Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Episcopal Church Publishes Some Honest Data - But Will There Be Remedial Action?

In preparation for the denomination's General Convention this summer, The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies has published a major State of the Church report. I have complained as much as the next person in the pew about the obfuscation, denial and downright dishonesty coming out of denominational leaders, so the hard facts looked at in this report are welcome and worthwhile.

One section deals with "conflict in the church." Almost half (46.9%) of Episcopal churches report "serious conflict" over "Ordination of gay priests and bishops."

Another section shows Episcopalians are way older than the general population, and deaths outpace births by around 19,000 per year. The report notes that this is like losing an entire diocese annually.

With great honesty, the report notes that most congregations are not responding to these negative trends: "In view of losses due to the age structure and declining birthrate of The Episcopal Church, as well as losses associated with controversy, an emphasis on evangelism and recruitment of new members would seem a natural, almost inevitable consequence. Interestingly, the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey revealed that under 20% of our congregations report active evangelism programs and less than 5% report that evangelization is a congregational specialty."

I am blessed to be part of a parish that is seeking to bring the Gospel to people and people to the Gospel. Good Shepherd, Sioux Falls, is one of a declining percentage of churches to have experienced greater than 10% growth in the last 5 years. The State of the Church report shows that in 2003, 28% of Episcopal Churches had 10%+ growth over 5 years, while 43% declined by 10% or more in the same period. By 2007, the "growth" group was down to 18%, and the decimated group swelled to 56% of Episcopal congregations.

In addition to these numbers (I was going to call them "sobering," but the capacity of Episcopal leaders to deny reality continues to amaze), there are challenging thoughts about the national leadership:

"In the process of our interviews, The Committee on the State of the Church heard from many different people that the structure of our organization above the level of diocese is not consonant with the church's mission and that it is not properly configured to serve the needs of its most important constituent elements, namely dioceses and individual congregations."

Will there be remedial action? Not at all clear. The report does note that the national church is moving some of its positions to "regional centers," but this does not guarantee that diocesan and in particular congregational ministry (where almost all evangelism takes place) will be served any better.

There is an "Encouraging Signs" section, but it is depressing. It mentions some wonderful relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but people of many backgrounds from all over the country took part in these and such efforts, however noble, have little to do with minimizing conflict and attrition in the denomination. The other high points were the usual "a meeting was held..." Given the stated problems of the denomination, there is no evidence of any systemic response.

In terms of "Recommendations," the report is well intentioned but basically keeps restating the problem. We are a divided church, now filled with factions with little in common. The report recommends that we all talk about that some more.

I'm going to stop here. I honor the painful honesty of the people who worked on this, but I just don't see that they "get it." They state the problem well, but they have no sense of how the church itself, through its national leadership, its seminaries and its clergy, has contributed to making a profound mess of the denomination.

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