Episcopal Church’s tension: tradition and change

In an Episcopal parish where I once worked, the custom was to give the Christmas plate offering to local charities. … Continued

In an Episcopal parish where I once worked, the custom was to give the Christmas plate offering to local charities. A generous, very progressive leader of the parish objected. “Maybe it makes you clergy feel good, but I give money to my church to build it up so it can do its own unique kind of good.”

He was expressing the no-nonsense wisdom of air travel: “If there is a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down. If you are traveling with a child or someone who needs assistance, strap yours on first and then help the other.”

God knows the Episcopal Church needs some oxygen for itself if it has a prayer of helping anyone else. While we’re not exactly on life support, we are diminished and in danger of becoming what the new bishop of Washington calls “a boutique church.”

I remember repeating the prideful mantra, “We may be statistically small, but we have influence out of proportion to our size-more members of Congress, the Supreme Court, past (and then current) presidents.”

That was when we claimed 3 million members in a nation of 200 million. Now we’re less than 2 million among more than 300 million. The old mantra is laughable.

Though generally theologically progressive, we Episcopalians often envy the largely conservative and evangelical megachurches. While 85 percent of our congregations have fewer than 200 members, megachurches range from several thousand to tens of thousands.

Can we learn from them for our own good? Yes.

But there’s a fundamental difference between our way and their way. To be ignorant of that difference would mean we wouldn’t learn much.

Progressive in doctrine, Episcopalians (and our “mainline Protestant” peers) are often deeply traditional. We’re good at liturgy and music, and at bringing authentic ritual to life’s rites of passage, but we get fussy and downright implacable if someone tries to change our ways. We find acceptance and a sense of grounding in our local congregations-and those are truly good things-and then cling to the Way We’ve Always Done Things until we begin boring people to death, or running them off, and wake up to find ourselves to small to thrive.

The megachurch pastor thought up his idea for a church. Perhaps, like Bill Hybels, who turned a youth group into the granddaddy of all megachurches, Willow Creek, the work was based on tireless research on what people wanted or were missing or had been turned off by in churches.

It will be interesting to see if these new creations can navigate the transition to the second generation, when there well may be people who remember the good old days and want to hold on to them.

Episcopalians are the ultimate and extreme “legacy church.” No matter how committed the local rector is to change, no matter how deft she or he is in managing it, there is a huge and nearly immovable weight of tradition. Some of it is so good that it might- rightly reinterpreted and freshened- be the way forward to real growth in size and health. But it takes a lot of energy. We almost inevitably tilt backward for every step and a half we take forward.

Bishop Budde of Washington is absolutely right about concentrating on the meat and potatoes of local congregational life: worship, music, compelling preaching, education, pastoral care. Taking stands on issues at the national level (where few people pay attention to us any longer) might be satisfying, but we’ve just about spent ourselves doing that.

Even on the issue of homosexuality, where I believe our generous and enlightened thinking and practice are making a signal contribution to society (and to other churches), the real power is seeing people at the local level hear and accept one another honestly, and then move on to the common questions every human being asks. To what Tip O’Neill said about politics, we might add: All religion is local.

That’s what my friend taught me many Christmases ago. Do it here where we are, build up a community so it will be here for the next person through the door, and don’t take my money and send it away. Let me support it where it counts. That’s what leads to growth, and as we learn from history, you either grow, or go.

The Rev William Tully, Rector, St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City.

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  • CaptnMike

    It is so sad to read about a Rector who would say “…don’t take my money and send it away.” Who’s money is it? Our church gives away money to strangers from near and far. We want people to find Jesus, if at our Church, great, if at another Bible believing Church, also great.

    The Episcopal Club cannot get small enough.

  • GiveMeThat

    The author is the rector a church in New York that seen its attendance fall by 40% in the past decade.

    All religion is local. What few conservatives left in the Episcopal organization have found is that you can’t ignore the actions of the national church. Spong or Robinson spouting heresy in New Jersey or New Hampshire has crushed efforts to “do church” in rural Kansas or Lubbock Texas. The heretics will rob your message.

  • dcbeliever

    Tully very clearly articulates why TEC is in permanent decline. If the local parish leaders like him cannot state clearly why liturgy and tradition are important in engaging with the secular world without apologizing for it, then how can the church grow bishops who will understand that? The everything is all right philosophy will continue to produce Pike, Spong, and Robinson in legions and now Schori and Budde who think their elevation means that their new age philosophies are somehow right. Jesus would certainly agree that we should embrace those that are not like us, including sinners, but that does not mean we need to accept their sinful behavior. “go and sin no more” is not the same as accepting a lifestyle. Did Jesus tell the woman at the well to have as many husbands and male companions as she wanted? To seek the companionship of a woman? Love, by itself, used in behavior that is otherwise clearly not normal, is not enough. I read somewhere that if that were true then loving a goat would qualify.

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as the woman at the well, didn’t Jesus say that she answered correctly in saying that the man that she was with now was not her husband?

    I could be wrong but I don’t think Jesus made any other comments concerning her living arrangements, did He?

    Of course we seem to put lots of words into Jesus’s mouth at times, don’t we?

    You asked, “Did Jesus tell the woman at the well to have as many husbands and male companions as she wanted?”

    As far as I remember, Jesus didn’t make a comment one way or the other, did He?

  • dcbeliever

    Go and sin no more was said to the cripple at the pool, but it clearly applies beyond that simple healing. Then I started a new sentence, new thought. The liberals have to abandon Jesus because he erases not one word from the old law but commands love. But he does not command love your same-sex partner any more then he says love a goat. The current liberal bishops also hate this because it does not fit a new age belief that love of self (go read Schori’s direction to look in the mirror each day and say beloved, or Budde’s “you are a creative act of God’s genius”).

  • ThomasBaum

    Jesus also said, “When I am lifted up, I will draw All men (people) to Myself”.

    People can do whatever they want but as a species, we seem to love to judge others.

    If one were to judge anyone, why not judge oneself?

    I judged myself and found myself, guilty, guilty, guilty and guess what besides meeting Dad and the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit revealing to me that the Catholic Eucharist is Jesus, I also met satan and experienced hell and spiritual death, among other things.

    Jesus went to hell and to spiritual death by taking the sins of ALL of humanity upon Himself and in the process won the “keys”
    to both hell and death and will use them in due time, God’s Time, this is what the GOOD NEWS IS.

    By the way, hell is not some monolithic place, like some people seem to think it to be, that God created to sling people into.

    If one were to wake up in hell, so to speak, they will come to the realization that they built it themself, that’s right it is custom built by it’s inhabitant, and they will also come to realize that they have no one but themself to blame.

    I thank God for God’s Plan and that God’s Plan is for ALL, ultimately, to be with God in God’s Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth.

    I imagine that you have heard about it’s arrival at the dawning of the seventh day but the night of the sixth day shall precede it.

    See you and the rest of humanity in the Kingdom.

    Take care, be ready.

    Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.