By Richard Kew
It is thirty years since the late Bishop Roger White and I authored New Millennium, New Church, the first of several books in which we challenged the church to think seriously about what the future might look like, the opportunities it presents, and how we might get there.
Looking back at what we wrote, I now admit we were overly naïve and simplistic, yet we were asking the right questions. We were right to attempt to shape the church’s agenda in terms of tomorrow, but then the Episcopal Church allowed itself to be diverted, among other things, by issues of human sexuality. Important as these may have been, the mission of the Church and the Great Commission were literally and often deliberately driven from the agenda. During the time since Bishop Roger and I wrote, we have watched the Episcopal Church shrink, split, and become ever more myopic.
I cannot claim to have been any more focused than anyone else. Desperately hurting from what had been going on, in 2007 I accepted the invitation to serve back in Britain for half a dozen years. Initially, we wondered if we might stay there, but I quickly realized that although it was where I might originated, it was not where I now belonged. Not only had I been Americanized, but as I had over the decades been absorbed into the Episcopal Church, the Church of England had itself moved forward on a very different trajectory.
For me, the years leading up to starting my new position in Cambridge were as traumatic as any I have experienced what is now more than half a century of ordained life. Tensions had been enflamed and, although it was slow motion at first, it became evident to division would soon become inevitable. There were accusations and counter-accusations, friendships were splintered, and it seemed that the ‘progressive’ juggernaut was determined to get its own way regardless of the long-term consequences. The Episcopal Church had ceased to be a comfortable place for an old-fashioned Evangelical Episcopalian like me. What being back in England taught me was that although it was my country of birth, no longer was it where I belonged.
Yet here we are finding ourselves trying to make sense of living with a pandemic, something global health experts had been predicting, but about which few took their forecasts seriously. The year 2020 is turning out to be a watershed, or to use another metaphor, a hinge in human history. The issues are those of life and death, and the consequence of COVID-19 will not only be with us for a very long time, but we have yet to seriously wrestle with what is actually happening and what possible outcomes might be. Church life is already starting to look remarkably different — a challenging ball has been dropped at parish and diocesan fee and we are not quite sure whether to pick it up or kick it away; I think we are still mourning the what-might-have-beens. Our churches are just a slice of life in a culture that is utterly at sea with itself and, to mix metaphors again, is prone to bury its head in the sand hoping that somehow the old and familiar will reappear.
COVID-19 is actually a wrecking ball, especially in the USA where it has been handled more ineptly than anyone of us could have imagined. Yet it is also a wake-up call for the Christian community in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular. These next years are likely to be as uncomfortable as any we have experienced perhaps with church life faltering in unexpected ways, perhaps because we are unwilling to put ourselves under a microscope to honestly examine what needs massive reconsideration. This will require a not only a strong stomach, but a robust theology and a persistent prayerful posture. We are being forced to our knees as we seek God’s vision for our future and how to walk in God’s way.
Bishop White and I loved shooting the breeze, maybe wondered how the Episcopal Church would respond to something really tectonic happening. It has now happened, and there is no place for complacency. Roger and I used to joke that the seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” We now live in a time when there is a huge amount that we will never do the same again.
Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to work, think, and pray ourselves toward a new normal shaped by God’s vision. This is not a temporary emergency but a major turning-point whose consequences will be working themselves out for at least five to ten years, and maybe a good deal longer. We are entering a transitional time when it might be wise to grieve what might have been, but then to willingly think outside the box, exploring ideas and options that even in the recent past might have seemed totally out of the question. This will require not only robust theology rooted and grounded in Scripture, but also the sort of leaders who are willing to walk a walk that will of its very essence require the sacrifice of a few sacred cows — and we Episcopalians have herds of them!
My generation is quickly moving from the stage, and our role is to encourage, pray, and guide, but this is a task for rising generations. There are some extraordinary young leaders coming up, men and women who are equipped to address the gospel challenge in a very different and changing environment. These should be leaders willing to ask, “Where do we want to be twenty-five years from now, and what are the real issues and concerns that we need to address now, with” — as Karl Barth would have put it — “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?”
The Rev. Richard Kew is priest associate at St. George’s Church, Nashville.