Monday, November 23, 2009

The Episcopal Church Welcomes You

TEC Sign

The shield is cockeyed, which is a relatively recent development, but otherwise it hasn’t changed in decades. I was familiar with it long before I ever imagined I would end up an Episcopalian. It can be found on street corners in thousands of communities across the country (and sometimes it is obvious that they have been left untended for a good many years!). It is probably one of the most consistent efforts at “branding” that could be found anywhere.

Last week an ad was run in USA Today (I apologize for egregiously using the passive voice, but I don’t know who actually ran it; given TEC’s budget woes, could it have been paid for by the national church?) that rang the chimes on the theme of “welcome,” trying to put some meat on the bones, as it were. It’s in the form of a series of “bullet points.” They’re all true. They’re also all an exercise in “spin.” I don’t fault them for that; it’s in the essential nature of advertizing. But it’s helpful to be aware, at least, of the “music behind the words.”

As Episcopalians, we are followers of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This appears to be directed toward recently-former Episcopalians, and those under their influence, who contend that the Episcopal Church has abandoned (formally, materially, or both) the core teachings of Christianity. In that, I agree with the ad; TEC, as a unitary organism, has done nothing of the sort.

The Episcopal Church has members in the United States, as well as in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Haiti, Honduras, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the Virgin Islands.

And Fort Wayne, Indiana has an “international” airport … yeah … technically … in name, at least, though you can’t actually fly to another country directly from there. This is consistent with the message implied by the display of flags from the above-named countries behind the dais in the House of Deputies at the last two General Conventions, and the repeated admonition to banish the expression “the national church” from our vocabulary. It’s true that TEC has congregations in each of those places. But in many of them, you can count said congregations on the fingers of one hand, and have some left over. Plus, they’re small. (Haiti is the conspicuous exception; it is, by number of communicants, the largest diocese in “this church.”) So the import of this bullet point is more rhetorical than substantive. It is a shot across the bow of the Anglican Communion. It is, “We don’t need you to be international; we got your ‘international’ right here.”

We strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect the dignity of every person.

That is, unlike those nasty fundamentalist “Christians” you may have in mind, who are just a bunch of bigoted misogynistic homophobes who like NASCAR and watch FOX news. We’re better than them. We’re really nice … as long as you support your local Public Radio station. (Can I take my tongue out of my cheek yet?)

Seriously, this language comes from the much-vaunted Baptismal Covenant, which has a quasi-cult following among those who try to purvey the impression that it is somehow unique among the baptismal liturgies of Christian churches. I have to ask, Is baptism, which is a universal rite of incorporation in the Church, not simply a church, really the place to sing “I gotta be me”? Not to worry though, the reality is that the Baptismal Covenant, when viewed in its entirety, is quite classically Christian, and not in any way uniquely Episcopalian. Shame on us if it were.

The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and traces its heritage to the beginnings of Christianity.

This is manifestly true. For now. But our status within the Communion is, to say the least, a little shaky. We were warned by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he came to Anaheim last July. We chose not to heed his warning. There will yet be consequences that may require someone to use the “strikethrough” formatting code on this bullet point. And given current trends, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the cord by which we “trace” our way to the “beginnings of Christianity” is a steel cable or an ultra-fine monofilament.

Our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and is celebrated in many languages.

Yes, our liturgy retains ancient structure and traditions, and for that I am very grateful. That structure and those traditions feed my soul, and I know many thousands of Episcopalians are with me on this. But is it sufficient to merely “retain” these things, as if they were mere liturgical bric-a-brac that we may choose to “retain,” but can move around or fiddle with, or even melt down and recast, at will? I would sleep better if I were confident that my church was governed by and shaped by and accountable to these elements of our inheritance.

We welcome men and women, married or celibate, to be ordained as bishops, priests, and deacons.

This is another unfortunate attempt to define ourselves by what we’re not rather than by what we are—i.e. we’re not Roman Catholic, a church that does not ordain women or, with some exceptions, married men. Now, I’m on record as supportive of the notion that the Roman church would do well to look more closely at the benefits that a married priesthood would offer. That said, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that we “welcome” into ordained ministry those who also have a vocation to celibacy. We permit them and tolerate them, to be sure, but there is generally a jaundiced skepticism toward celibacy as a possible charism that can greatly bless the Church. Both sides have something to learn, here, I think.

We believe in amendment of life, the forgiveness of sin, and life everlasting.

These are wholesome notions and true words. They are the truth. But they are not the whole truth, and in the absence of a context that includes a robust understanding of sin, grace, and redemption by means of the Paschal Mystery, are therefore capable of being sentimentalized and trivialized.

Lay people exercise a vital role in the governance and ministry of our Church.

This is a swipe not only that the Roman church but at other Anglican provinces whose structures of governance are not as directly democratic and egalitarian as ours. Now, I’m generally a fan of democratic processes in church affairs. I don’t know that I would want to trade our system for some other one. But I fear that we run the risk of idolizing it, of acting “just a little bit superior” toward churches that are in the habit of discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in ways other than concurrent majority votes in both houses of General Convention. The apostle Matthias, after all, was chosen in a game of chance! Moreover, I also suspect that we at the present moment suffering a crippling bout of episcophobia—the irrational fear of bishops! It is of the nature of the episcopal office to teach, govern, and lead. We ought not to hamstring bishops from exercising, individually and collectively, the ministry for which they were consecrated. And presbyters, after all, are elders. They are, for that reason, entitled to a presumption of knowing better. That may not always be true, and the consensus fidelium is always the final arbiter. But in the ordinary councils of the church, it is completely appropriate for bishops and presbyters to have disproportionate influence.

Holy Communion may be received by all baptized Christians, not only members of the Episcopal Church.

Another Romeward jab, since they welcome into full eucharistic fellowship only those whose bishop is a member of the college of bishops who are united in deferential communion with the See of Rome. I support TEC’s communion discipline, though, for pastoral reasons, I think the “all the baptized” invitation needs to be illuminated by the Cranmerian admonition about being in “love and charity” with one’s neighbor, and intending to lead “a new life, following the commandments of our Lord,” etc. Nonetheless, given the underlying ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, their sacramental discipline is not at all incoherent, and I am a little embarrassed to have my church take this kind of a cheap shot in an ad.

We uphold the Bible and worship with the Book of Common Prayer.

Now we’re trying to shore up our street cred both with other Anglican provinces and with the broader world of evangelicalism. But the arrow falls short of the target, I’m afraid. “Uphold”? That can mean virtually anything, which is to say that it means virtually nothing. Something like “stand under the authority of” or “are formed by” may have gotten closer to the mark. As for “worship with the Book of Common Prayer,” that deserves a whole blog post of its own. Stay tuned.

We affirm that committed relationships are lifelong and monogamous.

If there has ever been a more inept attempt to thread a verbal needle, I haven’t seen it. What the author wants to say, of course, is that the Episcopal Church offers liturgical, spiritual, and emotional support for gay and lesbian couples who wish to live publicly in a marriage-like relationship. So why not just come out (I didn’t intend that pun, but it seems apposite) and say it? Well, because it might “scare the horses,” so to speak—i.e. anyone who was fished in by talk of “uphold[ing] the Bible.” Better to let those who know the code recognize what’s being said, and not spell it out for those who don’t. But only at the cost of laughable syntactic awkwardness.

Episcopalians also recognize that there is grace after divorce and do not deny the sacraments to those who have been divorced.

We can’t seem to lay off the Roman Catholics. Perhaps we should dust off that old petition that was once in the Great Litany—“From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities: Good Lord, deliver us.” OK, I agree that there is grace after divorce, and I agree that the Rome’s attempted response to the reality of divorce—i.e. Marriage Tribunals and Declarations of Nullity—is not, shall we say, their finest hour. But this is really a nose-thumbing reply to Anglicanorum Coetibus, saying, “Hey, Bennie, the door swings both ways, ya know.” It’s rather beneath the dignity of my church. And just for the record, Rome doesn’t deny the sacraments to divorced persons, only to those who divorce and then remarry. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it’s important to be accurate when you’re paying for ad space in USA Today.

We affirm that issues such as birth control are matters of personal informed conscience.

Ditto the above. But I have to wonder whether there is an even more deeply encrypted subtext here that is available only to those with “ears to hear”, a subtext that would substitute “abortion” or “reproductive choice” for “birth control.” I personally have high regard for the logic behind Humanae Vitae, but, let’s face it, birth control is widely practiced even among otherwise devout Catholics, and it’s certainly not a subject of any great conflict among Anglicans, even the most conservative. And TEC is, at least as far as Executive Council is concerned, a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). So … I’m just sayin’. But, again, there are those horses we don’t want to scare.

We celebrate our unity in Christ while honoring our differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion.

This is sad in at least two dimensions. First, it’s manifestly not true. In my 35 years in the Episcopal Church, I’ve seen precious little honoring of differences. Instead, we live by the saying, “to the victor go the spoils” (an earlier and more direct iteration of “elections have consequences”). There is rarely grace or magnanimity in victory, only more “attitude.” I have watched diversity dry up and wither in the Episcopal Church. We are becoming theologically monochrome at an exponential rate. Tolerance is in short supply. Some laud this as a sign of increased unity, and it indeed is. Unity inevitably results when dissidents are driven away. But it is unity purchased at the price of size and strength. Instead of being a spiritual department store (as is any church that lays claim to being catholic), TEC has become a specialty boutique on the way toward becoming a novelty kiosk in the back wing of the mall. So the best we can say about “honoring differences, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion” is that it’s an aspirational statement.

Alas, though, even the aspiration is paltry. Is “work of love” the most we can say about our mission, about our identity, about who we are an what we do? Hey, I’m all in favor of love. It’s hugely important, and needs to be included in anything we think or say about the Church’s mission. But to imply that what binds Christians together is the “work of love” is just … weak. Toothless. Uninspiring. If you substitute “service” for “love,” it’s not any different than what my Rotary club could say. Yawn.

All are welcome to find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

I would hope so. I would think it has ever been so. I hope it will ever be so. What else is new? Is there any church anywhere that would not say the same thing about itself? The only way to make this final point interesting is to begin to take apart that little word—welcome.

Some years ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Paris. After two fabulous dinners at restaurants that had been recommended to us by friends, we were on our own that last night, wandering around the area of the Bastille, with our very limited command of the French language. We inquired of one maitre’d, “Parlez vous Anglais?” He brusquely shook his head in the negative. So we moved on. He did not make us feel welcome, presumably because we were Americans, or he didn’t approve of the way we were dressed, or something; we’ll never know. By contrast, at our default dinner joint here in Warsaw, Indiana, if a staff member sees us coming, they open the door for us and greet us warmly. We never fail to feel welcome there. One of the servers, at least, has memorized our drink preferences. So the first dimension of welcome is, Will they let me in the door, and make me feel like they’re glad to see me? This sort of welcome is unconditional (or very nearly so). It demands nothing and presumes nothing. By this standard, I cannot imagine a congregation of the Episcopal Church that would not welcome anybody who is not in that moment literally on fire, or covered in excrement, or brandishing a weapon.

Soon after moving to Warsaw in 2007, I joined the local Rotary club. I was, in fact, recruited, wooed. And I was made to feel welcome. I was made to feel that the other club members were glad I was there. But then I got a phone call: “When can we schedule you to deliver Mobile Meals?” Then I got a bill for semi-annual dues. More recently, I saw in a club email that it was my responsibility to provide the speaker on a certain date. Rotary is a service club, so it stands to reason that I am expected to serve. I do not, because of that expectation, feel any less welcome, but I understand that if I were to persistently decline opportunities to serve (and especially if I persistently decline to pay dues!), my welcome would expire. So there is a second dimension of welcome, and this time there are conditions, expectations. The Church welcomes all, but lays certain expectations on her members. These expectations are spelled out in the liturgies of Baptism and Confirmation. Only for the most scandalous violations of these expectations would a person be formally “unwelcomed” by the Church. But short of that ultimate act of discipline, the ability to exercise leadership or influence is frequently conditioned upon consistent performance of those obligations required of those who would be “in good standing.” (In TEC canon law, this includes a standard of Sunday worship attendance [“unless for good cause prevented”] and working, praying and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.) Such expectations do not represent a lack of being welcoming. They are simply part of what it means to be a Christian.

So, when we say “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” it seems reasonable that we mean “welcome” in both of its dimensions. At the door, we welcome anyone and everyone. At the table, we welcome those who have made a commitment to Jesus through the vows of the baptism. Into positions of leadership and authority we welcome those who demonstrate willingness and ability to submit with grace to the yoke of radical Christian discipleship. Everyone whom we welcome, in whatever dimension, is expected to change, to grow, to become more like Jesus in every way. Yes, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. But to follow him is to take up nothing less than one’s cross on a daily basis, with all the “cross” implies. If the demands of the cross feel uncomfortable, as they invariably will, it isn’t because the church is suddenly becoming unwelcoming.

In the ancient church, candidates for baptism received the sacrament wearing nothing but their birthday suits. It symbolized a radical putting-away of one’s past, and the embrace of a new (and very jealously exclusive) identity, an identity that trumps any other by which one may be tempted to define oneself. It is my hope that the welcome offered by the Episcopal Church is not about making anybody feel good, but about inviting them to a life-changing, identity-changing, pardigm-shifting, mind-blowing encounter with Jesus the Christ, King of kings, and Lord of lords. Anything less would be downright inhospitable.


Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Malcolm+ said...

Looking at it with my PR professional hat, I just don't think it was a very good ad. At all. Too wordy. Full of "in crowd" messaging that is meaningless at best or confusing at worst to the "not in crowd" reader. Tedious and tendentious in a number of ways you've identified.

Like Ann, I don't agree with all your specific criticisms, but I do think you have the rights of it on several points.

FWIW, it doesn't seem tom have been a hit with anyone - with several progressive blogs offering alternatives.

Pierre said...

I agree with Malcolm+ that it could have been better. But it's better than no ad at all. And many of Dan's points are well taken. The ad is a response to Rome's recent tapdance on the head of Rowan and the rest of us, even if that was not uppermost in the minds of its formulators.

Again, I welcome the notion that we should have a presence in national media. But a more positive message than "welcomes you" is hard to find.

Finally, Dan+, sorry for the experience in Paris. Next time, however, preface all you say to anyone with "Bonjour, Monsieur (or Madame)." Just addressing someone directly is considered very rude, and usually gets a frosty reply. And congratulations on being a Rotarian!

Bishop Pierre Whalon

Anonymous said...

I have read your blog for a couple of years now, the total sum of time that I've been a member of the Episcopal church. You are a sharp and critical thinker, and you express what you think extremely clearly. I've learned alot about Episcopal and Anglican viewpoints that are not my own, but that I, and may other Episcopalians, value. This site is a great teaching resource, even though I know that is not the main reason it exists.

Parts of this piece are some of the most cynical responses I've read here. The statements in the ad express what many centrist Episcopalians believe, and I don't think we need protection from spin. They convey information about the Episcopal church that is true, and that many may not know. We who take the Baptismal Covenant seriously are not a quasi-cult.

Many of the statements express core beliefs that are regularly given voice in my parish. For example, "loving neighbors as ourselves" and "respecting the dignity of every person" are emphasized in some way every week. This is because they are deceptively simple to speak, but exceptionally difficult to achieve without intentional effort. I've never heard them spoken as weapons aimed at others, or used as symbols of superiority.

Not having ever been Catholic, I don't see most of the statements you suggest are aimed at defining TEC as "not Catholic" or "superior to Catholic" in that way. Some, including the one about reproductive choice, target issues the Catholic church has spoken out about recently. Still, I don't see cheap shots. The unchurched, or less-churched, will not read them that way. Perhaps we are the intended audience of the ad, not those who have recently left the church, or who are fringe members of the Catholic church. Evidently identifying the source materials on which these statements are based and expertly defining the terms in them could be a final exam in "ecclesiology". Many of us are not there, though, and we read USA Today too.

The last half of the essay proves you to be a deep thinker and possessor of much knowledge and church experience I don't have. Some of this experience seems to be hurtful to you, and to cause distrust of some very simple statements.

Being a member of an Episcopal parish that seems well described by this ad does make me feel good, warmly welcomed, and regularly invites me to a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. For that parish, its leadership and community, I give thanks.

Moving towards the Garden of Good and Evil said...

It is a start. What would be something to draw in the 'outsider?'
What are the progressive blogs take?

Sidebar: My experience in France was that the French prefer if we make a try at saying something in French rather than expect them to know English.

There is a statement about welcome in that encounter that involves cultural and hospitality.

Anonymous said...

Sort of off topic, but Dan, but based on Bishop Whalon's impeccable French (listen here to RFI interview with him about the recent controversy between Rowan and Rome), you should listen closely to his cultural pointers.

I suppose reading PR statements can be a bit like Rorschach inkspots, but if both conservative and progressive readers pick up a hint of 'we're not like those horrible ___ ', then there is something to it, even if the redactors didn't intend it. Attracting converts having unfinished issues with their former church is not a healthy growth strategy.


Anonymous said...

In terms of PR, the newspapers reporting of the lawsuits provides a different "portrait" of TEC than what TEC puts out. Additionally, the word of mouth testimony of unsatisfied customers who have left and those within TEC also counters the attempt to brand itself the "inclusive' church. The TEC brand is simply not attractive because Evangelism is incarnational and Evangelists are contagious. TEC is asking the fish to jump in the boat and not casting out its net. I do not believe the leadership of TEC is seriously seeking to grow the church. Secondly, it no longer understands who it is and what its mission is. Dcn Dale Matson

Marshall Scott said...

Brother Dan, I'm sure you're familiar with the old joke about the gentleman who asked his priest to pray about the weather. The priest responded, "For that you'll have to talk to the Boss. I'm just in Sales."

My commentary on that joke is that as a hospital chaplain "I'm in Maintenance." I've encountered many who felt abused spiritually if not otherwise by clergy and congregations across the spectrum (although, admittedly, most commonly at the extremes of Evangelical and Roman churches). I think those folks are the audience intended for this ad. Those folks have long found a home in the Episcopal Church; and after half a generation of apparent ascendancy of conservative churches (again, at both ends of the spectrum) I find myself wondering if there aren't lots of those folks out there to reach out to.

In that light, it also makes sense to be clear how we differ from some others, and especially those "separated and separating siblings" who spend a great deal more time talking about us than talking about themselves. I wouldn't want us to do so simply "as a slap;" but I think it worthwhile to do so somehow.

I do find it wordy, but also largely accurate. Yes, the comment about relationships avoids reference to gay couples. Yet, it is accurate because the Episcopal Church does expect the same qualities of faithfulness from those couples as from straight couples. As for your comment that "presbyters, after all, are elders. They are, for that reason, entitled to a presumption of knowing better." Forgive me, brother, but knowing what better? We clerics know many things better; but our distinctions are, I think, matters of function, of vocation, and not of inspiration. "We ought not to hamstring bishops from exercising, individually and collectively, the ministry for which they were consecrated;" but neither ought we to denigrate how the Spirit might function in and through our lay siblings. So, I'm not so certain that, "in the ordinary councils of the church, it is completely appropriate for bishops and presbyters to have disproportionate influence."

I'd certainly like to see better ad copy. However, I think I'm more hopeful than you about this beginning.

Anonymous said...

Dan, I've come to hold a similar view to you about TEC, especially in this comment:

"I have watched diversity dry up and wither in the Episcopal Church. We are becoming theologically monochrome at an exponential rate. Tolerance is in short supply. Some laud this as a sign of increased unity, and it indeed is. Unity inevitably results when dissidents are driven away. But it is unity purchased at the price of size and strength. Instead of being a spiritual department store (as is any church that lays claim to being catholic), TEC has become a specialty boutique on the way toward becoming a novelty kiosk in the back wing of the mall."
I know the bolded sentence is a bit too clever, but I have to say, it made me laugh nervously. It should be an absurd statement, but each day that goes by makes the comparison seem more apt.

Dave C.

Anonymous said...

Monogamous means "one woman" (leaving, by necessity, the other party to be a man) The Episcopal Church is committed to monogamy by its formularies, but the leadership of this church does not believe,teach, or insist upon monogamy. This item is in the "not true" column.

Mike Finney said...

You will note that the shield is not merely cockeyed, but is tilted to the left.