By Mark Edington
Whatever accounts for our character and institutions will also account for our values, which themselves belong to, and are effective and intelligible at, only their own specific stage in human history.
— Isaiah Berlin, “The Philosophy of Giambattista Vico,”
in Three Critics of the Enlightenment
People of goodwill can (and do) disagree over two basic questions confronting the church today: Why is the church declining in numbers, and what ought to be done about it?
Of course, one’s answer to the second question typically depends on one’s answer to the first. Diagnosis typically determines treatment. And not surprisingly, the interpretive lenses one brings to both questions have an important role in determining what one sees.
It can hardly be surprising that a church centered on a common text called the Book of Common Prayer would look for liturgical answers to sociological questions; neither it is too surprising that we, like most any other gathering of people in our increasingly polarized society, are certain that outcomes must surely follow convictions — or, to say it differently, that orthodoxy (or ortho-advocacy) leads to flourishing, and that (conversely) the absence of flourishing is evidence of that our theology is poorly founded, our positions are questionable, or our advocacy misguided.
But of course, to say that we look to liturgy and proclamation for explanations of our predicament — once we agree, if we even can, on just what our predicament is — may be to begin by privileging our preferences in the first place. Theologians believe the answer to our challenge is more (or more rigorous) theology; liturgists believe it must, of course, be better (and certainly more!) liturgy; activists believe the answer is more activism. Nails abound in the world for those who wield hammers.
In all of this, we are not so much distinguishing ourselves from, but in some basic way only reenacting, the divisions in our broader society. That ought to be the first sign that our efforts to align ourselves more closely with God’s ongoing mission in the world are in some way already caught up, and hijacked by, predictable — and predictably misleading — ways of thinking.
Social psychologists teach us that we all have an “appraisal tendency” — a way of seeing the world fundamentally shaped by unique and largely unconscious preferences and emotional predispositions. They teach us that unless we are careful, our appraisal tendencies can limit, in some cases severely, our reality.
It may just be that an organizing principle of a community like the church is that it gathers together people sharing a similar appraisal tendency — because, of course, they see the same reality in largely the same way. And that, in consequence, means that they are limited in the same way as well, sharing in heated agreement an incomplete view of the world.
Christian humility should teach us that not only are we sometimes not quite right in our conclusions but in our thinking; and that should invite us to wonder — what might we be missing, or not seeing, that is actually shaping our circumstances in important ways? What are the unseen things that may be determining our course in significant ways — perhaps even more profoundly than the things that naturally attract our attention and antagonism?
This short note proposes a somewhat different focus for our conversation about the circumstances of our church, one that might disclose different reasons why we seem to struggle with adapting to the future God is calling us into. It is one that will surely not be surprising — but one that, like all polite families of good breeding, we do not discuss because of our respect for the virtue of modesty. But it is exactly this resulting invisibility causing us to miss something that might have even greater significance than the things we prefer to focus on — witness and worship — in shaping the horizon of our possibilities.
I will here propose a different cause for our observed circumstance of decline, and a different cause for our seeming struggle to respond to difficult challenges as earlier generations of the church did. I’ll then offer a way of thinking and speaking about the church we are now called to be, one that consciously articulates a vision centered on the model of the early church that is at odds with the culture around us — and with the institutions that we have inherited in the church we have received.
A Different Kind of Climate Change
Think for a moment about the deepening polarization in our society — something political scientists are now urgently drawing attention to, with warnings about the threats to the very foundations of democracy in the United States. We surely know something in our church about how polarization can fracture institutions, destroy communities, and harm human relationships.
Yet beneath and subtending all this is a deeper change in the United States that may fairly be seen as creating the conditions upon which all this rests. I am speaking of the growing division in economic possibilities and outcomes for both individuals and communities. It is not just that income inequality has increased (it has); it is not just that social mobility, the chance that any of us will have a path toward a better and more economically secure future than the generation before us has decreased (it also has).
Beyond this, and perhaps even more important in terms of driving the forces of social estrangement, is the fact that this same pattern of growing inequality — and hence a decline in the sense of common purpose or destiny — has taken place in social institutions as well. And the church has been no less affected.
While the full lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for the church are yet to be determined, one thing seems a certainty beyond dispute: The pandemic laid bare the inequality that characterizes the life of the church in the early twenty-first century. When even an outlet like The Economist observes that “Lockdown has turned Christianity into a winner-take-all business,” something is happening that perhaps we ought to be paying attention to.
Numbers not be as compelling to us, given our appraisal tendencies, as prophetic pronouncement or liturgical practice. But the data available to us by means of that humblest of all duties of the annual cycle of the church’s life, the Parochial Report, tell a story of how our church is caught up in this wrenching trend of greater inequality — and cast light on the challenges we face in proving to be a church able to respond with grace, joy, and both a common purpose and common prayer in meeting the challenges ahead of us.
The figures shown on this table come from two sources. The first is the good offices of the Executive Office of the General Convention, and in particular those sainted people who gently remind us every year, sometimes repeatedly, to submit our reports. What this data shows is that the total of all reported endowment funds across all 3,202 reporting parishes of the Episcopal Church was $4,933,691,305 in 2019 — the last full pre-pandemic calendar year — and $5,421,648,478 in 2020, a growth rate of 9.89 percent. (By contrast, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index grew by 15 percent in that same period; church endowments are conservatively managed.)
The table shows the top fifty endowments of individual parishes, ranked in descending order, as reported on line 20 of the “Stewardship and Financial Information of the Reporting Congregation” section of the Parochial Report. The data disclose the reality beneath the sense that the pandemic exposed the inequalities among; these fifty churches account for nearly twenty-three percent of all endowed funds held by all 6,376 parishes in the Episcopal Church. Or, to say it in different terms, one half of one percent of all Episcopal parishes — that is to say, just 32 churches — hold nearly a fifth (18 percent) of all endowed parochial funds in the church.
Is this the church we are called to be? I suggest that this inequality — or, more accurately, the inability of our governing structures and patterns of work to unlock the potential within it — is more significant in hindering our ability to respond with grace and effective ministry to God’s call to us across the future than those things that more naturally capture our attention and passion.
But beneath that observation is an unsettling question: Is there something about the structures of the church we have inherited, and the values it enshrines, that have in some ways contributed to this outcome? And if so, how should we think about these things?
One might say, in view of all this — and some have — that the proper response in this moment is to adopt an attitude of “every diocese for itself.” Of course, it is a short move from that position to a neoliberal rule of self-help and survival of the fittest — every church for itself. But it is hard to see how such a view can possibly be aligned with the scriptural challenge of Acts 4; and if we are to be a church following the pattern of the apostolic church — and that church, let it be said, adapted with profound capacity for innovation to a rapidly changing world, as did the Episcopal Church itself in earlier generations — then we must reject that counsel outright for what it is, a case of irenicism with the dominant culture we are called not to conform to, but convert.
The Church as Commonweal
The experience of the Episcopal Church in Europe points toward a different possibility. We are a part of the church that simply could not exist without the support of the wider church. Our sense of dependence on and interdependence with the larger church makes us more alive, as disciples, to the notion — sometimes, let’s face it, abstract to Episcopalians — of our dependence on God. As an organic part of the church living under the necessity of invention and adaptation, as a place where experimentation is both our condition and our charism, for us to be “Episcopal” means in a very real way to be in a relationship of commonweal with each other, and with the whole church.
For us, God’s call to us in mission across the years ahead — the vision we sense and the voice we follow that leads to vitality in spirit and growth in service — is the Church as Commonweal.
There is good news in the story of this data. There is tremendous good work going on, good being done by some of those parishes blessed to be at the wealthy end of the distribution spectrum. Many of those who have been given talents are about the work of investing them. What is more, they are setting models for how best to effectively and accountably invest those talents for the benefit of communities worldwide.
What is needed is a means by which to engage the one percent of our churches in a virtuous competition — and collaboration — to identify, encourage, and spread practices and initiatives helping the whole church to thrive in a changed world. For while it is true that all faith communities, ours included, have entered a period of numeric decline, it is not true that all our communities are declining. There are green shoots and signs of life, often in the least likely and most overlooked places. We have the capacity to find them, help them flourish, and share their example with others.
Are we really resigned to the values that lead us toward an every-church-for-itself church? Or are we prepared to live into the challenge — perhaps the call — of the Church as Commonweal? Surely there is a sufficient well of imagination and innovation among the One Percent of our churches holding fifty percent of the talents to create among them such a structure. Surely there is a pressing social need — finding vital pathways to assure the future and flourishing of the Episcopal Church as a compelling, international witness to the hope of the gospel — that is a common interest of the leaders of these parishes.
One thing needs to be confronted without cavil: It is not likely that our current institutional structures for decision-making and accountability — the General Convention, or the Executive Council — could to bring such a structure, or such a church, into being. This isn’t a judgment on the capacity of these structures for adaptive change (which would seem to be inherently limited) so much as it is a linear assessment that relates the reasons these institutions were created to the objectives they have and the focus that orients their work.
The Church as Commonweal will be enabled to respond to God’s call in mission by aligning the talents entrusted to a few with the possibilities of renewal and growth now emerging across the nine provinces and eighteen countries of our churches. When the church itself is seen as the focus of investment and nurturing, it will be enabled to find new paths toward serving and sending in Christ’s name, and for adapting its message to speak incarnationally to a changing culture while staying true to its ethos.
Mark Edington is Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. A longer and fuller version of this article is available here.