By J. Kenneth Asel
Denominational loyalty is rare these days. That fact caught up with me this summer when I discovered a friend had left the Episcopal Church for the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Her story says something important about welcome and the current state of our congregations. But let me back up a bit.
I retired in early 2015 after 42 years in active ministry. Since that time, I have done interim ministry, consultant work in Europe, and long-term supply gigs. Recently, my wife and I settled in Texas to be closer to family. After finally unpacking the last box, we decided to take a brief holiday out west, staying along the way in the home of my final senior warden, whom I shall call Liz. After I moved on, Liz shepherded the congregation, with the assistance of a consultant, an interim rector, and an outstanding church staff. Once the new rector arrived, Liz and her husband intended a protracted motor-home excursion to see all of North America. Plans changed suddenly, when her spouse died merely days before their adventure was to begin.
We reconnected with Liz shortly after she moved to Colorado to be near her son. On Sunday we headed to Holy Communion, choosing a parish near her home that she previously visited. She had tried several congregations in town, but had been unable to bond anywhere. The one selected for our Sunday was a large and prestigious parish. Things were a bit in flux, since it had recently said goodbye to its rector and was about to enter a search that very morning. There were about 50 people in the large nave, an elderly supply priest, and a choir with a single member. As we walked to our seats an usher approached to ask if we attended regularly. She hoped we would be willing to take up the offering. Liz declined, and that was the last time anyone said a word to us.
On the way home, my host told me she would not return to that congregation, a heartbreaking decision for a cradle Episcopalian. She has kept her word. Later she visited a Greek Orthodox church, a United Church of Christ congregation I recommended, and an evangelical megachurch with her son. I was quite shocked, though, when she telephoned a few weeks later to say she thought she would become a member of Christ Our Hope Anglican Church in Fort Collins.
Various weblogs and websites purport to know exactly what the Episcopal Church needs to do to regain vitality, usually advocating a return to a simpler time, perhaps before General Convention Special Programs, women priests, my friend Bishop Gene Robinson, new prayer books, marriage equality, or a host of other hot issues or “detestable enormities,” to use the venerable language of our 16th-century forebears. The interesting thing for me was that Liz had always been fully supportive of all these 20th- and 21st-century developments in the Church, and none in fact were ever divisive locally while she served so admirably during my tenure. So I began to wonder why she had chosen to leave the Episcopal Church for our “arch-nemesis.”
I eagerly questioned Liz about her decision to become a part of an ACNA parish given her approval of both the theological decisions and processes followed in taking those stances in our parish, generally before other local congregations and our diocese did so. I explored with her why she chose such a traditional approach to faith. Certainly, she missed St. Columba’s on the Prairie (also a pseudonym), and her prominent role there. She also left friends behind and a husband who had brought her great happiness and joy. We tossed around several possibilities, until she paused, then sighed, “It feels like love, and it is filled with the Holy Spirit.”
That was difficult to dispute. That’s when I recognized she had made the right decision, and I wanted to know more. I asked if I could have a conversation with Fr. Steven Hoskins, the Anglican rector. After discussing the matter with him and receiving his permission, she also said I could share her story with others.
I found Steve to be delightful and a faithful pastor. He is in his mid-40s, thoughtful and articulate, a runner, and a father of four children, married to a concert cellist. He is the only paid cleric at Christ Our Hope, with three part-time staff members who work in specific areas (music, children, and administration). He grew up attending an evangelical Presbyterian Church, graduated from Trinity School for Ministry near Pittsburgh, and launched Christ Our Hope about 14 years ago. The congregation has an unpretentious building and an average Sunday attendance of approximately 80, plus perhaps another 20 or so who call Christ Our Hope their home.
It took us awhile to connect and we spoke about an hour. I had prepared a list of a dozen or so questions. The conversation flowed easily and freely, and we made it through my list. Although none of my inquiries referred to church growth or incorporation of new members, more than half of his replies centered on providing a spirit of hospitality at Christ Our Hope. Perhaps a few examples can best illustrate Steve’s pastoral emphasis:
What is the best thing Christ Our Hope does?
We are welcoming and genuinely friendly.
What do you personally do best in liturgy?
Preaching, and we attract who we are rather than just whom we want.
What are your challenges?
We welcome better than we equip or incorporate.
What about outreach?
We partner with a Baptist church in a homeless ministry for families, but mainly we encourage people to get involved in existing programs in town rather than start our own.
We continued a bit longer, sharing times in ministry, joys, and setbacks. Steve impressed me as a faithful and committed pastor to his congregation and as we ended the call, I was convinced that no one leaves Christ Our Hope without feeling noticed, appreciated, and welcomed.
Liz is settling in to her new congregation, joining the altar guild and attending a women’s retreat. She assured me she does not believe LGBT people have chosen a disordered lifestyle, and she still can’t bring herself to pray the Prayer of Humble Access. While her choice of congregation intrigued me, I am happy for her. I have no doubt she will return often to St. Columba’s on the Prairie, which we both miss so much, yet I know she will be blessed and a blessing to Christ Our Hope.
I have some final observations to share in hope that those in active ministry might contribute to the growing conversation on halting the decline and vitality that infects the Episcopal Church at this time.
Notice Steve and I never spoke of theological differences between what are now our two separate denominations. Nor did we argue about who owns the title to property and who loves the Lord Jesus more. Steve is unabashedly a conservative evangelical, while I am very far on the opposite end of the spectrum. Yet, we found agreement in pastoral care and service in the Lord’s name to those forgotten and left behind. Might that be an opening to mutual toleration and, perhaps, someday, even reconciliation?
The Problem of Transitions
Rector vacancies are difficult periods in the life of congregations, as evidenced by the church Liz and I attended this past summer. Sometimes ministry grinds to a halt; other times an interim can seek to impose a vision for what the parish should value. Rob Voyle, founder of the Clergy Leadership Institute, finds great value in focusing like a laser during this period on what the congregation does best rather than early revamping of what needs fixing. And, on a related topic, might there be various forms of transition, rather than a single template? Some dioceses have succeeded with such variety.
Steve and I did not speak of budgets or pledge drives. When vestries need to cut back financially, care should be taken to insure that the reasons people give to the church are maintained, and it may not be the stained-glass windows. If the formation or youth staff is eliminated, for example, parents will find congregations that will continue those ministries. Might fruitful budget discussions focus on what God wants us to do, rather than what we can afford? Loren Mead once wrote, “Everything is Outreach.” Shedding programs that draw people to worship might be self- defeating. Besides, witnessing and justice advocacy are free.
It is the mystery of the love of God that we are called to proclaim, in brokenness, in sorrow, in joy, and in new beginnings. The road back to denominational vitality begins with our learning to listen, learning to share, and learning to discover what God has in mind for us next. It will take all of us to do it. Perhaps our decline is not related so much to cultural change and new theology as it is to our having forgotten what draws people to church in the first place.
The Rev. J. Kenneth Asel (DMin) is a retired priest of the Episcopal Church.