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Episcopal Church Restructures Deck Chairs on SS TEC

Episcopal Church Restructures Deck Chairs on SS TEC

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue
December 31, 2012

Gay Jennings is no fool. She is the new president of the House of Deputies who has a long, illustrious history with the Episcopal Church and knows the game. She is leading the charge to restructure The Episcopal Church in the face of diminishing resources, aging parishioners, and decreasing income. Regrettably, many believe she is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the SS TEC as two gay bishops argue over the bar bill while The Episcopal Church sinks slowly beneath the waves.

Some 20 of the church's brightest and best (out of 400) have been chosen to lead the way forward. So, the first question must be asked, how many of those 20 are truly orthodox in faith and morals, men and women who will affirm the church's teaching on sexuality, as well as affirm the deity and bodily resurrection of Jesus? Bad theology will only lead to or extend inadequate structure.

The first issue one must ask when one discusses structure is this: Mission. What is or should be the church's mission? Here things get sticky. The Presiding Bishop believes that the Five Marks of Mission and MDGs should herald the church's mission. Her understanding of mission, however, is decidedly more humanistic than transcendent. The Five Marks developed by the Anglican Consultative Council are:

To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
To respond to human need by loving service
To seek to transform unjust structures of society
To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I have never heard anyone liberal expound upon the first two "Marks of Mission" that call for people to get into right relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and then teaching, baptizing and nurturing new believers. Liberal Episcopalians and Anglicans quickly latch on to Marks 3, 4 and 5, ignoring the mandates of the first two. In doing this, they ignore the clear command of Christ and Scripture to proclaim the gospel to all nations - the call of the Great Commission.

The prerogative of those who perform the first two of these Marks has fallen on The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) who has made it a policy to plant 1000 new churches, based precisely on these two Marks. T'were the Episcopal Church to heed these opening two Marks, the outcome might be different, but that is by no means manifest, at this point in time. In fact, TEC seems to be going in the opposite direction.

In these five Marks, the divine call precedes social outreach, but that seems to be lost on the Church's hierarchy. Hopefully, Jennings will spot this and call the 20 to order, ere the group gets underway to look at TEC's structures. Dean Kevin Martin wisely points out that talking about The Millennium Goals or pointing to The Five Points of Mission is not the same as Mission itself.

It should not go unnoticed that TEC has been following the trajectory of mainline Protestantism since the 1950s. Its raw numbers have gone from 3.6 million members in 1965 to less than 2 million today. Even that number is not realistic. The best figures are Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) , which are now below 700,000 and rapidly sinking. Wait till the figures come in for the new losses from the Diocese of South Carolina. We may see TEC sinking closer to 660,000 ASA by the end of 2013.

The deeper question is, just who are these 660,000+ Episcopalians? Well, according to TEC's own figures, they are people over the age of 60 in small congregations of less than 70, MOST of whom are concerned with their own survival. Most wouldn't know an MDG if it hit them in the butt; very few talk about the Five Marks of Mission.

The Church's public face for the past 3-4 decades has been about pansexuality while promoting gay and lesbian priests and bishops - an issue that 90% or more of parishes are not the slightest bit interested in or are affected by and will never affect them in their local parish life. It's a game being played out on the left and right coasts (New Hampshire and California) with not much in between except as a theoretical issue. Most Episcopalians are still broadly conservative on social issues, but they go along with their priests and clergy to get along.

Allowing the blessing of same sex marriages at Sewanee's University of the South's chapel will affect only a handful of people. It could have a devastating impact on the university's fund-raising abilities if conservative Episcopalians who have supported the university till now believe this is a bridge too far.

The real issue is how many sacred cows, in particular committees, commissions, and interim bodies, will actually be considered, writes Martin.

Another critical issue, and one that was recently raised in the Midwest, is, just how many dioceses should there be, as the Episcopal Church continues to shrink? In other words, whose ox is going to be gored when a bishop wakes up to the fact that he may have to be a worker bishop with a parish to sustain him? For example, as Bishop Neff Powell, the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, exits that diocese, there are rumblings from within that a new full time bishop with all the ecclesiastical trimmings of a full staff is unsustainable. Only a small handful of parishes now support the diocese. Will the Diocese of Vermont be viable five years from now?

In Nov. of 2011, I wrote that The Diocese of Rhode Island was on the brink of extinction. It has lost 30% of its attendees in the last 10 years. It is presently closing churches at an alarming rate, emptying endowments, and putting off maintenance. There are virtually no young people coming forward and no next generation to fill emptying pews. A resolution stated, "Church attendance in the Diocese of Rhode Island continues to follow the decreases experienced in all the dioceses of the Episcopal Church."

The Diocese of Washington relies on money from the Soper Fund to stay afloat. The diocese is currently fighting in court to wrest the bulk of the fund away from a bank that has been safe guarding the money and growing it. The bank knows full well that if the diocese ever gets its hands on it, the whole fund would soon dissipate under the revisionist leadership of Bishop Budde. (Bishop John Chane was angered at the $1 million of the fund spent by the late Bishop Jane Dixon to pursue one single Anglo-Catholic priest).

Many churches continue to rely on endowments to plug the gap between revenue and expenses, with decreasing effectiveness, as investment losses reduce available principle and income. This has a negative impact on the long-term survival of these churches. When church endowments decrease, there is less money available for local ministry, and fewer financial resources for diocesan ministry and operations, noted Martin.

In the Diocese of Connecticut, Bishop Ian Douglas publicly admitted to delegates at the 227th Diocesan Convention that God is pruning His Church based on St. John Chapter 15: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower..." while he himself has litigated and "pruned" the Venerable Ronald S. Gauss along with his evangelical parish of Bishop Seabury, one of the largest most successful parishes in the Northeast US, right out of the diocese.

While performing this parishectomy, Douglas announced the sale of the diocesan house, the reduction of his diocesan budget by $600,000, and the firing of six staff members at Church House.

Across the country, nearly every diocese is in some sort of decline. Only the dioceses of Dallas, Texas, and South Carolina seemed to be spared the worst of God's wrath (SC has since departed TEC).

A radical restructuring would have to ask the question, is it good and right in the eyes of God to spend millions on litigation for properties that eventually lie fallow or are sold to Islamist groups or mega evangelical churches?

Clearly the status quo cannot be maintained. The institution in its present form is totally unsustainable.

The deeper question that must be asked is, is TEC's problem structural or does the problem lie elsewhere?

It is this writer's belief that to talk about structure is a smokescreen to push the deck chairs around a sloping deck with no substantive changes really being made.

The real problem is theological. True mission stems from good theology and sound teaching. That is what is missing in the church.

If you spend years writing papers, holding commissions trying to justify a particular sexual behavior that affects 1%-2% of the church, pour enormous financial resources in commissions to justify it, but fail to replenish the coffers, how is that sustainable?

If the Episcopal Church honestly believes that brokering pansexuality has been a plus in the name of "rights" and "justice", it will have to live with that and also suffer the consequences. TEC leaders believed that back in 2003, when Robinson was consecrated bishop, it would jump-start the church with progressives, gays, and forward thinking people. It never happened. Five dioceses have left as have more than 100,000 Episcopalians. Liberals can shout and stomp their feet in existential fury and frustration and yell "fundamentalist" and "homophobia" at whomever they want, but it has not stopped the exit flow out of the church. How many more dioceses are in jeopardy of closing or leaving? Another blue ribbon panel won't cut it.

The awful truth is that millennials and Generations X & Y are not going to darken the doors of an Episcopal church that is constantly fighting over property and where those leaving TEC are made to look like victims (which they are) by a sympathetic press who sees TEC's leaders as little more than bullies over property snatchers.

The "nones", the new and emerging non church attenders in America, maybe sympathetic to homosexuals and may even approve of gay marriages, but that does not mean they will stumble into an Episcopal Church and suddenly raise their hands in wonderment at the rubbish preached from liberal pulpits.

Tim Keller, the highly successful church planter in New York City, perhaps in the US, is not talking about homosexuality from the pulpit as an inducement to come to church on Sunday morning. He is painting a totally different picture of discipleship. On its current projection, TEC will never reach people and draw them into TEC's fold with its present message that "sodomy saves". California might produce lesbian whackos like Susan Russell and Mary Glasspool and feel good types like Robert Schuller, but it also produces solidly orthodox church gospellers like Rick Warren, probably America's No.1 pastor. What he preaches, few in TEC would agree with.

Writes Martin, "There continues to be a major disconnect between our corporate structures and the local congregation. We continue to hear from denominational leaders that recent decisions have made us more viable to new generations and new ethnic groups which is making us a more inclusive and multi-cultural church. However, the numbers of declining congregations and the reality in the field is that local congregations are not, nor are most becoming, the kind of church that General Convention and the Executive Council say we are. Of course, we have some congregations that reflect this, but they are far from the norm of our local congregational life."

Martin said he has spent much time over the last ten years visiting Episcopal Churches and making presentations on congregational development. He observed that many congregations are struggling with basic survival issues.

The problem in TEC is systemic, not structural. What is TEC's identity? What does it really stand for, apart from inclusiveness and diversity? The truth is those artificial dogmas are not selling in the market place of churches or church structures, only in the salons of New York City, millennial parties, and trendy hip hop places.

The problem is not that TEC's denominational structures beyond the diocesan level are "artificial constructs" as Martin suggests. It is deeper than that. All human constructs are, to some degree or another, artificial, but many survive and do well. The Roman Catholic Church is surviving despite some of the worst sexual behavior of some of priests in its recorded history. Its structure does not seem to be a problem.

The structural difference between a TEC parish and an ACNA parish is miniscule. They are both liturgical, use similar Prayer Books, say the same prayers of confession, and offer the sacrament with much the same formulas. What is different is the theological and psychological message coming from the pulpit. One preaches inclusion and God's indiscriminate love for absolutely everybody even unrepentant sinners; the other preaches a gospel of redemption and grace that calls sinners to repentance and a life of discipleship and faithfulness to scripture.

The difference is in the message. If TEC does not change its message, it will continue on its gadarene slide into oblivion or, to use an earlier analogy, the SS TEC will only be rearranging the deck chairs with its inhabitants sipping Martinis as the ship goes down. There will be no eye to pity and no arm to save.


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