Monday, July 13, 2009
Tired, Postmodern, and a Generally Depressing Convention
We have been back in the States for the last three weeks but will be returning to our ministry in Cambridge, England tomorrow. This means we have been around for the razzmatazz that went with the launch of the Anglican Church of North America, and now for the spectacle of the General Convention. Having been present at most General Conventions since the last Anaheim convention in 1985, I am glad I am not there. I have to say that what looks to be happening is a sad, sad spectacle, and from the deluge of words coming out of Anaheim it is evident that the Convention is in little mood to take seriously historic Christianity, or to honor the worldwide Anglican Communion.
As a bishop friend said to me in a personal email from Anaheim a day or two ago, the trend seems to be for TEC to become a stand-alone American denomination rather than part of the worldwide church. Clearly, the presence and advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury for a few days meant little or nothing to the majority of the House of Deputies. As the same episcopal friend also said, those who are for inclusion do not seem to realize that for a large chunk of us that means exclusion -- although we certainly have no desire to be excluded from catholic Christianity through the Communion.
This whole exercise is not about sexuality or sexual behavior, but is fundamentally about what we believe the Christian faith to mean and be about. When it comes down to it, it is about our attitude toward Jesus as God's Son, the nature of the Trinity, divine revelation, Christian obedience, and holiness of life. The cavalier attitude of the Presiding Bishop to the creeds and their recitation is evidence that she considers the likes of me as pedantic has-beens rather than those who are on the cutting edge -- but the cutting edge of what?
Yet the truth really is, as you look around the world, that those who are pushing this worn out postmodern melange and calling it Christian are increasingly the has-beens. They seem to have tied themselves to the coat tails of the last dribblings of the least attractive side of the Enlightenment, and it is entirely likely that they will disappear down the drain with them. I say this as an Episcopalian who lives in England and now functions as part of the church under great pressure.
The church in England is wrestling to adapt to an altogether more secular and hostile climate than exists in most of the USA, and what is interesting, I don't see postmodern Christianity standing up very well in such an environment. It is a limp and aging rag. The creative scholarship, for example, is coming from a far more theologically orthodox direction (as can be seen from the recent awarding of the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing to Richard Bauckham for his extraordinary challenge to scholarship in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). Healthy progressive liberal and theologically to-the-left congregations are few and far between, while it the theologically more conservative who are creatively evangelistic that have become the majority of stronger centers of the faith.
This isn't to say that the English church doesn't have a belly-load of problems and challenges, some of which it is refusing to address; but it is illustrative that so-called progressive faith is not flourishing well in an environment which affirms and celebrates many of the values and attitudes it endorses. Picking over concrete evidence from Britain and asking what this might mean for the Episcopal Church of the USA, one can only confess that it does not auger well on this side of the ocean. Looking at the hard statistics about the health of the Episcopal Church that have been coming out of Anaheim, the best interpretation of them is that the church is in serious decline -- if not free fall, and those who say otherwise are clearly in denial with their ostrich necks firmly stuck down holes.
All this is happening in the midst of the deepest recession in living memory, and one that promises to impact us for a very long time to come. Looking at the dire financial state of the Episcopal Church after the Great Depression might be a valuable exercise to help us grasp what the circumstances of denomination, dioceses, and congregations could well be like when the world eventually pulls out of this dive. Money is the mother's milk of ministry, and there are huge problems if there is none, or little or none.
The churches in England that are healthiest are those who approach their Christian witness in a missional manner: which means trying to ask and answer how we take the gospel message and enable it to speak in an environment where the church a bit of a joke -- or worse. Some of them are making whopping mistakes, but at least they are trying! The intelligensia in Britain will generally take every opportunity to denigrate religious people of all flavors, the Church of England in particular. There is little or no social or intellectual kudos to be gained from being a believer in England, and the bulk of the general population doesn't have the vaguest notion of what the Christian faith is all about. There are too many uncanny parallels to the 1st Century.
Yet, there are Anglican churches (and varieties of others) that are packed to the doors. There are some fascinatingly creative experiments being undertaken. The theologically orthodox seminaries are the ones enrolling the majority of new students. The House of Bishops is becoming increasingly orthodox (although they may not want to label themselves that way), and so on, and so on. The end product will ultimately be a church that looks very different from the one we have now, and it is likely to be one that the older folks (like myself) will have our struggles with. But what is more important: our understanding of the right way to express the faith and decline, or a whole new generation being renewed and revived by God to take the message to their lost and floundering contemporaries?
As a priest of the Episcopal Church I honor my ordination vows and I stand with those who stand with the historic, catholic, and evangelical formularies of the faith. I recite the creeds with conviction, I believe Scripture is God's Word written, and I cannot and will not walk away from what is happening.
At the beginning of this decade I was part of the 2020 Task Force that posited ideas and plans for the doubling of the Episcopal Church in the first two decades of the 21st Century. The reverse has happened because that agenda was dumped by 2003 in favor of what Paul might describe as 'another gospel.' I suspect that if the Episcopal Church is half the size it was in 2000 by 2020 it will be a miracle if the present course continues to be followed.
This is a tragedy of monumental proportions, but it does not prevent us from standing firm alongside Augustine, Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer, Hooker, Janani Luwum, Festo Kivengere and many other selfless women and men who have gone before us in the faith. Error disrupts and does damage, but in the economy of a God who is truth it does not ultimately win the day.