Proclaiming Good News, when the world looks for bad news
I wrote this essay on commission for a publication, who finally decided not to use it. I thought it might be of interest to blog readers here. The bold-faced sentences were meant to start new sections in the print version.
Candles and vestments were at the center of controversies that nearly tore about the Episcopal Church. In the nineteenth century, lawsuits were files, schism was threatened, and the church was distracted by fights over things that we take for granted today. Is there a lesson for us?
For much of the 1800s, the Episcopal Church in the US was consumed by internal disagreements. On one side, some people insisted that there was no biblical basis for using crosses and candles at the altar. On the other side, some people insisted that these adornments added dignity and reverence to the liturgy, and were justified based on church tradition. People left the church, and efforts at evangelism suffered. Rather than rooting itself in mission and evangelism, the church used its energy to fight about things that today seem unimportant.
Last fall, the Barna Group published results of a study of young Americans’ attitudes toward Christianity. Among young adults (aged 16-29), the leading perception was that Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” Nine out of ten young people listed this perception first. Christians didn’t fare well in other areas either. Among non-Christians, nine out of 12 of their top perceptions were negative. Christians are judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), and old-fashioned (78%).
We should not make the assumption that these attitudes will somehow change as this generation ages. The study should give us pause, as it warns that this generation may never be churched. To be sure, they also had some positive things to say. But the overarching sense is that the church is not relevant to their needs. Rather than teaching about materialism or relationships – matters of great concern to this generation – the church is perceived as using its energy and time to mercilessly condemn lesbian and gay people.
Just as people of good will could disagree about vestments and candles, there are plenty of intelligent people on all sides of the controversies over human sexuality today. But are these matters worth dividing the church? Might Anglicanism have something to offer the whole church as we wrestle with conflict?
For Episcopalians, these problems are not abstractions. In another sobering revelation, the 2008 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches reveals that many churches declined in membership this year. The Episcopal Church declined more than any other major denomination, losing 4.15% of its members. We cannot have many years like that and hope to survive for long.
It seems to me that we are repeating a pattern of the nineteenth century. As we continue to show a public face that is consumed by controversy, we are losing some current members. More troubling, our evangelism efforts seem to be faltering.
We are presenting “bad news” rather than “Good News” to the world.
I happen to be on the progressive or liberal side of the controversies facing us today. I do not expect everyone to agree with my views, whether in other dioceses or in the congregation I serve. But I do think we can practice Christian reconciliation even as we disagree. I also think – perhaps most important – that we all need to keep perspective on the issues that divide us.
In February 2007, I traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My purpose was to work with a group called Inclusive Church, a UK-based group that seeks to ensure that the church’s ministries are open to all, without regard to sex, sexual orientation, race, or other human-made criteria. My primary reason for going to Tanzania was to report on what was happening at the Primates’ Meeting of the Anglican Communion. I was also there to speak with the media. Perhaps the most enjoyable task was to speak with local Tanzanians.
One day I was talking with a reporter whose father was an Anglican minister. I asked him about the controversies that seem to divide the Anglican Communion. In a very Muslim country, I wondered if the association between church in Tanzania and America – through the Anglican Communion – was a local problem for evangelism and mission. The man’s answer startled me.
“We are competing with Muslims. They worship one God, as one people. If we Christians divide over these issues, we will lose all credibility here.” He continued to explain that he agrees with the most conservation position on issues of human sexuality, but “what you do in America does not matter too much here.”
That man and I had a lengthy conversation about the biblical, moral, and theological underpinnings of disagreement on sexuality. We did not agree on very much. However, we were able to listen to one another, and we were able to find many areas of common belief. Mostly, we found that we both love Anglican Christianity, and we agreed that we didn’t want to see ourselves torn apart over some issues.
When people come to church, the man told me, “we want to praise God, we want to worship God, and we want to give thanks to God. We are trying to be saved.” He added, “these other things are not what we want to talk about.”
Is there a crisis at all? Do newspaper reports accurately describe what’s happening in the Anglican Communion and in the Episcopal Church? Most Episcopalians and most Anglicans want to come to church and worship Almighty God. Most of us are looking for salvation, for healing, and for guidance. While we may not agree on some things, there are many more things on which we find ourselves solidly in agreement.
What’s driving this seeming crisis? My experience is that this is a clergy-driven crisis. For reasons that aren’t always clear, priests and bishops seem to fan the flames of dissension. This is amplified in the media.
In Dar es Salaam, I built some trust with a few of the reporters. One of the reporters for a world-wide wire service showed me an article that she was about to file, asking for my input. On that day, the big story was the release of a report that said the Episcopal Church had largely complied with the requests of the Windsor Report. On the face of it, the report seemed to pave the way for a smoothing of rough times. But the article began with a lede that emphasized the threat of imminent schism.
I asked the reporter, “Why did you write it that way?” She replied along the lines, “No one will run a story about ongoing conversation. It has have drama. Schism is drama. Conversation isn’t.”
Sadly, we too often fail to challenge the needs of media to make money by selling news. Rather than offer Good News, we let bad news carry the day.
My own experience is that there are plenty of forces in the world driving for yes/no or black/white answers. Anglicanism could be attractive precisely because we do not offer clever, easy answers. For most people, the Anglican world-view may match life experience more closely than what passes for Christianity in media and on mainstream bookstore shelves.
Does this mean that anything goes? Are we merely the church of beautiful relativism? Do we stand for anything? Here we get to the essence of Anglicanism.
The genius of Anglicanism was rooted in the via media, the middle way. This middle way was emphatically not “moderation in all things.” Rather, it was a path that deliberately avoided the extremes of papal Roman dogma and protestant Calvinist doctrine. Early Anglicans were quite willing to stake out positions on many issues. Queen Elizabeth I famously declined to make windows into people’s hearts, allowing her subjects to disagree on matters of piety. But she would not tolerate heresy on core doctrine.
Perhaps we modern Anglicans would do well to return to some basics. The historic creeds of the church might form the basis of core doctrine, along with the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Our prayer book liturgies are filled with great truth.
Among those sources, there is hardly a word about candles, vestments, or human sexuality. Might we disagree about appropriate vestments? Vehemently. Should we divide the church over these issues? Of course not. Might we disagree about human sexuality? Certainly. And perhaps we need some perspective there too.
About a year ago, I heard Bishop Chilton Knudsen, Bishop of Maine, answer a question about her teaching on the controversies that divide us. She said that she is willing to go to congregations to teach people about what’s happening in the church as we disagree, but that she also insists on spending equal time on teaching people about those things on which we agree. So if she comes to talk about same-sex blessings, she also spends time talking about the Nicene Creed. That seems about right.
I have this (possibly naïve) idea that when we focus on the Most Important Things, the Unimportant Things will recede into their proper place. I do not mean that we will agree, or even that my liberal positions will “win.” But I do mean that we can find deeper common ground in what unites us.
We Episcopalians spend too much time preaching pabulum, and not enough time preaching salvation. In the New Testament, the Greek word sozo is translated into English as salvation. This word does not refer just to eternal life, but also to healing, wholeness, and recovery. The emphasis here is not just on “getting into heaven,” but on knowing Eternal Life in this earthly life – just as the Gospel of John so eloquently teaches.
That might be the essence of Anglicanism. For us, this Christian faith is not filled with easy answers. We do not believe in once-in-a-lifetime conversion, but in lifetimes of conversion. We do not teach that this life is expendable preparation for the next life, but that this life is beautiful participation in eternal life.
We talk about reconciliation all the time. But within our own church, we have a great gift in our opportunity to practice reconciling. Surely Christians can find ways, by the grace of God, to be reconciled. We cannot let our church be defined by reporters eager to sell stories. We cannot let our church be defined by those who seek division at any cost. We cannot let our church be defined by those who would leave “behind” those who cannot agree with a liberal direction.
We must let our church be defined by Jesus. Like many great truths, this one is easy to say but hard to live. But in that struggle – that struggle to live the Gospel – we can find Anglicanism at its best. As we worship together, as we are reconciled one to another at the Holy Table, we will find that St. Paul was right.
…now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:13-20)