Will the Episcopal Church survive? God knows.
The allusion is to Ezekiel: “’Son of Man, can these bones live?’ ‘O Lord, thou knowest.” Ezekiel 37: 1-14. Life and death are God’s business. So is the future.
But some of our folks have been reading that if the Episcopal Church continues to lose members at the same rate we did in the past 7 years, we won’t last past 2060. Numbers and trends can be made to say all sorts of things, especially if you skip the facts of the story.
We have not been losing members randomly or through being boring or spiritually irrelevant. In fact, up until 2003, we were the only mainline denomination that was growing. In the past 7 years or so we have gone through a major controversy over gay inclusion. We did the right thing, in my view. We were true to an honest reading of Scripture and we acted faithfully on our theology. We were true to our beliefs. But it cost us the attempted secession of the Dioceses of San Joaquin, Ft. Worth, Pittsburgh, and Quincy. It led to the loss of congregations in dioceses that remained in the church, and the loss of members from congregations that stayed in their dioceses. Statistically, it was not a tsunami but it did make a notable dent in our membership for the past 7 years.
That controversy may not be completely over. But it has certainly lost a lot of steam. Much of American culture seems to have gone our way, and other mainline denominations are reaching similar conclusions to the ones we have reached. Even internationally, more and more of us are agreeing to disagree and get on with serving Christ.
As for the future and the doomsday predictions based on “current trends,” we would have to come up with a series of new controversies as divisive as the one of the past 7 years to keep up that rate of schism and chaos. I’m not sure we are that creative. Besides, new controversies don’t seem to be what we are doing these days. We are more interested in moving on beyond the old liberal-conservative point and counterpoint. We are settling down to the business of being the Church in the 21st Century. Everyone from Alban Institute to the Evangelism and Congregational Development folks are teaching how to close the door on old fights and live into a newly invigorated mission. See for example “Changing the Conversation” in Alban Weekly for May 16, 20111, firstname.lastname@example.org. The controversies of this decade have been hard, but they have brought us to a deeper understanding of the faith and a deeper appreciation of each other – those of us who are still together in this battle scarred old Church.
So what does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? God knows. I only know what I see here today in Nevada. I see children’s Sunday Schools in Ely, Elko, and Nixon where there were no children just three years ago. I see young adults at numerous congregations where there were no young adults three years ago. I see active campus ministries in Reno and Elko. We had churches packed for Easter this year that had not been full for years. Epiphany, one of our newest and demographically youngest congregations, is looking for a larger building because they are regularly over crowded. The Grace in the Desert juggernaut of growth goes on.
I see more and better parish web sites and Face Book pages. I hear our ministries recognized on NPR. Billboards are going up outside Ely and Fallon. Our Latino ministries happen in existing churches so we don’t count them as new parishes. But if you consider a worshiping community as a congregation, then we have seven brand new congregations all growing rapidly. We are offering small church music workshops and initiating a program of emergent ministries for miners and energy workers to rebuild our rural ministries. A plan for evangelism in Asian ministries is on the drawing board.
It isn’t all rosy. One of our well loved small congregations in Reno closed last year. But I see its former members now actively engaged and strengthening the other 3 congregations in Reno, one of which is a fairly new parish. Another of our small congregations went from about 24 to around 12 this year over a local fight. But some of those dozen folks have found their way to another Episcopal congregation in the area that was on the ropes a few years ago but now is coming back strong.
What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? “O Lord our times are in your hands.” God knows. I don’t. No, I don’t know our future. But I know our mission and it is not perpetually checking our pulse. Our mission is being faithfully present in a culture where people are lost, alienated, lonely, and despairing. Our mission is shining the Christ light of hope into the dark corners of society – corners darkened by poverty, sometimes economic, more often spiritual. I believe people need the Episcopal Church and I believe God loves it. If God did not love it, it would have surely died long ago from all the things we’ve done to it in our human frailty and ineptitude.
What is God doing in the Episcopal Church? We have a lot of wind out here in the High Desert. Jesus said “God is wind.” John 4:24 “The wind bloweth wherever it listeth and you hear the sound of it; but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goest. So it is with every word that is born of the Spirit.” John 3: 8. The Church is God’s word born of the Spirit on Pentecost, reborn of the same Spirit with each and every baptism. Where is the Church going? Wherever God wills.