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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Postcard from Nineveh

I've tried to resist writing any sort of rebuttal to the various articles that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BeliefNet, etc., by which I bemoan the mean-spirited and erroneous attack on The Episcopal Church in general and the actions of General Convention in particular.

I mean, all the cool kids are doing it - like Diana Butler Bass and Winnie Varghese and even, God help us, George Conger, who has not exactly been a champion of The Episcopal Church. You know these Op-Ed pieces are really, really wrong when even George Conger takes issue with them.

I just didn't think I had anything to say that would add anything to the conversation.

Turns out, I think I do, thanks to Jonah and the people of Nineveh. 

The main thesis of the recent attacks have to do with holding up the recent actions of the General Convention of The Episcopal Church - authorizing liturgical blessings for the covenants made between people of the same sex, changing our canons to disallow discrimination based on gender identity and expression, etc. - as an example of why Christianity is in decline.

The titles of these articles tell you all you need to know about what the author wants to say: Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? Why is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse? What Ails The Episcopalians?

The answers to their questions reveal nothing they all haven't said before. Many times. Many, many, many times. 

It's the old "blame teh gays" taken to another level.

It's a bit like watching Jonah with the Ninevites.

First, "teh gays" were the downfall of The Episcopal Church. Then, "teh gays' were responsible for the ruination of all the mainline denominations. Now, "teh gays" are the reason all of Christianity is falling into the abyss.

Membership numbers are down everywhere.

Sunday attendance is abysmal, even in Baptist, Evangelical and, God knows, The Roman Catholic Church where, at least in 2008, reportedly one in ten people described themselves as "former Roman Catholic". 

The apocalypse has begun. The theological sky is falling. Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone run for cover. The boys who love Judy Garland and the girls in Birkenstocks and the lady-boys and girly-men are coming to take your church away (hey, hey, ho, ho).

See also: There goes the neighborhood!

Look, my momma didn't raise no fool. I see the declining figures too. I attend church and see the empty pews - although, I must say that the three (progressive) Episcopal Churches in my neck of the woods are thriving.

So, here's what I have to say about the "death of Christianity".

There can't be resurrection without death.

Hang on!  Don't dismiss that so easily. Let that thought sink in for a minute or two.

There can't be resurrection without death.

We Christians talk a good line about death and resurrection. About how we believe new life comes out of death. We sing "Alleluia!" because we say that "death has lost its sting" through the Eternal Life promised to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And then, when we begin to sense death, we run away from it, as sure as Jonah fled to Joppa and caught a ship to Tarshish to avoid Nineveh.

Yes, we are dying, but I do believe that we need to repent and let die the parts of us that have needed to die for a very long time. The parts that are judgmental. The parts that are mean-spirited. The parts that want to "purify" the sanctuary by not allowing women or LGBT people to have liturgical or congregational leadership.

The parts that see "the poor" as those who may deserve our charity but not Gospel justice. The parts that see the mission of the church as being church rather than doing church. The parts that have forgotten that Jesus gave us one commandment: Love one another.

If we repent and allow those parts of us to die, Jesus promises us new life.

Not the old life dressed up in a new package.

Resurrected life.

I don't think the church of the future is going to look anything like it does now.

I suspect it's going to look smaller, less bound to buildings and structures, more directed to caring for others than maintaining ourselves, more committed to following an unknown path to the future than cherishing dusty old maps that lead us over and over again to the past.

It's going to mean that priests become more like Rabbis and do more teaching about what it means to be a Christian and empower the people of God to do the work of Jesus.

It's going to mean that bishops are more involved in the day-to-day work of the congregations in their dioceses, being willing to get in the middle of things and then get out of the way.

It's going to mean that the laity are going to have to claim more of their own priesthood and take more responsibility for their role in the community of faith. 

It's going to mean that our congregations look less like "us" and more like the Beloved Community of Christ - a hodgepodge of people from all walks of life.

It's going to mean that our dioceses look less like corporate structures and more like reservoirs of hope and resources.

You know, I can't imagine a better time to be a Christian.

I can't imagine a better time to be a Christian who is an Episcopalian.

So, to the Ross Douthats and the Jay Akasies, and all the other naysayers of Christendom, here's what I have to say:

We are dying, yet behold! We live!

You can be like Jonah and sit under a withering vine, grumbling about the fact that God is acting to save the people of Nineveh, "wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle."

God is still active and moving in our lives and in the church, allowing the dead to tend to the dead and calling those who are alive in Christ to keep moving forward, plowing the fields of the Lord, planting new seeds, growing new crops.

There can't be resurrection without death.

That is the centerpiece of the Christian faith.

Not to worry. Nineveh will be just fine.

Get used to it. 


Sister BJ said...

Yeah, Amen and Alleluiah!

John J Trenberth said...

I thank God that there are still people like you who 'have eyes to see, and ears to hear' not only for our Episcopal Church, but for the people of God where ever they are.

Anonymous said...


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BJ - I think Anamachara is part of this movement to "bring a new church into being".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

John - There are many of us. It's just that the media reports drama. We're just not "sexy" - which is just fine with me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Maria. I'll take that Amen and raise you an Alleluia!

Anonymous said...

I think that when people in positions of power, whatever their particular proclivities, start to suffer a little bit, I'll know that we're on the right path. When you lose a battle at General Convention and tell me that the Holy Spirit must have been moving mightily in that hall, I'll know that we are truly a humble church. When my rector does not earn more than 5 times my annual take home pay, I'll know that we're a Spirit led church, when my rector lets a layman take the paid retreat for the weekend, instead of herself, I'll trust my leadership. Until then, it's just politics and power and I don't believe a word of just about anyone in a collar, or God help me, in purple.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous, I allowed your comment b/c I think you make an important point but please, next time, add your name.

Just so you know: I've been attending GC since 1985. I've been a deputy 4 times. Whenever "my side" lost, I never denied the presence of the Holy Spirit. I always heard her say, "You've got more work to do here." And, I kept working, kept going back. This is the first GC in decades where "my side" won many - not most - of the resolutions. And, it ain't over yet.

As for pay scale, on the surface, your point is well taken. I don't know your occupation or the compensation package of your rector, but truth be told, I made more money (much more money) in my secular position than I ever did as a priest. My pension would look much different if I had stayed in secular work and did my ministry outside of the institutional church.

I know there are exceptions - and, they glare - but I think that's more the norm for most clergy.

Just sayin'...

Daniel Weir said...

Another piece of what is happening is that some of the folks who have left TEC did so because we gave the "wrong answers" when asked about Jesus. To these folks there is a "right answer" - theirs - to questions about the faith. They are, to borrow a phrase from Harvey Cox, living in the belief era, when what made one a Christian was subscribing to certain propositions. Anyone who doesn't give the right answers is out. Folks are free to belong to that club, but I'm glad to be somewhere else.

Sagewoman said...

Great column, Elizabeth, and one I needed to read as I struggle today over whether I am leaving the Episcopal Church - I think as an "entity" it has become so invested in itself that it steamrolls over a lot of people. So many cruel things done by so many people, most especially those in purple. However, a few - a very few - grace filled people that make it hard to leave. Will re-read this one a few times.

Jeffri Harre said...

You, my friend, put this very well. It's what Lois, the priest at my (unfortunately because I moved for a job)former parish, keeps saying. Some have taken it to heart. I wonder if I'll find a parish near here that has a similar outlook.

Unknown said...

Thank you Elizabeth. This is a wonderful column.
Susan Pederson

Unknown said...

What a wonderful article. So profound yet so simple!
Thank you