Divine duress: Discord amidst the distancing

By | September 28, 2020

As I travel the cyber highways and byways of the Episcopal Church and other denominations, one thing is becoming clear: Social distancing is becoming ugly. And while there are myriad wrinkles to this phenomena, I’m thinking particularly of situations in which church staff and volunteers are being pushed against their will to resume in-person services.

I get it.

Social distancing runs counter to everything important to us as humans. By nature, we are social creatures, with an innate desire to be with others.

There’s also a theological aspect. As people of the book, Christians practice a faith that is difficult to practice alone. Yes, there is a tradition of asceticism in many branches of the larger church, but communion itself is inherently a corporate activity. So-called spiritual communion is, at best, a poor substitute for in-person worship.

Then there’s the comfort of church itself. Just like church attendance soared for a while post 9/11, people seek the comfort of tradition and divine worship in the midst of fear, loss, and pain.

Hidden fallout

As a result of social distancing and the suspension of church services, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of pushback.

Every church official I’ve spoken with has told of people who have left the Episcopal Church over the suspension of services. Others threaten to leave. Some have pursued disciplinary complaints against judicatories. And every diocese is replete with tales of clergy, wardens, and musicians who feel that they are being pressured to resume services.

Not surprisingly, as God’s so-called frozen chosen, the Episcopal church rarely publicly acknowledges these controversies. Instead, they come up in clergy conference calls and one-on-one conversation, but not elsewhere.

Not helpful. Conflict ignored is conflict multiplied, but the Episcopal Church does not recognize this.

Never has.

Probably never will.

It’s all about the Numbers

Of course, in many cases this is all about the numbers.

Numbers, as in no loose plate at Easter. Or Christmas.

As in pledging.

But for many, job loss looms large. Meanwhile, the national mood of anxiety and uncertainty makes it difficult to commit to generous giving. That’s even more the case if you haven’t worshipped in person since March.

There’s another set of numbers at issue, and those are demographics. As discussed elsewhere on this blog, the Episcopal Church is much older than the population as a whole. And key positions within the church are overwhelming held by those at elevated risk of COVID-19 complications.

To make matters worse, most parishes are small. Per the national church, almost half of churches have 75 or fewer Sunday worshippers.

And there is yet another set of numbers at work here. Many congregations occupy aging, expensive real estate. As a result, budgets are stretched thin.

As a result, few congregations save for the future. Remarkably few set aside the 6-10 percent of income needed to fund future capital needs. Even those with endowments typically rely on bequests to fund their endowments, versus setting aside part of their revenue for the future.

The bottom line is that most Episcopal churches are teetering to begin with. Thus, the pandemic creates pressure to return to business as usual, while making it inherently dangerous to do so,

In other words, the Episcopal church is in a mess. And it’s a mess largely of its own making.

Governance rears its ugly head

Adding to the church’s woes is its own governance structure.

Governance in the denomination often is poorly understood, even among long-time members.

Why? The answer is simple: The church is both congregational and hierarchical in polity, while ultimately being hierarchical.

In Anglicanism, that means that church canons impose guardrails. But within those guardrails, there’s lots of leeway.

As a result, many decisions are made by a small group of insiders in any church or diocese. There’s little oversight for these decisions.

One expert says:

The bishops…are living within their canonical authority as bishops and providing guidance and protocols to all parish leaders regarding COVID, but are not serving as police to permit or prohibit in-person worship. Any decision to regather in-person is made at the parish level applying the diocesan protocols. And, this should not result in any parish employee being forced to show up to work in circumstances that are unsafe for that employee.

While I know this expert to be a person of integrity, it should also be said that many church officials play the congregational vs. hierarchical game when it suits them.

Bullied by your priest? That’s a congregational matter. (Yes, that would be Bob Malm)

Complaints of illegal conduct by your priest being ignored by your bishop? The national church won’t get involved. (Ditto)

Trying to pull off a sketchy deal to sell church assets? Whoa! Here comes the presiding bishop, replete with pastoral directives and the full arsenal of Title IV disciplinary weapons, metaphoric guns blazing like a gunfight in an old western movie. (Yes, that would be Bishop Bruno.)

Bishop had an affair? Oops. Here comes the national church. No illegal behavior there, but it involved sex. Can’t have that. (Yes, that would be Whayne Hougland Jr.)

See what I mean about playing the governance game?

Larger lessons

There’s a larger lesson in all of this. Simply put, the Episcopal Church is desperately unhealthy.

Loaded with sycophants, narcissists and insiders, the church seeks first and foremost to avoid change.

In Episcopal heaven, it’s 1974 again.

Money flows in rivers. Priestly prerogatives are unquestioned. Bishops never need dinner reservations. Controversy is blocked from view with plenty of stained glass. The Episcopal Church is the quasi-state church, and most presidents and senior government officials are members. The only conduct bad enough to get you tossed out is heresy, and even ordaining women doesn’t quite count. There’s plenty of wine and cheese to go around, the drinks are top-notch, the wait staff well trained and deferential. And if a DUI darkens your door, don’t worry. The brief unpleasantness will be quietly swept under the rug. And when you die, the cathedral will be packed, the organ will thunder away, the choir will belt out, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” and there will be an endowment in your name. Truly, God is good.

Flash forward to 2020.

The Episcopal church is in palliative care. Not quite ready for hospice, but we all know where things are headed. The patient’s tired, cranky, rather neurotic, and while quite sick, she still insists she can take care of itself, thank you. And don’t try offering any advice or suggestions, or you’ll be persona non grata in record time. Or you’ll be ignored, and some ding-a-ling will intone, “How can we move past this?” (That’s Episco-speak for “how dare you, dumb ass?”). In fact, if you push her too hard, she’ll tell the other old ladies in hushed whispers, “Well, you know he’s not quite right.”

But outside the other old ladies, folks aren’t all that interested in her. In fact, the only time she gets attention these days is when she does something stupid, like running over a cyclist in a DUI. But yes, she’s still out and about, barely. And while she’ll never admit it, she secretly longs for the days when such things were handled, well, you know. With discretion.

At first blush, things actually don’t look that bad. In fact, the patient can put on a pretty good show. With enough makeup, she looks pretty convincing, and Christmas and Easter are still an extravaganza. But after the grandkids leave, she’s really tired, and doesn’t have enough energy to do basic stuff.

And now the pandemic comes along. The grandkids aren’t showing up this year. Suddenly, no one’s all that interested in how the old lady’s doing. As a result, she’s in a funk. So she’s grouchy, behaves badly, and antagonizes the few friends she has left. Ironically, at the same time, she’s very lonely. And she knows the end is near, but she’ll be damned if she admits it. In fact, she’ll tell you ever so sweetly that you need your rest, too. My goodness, it’s hard being out and about. Did I ever tell you about the time I went to Selma to protest?

Worship the lord in the beauty of holiness

I’ll be the first to admit. I can’t heal the patient.

You probably can’t either. And while it might be nice to visit once in awhile, this is one crotchety old lady. In fact, the last time I visited, it was all I could do to be polite, even though she was on what passes for her good behavior.

But I can report what I see and offer advice.

And my observation is this: If someone is forced, or someone fears for her health and safety in order to make it happen, your Sunday service is not a thing of beauty. In fact, it’s not holy. It’s not even worship.

If people have to risk their lives to do it, it becomes just a sorry, antiquated, painfully dull, rote event cluttering up an already full weekend. Not worth the effort.

And if forcing someone, regardless of their role in the church, to hold in-person services is what you think you need in order to save your parish, or the church, or to meet your personal needs, let me be the first to break it to you:

You’re a Christian in name only.,

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