Failing and Flourishing (I): A Tale of Two Realities

This past summer I had a number of interesting conferences and visits, including the adventure known as the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

The General Convention, it should be more readily admitted, is a spiritually dangerous place for participants and even observers, however necessary and important its work is. Take for instance the fact that the Convention might find itself called, or thinking it was called, to determine the membership of the communion of saints via arguments about the Calendar; or consider that its deputies might face claims to discern the Holy Spirit at work in all sorts of curious places, even such as in one version of a budget proposal rather than another.

Alongside or beneath such dangers of presumption lies the fact that this huge body continues on in all its dubiously-sized glory as the Church it serves shrinks. Some readers will have seen the statistics released recent by the national Church (cf. also this article) which paint a picture of decline that is bracing, but which I suspect is actually rosier than the reality.

Put simply, membership in TEC Churches dropped by a quarter between 2000 and 2017; average Sunday attendance dropped by 35%. Interestingly, parishes and missions declined in number only 10% in the same period, dioceses not at all - and the General Convention has already been mentioned. The disparity in adjustments gives some food for thought, but perhaps for another day. It may be enough to say that the manifest decline in those who want to be saints with us makes for an unfortunate contrast with time-consuming arguments about who get to be saints on the calendar.

What isn’t reflected in the statistics, but what we all know, is that the missing population of the present Church isn’t just defined by the departure of the disaffected, or the bloody-minded, or the unfaithful - and even their departure is a wound in the body of Christ, by the way, not cause for rejoicing. Most obviously it is the young who are so often missing. We are facing not so much a decline as a looming precipice, as the median age of many congregations moves quickly into the 70s and beyond. Things are not just going to shrink, they are going to collapse.

Yet there is another story that coincides with, but contradicts this one. We know that, around TEC and elsewhere, there are many communities of faith that are growing, and which even have members younger than most of us. And there are also movements harder to discern and define, but whose faithfulness, vigor, and youth offers a sort of counter-narrative to the bigger picture of decline.

So there are two stories here, two narratives, two realities. And the greatest mistake we could make would be to harmonize these narratives by compromise or averaging them; to decide things are not so bad, most obviously, because clearly not everything is bad. Denial is not a very useful planning tool. In fact things really are that bad; but that is not the only story.

We are, then, failing and flourishing at the same time.

[This and two other posts are from a talk given to the Board of Directors of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes and invited guests at the Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York City, September 5 2018. The second talk is here and the third here]