News of Our Death is Premature

In the wake of The Episcopal Church’s recent General Convention (the governing body of the church made up of elected lay and clergy representatives and bishops), many are rejoicing, some are lamenting, and others are perhaps prematurely proclaiming the death of the sort of mainline Christianity that The Episcopal Church represents.

For the first time, the General Convention approved a church wide liturgy (or ritual) for the blessing of same-sex relationships, to be tried out over the next three years (until the next General Convention, when undoubtedly another vote will be taken on whether to continue the trial, make it permanent, or make changes). The liturgy can only be used in those dioceses where the bishop gives consent. The General Convention also voted to make clear that transgendered persons and people who have gender identity challenges should not, by virtue of these factors alone, be made ineligible for ordained ministry. If they are in every other respect judged to be good candidates for ordination, then they should be ordained.

The issues which these decisions concern are issues that tend to be rather controversial in Christian circles. As I have said before, I say again: people of faith can and do disagree on these matters. Personally, I am pleased with the decisions made at this Convention (and these two are only a tiny fraction of those that were made). From my perspective, one of the constant truths of the Gospel is the fact (as it appears to me) that Jesus allies himself with those whom his own society placed on the margins, the people who were, in the language of his religious world, considered unclean. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons are people who have been considered unclean in our social context and religious world for sometime, and for years, the church has been complicit in declaring them so. Now, The Episcopal Church has taken a couple of important steps toward what I believe the Gospel, and the life of Christ, show to us by taking steps toward embracing people whom so many would regard as somehow unclean.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal took a scathing view of General Convention (and reported a number of untruths in the process), and some others have wondered whether “liberal Christianity” (as they have labeled it) can continue. They point to decline, and they believe that The Episcopal Church, and others, are simply following social trends without any theological grounding in the Christian tradition or the Bible. Many of these commentators seem to believe that the death of the mainline churches is at hand, and that the General Convention is just one more nail in its coffin.

I find myself wondering whether any of those predicting our death have any actual experience of our churches. The reality is that whatever sort of Christianity is emerging in The Episcopal Church and the mainline (I prefer the term “generous Christianity”) has deep theological roots, and is based not on cultural whim or some sort of secular agenda for doing good with a religious veneer, but on a deep contemplation of the mystery of Christ and the meaning of his life and Gospel. We may be starting to use different language and we may be expressing ourselves in ways that people are not accustomed to associating with Christianity, but we are hardly theologically or biblically illiterate. Rather, we dare to engage and creatively reinterpret our tradition in light of human experience and the insights of modern disciplines, including the sciences. I think we are on the threshold of something very exciting.

The truth is (as numerous studies have shown us) that religious commitment of all stripes in this country is declining. It is not only the mainline churches. Indeed, I read recently that the Southern Baptist churches are currently declining at a rate that exceeds that of any other denomination. I don’t think this means that Americans are becoming less spiritual. What I do think is that people are increasingly finding that the traditional way of interpreting and applying the Gospel and the Christian tradition no longer speaks to them. Christians tend to react to this idea in one of two ways: either by circling the wagons and pronouncing that increasing numbers of people are going to hell for refusing to embrace Christianity in all its traditional glory, or by realizing that it is we, the churches, who need to change in order to proclaim the truth of Christ and his Gospel to our society in a way that speaks to the lives of people today.

The Episcopal Church, at its best, is seeking to make this second choice, and I think this is where the Spirit is indeed calling us and where a hope of a renewed and vibrant Christianity lies. This most recent General Convention was, on the whole, I think, The Episcopal Church at its best.

As I read the words of the nay-saying pundits, I cannot help but wonder if they are somehow secretly hopeful that we will not be successful. Perhaps they can only conceive of religion in its most traditional and conservative modes, or perhaps they cannot see any way in which the Christian tradition can contribute anything positive to our common life and are hopeful that ultimately, we will just go away. I don’t know. What I do know is that we Episcopalians have no intention of simply going away. We are committed to trying to give birth to a generous Christianity that will be as faithful as possible to the Christ who embraced warmly those whom his society was most willing to give the cold shoulder. May we be given the grace, and find the courage, to persevere in that commitment.

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