Wait, How Do You Grow By Excluding People Again?

As a liberal Episcopalian, I cheered and was cheered by the passage of several inclusive, progressive resolutions at the recently concluded convention. We can go forward now, I think. #ecgc
Pared-Down Episcopal Church Is Looking to Grow Through ‘Inclusivity’ – NYTimes.com
Not everybody agrees with this view, or is happy about the changes – even some in my own state, in the two more conservative dioceses downstate, away from the Chicago urban/suburban area. They are genuinely grieved, and they believe that the church is in the process of ruining itself. I don’t agree; I think we are finally ready to progress for the first time in years. I’ve spent 10 years in the Diocese of Chicago in two small mission parishes; the first one died because people stopped coming (possibly because we had 2 gay priests in a row). At least, that was the view of the conservatives who left, shaking the dust of our space from their sandals.

I think the first one died because we were too busy trying worrying about keeping things going “just as they always had been done” and not busy enough worrying about problems other people outside the church were having keeping things going “just to keep their heads above water.” Also, it didn’t help when one beloved priest left after only a few years. I think she saw the inevitable closure more clearly than any of us were prepared to accept, and as she had a family commitment, she left us to struggle on a few more years. It was harder for people to relate to our newer priest, we started on a bad financial footing with him, and a number of people stopped coming (possibly because they didn’t want to take on more responsibilities than merely putting their bottoms in the seats on Sundays). There were definitely people who objected to having gay clergy, and the slide in numbers kept happening after Bishop Gene was elected in New Hampshire, but we also had a steady trickle of new people who came every Sunday, saw we were hopelessly in decline, and never came back.

I was surprised to run into some of them when we merged with another nearby mission parish that was much more vibrant and dynamic; it was partly the style of worship we’d practiced (the “just as we’ve always done it” kind) that had turned them off. We now have a blended style during the summer, and two services during the winter, and have a food pantry program that’s really starting to take off. There’s a lot more good being done that we were ever capable of imagining at my first Chicagoland parish, and we’re now in the process of building an addition with Diocesan funds (proceeds from the sale of the former mission, too). We’re inclusive, big time. Everyone gets a welcome. And we’re growing, much as one young man featured in this article thinks will happen.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Episcopal Church is betting its future on the hope that there are more young people out there like Will Hay.

Mr. Hay, 17, was one of the youngest voting delegates at the church’s 10-day triennial convention, which ended Friday. He has stuck with his church, even when the priest and most of the parishioners in his conservative San Diego parish quit the Episcopal Church two years ago in protest of its liberal moves, particularly the approval in 2003 of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson. Mr. Hay has helped rebuild his parish, which was left with 48 people and has since drawn nearly 100 new members.

Mr. Hay is no left-wing ideologue, and in fact fears that some of the convention’s landmark decisions last week may alienate even more conservatives. The church’s convention voted not to stand in the way if another gay bishop were elected and to allow for the blessing of same-sex couples.

But Mr. Hay was not troubled by those things. And he believes that the church can grow by emphasizing “inclusivity,” the favorite buzzword of Episcopalians.

We have at least 6 or 8 gay couples/family groups, we’ve got people of color, we’ve got young families and older seniors. About the only thing we don’t have in any great quantity is tweens and teens, although there’s a few college and post-collegiate people. We’re hoping with the increased space for programs and groups we’ll be able to do more with what we’ve got, and attract more people from a variety of demographics.

So far, they have paid a price for their actions. Four bishops, the majority of their dioceses and numerous parishes around the country jumped ship in the last few years to form a new, theologically conservative entity called the Anglican Church in North America. That group will not consecrate women, not to mention gay men and lesbians, as bishops. It has about 100,000 members, while the Episcopal Church has about two million.

But a church study shows that membership declined about 6 percent from 2003 to 2007.

The Episcopal Church also saw its contributions decline, though church experts say it is hard to know how much of that drop is attributable to the economic downturn. The convention voted last week to cut the budget by $23 million over three years and eliminate about 30 out of 180 staff positions at church headquarters in New York and other locations.

Those four bishops, and the priests they controlled, were at the heart of the strife in the Episcopal Church in the last few decades. Others have followed the threads of their disaffection already, but their departure has been planned for a very long time. At the time of the LAST convention, when Bishop Gene’s election had to be ratified by the entire gathering due to its timing, the Diocese of Washington (DC) came out with something called Following the Money.

The whole “Episcopal Church in schism” story is big news precisely because the small faction that resisted progress and preferred exclusion over inclusion was extremely well financed by outside entities. SOMEBODY is paying for all those trips back and forth between Africa and Virginia, home turf for some of the big name players in the continuing drama.

These outsiders have actually been bent on destroying all the mainline Christian churches, not just the Episcopalian Church, from within, or to turn them more conservative by taking them over from within. Some of our own more conservative bishops (and conservative priests coveting the power and prestige a pointy hat brings) have been used as pawns in this process.

The disaffected people are two different kinds of conservatives that are not necessarily compatible with each other; evangelical are allied with Anglo-catholic (note small “c”) traditionalists. The two wings disagree on doctrine, but agree on principle, which is apparently TEH GAY RUINING EVERYTHING. Something like this is playing out in the English church now, with the added irony that there are scads of gay priests and not a few gay bishops, but they’re all understood to be tastefully closeted. The conservatives will shortly begin to squabble over women’s ordination (the “Low Church” evangelicals will mostly be okay with it, the “High Church” ritualists will resist until their dying day). There are other issues that will divide them, such as fine details like what gestures to make, what to wear, and when or whether to use incense.

They are convinced, however, that the rest of us back at the Episcopal Ranch are going to hell in a handbasket, and that we’re actually worshiping Satan or Buddha or the Old Gods or whatnot. They absolutely do believe this; their websites and blogs are full of bile, and they seem to have a hardened-bunker mentality when it comes to Scriptural interpretation and theology.

To theological conservatives, these are signs of a church that will ultimately collapse because it has sold its soul to secular political causes. Two conservative bishops who have remained in the Episcopal Church appeared at a news briefing last week organized by a conservative Anglican group and mourned the direction their church has taken.

“I am a lifelong Episcopalian, a lifelong Anglican,” said Bishop William Love of Albany, who appeared on the verge of tears. “It is breaking my heart to see the church destroy itself.

“Rather than being a blessing for the church, I believe ultimately it will be a curse on the church. Rather than bringing more people into the church, I believe it will drive more people away.”

Bishop Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Ill., said, “It’s a disaster.”

But when asked whether they would lead their dioceses out of the church, both bishops said probably not. Part of the reason was that they would be likely to face legal wrangling over properties, and part is simply their faithfulness to the church.

“I have not sensed that this is the direction the Lord is calling us to,” Bishop Love said. “It all depends on what you focus on. My intent is to keep us focused on Jesus Christ and not on the storm.”

It may be that all the motivated conservative bishops and parishes that considered homosexuality the deal breaker have already left, or have just grown tired of fighting.

I sense that the Lord has always been calling us to come out of our comfort zones and consort with people we wouldn’t normally meet. I sense that the Lord is always welcoming the outcast and those society considers unclean.

With all the conflict-inciters mostly gone or leaving, it’s amazing how much got done at this most recent General Convention. In years past, the joke was that the conservative faction had no “YES” buttons at all when using their electronic voting gadgets. Or, that they simply held the “NO” buttons down at all times, even during dinner and social events. They also refused to take communion with other bishops in attendance at meetings (not just at General Communion). For years there was a simmering feud over “table fellowship” and whether one of the most prominent bishops would flounce out in a be-mitred huff when it appeared they might have to take communion from someone who voted to sustain Bishop Gene’s election, or God forbid, a WOMAN. At the ALTAR.

I disagree with both quoted bishops; I think the movement forward made by the Convention this cycle is surely more blessing than disaster. We can now begin to include more people than we might have thought possible, people who might not have come near a church in years out of fear of the kind of reception they might have. I’m more inclined to agree with young Mr. Hay, that a more inclusive church is bound to welcome more seekers than a church that would choose to exclude some of them.

Mr. Hay, the 17-year-old convention deputy, said he knew that other conservative Episcopal parishes in San Diego were “on the fence,” and he hoped they would not depart.

“What it’s about is keeping people at the table,” he said, “pushing more discussion.”

Well, part of the problem is that we’ve spent decades trying to keep people at the table, pushing more discussion. In the case of civil rights, more than a century has been spend wrangling over the issue. Decades ago, the Episcopal Church was often described as “The Republican Party at prayer,” but that old saw hasn’t been accurate for a long time. Something happened after the tumult of the Civil Rights efforts and the Vietnam War protests; a lot of people became priests that came from a social justice background, and women’s ordination followed not long after the end of the war. Just before that, a new Prayer Book had come out, which caused no end of ructions and there were splits and schisms over that and the advent of the women priests. A number of these smaller offshoots are banding together with the group formed around our most recent doctrinal émigrés. As to whether their group will be recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury as a new province of the Anglican Communion is anybody’s guess, and neither is it clear whether we’d have to be tossed out on our arses to make room.

Well, we’d rather not be tossed out. We recognize that once again we’ve gone unacceptably further ahead than most of the rest of the Communion is willing to go at this time. We’ll continue to offer aid and assistance wherever it’s accepted. I’d hope that the disaffected former Episcopalians will soon set about helping the needy as a group or province (some individual congregations may have continued their charity programs, some may have been more focused on the strife of leaving).

Meanwhile, back in Mr. Hay’s San Diego, they recently held the Pride Parade, and do you know who was there? A large contingent from St Paul’s Cathedral, as documented by former Father Jake’s denizen IT, and documented by Pam’s Blend http://www.pamshouseblend.com/diary/12110/at-san-diego-pride-this-weekend-open-thread Autumn Sandeen.

The banners they carried – two big ones – said “Love To Each of You, from St Paul’s Cathedral.” Friends of Jake’s IT noted that a hate group was sequestered on a cross street, behind a line of mounted police:

At one point, we passed a side street that was blocked off. A row of San Diego mounted police sat on their horses, side by side facing the parade route. Behind them were the haters. You know the type we mean, with loudspeakers, and signs all about evil and “homosex” and the Bible. As we passed them, we heard them say something remarkable over their loudspeaker:

“If you think God doesn’t hate, then you don’t know God!”

Really. That was their message. The Dean and BP had a conversation about the haters’ idea of a God that hates, actually hates, people. The Dean and BP were deeply puzzled. “God is about love,” they agreed. “How do they get hate out of that message? What are they reading?” and the Dean told us that around Prop-H8 time, a group similar to that had invaded the Cathedral and interrupted the Eucharist in protest of inclusion.

Of course, as BP and I noted, this message of hate was being directed at the rear ends of about 8 unflappable police horses.

I think Mr. Hay is lucky to be in the Diocese of San Diego, although I can imagine what he went through when his own conservative parish split. It’s happened all over, but fortunately in most cases the courts generally resolve the property dispute in favor of the “continuing” or remaining Episcopalians – even in the case of the much more conservative Diocese of San Joaquin, which left en masse with their bishop, but tried to retain control of the properties. Deputations from the continuing Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Quincy (IL), San Joaquin (CA) and Ft Worth (TX) found enthusiastic welcomes when they attended General Convention – having been kept apart from the national church by over-controlling conservative bishops, they were overwhelmed at finally being able to participate with fellow Episcopalians in all the exciting legislative and commitee processes (I’m rolling my eyes a little, but they really are darn happy to be included). San Joaquin also recently ordained their first female priest – more inclusion.

Earlier in the week, I ran across this statement from the Bishop of Wyoming, Bruce Caldwell. He presided at the funeral of a young Episcopal man of his diocese who had been tortured and left for dead, Matthew Shephard. He was asked to explain at a luncheon last week why a “elk hunting, horse riding bishop from Wyoming come[s] to be working on full inclusion for the LGBT community.” He described the funeral, and how he came to recognize the great hunger for communion, fellowship and the sacraments that gay people carried, sometimes in spite of they way they had been treated (or mistreated) by churches.

Crowds, including many gay and lesbian people, came to Shepard’s funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper, Wyo., and rather than distribute the Eucharist at the altar, Caldwell chose to distribute in the farthest reach of the parish hall. As the gay and lesbian people came forward with their empty hands stretched out to receive the holy sacrament, “I knew that was an absolutely holy moment, Caldwell said “I wondered why are they here, why would they have hands outstretched after the way they have been treated.”

I do indeed hope that the conservatives – those who I believe are motivated more by the need for ecclesial autonomy than by strict adherance to Scriptural literalism – find grace and satisfaction now that they have (mostly) departed. I have this feeling that we’ll both get along better without each other. Perhaps in the future there will be a grace-full rapprochement, but I suspect that most of the major players on their side would have to have an “absolutely holy moment” of their own first.

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