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It was not too long ago that someone gave me a heads-up on facebook about the new Episcopal Priest Barbie.  To be frank, I was momentarily shocked and horrified (a mixture of emotions which may have lasted for about as long Bishop Lawrence’s consideration to remain true to the last few lines of his baptismal covenant) before I burst out laughing at this wonderfully thought out project.  What a wonderful expression of love by the Rev. Julie Blake Fisher for her Church!  I was briefly reminded of the beadwork I did ages ago in the Boy Scouts for my dance regalia of the Episcopal shields to represent my “tribe.”  (Yes, some of us are just that geeky and that much in love with this Church.) 

After looking through the many photos of Mother Barbie (including thurible and biretta!), this little example of liturgical whimsy filtered back into the dark recesses of my cluttered mind.  It was not until yesterday that I was reminded of Mother Fisher’s work when my own mother sent me one of Walter Russell Mead’s recent blog posts.  To make this brief, Mr. Mead simply uses “Episcopal Priest Barbie” as a mediocre segue to rant and prophesy about the downfall of the Episcopal Church with a whole lot of implied “I told you so’s” and “Who didn’t see this coming’s” thrown in. 

Needless to say, after reading his latest piece of apocalyptic literature, I feel compelled to offer some balance to his sensational doomsday pronouncement.  From what I can gather, Mead still associates himself as an Episcopalian (though his “we Episcopalians” sound more and more sarcastic).  His father, Rev. Loren Mead, afterall, was an important Episcopal clergyman.  Father Mead studied and published a great deal on the financial future of the Church and the needed fundamentals for the Church’s Episcopal leadership.  I wonder, though, if his father’s vocational focus for so many decades may have contributed to the younger Mead’s current tunnel vision.  As he harps on the apparent disastrous collapse of the Protestant Episcopal Church, he makes it appear as though TEC is dying all on its own and that it’s death is all its own doing.  The image he paints is of a Church that has been blindly shooting itself in the foot while convincing itself that there is no pain. (That would make a nice editorial comic now wouldn’t it?) 

Nowhere in his litany does he mention the overall decline of Christian religion in modern countries from Europe all the way to the U.S.  What he tries to portray as an Episcopal problem, he makes no mention of the Presbyterian decline, or of the Southern Baptists, or the Methodists, or the Lutheran Church, just check out the general flux here.  I point that out, not for argument sake (because that’s more or less a red herring), but simply to offer a larger picture and to show that contributing factors to decreased membership may not be isolated within the denomination. 

Like a modern-day Daniel, Mead points out with one example after another where the walls of the Temple are falling down around us.  To Mr. Mead, I offer this: the Episcopal Church is growing spiritually, we are changing as Christianity has been constantly changing for 2000 years, and the turmoil that the Church is facing now is because we are relevant in this current day and age.   To address one of the comments left on his blog by one Phil Snyder : We are not seeking new ministries because we are looking for relevancy, the fact that we are looking for new ministries makes us relevant. 

Those who make their living off blogs and other media, have to be sensationalist at the expense of accuracy – I understand that.  It’s a problem that we who read said media perpetuate by gobbling up the sensationalism.  But when it comes down to it, when we have to take responsibility for this sensationalism and its effects, all this bashing is hardly helping.  No, I’m not advocating sticking my head in the sand.  I’m criticising those that would puff themselves up by defaming the Church as a popular target simply for the sake of their egos and ratings. 

Yes, General Seminary, one of the country’s older and more glorious of our Episcopal institutions is in financial trouble. Yes, those that were handling her for the past generation have dropped the ball.  But the decline of GTS does not signify the imminent implosion of the Episcopal Church.  Mead conveniently left out the seminaries that are holding their own, like VTS, where his own father attended.   

Yes, our parishes are struggling financially.  Hell, I’m attending one as we speak.  True, parishes are having difficulty supporting their full-time priests.  But this comes as no surprise.  The Episcopal Church is not suited to be a megachurch, plain and simple.  And with the shape of the United States economy over the past 25 years, it is only the megachurch model that is sustainable if the model of full-time pastor living apart yet being supported by the parish is the model you’re keeping.   But this is no surprise.  And while Mead pats himself on the back with an “I knew this was coming”, that’s where he leaves it.  He fails to point out where this exact problem has already played its course in the British Isles.  Take Scotland for example.  The more common model now is a priest that must serve multiple parishes or a priest that has a second vocation.  The system changed, but that doesn’t mean that it’s spiraling into a black hole.  Yes, our church endowments are hurting in some areas, but there are others that are doing well.  Yes, some parishes are suffering, but they are also figuring out how to survive in a different economic climate than was present for the previous generation. 

The Church’s model of parishes has changed greatly over the centuries.  What first started at house-churches with persecuted Christians meeting in private homes or crypts evolved into local public meeting houses.  With the rise of monasticism and its crucial work in expanding and solidifying Christian community, parishes were inseparable from the parent monasteries.  Then political change gave rise to secular priests (non-monastic) leading parishes.  Then the protestant reformation changed the structure to congregational.  Now we have parishes and parish leaders that may need to be more integrated in the community if they are to survive.  Granted this is a very cursory timeline, but it is at least shows how much the model has changed.

While Mead derisively comments on the Church’s attempt to remove sexist language from the Hymnal, I’d like to point out that this is like a lawyer-turned-congressman telling a teacher how to write their class curriculum.  As a spiritual director and contemplative, I know and have proven with many others how limiting and damaging sexist language can be, both spiritually and socially. Mead, who is an English major (BA) and now political and foreign affairs commentator is on shaky ground if he’s going to criticise the steps that have been taken to make the Church more inclusive and spiritually formative. 

I will grant that the Church’s strict push towards second vocation priesthood (that is priesthood for middle-age and after) in the past several decades turned out to be a problem for the pension fund (not to mention its theological and pastoral leadership).  Thankfully the Church has started to look again towards younger vocations, and these young priests will end up supporting the retirement funds of those that came before them.  It pleases me to no end that the Church is reversing its ageist attitude along with its other inherited habits of discrimination.  And I’m pleased that our Church is taking its Christian responsibility quite seriously as it honestly looks through its history for those examples of discrimination, wherever that discrimination is found, and seeks to correct them now rather than waiting for later generations to do it.  

Mead’s portrayal of the Church is focused on irresponsible and duplicitous past priests and bishops.  Those stuffy clergy that have squandered our Church’s financial inheritance and left nothing for those to come after.  Truth be told, I may be a bit biased as a monk vowed to simplicity, but the salaries and financial status of some of our Church’s priests is quite embarrassing at times.  Is Mead correct in his overall portrayal though?  Hardly.  With one rector of a parish making over $100,000 a year here in Atlanta while other priests can only be supported part-time in the same diocese seems a but un-Christian, it is not the reason for financial collapse of the Episcopal Church.  Aging populations, splintering parishes and over all changes in the national economic landscape have led to our current difficulty.  Mead decries past financial hypocrisy in a tremendous flourish, but offers no real context for the whole Church, let alone an offer of solution. 

In the same breath he indicates our naive and impending doom if we let ourselves become disowned by Canterbury: 

“I think Anglican witness will continue in the United States.  The future of the Episcopal Church is harder to predict.  The looming expulsion from the Anglican Communion — a perfectly avoidable disaster which a competently led and effectively organized church could have avoided without sacrifice of principle — is likely to be a more deeply damaging blow than our befuddled leadership can quite grasp.”

I wonder what his definition of “Anglican witness” really is, considering what Anglicanism used to mean has changed so much over the past several decades.  Furthermore, Mead tries to set himself up as a martyred saint who apparently knew how we could have avoided the divisions in the Anglican Communion without betraying those to whom we are called to minister.  “If only I had been in charge,” he seems to say.  With all due candor, his is a terribly naive comment which ignores the many ingrained problems with our diverse Communion across the globe.  Not only that, but Mead says the Episcopal Church which has been run this past generation by duplicitous clergy who choose to be blind to the issues at hand should cling to Canterbury in order to validate our Christian mission and heritage.  Mead make no mention at this point that the actions and policies of the Church of England are far more duplicitous and hypocritical, let alone political than anything the Episcopal Church has dreamed up thus far.  Sure, there is no tremendous public rift running through the English Church, but they also have increasingly lost their significance to their population aside from being a relic of English tradition.  There is no public rift in England over social issues of equality in the Church because England’s Episcopacy continues to knowingly allow gay priests on the condition that the Church will simply disavow any knowledge of them should their sexuality become public concern.  And then we are given a model to follow by the Archbishop himself who would condemn one province for showing God’s Love to those that are persecuted while remaining silent when it comes to another province that is advocating the murder of its people. 

Mead, for all his foreign affairs background, should consider how well history has remembered Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. 

Mead offers the parting shot, “What a heritage we had, and what a waste we have made of it.”

On this point I agree, but hardly in the way that Mead intends.  When it comes down to it, the financial model of the parish may very well need to change.  Religious Orders and Religious Communities are best suited to run sustainable parishes, just as they did for over a thousand years, but I am not so naive as to believe this is the fix the Church will need.  There are far too few of us to even consider that right now.  But parishes with live-in priests who all must live by simpler means would be a good start.  Parishioners that are responsible for their own parish’s daily upkeep will become necessary. 

Evangelism that is inwardly directed as well as outwardly directed will become crucial.  This means Church leaders, both lay and ordained, that are willing to listen across generations to shape liturgy and spiritual formation within their parishes.  Our youth ministries, especially for young adults in their 20’s to 30’s, is great lacking.  There are advances here and there, but little for the whole (especially when the National Church considers cutting funding for an already under-supported ministry).  And I hate to break it to our older generations within our Church, but what may have been so important to you in the 70’s when you were changing liturgy and the scope of a parish, may not be what this generation needs.  I am grateful for the ground you broke to allow me a place in the Church now, but now its our Church as well.  For most of my peers and those that I know who are younger than I, they appreciate the older traditions in our Church – the symbolism, the music, the spirituality.  And by throwing out the liturgies that you’ve associated with social conservatism, you’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water.  On the flip side of the coin, those parishes that are trying to push the traditional liturgies just for the sake of tradition without teaching the meaning of the liturgical practices and engaging their purpose in developing spirituality, then they are simply worshipping a chalice without caring for the wine that it holds.

This can be an exciting time for the Episcopal Church.  We can build bridges across generations and ideologies.  But it will also be a frightening time, because in order for us to bring to light the harmful and un-Christlike issues that are buried in our societies and theologies, we will come face to face with those who have built their faith on fear, control and hate.  It’s not pretty, but this must be done.  Those churches who are growing in numbers and prize money and tithe over spiritual development and integrity are not the main headlines and focus of controversy until one of their pastors succumbs to the eventual meltdown that is inherent in their system.   With all due respect, these Churches who are large and wealthy are of such a status only because they are not relevant to a developing world.  Jesus said that to follow him and to teach as he taught would never be easy.  The Episcopal Church is the target of this turmoil because of the simple fact that it is relevant.  We are hurting because we are taking seriously Christ’s command to us to love each other as God loves us.  To say that we will no longer be Anglican  in this country or in our heritage is to ignore our continued worship and ministry in the United States as it has been since 1785.  We stood up for what we believed in then, and claimed our Anglican connection whether England granted it or not.  We can do the same now and still continue to be a Church that is relevant to the world, that is truly life changing, that is life affirming, and that will continue to be an example of Christ’s command to the world.  The world may see our appreciation for tradition in vestments and thuribles as little more than a church full of Barbie and Ken dolls playing dress up, but for all that plastic appearance, ours is an integrity that is real and uncompromised

To God alone be all the glory.  Amen.

April 2010
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