to prayerfully consider the issue of church decline and work together to discern what God might be telling us.
Perhaps they'd do this with some encouragement from the Religious News Media who might give some inspiration to Christians who might actually and honestly seek to work together, across geographical and religious boundaries and ancient religious feuds, to reveal a variety of images and manifestations of Christ in the world.
Could it be that this is precisely what God is calling us to do?
My prayer is that we might meet each other on "The Via Francigena" and, perhaps, leave the path and cross some borders so that, together or individually, we might meet and find Jesus.
I think that would be the sort of "Good News" that would actually gladden the Sacred Heart of Jesus.