Convention to face ‘tough societal questions’ confronting the Episcopal Church

By Mike Patterson
Posted Jun 26, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] When the 79th General Convention considers the resolutions proposed by the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, it will confront “tough questions” facing the Episcopal Church in the current social environment.

House of Deputies President the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings asked the 2016-2018 Committee on the State of the Church to focus on social justice and advocacy ministries, multicultural and ethnic ministries, and the Church Pension Group. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

The pressing areas of social justice, multiculturalism and ethnic ministries were all examined during the committee’s three-year study of how the Episcopal Church can better equip itself and minister effectively in multiple social contexts in “these deeply troubled and divisive times,” the committee’s report states.

If there is an overarching takeaway, the committee’s chair, the Rev. Winnie S. Varghese of the Diocese of New York, hopes it is that “we need to find more ways to release the gifts of the church from communities that we tend to position as ‘being served’ by the church,” she said in an email in response to questions submitted by Episcopal News Service.

“There is very creative work being done in local ministries that could be used as resources for the whole church, and that a staff empowered to work across areas in ethnic and multicultural work at the churchwide level would be a great gift for us,” Varghese said.

While the committee is mandated to provide the House of Deputies a report on the state of the church, it received a special charge at the beginning of this triennium from the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president, to focus on social justice and advocacy ministries, multicultural and ethnic ministries, and the Church Pension Group.

Recommending changes to the parochial report also falls under the committee’s purview. Since data gathering is a component of the parochial report, Varghese assumes this is why the State of the Church Committee was assigned the task of exploring the rapidly changing context of the Episcopal Church.

“I found the charge from the president of the House of Deputies to the committee challenging and insightful about areas of the church that are high priorities and areas of some interest, concern, maybe confusion,” Varghese said. “I agree with her that engaging the tough questions is a good use of the wisdom of the broader church.”

To prepare its report, the committee conducted surveys, interviews and reviews of church membership, stewardship and average Sunday attendance and found changes that reflect a “modest decline in relation to the recent past,” a “radical decline” compared to the 1950s and early 1960s, and “a profound and shocking decline when compared to the growth in population of the United States.”

Census data also revealed that while births are barely outpacing deaths in the United States, immigration is fueling the fastest growth in the U.S. population, which in turn has implications for the context of the entire Episcopal Church.

“As a church, more and more of our congregations are visibly diverse, and we must equip ourselves to minister effectively in contexts in which there are multiple social norms, and the weight of discrimination and privilege in society present themselves to us in our congregations,” the committee’s report states.

The committee examined how each of the Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries, which include Latino/Hispanic Ministries, Asian Ministries, Black Ministries and Native American Ministries, began in official roles out of the Episcopal Church Center. It also explored recent and current dynamics and strategies of the ministries, as well as the current direction of church leadership with respect to these ministries.

Among its findings, the report states, is that “racism is active within the structures of the Episcopal Church.”

“Clearly our church has been a prophetic voice in calling out the sin of racism in our society,” the report says, but “little is heard when it comes to exploring the realities within our own church.”

For example, Episcopal churches fail to reflect the diversity of their local communities; clergy from nondominant cultures face unequal access to theological education, unequal compensation and unequal training and continuing education; and the mutuality of the exchange of gifts, skills, grants, financial gifts and “the way we tend to tell our stories” assumes a flow from the dominant to the “ethnic” minorities rather than sharing with each other or the rest of the church, the report says.

“In the presiding bishop’s ‘The Beloved Community’ plan, we see progress toward understanding the complexity and the need for mutuality in Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries,” the report continues. “By asking the question, ‘Where is Jesus in this community?’ we shift from the assumption that we are bringing Jesus to the assumption that Jesus is already there with and in the people.”

During interviews with the Church Center’s multicultural missioners, the committee learned that missioners are themselves ministering to diverse communities, nationalities and cultures. “The result has been the development of strong skills of how to successfully deal with a pluralistic community,” the committee said. “This is a skill set greatly needed by the church as a whole.”

The committee concluded that the church has “hidden the light of these communities instead of bringing them to the center of church life.”

The committee has proposed resolutions “as practical and doable steps of commitment on a long journey that has already been undertaken and will go on for a long time, a journey that can begin to help us open the deep gifts of developing bridges and mutual accountability and communication.”

Resolution A054 requests $15,000 for multicultural ministers and linguists to create “a small book of prayer, liturgy and music” in recognition of the presence of Christ in all church communities. Resolution A055 invites multicultural ministers to develop ways for sharing the gifts of their ministry with the wider church.

Taking up its charge to explore the work of social justice and advocacy ministries, the committee concluded that while the church is “doing many different types of work, social justice work is not robust across the church.”

Most especially, the committee discovered that the understanding of “social justice” varies broadly and that activities across the church tend to fall more “into the realm of alleviation of suffering and the work of charity than the work of justice.”

To clarify misunderstandings, the committee defined “social justice work” as “acts to address and heal the root cause of the injustice which prompted our need for charity in the first place.”

Committee research did uncover some “anxiety from the grassroots of the church” over whether “social justice preaching” should advocate a particular view on reform or that “emphasis should be on ‘outreach ministry’ but not social justice.”

Respondents to a survey conducted for the committee were eager for resources, suggestions and people to reach out to for help, and “almost all who responded acknowledged a need for this work and many a desire to do it. They wanted to connect with others doing this work but did not know how to find them,” the committee said.

The committee is proposing resolutions to help address these concerns. Resolution A056 suggests a task force to study how the Episcopal Church “currently fosters theological understanding and leadership for social justice, and recommend ways to foster theological and practical conversation across the church on this topic.”

Resolution A057 supports strengthening churchwide resources and collaboration to support the grassroots work of the Episcopal Church in the areas of social justice advocacy and ethnic and multicultural ministry.

Faced with the rapidly changing context of the church, the committee also proposed Resolution A053. This requests that a new parochial report be developed that is “appropriate to the current context of the Episcopal Church including but not exclusive to multicultural congregations; aging populations; outposts of ministry in challenging economic contexts; and creative use of space and local engagement, to be administered and shared in networked, visible tools such as the Episcopal Asset Map.”

“We decide what we measure and what we measure tends to form what we value,” Varghese said in her email.

“For the sake of data, it is good to measure a few vital things consistently for a long time, but for the sake of our formation, and our self-understanding of what makes a great congregation, the committee believes it is important for the church to revisit the entire form to align with what we say today are the characteristics that we value in a church, and make it fully and more robustly electronic, synced with the ways we would record such data, and appropriately shareable through the asset map or a resource like it that helps us to identify and develop networks of mutual support,” she added.

Finally, the committee reviewed how the “traditional” model of clergy employment has changed. For example, more females are clergy and many clerics continue to work after their retirement. The committee asked in Resolution A060 that a task force be created to study the work on the Church Pension Fund. (See the ENS story “Ahead of General Convention, Episcopalians consider Church Pension Fund’s service to a changing church” here.)

Mike Patterson is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. He is a member of ENS General Convention reporting team and can be reached at rmp231@gmail.com.


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Comments (14)

  1. william dailey says:

    The Committee Report should be read in its entirety. It is significant and needs to be seriously contemplated when considering a long term commitment to the Church. The Committee discussed the competing ideologies facing the Church and as Yogi said, they came to a fork in the road and they took it. The implications of their discussion, findings and recommendations are profound and need to be understood.

    1. regina mcilvain says:

      “Came to a fork in the road and they took it” great quote. Problem is, we are so bogged down with information these days, made worse as we often have to research a statement to verify it. I wish there were a trusted method of distilling important points and communicating them effectively.

      1. The Rev. Bob Thwing says:

        I agree. Most of the communication is one way. Often the National Church takes a stand on Social issues without getting input from members. Thus they turn away many people when we should be trying to get more people active. Those in authority are entitled to their opinions, but they shouldn’t be forced on others.

  2. Kathy Anderson says:

    Not a word about gender/sexual preference diversity. Are we doing that well? I don’t think so.

    1. Robert Wadkins says:

      Typical modern TEC drivel. By taking stands on social justice, slavery guilt and such the church is little more than an advocacy group. It will be (already is) viewed as such. We no longer value intelligence in our clergy. If he or she can say “Come to Jesus “ that is the ticket! It is no wonder that so many parishioners have abandoned this new foolishness. We are no different from the newest church established yesterday by a charismatic egoist who will change the world.
      Perhaps if we got rid of the

      1. Matt Ouellette says:

        I’m sorry, but social justice should be an important part of our ministry as Christians. This is not mere political advocacy. Injustices such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred are contrary to the gospel and we should be speaking out against them.

        1. John Hobart says:

          The problem with this approach is that we sound just as hateful when we condemn others.

          1. Matt Ouellette says:

            I don’t think we’re condemning others, but are rather calling attention to systemic sins in our society; sins which affect us all. It’s not hateful to criticize hatred.

    2. Doug Desper says:

      Kathy, the Episcopal Church has made more than proportionate responses regarding gender and sexuality issues. Some will say rightly that attention to those issues has been to the exclusion and often the distraction to other great and pressing issues facing the majority of the Church. Sexuality has been nearly the identification of this Church for a decade. My sense is that enough will never be enough. The “respecting the dignity of all persons” has become mainly interpreted as “give me what recognition I demand”. The target keeps getting moved to the degree that many of the demands have gotten quite ridiculous. What used to be awareness and tolerance for LGBT persons has turned into demands for affirmation of LGBTQIAPK+++. One leading voice declared “we haven’t discovered all the identities yet.” I won’t debate the validity of what people want to call themselves or what people want to be regarded as. I will state that the Church in the pews doesn’t have to grant the level of affirmation demanded. All it has shown is that such a demand is never adequately nourished.

      1. Rob Pinion says:

        Wow, what a “terrible” thing to be known for: seeking to account for the human condition, to recognize the dignity and worth of all people, and to just maybe undo centuries of institutionalized oppression. Have we gotten tired of that task already? We weren’t tired after ten years of oppression. Maybe we can figure this one out and be ready for something else — and if we’re so blessed, we do it all at the same time.

      2. Paul Hinson says:

        I get that it “feels” that way to you Doug but I have to say I see finally a diminishing for the need to see gay people as different in the church or really entitled to anything different than others. Now there are certainly dioceses and parishes where gay people are made to feel diminished but in settings where gay people have been embraced as equal children of God and provided with both the entitlements and responsibilities of ministry the feeling I get is rather the feeling that being gay is kind of irrelevant in those places. I’m a member of a parish where we have gay clergy and a gay organist/choirmaster but “being gay” is just not all the relevant to their ministries. I will say it has some relevance in that it likely makes them more compassionate to others who have been ignored or diminished in the past but there’s no need for example of a gay affinity group at the parish. Not that would be objected to but with marriage equality in particular having now been achieved there seems to be less of a need for organizations like Integrity in such places. We ALL just become part of a single human family in that parish. Social justice issues are still of tremendous importance but they are far broader than just gay issues. I think there’s still a difference among Christians with regard to what the gospel actually ASKS of us and that’s another whole kettle of fish.

  3. Arthur Lee says:

    Social Justice is a Biblical imperative. It is far broader than any one particular issue, since at heart every social justice issue is related to every other one. My hope is that, at the same time as we work to correct any particular issue of social injustice, we will also stress its connection to other social injustices and to their common root causes.

  4. mike geibel says:

    The comments that the number counts of communicants can be very inflated suggest that the membership decline is even worse than the dire statistics shown in the 2016 Parochial Report. Those in the pulpit have a better finger on the pulse of the Church because they are witness to the empty pews and and the absence of young faces. The resolutions appear designed to change “what we measure” because the statistics are discouraging.

    The 2016 Parochial Report disclosed a drop of 34,179 members in 2016 from 2015, which recorded a loss of 36,000+ members over 2014. This equals almost 70,000 members lost in 2 years. A net 37 parishes closed in 2016. The average Episcopal parish attracted 57 worshipers on a Sunday, and 71 % of churches have an attendance of fewer than 100. Less than 4 percent attract 300 or more. One third of Episcopal parishes in the U.S. have an ASA of 35 or less. Three hundred churches record an ASA of 10 parishioners or less. Episcopalians number less than 0.5% of the population of the United States.

    The Episcopal Church is 80% white, 60% over 60 years old, and it is estimated that 40% of parishioners are conservatives who voted for Trump, or alternatively, voted against Hillary Clinton. Committee research uncovered “anxiety from the grassroots of the church” over whether “social justice preaching” should advocate a particular view on reform or that “emphasis should be on ‘outreach ministry’ (charity) but not social justice.” The partisan politicking by the TEC leadership since the 2016 election does not bode well for 2017 and 2018. When the membership at large starts paying attention to the leftist “social justice” mischief afoot in the array of Resolutions now proposed, I doubt that the loss of parishioners will reverse itself.

    1. The Rev. Bob Thwing says:

      Right on! Keep away from political positions which will alienate 50% of the people either way.. A sure way to decrease numbers even more. Put the focus on Outreach.

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