Friday, May 15, 2009
I saw a disturbing statistic on the House of Bishops/Delegate list-serve today. It listed the Diocese of Central New York as one of the top ten dioceses to have had a drop in attendance over the past year. According to the parochial report statistics, the diocese has dropped 10.17 percent over the year 2006-2007. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/grow_decline_attend_06-07.html We are listed 9th from the bottom in percentage of attendance.
Now, most Episcopal dioceses have experienced a decrease in attendance. In fact there is not a single diocese in the USA that is experiencing growth with the exception of San Joachin which was experiencing a whole reorganization following the deposition of their bishop. The Latin American dioceses are growing by leaps and bounds, but that is to be expected as the Roman Catholic Church loses its dominance in those countries.
Now, I am not like those on the right who believe that attendance is the bell-weather of content with the Church. I believe that noting that nearly all mainline Protestant denomination are experiencing a downturn in attendance is important. Also, those locales which have experienced wide-spread unemployment or significant depopulation should show the marked drop in attendance. That most of our parishes cannot support full-time clergy should be of no surprise to us. We were told back in the ‘80’s that if a parish did not have an income of $250,000 we would not be able to sustain a full-time rector.
But I do not believe that the attendance has dropped because we cannot sustain ourselves as full-time, or because of liberal or conservative theological stances, or because we have a gay bishop in the Church. It is because on the whole, society does not have confidence that the Church can teach faith. They generally see in the Church an organization that has lost touch with reality, that the Church is more interested in preserving the institution than being there for people when they are in need.
A couple of cases in point: When the Southern Tier endured flooding three years ago, there was little or no attention given those who had lost their homes, their places of business or in some cases their livelihood. The was no wide-spread attention given by other parishes in the diocese—in many cases, parts of the diocese did not even know that the flooding had happened. Another incident was recently when a mass shooting captured the attention of the whole country because CNN arrived in Binghamton to broadcast it. There was no attention afforded those of us who lived here by any touch with the diocesan leadership or any concern from any clergy from the diocese. I am not even aware that any diocesan clergy attended or supported the Binghamton community at the city-wide services for hope and healing that other denominations held.
In contrast, before the siege was even over, a Lutheran congregation opened its doors to those who had been traumatized by the event. The Synod office had emailed all the clergy of the area that they were being held in prayer. I had emails from clergy all over NY assuring me and my congregation of their concern and care even though my congregation was 40 miles away.
As a diocese, we in CNY, do not seem to be able to do this. Even when we know that fellow clergy are ill, or bereaved, we don’t take the time to convey our concern. Somehow, somewhere we have lost the ability to support one another in our mission in Christ. When my mother died recently, I received condolences from only one member of the clergy (other than the bishop), a priest I have not yet met.
I do not believe that this disconnect is something new. I believe that we in Central NY have never been very good about supporting one another in our ministries. I believe that there has always been a sense of competition rather than collegiality among us. But whatever it is, we must learn how to do ministry with one another differently. It has been observed that our ability to proclaim Christ is seriously flawed—and more so than other dioceses in the Church.
This is not just the job of the clergy, but I do believe that we must be willing to start it. Parish leadership must be willing to look hard at the image that they are portraying in the name of Christ. The issue is not about stewardship. It isn’t about youth groups or communication. It is about whether we are going to care about one another or not.
Monday, May 4, 2009
The more I work among the Lutherans the more I am opposed to a covenantal agreement within the Anglican Communion. I chatted with a Lutheran seminarian this week and listened to how she described her faith. She is singularly a believer in the Lutheran Confessions. And that is as it should be. The theology she espoused was as ‘orthodox’ as she was fervent. And I am sure I was much like her when I graduated from seminary. But the theology that I spouted was not from the 16th century; it was true 20th century process/liberation theology.
What I have observed among the Lutherans is that the power of covenants and confessions last much longer than their intended purpose. Certainly the Lutheran leaders, both secular and sacred, needed to come to a common covenant in order to bring some commonality to the wide-spread call for theological growth during the Reformation. Anytime a specific theology, or interpretation of Scripture has been enforced as the sole formula of Christian thinking, as it had during the Middle Ages, it is not surprising that the call for re-thinking that Luther gave in the 95 theses was an opening of Pandora’s box. It was not only Luther; it was Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli and so many others who opened the minds of the laity to other ways of embracing Christ and the Church. However, the covenants have become as dogmatic as the Medieval Church was in the western part of Europe. Today I do not find among the Lutherans the kinds of grappling with the modern issues that I have among Episcopalians. In the light of modern psychology they still believe in the utter depravity of humanity—a concept that does not square, in my mind, with the generosity of the Incarnation.
I do not hear the struggle with substituionary atonement or original sin that I hear among Spong, Borg or Fox. It is impossible to address such topics because they are so fundamental to what it means to be Lutheran. They cannot address the possibility that all creation is good including human nature because ‘justification by Faith alone’ means that humanity has to be depraved after the Fall to make any sense of the death of Jesus. If there are other ways of entertaining Christ’s passion, they cannot be addressed because it would topple the whole meaning of Luther’s revolutionary acts.
Covenants or confessions trap perfectly legitimate and holy explanations of the faith in a time warp. They demand obedience and honor long after the explanations have been lost their meanings.
Now the Covenant that Anglicans is entertaining, no matter which rewrite is being bantered about presently, is not a theological document for the most part. It is basically to proclaim Church order. However, it seems that to do so requires an adoption of a way of thinking or believing that is not in keeping with the Anglican tradition of the freedom of thought that was expressed in the Elizabethan settlement. It calls for a type of ecclesiology that does not for the most part engage TEC, Canada or for that matter New Zealand. There has been much discussion about the ulterior motives of those who have proposed the present Covenant, about its specific theologies, about desires for punishment or the acquisition of power.
Any community of faith needs some kind of document that affirms the basics of commonality of the group. The Ridley document is fairly straight forward and simple and similar to the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral of the 19th century. But there was present in the 19th century no underlying desire of one part of the communion to censure another. There were no churches standing in the wings desiring to be given the inheritance of the other. The purpose of an Anglican Covenant is not the same as either the Augsburg Confession or the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral. It is not intent in inclusion into a shared life in Christ. Its purpose is to exclude those who do not think like the majority or those in power.
Even if The Episcopal Church were to assent to the Anglican Covenant, it would still not make us one with those who disagree in the main with the direction we are going in the area of addressing the misdeeds of the Church in dealing with LGBT people. It would not make us one in addressing the misdeeds of the Church in supporting slavery in the past. It would not help the Anglican Church to address the inherent sinfulness in the forms of subjegation that we employed under the guise of colonialism. The Covenant would just promote the continuation of the misuse of power that has long attended the Church.
If the creative theology that is frequenting the Church these days, setting people free from ways of thinking that have long hampered the faithful from coming to mature faith in the God then we cannot commit ourselves to covenants that would put more emphasis on punishment than it does on the freedom of the Word. TEC needs to be able to proclaim of message of hope for all its members, not just those whose ‘manner of life’ is acceptable. We need to be a Church which can tolerate and even teach ways of thinking of God that expand rather than provide refuges for ancient theologies. “New occasions [still] teach new duties” even when the majority doesn’t want to look.