Is The Episcopal Church Possible Today?
The Conga Line. I will tell you what I mean by “the Episcopal Church” and why it is a real question as to whether we have any place in the 21st Century. But first we need to consider why our existence matters. This story may not say it all, but it suggests a lot to those who can set aside the assumptions about religion grounded in how we adapted Anglicanism to suit the tastes of Boomers and Gen-Exers over these past 40 years.
Around 1990 (give or take), an Episcopal congregation in San Francisco began bold new innovations to their ritual. Some were grounded in practices of the Early Church, but others suited the tastes of young people a quarter century ago. One such innovation was the conga line. The people danced their way out of the liturgy of the word into the liturgy of the table. As happens in our culture, especially in our church, the bold new innovation either disappears and is forgotten or it meets another curious fate: it becomes fashionable. I pass no judgment on the use of the conga line then. My point is what happens when it becomes fasionable.
In one diocese this year, a diocese we might think of as rather conservative, the bishop and youth minister decided to make the diocesan convention more engaging to the youth. Their plan: a conga line at Communion. They were giddy with the excitement of how cool the youth would find this, how delighted the youth would be with their boldness in doing what had been going on in San Francisco for 25 years now. But that was before EYE (Episcopal Youth Event) 2014.
That diocese sent a strong youth delegation to the Episcopal Youth Event in Philadelphia. The mission-focused event was a huge success. The worship had a few unfortunate snags from my standpoint – like passing the plate for the offering during the final half of the Eucharistic prayer on one occasion – but on the whole it was high energy, moving, powerful, engaging worship – and, after all, the glitches were probably grating to only this 64 year old curmudgeon from a seminary notoriously picky when it comes to ritual. But, to the point: the adult planners of EYE were of a mind with the conservative diocese – cool worship for cool young people needs a conga line so a conga line we had.
Near the end of the week, the diocesan youth minister asked her teens what had been the best part of EYE and what was the worst. There were almost as many contenders for the best thing as there were teens. But they all agreed on what was worst: the conga line. At the moment when they had wanted to meditatively and reflectively prepare to meet God, their prayer was interrupted by a self-conscious poser attempt at coolness. The conga line may have rocked the world of Gen-X in 1990 – but not teens in 2014.
The Episcopal Church. We are an oddity in the Christian world by the very way we define ourselves – not by different answers from other denominations, but by different questions. Since the 2nd Century A.D. Anglican Christianity had a distinctive style of worship and spiritual practice. It was never set over in opposition to the rest of Christianity. It was just our way, our part of the Body of Christ.
In the 16th Century, Western Christianity splintered into multiple factions, each defining itself over against the others by fine points of doctrine. The Lutherans had the Augsburg Confession (350 pages); the Calvinists, the Westminster Confession (550 pages); etc. Roman Catholicism had previously entertained a variety of doctrines but in response to the Reformation, began to tie down the party line at the Council of Trent so they too could be defined by their doctrines.
Anglicanism waffled briefly but after the Elizabethan Settlement simply declined to define ourselves very tightly by doctrines. We later came up with 39 Articles (2 pages) so we could talk with our ecumenical friends, but even those Articles failed to grab our imagination or hold our allegiance. We said instead, “This is how we pray” and “praying shapes believing.” “Come pray with us, in the old ways, the Apostolic ways, and over time your beliefs will grow and deepen and become more refined.” Two people praying in the same pew may hold very different doctrinal opinions, but they can still pray together, each interpreting the prayer in her own way. They can talk through their differences of belief in a class or just keep their opinions to themselves. We are a people of diverse opinions united by Common Prayer.
Common Prayer held us together while we differed over all manner of things – evolution versus creation; racial issues; support for versus opposition to controversial wars; etc. etc. People who disagreed passionately about politics and even religion knelt together, confessed their sins together, were absolved together, and blessed each other with “the peace of the Lord.”
In addition to Common Prayer, there was also a secondary trait that defined us: the way we made our decisions. It was a question of authority – who got to make the decisions. The struggle for authority reared its head in Western Christianity early and often. Look at the Epistles of Paul, Clement of Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch. Christians have always been a bit headstrong. It came to a crisis as a fight between clergy authority and lay authority in “the Investiture Controversy” of the 11th Century. In a dramatic showdown between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, the clergy won and ran the culture for 500 years – but never without rumbling from the lay authorities (kings, princes, lords). The fight between Archbishop Thomas Beckett and King Henry II is a classic example. The melodrama around Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon was not about sex as it seems in the movies. It was about the limits of clergy authority and the autonomy of national churches.
The English Reformation was about authority more than anything else. The resolution was a notion that has come up again this year as the Episcopal Church undertakes restructuring – “Shared Governance.” Some authority was vested in clerical authority; other authority was reserved to lay authority; and a lot of things require the concurrence of both clergy and laity. Take for example the election of a bishop. In order to elect a bishop at a diocesan convention, the same candidate must receive over 50% of the votes of the Order of the Clergy and the Order of the Laity on the same ballot. The authority of clergy and the authority of the laity do two things: 1. Obviously, they check and balance each other so that one order does not impose its will overmuch on the other; but also 2. (less obviously but just as importantly), they inform each other, teach each other, refine each other, keep a lively conversation going.
The authority of clergy and laity are organized this way at each level – rector & vestry in the parish; bishop & Standing Committee/ Convention in the diocese; House of Bishops & House of Deputies at General Convention. (The laity are reinforced by priests and deacons at the diocesan and Gen Con levels to keep a special eye on bishops – whom we don’t want to inflate with too much power lest they run amok.) This dialectic, this conversation, of laity and clergy is not as apparent on a Sunday morning as our Common Prayer, but it is also intrinsic to our character and it is distinctive among Christian denominations.
Romantic Individualism And Common Prayer. Over against Common Prayer and Shared Governance, there is a prevailing force in our culture. That is to say it has been prevailing for the past half century and it has roots going back to the early 19th Century. It is the elevation of the autonomous individual over all other sources of truth or judgment of right. Particularly in the domain of religion, where things cannot be proven by our one universally accepted authority – the scientific experiment – our culture values radical subjectivity. “I believe in the God of my creation and worship that God in the way that expresses my feelings. My religion is how I express my subjective beliefs, which are of my choosing.”
This poses an obvious problem for Prayer Book Spirituality, i.e., the practice of Common Prayer. Priests take ordination vows to be loyal to the “worship of the Episcopal Church.” But that is hard to do in an era whose theme song could be “I did it my way.” If the priest does not adhere to the Church’s practice of Common Prayer, then either the priest leads the congregation into his or her own subjectivity or tailors the worship to suit the subjectivity of the most influential members. It becomes a problematic power dynamic.
The Book of Common Prayer does not tie down every detail of worship. It leaves options and room for innovation and addition, but it does have a basic structure. It is like a tennis court with bounds and a net. That is what sets us apart from the “Free Church” traditions in which worship has no prescribed form. If one goes to a particular UCC (Congregationalist) Church for example, worship may follow a completely different form and style from another UCC Church. In the Free Church tradition, each congregation goes its own way like the divorcing members of Fleetwood Mack.
I do not mean to criticize the Free Church tradition. Most Christian denominations are of that form. The question I am asking is this: if the Episcopal Church gives up the spirituality that defines us, is there any reason for us to exist as part of the Body of Christ? If we are not defined as a denomination by our fidelity to Common Prayer, then that raises the pressure considerably for us to find a new way to define ourselves – that is, by some common opinion.
But here’s where the situation goes from troubling to deeply disturbing. It is highly unlikely in our era of Romantic Individualism that we can come to a common theological opinion. People today, even in doctrinally defined churches, do not personally identify with their theological beliefs. They identify instead with their political ideologies. In fact, we live in a society that is increasingly unable to address the issues that confront us – environmental issues; immigration policy; income inequality; the influence of money in elections and the consequences for government, etc. – because we are so identified with our political opinions that we cannot reason with each other or reach compromises without fear of losing our souls, which we have come to think of as fused with our politics.
The hope for holding together a society so politically divided is people coming together in prayer to be shaped together, formed together, challenged together and so transformed. In a world where people only gather for worship with those who share their political and social beliefs, there is no opportunity for transformation. But where we do come together, prayer that does not express what we already feel, but rather Common Prayer, the liturgy and those who are faithful to it can change us. Do we dare to be changed?
A story: Shortly after the Civil War in Virginia, a Black man showed up at an Episcopal Church. That was not new. But this time he did not sit in the balcony. When the invitation to receive Communion was extended, he went up to the altar rail and received. The white 1866 Virginia congregation did not know what to do. But from the back of the Church, the grey bearded senior warden walked up the aisle, knelt at the rail, and received the sacrament. Perhaps because the Senior Warden was Robert E. Lee, the rest of the congregation received the sacrament as well. The liturgy did not express what they believed. It challenged what they believed and changed them. It built a bridge they had not imagined. Do we dare to be changed? Do we dare to build bridges to people with whom we do not agree? If you want to consider this issue presented far more compellingly than I can, especially here in print, I urge you to watch Bishop Michael Curry’s explanation of the unifying power of the Eucharist in this short video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USOMZpGheBc
This ancient ritual we have inherited as our spiritual legacy is not an arbitrary construct. It contains truths that cannot be conveyed directly. It touches us at levels we cannot understand. Sometimes we feel moved emotionally as in Evangelical or Pentecostal worship. But other times the movement is at a level deeper than emotions, as in Buddhist meditation. Common Prayer does not express what we already feel or recite opinions we already hold. It calls us into truths that are new to us as individuals but older by far than humanity.
Romantic Individualism And Shared Governance. Romantic individualism is at a minimum suspicious of, usually downright opposed to, any authority other than the subjective will of the individual constrained only by the duty not to interfere with the subjective will of another individual. That works quite well for dancing depending on what kind of dancing is being done on the particular dance floor. It might not work so well if folks are square dancing, line dancing, or waltzing. It also would not work so well for a football team. Some things can be accomplished only by people working together and that necessitates the group exercising some sort of authority.
Our system is unusually democratic. Clergy have authority over a very limited set of decisions. That is based on their training, which qualifies them to make those decisions wisely and in keeping with the tradition and teachings of the Church. Most of what happens in Church is governed by democratically elected lay people. Authority in the Episcopal Church is exercised collaboratively because working together is how we learn and grow.
But again Romantic Individualism poses a problem. During the course of setting out a path to restructuring the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katharine and the President of the House of Bishops both spoke of a plan for “Shared Governance.” They were rather surprised to hear responses objecting to “governance” at all, shared or not, regardless of who did it.
A story: This year I made an appointment that is in my canonical authority to make. But I did not just haul off and do it. The vestry asked me to do it by an overwhelming majority vote. Still I invited the congregation to offer their guidance. Again the overwhelming majority of the congregation joined the vestry in asking me to do the same thing. But some members of the congregation still objected to my making the appointment. It was an oppressive exercise of power.
Romantic Individualism makes it impossible to function as a group even when the group has high level of consensus, perhaps especially when the group has a high level of consensus. The Romantic Individualist wants his way regardless of any authority structures, even the authority of the majority of the group even on a decision about the course of the group.
So here is the question: are we willing to be part of a community if that means bending our will so we can accomplish things together? Does bending our will diminish us, make us less – or are we something larger than our will, so that giving up our will might be a way to grow. Might submission to the God’s Church, the Body of Christ, be an exercise in submitting to God? And might submitting to God be how we most genuinely pray, “Thy kingdom come”?
I am not sure the Episcopal Church is possible in an era of Romantic Individualism. But it may well be that Romantic Individualism makes the Episcopal Church necessary. Romantic Individualism may be the disease for which the Church is the cure. Christianity along with Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and most of the name brand world religions, regards our ego, our self-will, as the problem to be overcome through religious practice. “I have become a great problem to myself,” St. Augustine said, explaining his decision to embrace Christianity. To choose Christ was to give himself away. Paul said, “Have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . . . Do nothing from ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians) “Be filled with the Spirit . . . submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5: 18-21)
If Christian spirituality is right that the path to joy lies through surrender of the ego-will (often called “the flesh” by Paul), then submitting to the reasonable and moral decisions of people authorized to make those decisions is an essential spiritual practice. If we approach our faith that way, then we do not go to Church to get our way. Quite the opposite. Such a spirituality would even give money to the congregation trusting the vestry to spend it rightly rather than designating gifts so as to hang on to the power.
Do you see that the issue is the same in governance and prayer? It is the choice between the assertion of self and the surrender of self. So is the Episcopal Church, with its Common Payer and Shared Governance, possible in our time?
Conclusion: Tom Wolfe dubbed people my age “the Me Generation” because we were so unabashedly self-involved. I am not sure those just a bit younger are much less self-involved. For us, Romantic Individualism is an implicit assumption about what makes for a good life. To us, the Episcopal Church is naturally a hard sell, but it may be a necessary one. Just as we have had a particular need for 12-step programs to free our souls from the chemical addictions we acquired while expressing ourselves, we need help getting free from addiction to self-will. Is the Episcopal Church possible for us? Gabriel told Mary, “With God all things are possible.”
But the Millennial Generation is a whole new ball game. They are looking for mission, hungry for community, and in many cases lean toward a contemplative mystical ritual such as the Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the more exuberantly expressive worship of the renewal movement so loved by my generation. I am thinking of those young people who did not like the conga line to the altar rail one little bit. It may just be that this generation, which is so commonly said to have left the Church, is the very generation for whom the Episcopal Church, Common Prayer, and Shared Governance is a perfect fit.
My concern is whether the Episcopal Church, as we know it will be here for them. I am not concerned that we will close our doors. I am concerned that we will abandon Common Prayer and Shared Governance caving to Romantic Individualism. My hope is that we will not. My hope is that we will keep the porch light on for today’s young people who will be looking for us tomorrow night.