Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Only Connect...but not there!

How does this observation:

Dr Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said: “Nobody takes any notice of what churchmen say about these things. Now this has turned into a very sorrowful ‘I told you so’.”
Connect to the controversy in The Episcopal Church? I think I have an idea about that.

This would-be schism is clearly clergy driven (this has been the subject of a lively discussion at Father Jake's place). I know of a large UCC church here in Texas which left the denomination (easier to do in a congregational polity), and hoped to take several Texas or other UCC churches with it. The clergy of that church were so zealous to create a new counter-denomination that they sent pastors to small UCC church in rural areas, trying to persuade them the UCC was apostate and their congregation should withdraw. It was, of course, all a numbers game: the more churches/congregation members, the more "successful" their "movement" would be.

No one followed them nor, to my knowledge, has to date. The one church that withdrew did so over 6 years ago now. I suspect the same thing is happening at Truro and Falls Church, the two churches which voted to leave the Episcopal church ( a vote that is effectively a nullity, as the Presiding Bishop has pointed out. Individuals can leave the church, but congregations in Episcopal polity are creatures of the church. The only question will be who is entitled to use the property, and there the issue gets dicey, indeed. The question will be less who gets to use the property for what purpose than, how is that right enforced? Permanent injunctions and restraining orders? It really will be a question, ultimately, of who blinks first.). So how does this connect to N.T. Wright's comment about the effectiveness of clergy?

The zeal for denominationalism is not what it used to be. These "schisms" fizzle because fewer and fewer people identify themselves as UCC, or Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, or even Baptist of Assembly of God. The generic terms now are "mainstream" or "conservative," "evangelical" or "fundamentalist," and no one really agrees on what those mean. But it's easy to find complaints on the Web about "Baptists" joining Episcopal congregations and then no understanding the polity of the church, and undoubtedly it's true. The church culture of America is more and more what the media reflects: we are all located on a spectrum of Protesant Christianity spanning something from "conservative" to "evangelical," and all other flavors (like your host, of course) are irrelevant because their numbers are so small as to be insignificant. It is, again, all a numbers game.

But American culture is saturated with "Baptists," or if you prefer slightly greater accuracy, "conservative Christians" and "evangelicals." Just as even idol-despising anti-Papist Baptists will put up nativity scenes in their places of worship (originating with none other than St. Francis) and think no more of it than non-Christians think of putting up a Christmas tree, more and more attendees at Christian churches will attend any Protestant Christian church, assuming they are "all the same," and that the real distinction is in theology, not doctrine (how we worship and pray) or polity (how we structure our denomination). The denominational divides which splintered their grandfathers (or perhaps great-grandfathers) are as irrelevant to them as the origin of the now universal nativity scene. And theology only divides into "conservative" (i.e., everybody) and "liberal (everybody else). The only people who truly care about denominational identity any more are, by and large, the clergy. When I pastored two UCC churches, the majority of the congregation members either didn't care what "UCC" meant, or wanted to change the name back to "E&R," because their friends thought they attended a "Church of Christ" (several people were certain a return to "E&R," which meant no more to the world than "UCC," would draw members back, too). It wasn't a question of identity for them, it was a question of label, and marketing. Had the name been less easily confused with the Church of Christ, they wouldn't have cared what the denomination called itself. They certainly didn't notice what pronouncements it made, or care much about the ones which stirred the Biblical Witness Fellowship (the "anti-UCC" movement in the UCC, driven, yes, by a UCC pastor).

Clergy, of course, have a vested interest in the niceities of church polity; which is all well and good, but if there is going to be any energy generated over questions of polity, doctrine, and church identity, it will not come primarily from the laity, and even if it originates there, unless the majority of the people supporting a change are clergy, the change isn't going to happen. Time was when people sought denominational identity, and freely created new ones as they felt the need, inventing clergy to serve them as they went along (well, seldom did the clergy lead the departure. Wesley didn't intend to start a new church anymore than Luther did, and most American denominations were formed by lay people, not pastors.). The majority of congregants simply don't care what denomination their church is. They go to the church they are comfortable with, not the one they grew up in. We are, in other words, in a post-denominational world, and as we go from one state to the other we face an interregnum in which all manner of morbid symptoms appear.

Which is why clergy are driving this talk of schism in The Episcopal Church, not laity. The leaders in this issue are Archbishops and Bishops and priests. That seems normal for a polity like the TEC's, but they are the ones whipping up the froth; they are not responding to pressure from their parishes. Father Jake has one example of what I mean, which will stand well for all:

In December 2003, Kirkpatrick said, a vestry survey showed that the majority of St. Stephen's members wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church.

However, Mahaffey recalled, the perceived failings of the Episcopal Church "became the topic of his sermons from that point forward. It did not matter what the liturgy was for any given Sunday or what the Gospel was, there was always a way to bring the topic around to that issue. We very often got the message that the Episcopal Church had sinned and needed to be repentant."

"It got to the point that our needs for pastoral oversight and ministry were not being met because of the single-minded focus on this issue. We were not hearing the Word and how that was applicable in our daily lives. I don't think we were being ministered to in all of our needs."

There was a "steady outgo of people who found this message intolerable," Kirkpatrick said, and a "steady influx" of people who approved of the leadership's position.

"Everyone down here knew that St. Stephen's was taking this stance," she said.

Mahaffey said the growing disaffection with the Episcopal Church "has been very well staged."

"I think it has been sold to the congregation," she said. "Three years of hearing it week after week after week"...
This issue is simply far less important to the congregation than it is to the clergy. And the more it is unimportant to the former, the more important it becomes to the latter; because without it, they fear becoming more and more irrelevant.

And so we are back to the comment of Bishop Wright; more or less.

UPDATE: for those of you coming from "Stand Firm," welcome. There is a response just above.

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