The last decade or two in the Episcopal Church has witnessed great upheaval in many congregations. This has been especially true in traditionalist congregations, due to arguments over human sexuality and same-sex blessings. Some have attempted to leave the Episcopal Church and retain parish property. Others have simply walked away from their church buildings. At the same time, we are starting to see a demographic crisis in the Episcopal Church, which translates into church closures or “demotion” from parish to mission status.
Having a great affection for charts and maps, I have been interested to read the congregational and diocesan statics available here. In many of the congregational charts, there is a precipitous drop in the past decade, which I am prone to think is not a reflection of an exodus of angry conservatives. Rather, almost every congregation has had to come to terms with the disparity between the official rolls and actual attendance. Even though the canons of the Episcopal Church set the bar very low for membership — attendance three times in a year — if we were honest, there are (or were) many on our membership rolls who do not even meet these minimum standards. As a result of these and other factors, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of many parishes in the Episcopal Church will be very different from the relative material prosperity of the recent past. Many congregations will close. Others will combine. Still others will carry on but with radically reduced programming and staff.
All of this is very sad to me. I cannot help but think of John Donne’s famous reflection, “Any man’s death diminishes me.” In our current situation, I might paraphrase this as “Any departure of Episcopalians or closure of congregations diminishes us.” I have observed, however, a certain glib reaction to these closures and departures that I have found to be increasingly unsettling.
The rhetoric often goes like this: God is using these departures and closures to remove from our grip the precious idols of our church buildings. God is casting down the images of what the Episcopal Church has been in order to rebuild it for its future. This line of argument appeals to some of the motifs of the Bible, and because of its religious language, it can sound rather convincing. It could even be forgiven if it was understood as a way to cope with the stresses of losing or walking away from a beloved church property. However, I am convinced that a separation from church buildings and church ornaments is a loss of our heritage and rootedness.
In the fourth chapter of the Book of Joshua, we read about the Israelites passing through the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land. They had been wandering in the desert for forty years because, although they had been freed from slavery, their minds needed to be attuned to the true freedom found in God’s service. This wandering in the wilderness was lived in the light of God’s judgment and mercy, and it began and ended with a cleansing. Coming out of Egypt, the Hebrews were pursued by Pharaoh’s army and certain death. They were saved from that death through the waters of the Red Sea, and cleansed from being the slaves of man to become the people of God. As their journey concluded, again the people of God needed to be cleansed, this time through the Jordan River. This cleansing was not because of an enslaved mindset. Rather, the people of Israel needed to be cleansed from the imminent and ever-persistent threat of spiritual and moral decay, which invariably resulted in political and social chaos. Such threats often overtook the Israelites in the wilderness journey, and the remedy was always the same: the people needed to hear again the judgment and grace of God which claimed them as God’s people.
At the second cleansing, Joshua was commanded to make a memorial. Joshua instructed a representative of each of the twelve tribes to take a stone from the river bed of the Jordan where the waters had parted. They were to take the stones and stack them as “a memorial unto the children of Israel for ever” (Joshua 4:7). The piled stones became a tangible witness to the history of this people. That history found meaning in the light of God’s judgment and God’s grace. As they entered the Promised Land, the people needed to be reminded of this history and of God’s mighty acts by which they had been called and claimed. Just as in the wilderness, the Promised Land would be the stage on which the people of God were confronted by the judgment and grace of God.
The parish I currently serve is over 175 years old, although the current building was constructed in late ’60s after a massive fire destroyed most of the property on Easter Day 1968. Nevertheless, lots of “old” things are still around: a chalice that is used weekly and was given in 1867; a cross that sits on the high altar was given in 1892; a stained-glass window of our Lord crowning a kneeling soldier that commemorates a son of the parish who died in World War I. On these and other objects can be found family names that belong to the lore of the parish’s history. The meaning of other inscriptions has been swallowed up by the oblivion of time, so that all that is left is a name.
There is something deeply moving and very awesome about worshiping in a space and using ornaments that have been used by preceding generations of Episcopalians. In this space, God’s people have come to say their prayers and be fed in Word and Sacrament. By these ornaments, they have made their Communion, or been baptized, or been moved by a visual representation of our Lord. Such reminiscences might suggest a certain nostalgia for the past or sentimentality. On the contrary, the people that gave the money, organized projects, and built our churches also lived, like us, on the stage in which they were confronted by the judgment and grace of God. They were not so much better sinners than us, if perhaps their sins were different than ours.
It is possible for any creature to become an idol. John Calvin famously said that the human heart is an idol factory. These words remind us that it is not the external objects that are the real problem, but a heart that has not been broken and made new. Yes, our heritage and church buildings can become idols, but so can virtually anything: our work, our country, or even our children. We don’t have to get rid of these things; rather, we need to put the human heart in right relationship to them. In the same way, we need to treasure our rootedness and heritage and yes, even our church buildings. These are our twelve stones pitched in Gilgal, memorials of how God has been our refuge from one generation to another.
The featured image is “Otley All Saints Church” (2009) by Tom Blackwell. It is licensed under Creative Commons.