Last week I read yet another op-ed piece in a national newspaper about the decline of my church, the Episcopal Church. It reminded me of a scene in the old comedy movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.
It is plague time in the kingdom, and a body collector is walking alongside a body cart, collecting dead peasants in the village. He is clanking a bell and chanting, “Bring out your dead!… Bring out your dead!…”
A young man appears with an old fellow draped over his shoulder, and the young man wants to toss the old fellow on the cart. The old fellow keeps carping, “But I’m not dead yet! I feel fine!”
Body Collector: “He says he feels fine.”
Young Man: “He won’t be soon. He won’t last long.”
Old Fellow: “I’m fine! I want to go for a walk. I’m not dead.”
I feel that way about the Episcopal Church. People keep trying to toss us on the body cart, but we’re not dead yet. And we’re not going to be.
We lost a lot of members over the last 40 years or so for many reasons, not the least being a new way to count noses. We also purged our rolls of non-attendees. This gave a more accurate count, and we discovered that we were not as large as we thought we were.
Also, people dropped out as our doctrine and polity changed. People left over all kinds of things, such as reproductive rights, the ordination of women, the mainstreaming of LGBT people, even the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I think if we changed the brand of coffee we served at coffee hour, someone would stomp out over it. Frankly, history has proven us correct on these issues, as society and more churches are adopting the doctrines we trail-blazed, but many people are so emotionally invested in the status quo that change is difficult for them.
It is claimed that those who leave us join “purer, more conservative” churches. Really? Are we sure? According to the latest stats, the “conservative” churches are losing members as fast as we once did. Even the Southern Baptist Convention admits that their numbers have been in decline for seven straight years.
This phenomenon of membership decline is not relegated to churches alone. Secular fraternal organizations are experiencing a hemorrhage of members as well – the Lion’s Club, the Optimists, the Masons. They all are in decline. It is a cultural reality that fewer and fewer people are joining much of anything, be it a church or a bowling league.
I can understand why Episcopalians are concerned. Jesus told us to “go forth and baptize all nations”, and it seems like we are failing him. We are not. Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it quite well: “Christ asks us to be faithful, not necessarily successful”. If we keep the faith, all will be well. I just think we are going to be smaller for a while. Exactly why is, well, it’s complicated.
Some Christian churches and its leaders have made us all look pretty bad with all their shenanigans, even their crimes. It’s the same with governments, universities, businesses, et al. People are pretty cynical right now about most anything organized, and with good reason. We Piskies just need to continue to walk-our-talk of acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. “No arguing” is a post-modern kind of thing that some people don’t get, just like they don’t get “mission”, but it is working. Things are turning around for TEC but, just for now, we need to reset our paradigm about what constitutes “small”.
Did you know that, when we first chartered our church in 1787, there were only 10,000 of us in all the 13 colonies? There are approximately 2,000,000 of us today. This is “failing”?
The U.S. Marine Corp has only 250,000 members, 12.5% the size of TEC. About 40 years ago, it was 360,000. Does anyone suggest that the USMC is dying? Or too small?
The Society of Jesus is one of the most storied orders of the Roman Catholic Church, yet there are only 24,000 Jesuits in the world, about 0.012% the size of TEC. At one time they were a third larger. Do we hear anyone suggesting that it is time to toss the Jesuits on the body cart?
I know the young leadership of TEC, and our future is in very good hands. For those among us who keep trying to toss us on the body cart, I know what would be said to them if they were in secular industry and voiced the same attitudes. Someone would quietly pull them off to the side and say, “You know, if you don’t have any faith in the future of this company, perhaps you should consider pursuing your career elsewhere? We have goals, and plans, and a lot of us are working hard to achieve them. People are counting on us. You need to decide if you’re on board, or not.”
Blunt words? Yes – but necessary. A lot of us are getting tired of people trying to toss us on the body cart. We’re not dead, and we’re not going to be. I want to go for a walk.