What Could Episcopalians do Better?
This blog has recently posted two (in my opinion) excellent pieces by my housemates Megan and Will. Megan wrote about why she is about to be formally received into the Episcopal Church, and Will wrote about why he is still a faithful member of the Episcopal Church. In the context of these two pieces highlighting so much that the Episcopal Church gets right, and in a spirit of Lenten reflection, I thought it worth putting together a post on a few things Episcopalians could perhaps do better.
Writing such a post is a dangerous exercise: whatever comments I have will be derived from my own experience. As such, they will absolutely not be generalisable across all Episcopalians. They will also be written from a very particular perspective, one which may itself be fraught with error. I hope, then, that this piece is written and read in as personal a way as Will and Megan's; specifically, as a personal story based on encounters within a church filled with good people trying to love God and neighbour. Insofar as it is written in a way which claims more authority than such a story could have, it undermines itself.
I should also say that I write this having worked within the Episcopal Church for the last three years, and that I plan to continue doing so for many more years to come. I have a great love for both the Episcopal Church and the Episcopalians I have been blessed to get to know, I believe everything brought out in Megan and Will's posts to be true, and I believe the Episcopal Church has not just a future, but a bright one, ahead (one way or another). I hope this piece is not read as throwing any of these things into doubt.
In this context, I'm going to focus on three problems I think Episcopalians can and should address. They are interrelated, but distinct enough to merit distinct treatment. None are original, and all of the views expressed here are greatly indebted to conversations had with others. I deliberately write 'Episcopalians', and not the Episcopal Church, as I believe many of these problems find their origins in personal practises and attitudes. Insofar as they can be addressed, then, I think they should be addressed on a personal, and only then on an institutional, level. They are, in order, clericalism, complacency/classism, and theology.
The first problem is clericalism. By this I mean too great an emphasis on the role of the priesthood in the life of the Church, an emphasis which has negative consequences for both lay ministry and our understandings of the role of a priest. This problem is not, in my mind, one of priests having too much power or authority. It is instead one of expecting too much of the wrong thing from those called to a very specific vocation. It is one of expecting that those who feel called to a life of professional ministry within the Church should therefore feel called to the priesthood.
How does this manifest itself, and what might its consequences be? In my (completely) limited experience, it can be observed on both seemingly innocuous and obviously dangerous levels. One seemingly innocuous way it manifests is a constant question asked of the young adults I've known and lived with: 'are you thinking about ordination?' The problem here is not, of course, the asking of that question, which is an entirely fair one: it is that I have never heard an alternative proffered in the same breath. There is no question 'are you thinking about ordination, or are you looking to serve the Church professionally in a lay-capacity? Do you think you might want to be a priest, or do you think you might want to co-ordinate a soup kitchen, live in community, serve in a homeless outreach organisation, assist with the resettlement of refugees, work as a practical theologian, or generally engage in the mission of the Church as an avowed member of the laity?' The impact that this innocuous question can have, meanwhile, is a narrowing of views as to how we can live into the life of the Church: there are only so many ways we can think of of being professional Christians, only so many of which are actively supported and recognised, and most of them outside of parish administration seem to involve wearing a collar.
As I see it, all this is a symptom of a view which it then goes on to reinforce: that priests are first and foremost leaders of the Church. Individually, and then collectively, when we talk about Church leadership we tend to think of priests, whether this be the leadership of a parish, the administration of the Church as a whole, the support of activism, or the development and support of Christian ministries to the world. The problem, in my opinion, is that this view is false from the get-go: priests are not leaders. Leading the Church is not a priest's primary job. The primary job of a priest is the ministering of the sacraments, pronouncing the absolution of sin, and the pastoral care of a congregation. Of course, if this is done then there is no reason why a priest cannot actively engage in dong the rest (and perhaps many reasons why the should): the primary responsibility for this, however, rests on the congregation. The responsibility for the active ministry of the Church in the world rests with the laity.
As it is, it seems to me that professional ministry in the Episcopal Church currently means priesthood before it means anything else. We do not have extant a general and generally recognised way of supporting lay ministry as a professional vocation to be carried out on the streets and in the slums. Instead we have priests expected to do everything, people running non-profits in dog-collars without ministering to congregations, and congregations wondering why the mission of the Church rarely seems to get beyond the doors we try to welcome people through. We have motivated and spiritually inspired individuals going through a discernment process (which can be by turns demoralising, draining, and derailing), with those who get through that going to seminary in order to do the kind of work they should be able to do without being ordained into the line of apostolic succession.
It seems to me that the solution to this, meanwhile (if there is indeed a solution), is not a general resolution in support of lay ministers, or attempted action on a Churchwide or diocesan level, but a commitment on the part of individuals and congregations to personally and financially support specific lay ministers in their communities. If there are no options for long term professional lay ministry in our communities, but resources to support them, then we create them. We hold them up as integral to the life of the Church. We ask young adults if they have considered these as well. And we seek the pastoral counsel of our priests as we do so, returning to them each Sunday to confess our sins, hear the Scriptures, pray for the world, and encounter God in the sacraments. This is being done in some churches. It could be done in more.
Complacency and Classism
A friend of mine once told me about an Episcopal leadership training session they attended. The question was asked, 'do you have any history of fighting against oppression?' Apparently someone answered 'well, we're Episcopalians.' This is, of course, only one person in one particular setting; all the same, it echoes conversations I've had before and have seen carried on elsewhere. It conveys the impression that because of the Episcopal Church's outspoken stances on misogyny, racism, LGBTQ issues, climate change, and income inequality, that because it works to be an inclusive and welcoming Church, Episcopalians can in some small sense consider themselves de facto foot-soldiers of liberation. This is a dangerous level of complacency for a Church the majority of whose congregations are predominantly white and (though this absolutely doesn't cover all Episcopal congregations) affluent.
The Episcopal Church's stance on social issues is, I believe, a wholly good thing. It is often one of its best features, and allows us to point to a Christianity which belies the bigoted stereotype peddled by atheist and fundamentalist communities alike. The absolute danger, however, is the thought that having taken a stance is somehow enough; that once we have stated our support, perhaps protested on the streets, and perhaps passed resolutions, the work is done. This can lead us to ignore the fact that sexism and racism are real issues, not just in the world at large, but in Episcopal congregations too, manifesting themselves in the personal attitudes and behaviours of everyday Episcopalians. It can lead us to ignore the fact that we can speak out as strongly as we want against the evils of racism, yet still support institutional racism over the courses of our daily lives and in the form of our own Church proclamations. It can lead us to act as though resolutions could eradicate misogyny and gender oppression, when misogyny and gender oppression will exist in any context where the people evince them with their lives.
(We can also be complacent about inclusiveness. Almost all the Episcopalians I've met have been extremely welcoming, and I have generally enjoyed the worship: but then, Anglican worship is my natural habitat. It is well worth noting that the Episcopal Church (all the way from high to low church) can seem very much like an insiders club to those just walking in. It can be confusing, disorientating, and there seem to be a good number of Episcopal in-jokes. These are not necessarily things which can be totally changed, but it is something to be aware of.)
The most significant point of complacency, however (again, told from my limited personal experience on the North East coast of America), is on questions of economic class. For a significant number of urban Episcopal Congregations (though absolutely not all), our calls to serve the poor and the oppressed are made and heard from within comfortable churches nearby comfortable houses in comfortable neighbourhoods to congregations who range from the financially secure to the objectively wealthy: the poor themselves do not, by and large, worship in Episcopal Churches. A worrying number of stories are told from the perspective of the wealthy benefactor encountering the homeless, being transformed by their encounter, then returning home to continue on as before. Our stories about serving the poor are told and heard from positions of privilege: as Andrew McGowan notes in a recent (and beyond worth reading) post, Christians can all too often uncritically assume the role of 'privileged host and not the needy guest'. And in this we can forget that Jesus did not just call us to feed the poor and hungry: he called us to be poor, to be hungry. For our part: if we are comfortable hearing about the plight of the poor, then going home to houses worth hundreds of thousands of dollars whilst the same people that we've heard about starve and freeze, I think we need to think long and hard about how exactly we can claim to stand on the side of social justice.
This is a wildly over-generalised claim, which completely glosses over economically deprived Episcopal congregations all across America. Whatever is valid in the above paragraph can only be valid in this limited sense. With that said, however: how amazing would it be to see a lay-led commitment to financial moderation on the part of Episcopalians across America? How amazing might it be to see personal and congregational commitments to living on the U.S. poverty line (or at least at median US income per capita), no matter what our household incomes might be, then devoting all the rest of our money to the work of the Church as carried out in both secular and sacred institutions, to helping raise others out of it? How amazing would it be to see professional lay ministries funded in this way, or to see parishes in deprived areas supported like this?
As I see it, this runs fairly counter to a general Western understanding of personal value in terms of currency based income. The American Dream in particular can be broadly described in terms of the attainment of material comfort, then bestowing some of this upon others in charity. This American Dream is of course by no means an exclusively American thing: exceptionalism notwithstanding, it has existed in most places at most times over history, and it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me as a European to pin this idea onto America above all, especially when I am the product of a wildly privileged background. This commentary is itself written from a privileged perspective, the view one for whom poverty would be a choice, not an imposition. Nor can anything along these lines be written without taking into full account the real fears which can be inspired by the prospect of material insecurity. Any commentary upon the value placed on material gain here cannot in any sense be put forward as finger pointing, trying to remove specks from eyes etc.
The consequence of this, however, is not that the commentary cannot be made: it is that we must all, unequivocally, take a long hard look at just how consistent we can claim to be in our Christian lives if we espouse the Gospel in Church but prioritise our own material comfort in our personal financial decisions, for whatever reason. This is especially the case when the Gospel we hope to proclaim, and the identity we might claim for ourselves, is one of social justice and combatting oppression. For even if we claim this as our identity, we can fall prey to a complacency which blinds us to the material responsibilities which those words entail.
It would be so easy to title this last section 'Christ'. It would fit the 'C' pattern, and it is almost universally true that Christians across the world could do a better job of following Christ.
This would be to miss the problem, however, which is that Episcopal theology can be so watered down that the name 'Christ' becomes a meaningless place-holder for any number of arbitrary concepts. I think the best example of this kind of theology would be Jack Shelby-Spong, who does a phenomenal job (observable in two Huffington Post pieces, here and here) of demonstrating how a condescending historicism, supported by an uncritical view of the 'progress' of human concepts over time, can lead us to present as revolutionary the contentious findings of unrigorous and agenda driven contemporary pseudo-academic research in order to excuse our dismissal of the validity of centuries of Christian tradition. Spong is not, of course, representative of all Episcopalians, and this claim can be no more generalised across the whole Church than any of the ones above. The basic assumptions underwriting his views, however, do seem to be shared by a worrying number of clergy and congregants.
This phenomenon is not exclusive to Episcopalians: it can be observed throughout mainline Protestantism. We can use the fact of our modern scientific knowledge to assume that we somehow know more of God and faith than those unenlightened ancients who formulated the Christian Creeds. We can suppose that we are somehow expressing something closer to divinity when we substitute 'ground of our being' or 'life-force' for 'Creator' (or that we have in fact said anything at all if we say 'God is love' then leave matters at that). To take the Incarnation as a specific example, we can suppose ourselves to be saying something original when we say that it doesn't really matter whether we believe Jesus was 'literally' the Son of God (whatever literally might mean here), so long as we live good Christian lives, ignoring the fact that this has not only been argued before, but also argued against on the basis that these Christian lives we speak of are themselves might be premised upon the fact that Jesus was both very God and very man (by Santa Claus, no less).
This is not to argue for some sort of modern day Spanish Inquisition (which is often the straw-man idea appealed to, ignoring the fact that it was a political phenomenon before it was a religious one). It is just to say that it does actually matter who we believe Jesus Christ to be: it matters whether or we take him to be an enlightened sage, the realisation of an ideal concept of human nature, or the Incarnate Word of God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who was resurrected on the third day (though these words can of course be said in many different ways). It matters because it impacts our understanding of the purpose of Christian living: different views of Christ-hood can determine whether we see Christianity as a means to the personal realisation of some inner sense of personal divinity, or as that which commands us to turn our eyes away from these very ideals. And this in turn can determine whether or not our religion serves as a means to affirm our own 'enlightened' sense of who we are supposed to be, or one which demands that we transform our ways of life as we are encountered by a real, supernatural, Other divinity.
The paragraph above probably indicates where I (more than a little hubristically) think I locate myself in these debates. The point is not, however, that we should all uncritically embrace a particular version of dogmatic theology, one which affirms quite sincerely a belief that God is three in one, one in three, and revealed in the temporal incarnation of Jesus Christ. The point is that if we do reject this, we still need to do so in a way which has a genuine appreciation for the tradition of which we are a part. We need to do so in a way which doesn't assume a theistic worldview could only be held by someone who hasn't thought about the matter hard enough (c.f. the 'Church where you don't need to check your brain at the door' phenomenon). We need to do so in a way which takes full account of the fact that, even though it would be a gross mistake to think Christianity was only a matter of doctrine (and an even grosser mistake to think that a particular doctrinal view must commit us all to a single form of life), doctrine and practise cannot in fact be absolutely divorced from each other. We need to recognise that, to the extent that we think our Christian lives matter, the form and content of our Christian beliefs matters too. And if we're serious about trying to rigorously manifest the former, it is a part of that life to rigorously and critically explore and argue about various points of Christian doctrine.
I do not want to advocate a view of Church where everyone must be a systematic theologian. I do, however, want to claim that the current state of general Episcopal theology- whether it be an awareness of how Scripture might be read as authoritative, how we understand the mystery of the Trinity, the role of the Prayer Book, or the nature of the sacraments- is not good, and that there is good reason to think it worth giving serious thought to the idea that it's worth finding out what the people who came before us thought and why. I want to claim that critical and traditional theological investigation should not be confined to seminaries or Religious Studies departments, but should be as much a concern for the laity as for future priests. I want to advocate the view that it does matter what we believe and why we believe it; that systematic theology is not window-dressing when it comes to Christian existence. I have focussed in this piece on the nature of the Incarnation, but we can also talk about the nature of the Bible as the World of God (most debates around which centre around simplistic assumptions about the relevance of historical-critical research to Scriptural authority), how the Holy Spirit is to be understood as the third person of the Trinity, what it means to say that God is creator of heaven and earth, and what it means to believe in the literal resurrection (I could also add reference to a generally greater awareness of Scripture, from historical, traditional, and spiritual perspectives). These are important conversations to be had alongside and in the context of the mess of Christian living, precisely because their inclusions inform the nature of that Christian living. They are as such important conversations to have as Episcopalians.
This is a deeply polemical and opinionated piece of writing. It is probably written in a harsher tone than it should be, and almost certainly comes across as more confident in what it says than I am actually am. The truth of these matters is that I am always inclined to doubt my right to say anything on these matters: even leaving aside the question of whether or not what I say is in any way correct, it is unclear whether or not my writing, especially in the way I tend to write, will in any way be helpful.
I post this piece with reservation then, and pray that it is read as more charitable than it might seem. I can only tell one story here, and I cannot account for all the good and proper objections that could be had to what I say. Please, then, do say where you think the flaws in my analysis might be, here or on Facebook. The worst case scenario there is that I learn a perspective which I did not know of before.
In any case, if you have read this far, thank you. I hope it has at least been interesting.