The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, AP, Christianity Today, The Advocate and many others covered the General Convention of The Episcopal Church because we passed blessings for same sex couples. Brilliant! In addition, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran opinion pieces about the Episcopal Church over the weekend. They were only opinion pieces, filled with assumptions about our faith and motives as Episcopalians that cause me to wonder why they would be published anywhere. I guess it is July. The news cycle is slim. Everyone is on vacation. It is very hot in Manhattan. It does seem that at least one of the writers seems to do this for a living. What's up?
First, conservative opinion writer Douthat writes that our decline in numbers is connected to our liberalism, by which I think he means the Civil Rights, the Women's Movement and the LGBT Movement, and that our liberalism is an attempt to appease the culture. He's right about one thing. We are for basic human freedom because we think it's what the Gospel demands, and we hope to be a church that reflects those beliefs.
I have read the studies on the state of the Episcopal Church for at least the past 15 years. There are absolutely fewer Episcopalians this year than last, and that has been going on for awhile. All significant work on the decline in the mainline point to factors other than political choices. The precipitous decline predates women's ordination and all of the gay issues. It lines up more closely with the Civil Rights Movement, but that movement is not clearly causative either. Rather than the cultural cataclysm of the 1960s around rights it seems that the shift away from joining institutions and the questioning of social norms radically impacted traditional Christian churches. Basically, you don't need us for social respectability or mobility anymore. Our members come to church because they want to be faithful Christians.
We have been a denomination of privilege, but we are working on that. The Roman Catholic Church has held its numbers only because of immigration, and in that way they are much more open than we are. Today, 1-in-3 Americans was raised Roman Catholic, yet only 1-in-4 describes themselves as Catholic. Hmmm, because the church is too liberal or not filled with people practicing faithfully? Doubt it. You can read about it here.
What liberal and progressive Christians believe in response to those liberation movements from the 1960s on is that the movements were right, and our church should change in response to that revelation. In those places where we are working on being a better church, respecting the dignity of all people (see The Book of Common Prayer), those that have left because of those battles, as the great Bobby Castle used to say (and probably still does), "are the ones that should go." He did not mean that in a nice way.
If our increased thoughtfulness in understanding the human condition causes us to be open minded in a way that offends your prejudices, yes, the Episcopal Church might not be for you. I hope I'm being clear, I believe our decline is a sloughing off of the baggage of establishment and American Empire and not quickly enough embracing an expansive view of humanity within our Eucharistic communities. We became irrelevant to all but the most faithful and those far too in love with Jesus to leave the church despite its hypocrisy. But don't worry, we're on that now.
To the guy at the Wall Street Journal who falsely claims that the current Presiding Bishop has claimed a new authority (and a new stick), and who seems to know a lot about bishop's expense accounts, I will admit I attended some lovely receptions at our General Convention hosted by fine Episcopal seminaries and other significant organizations that host their alumnae and supporters every three years at General Convention. We throw a good party. I might have had a well-made martini, and I hear the Westin ran out of tea. That's about as exciting as it got. Yes, the Presiding Bishop is a woman, and that might be hard for you, but that's all it is.
If I were to put on my empathy shoes, I can imagine that it might be hard as an Episcopalian to feel that you might not be treated well if you attended our General Convention, even disparaged or rejected if you let who you are or what you believe be revealed. Oh, wait a minute, I don't have to imagine, I remember. I remember when the break away groups were just organizing themselves, well before Gene Robinson's election, in response to the ordination of women or just the general liberal feel of the whole deal. I remember one General Convention where they brought in a horde of distressed teenagers in matching T-shirts to look emotionally devastated at the thought of gayness and women priests.
I remember "God Hates Fags" on signs outside of our convention hall daily and the remarkable poise of the then Secretary of the General Convention Rosemari Sullivan asking the 800+ gathered deputies to ignore the signs to maintain a civil environment for our deliberations. It was awful to have our elders and kids forced to pass them to enter or leave the building. I remember Gene Robinson being falsely accused at his consent hearings, and yet we stayed, told our truths and shared communion with any who would join us.
It is true that the mainline still holds remarkable wealth in buildings, endowments and committed faithful members. It must be painful to note that as someone who believes that we are wrong in our generous orthodoxy, but don't let your pain make you stupid. Get your facts right.
Back to the church and Douthat. I have not noticed a lack of real faith or personal transformation in the Episcopal Church. It might be a problem somewhere, but everywhere I've lived and worked -- Dallas, Los Angeles and New York -- I have been surrounded by faith filled, generous, whip smart, fabulously charming and attractive Christians in The Episcopal Church faithful to the practice of the sacraments and the discipline of the church. I can believe he has a hard time believing that, but it's not a matter of belief. It is simply true.
At our convention a deputy stood up and said racial profiling was a "term of ease" used by the media. At a loss for words out of frustration, he ended by saying, "I don't know what racial profiling is." A deputy from Arizona stood up at a microphone and told him exactly what it was and how it happened to her in her daily life. That is how we are changed. When we debate an idea, an embodiment of that idea exists in that room, sometimes more than one.
What we did at convention was not in an attempt to recruit or appease, it has nothing to do with glorious Bishop Spong or even our wonderful Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori, it has to do with who we are because unlike the conservative churches, we have more kinds of people in our policy making bodies: women, men, old, young, theologians, biblical scholars, liturgists, priests, deacons, bishops, physicians, lawyers, homemakers, farmers, students, teachers and the unemployed -- all faith-filled Christians.
Orthodox theology teaches that this creation is in the image of God. All of it. It also teaches that we are fallen from perfection, from the beginning, fundamentally fallen short, sin filled. I believe that fallen-ness is most visible in our trashing of the systems of life on the earth and in our degradation of our brothers and sisters through systems that create and perpetuate poverty, abuse, neglect, slavery and violence.
The other side believes our fallen-ness is most visible in our desires to have sex outside of the bounds of heterosexual marriage, ordaining women and sometimes in voting for Democrats. I disagree. Jesus of Nazareth's critique of empire and power in the Gospels is visible for any who have eyes to see. Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal priest, writes all about it here and about the heritage and hope of liberal Christianity here.
What happened at General Convention? Besides beginning to think about restructuring the church and passing a whopping huge budget, we made many statements of belief in the resolutions we passed. Here are some: We believe that God cares more about the nature of your relationship than its biology, and we have a beautiful blessing to offer. We believe that God created you to express your gender the way you feel moved to express it. We believe that no one should be assumed to be breaking the law because of his or her appearance. But mostly, we believe that we are received into the household of God in baptism and partake of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, and through the sacrament are given a glimpse of God's vision for a just world, and the courage to make it real, and we want you to join us.
That's some crazy stuff, but that's where we are in The Episcopal Church in 2012. The Episcopal Church is resurrecting itself, once again, and I am honored to bear witness.