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Following membership losses, Episcopalians face key decisions at upcoming convention

SHARE Following membership losses, Episcopalians face key decisions at upcoming convention

As Episcopal Church leaders prepare to elect a new presiding bishop and vote on a "special liturgy" for same-sex marriage ceremonies and organizational changes to the 1.8 million-member denomination, not all are in agreement over the health and future of one of the nation's oldest Christian faiths.

Some understandable soul-searching has taken place in the wake of the church losing half its membership since 1966, 12 percent in the past nine years alone. The denomination's progressive stances are blamed for much of the exodus by conservatives, while other clergy say the church is going through needed "pruning" as it becomes more inclusive to reflect today's society.

The Rev. W. Frank Allen of Radnor, Pennsylvania, is one of 800 lower-house delegates coming to Salt Lake City for the movement's triennial General Convention beginning Monday. He is pleased the denomination accommodates a diverse following of worshippers.

"I think that our church is poised for some real growth," said the Rev. Allen, rector of 300-year-old St. David's Episcopal Church in the Philadelphia suburb. "Sociologically and theologically, we're open … we have people at all ends of the spectrum. Spiritually you can have (Episcopal) churches that are very high church, with lots of ceremony, incense and bells; other times you don't know that you're in a church."

His own flock at St. David's is flourishing: Membership totals 3,300, of which between 650 and 700 attend one of multiple worship services each Sunday. St. David's first church, constructed in a year by the Welsh-immigrant farmers who tamed Radnor's fields, still hosts three of those weekly sessions; the other meetings are in a new chapel on a 40-acre campus.

Four hours south of St. David's, in Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Charles Alley leads the 600-member St. Matthew's Episcopal Church. An average of 270 attend worship each Sunday, he said. Although the parish counts its history in decades, not centuries, the congregation remains vibrant, even if its rector is a bit anxious about recent trends in the parent church.

"There is a certain flavor of chaos" in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Alley said. He said "a lack of consistency" between the church's constitution and laws, called canons, and the way leaders are operating is confusing and somewhat "intentional, to get a certain agenda accomplished."

The Rev. Alley believes the Episcopal Church, which voted to ordain women as priests in 1976 and installed its first openly homosexual bishop in 2004, may be "so interested in being relevant (that) in many ways we've rendered ourselves irrelevant as a church."

The Rev. Robert W. Prichard, a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria who has written and published two editions of an Episcopal Church history, says this year's meeting finds the church at a crossroads following a decade of dissension, departures and even litigation. He hopes the Salt Lake City event will help the church move beyond battles over sexuality and present a church that's more attractive to nonmembers.

Of the dozens of resolutions up for voting at the meeting, the first 10 are products of the "Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church," a three-year effort to come up with ways to reform the denomination's structures, governance and administration.

Elesha Coffman a Dubuque Theological Seminary professor and author of a book on mainline Protestantism, agrees the church's convention comes at a critical moment. The Episcopal Church, Coffman noted, "is like the rest of the mainline only more so — more wealthy, more educated, more politically powerful, more socially prominent, and now more troubled."

A founding faith's challenges

Because of its Church of England roots — Anglicans emigrated to colonies in the New World along with religious dissidents — the Episcopal Church might well be described as one of America's founding faiths. George Washington was an Episcopalian, as were a total of 11 of America's 44 presidents — the two most recent being George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford.

In 1966, 3.6 million Americans claimed Episcopalian affiliation, which was the church's peak membership, representing one out of every 54 Americans at the time. Today, only one in every 177 people are Episcopalians.

Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, admits church leaders are uneasy about the membership declines of recent years.

"I am concerned that all of us (mainline churches) are experiencing a decline in numbers," Bishop Sauls said. In his opinion, "the church is going through a phase of pruning, that ultimately is going to be a spiritually healthy thing for us. Particularly as we turn our attention more and more to understanding mission as building relationships with people who are poor and responding to their needs, we are asking people to be more serious about their faith."

A good portion of that decline, critics allege, comes from the church's decades of "moderacy," which essayist Paul Seabury described as "a willingness to include all sorts and conditions … in the church community," with less of an emphasis on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

The increasing inclusion of non-celibate gays and lesbians in the church's clergy, which rankled traditionalists who believe scripture forbids homosexual conduct, culminated with the 2004 installation of the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson as a bishop. Robinson, The New York Times (paywall) reported, came out as gay in 1986 and divorced his wife. The bishop later married his male partner, but the couple divorced in 2014, a year after Robinson retired.

For some Episcopal congregations, the Robinson installation was the last straw. A number of congregations joined a new group aligned with the Anglican Church's Nigerian branch. Their efforts to break away involved more than just doctrinal differences. Some became embroiled in legal battles with the church over property.

The Diocese of South Carolina recently offered its breakaway group $500 million in church buildings if the congregations would give up rights to a campground owned by the diocese and drop the Episcopal name. According to the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, the departing congregations rejected the offer, believing their case will prevail in the state Supreme Court.

The litigation — which critics say cost the denomination tens of millions of dollars, though leaders dispute this — has taken place under the administration of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, elected in 2006 as the first woman to head the Episcopal Church.

While she inherited many challenges, Bishop Jefferts Schori also raised the church's profile with a string of media appearances, including a Time magazine (paywall) question-and-answer feature, and multiple reports in The New York Times, including a 2013 report on her troubled tenure that said "no presiding bishop could be truly popular right now."

In addition to the dissent and costly litigation, the article also cited her controversial theological stances. Religion News Services reported one of these, a declaration that viewing Christ as the only means to salvation would "put God in an awfully small box," suggesting a form of universalism traditional Christians would shun.

Leadership changes

While she could seek a second 9-year term, Bishop Jefferts Schori, 61, last year announced she would not seek re-election, saying she could best serve by opening the way for a new leader.

"I also believe that I can offer this church stronger and clearer leadership in the coming year as we move toward that election and a whole-hearted engagement with necessary structural reforms," she said at the time.

Voting on a new presiding bishop tops the agenda for the General Convention, along with weighing various administrative changes.

Four candidates, one of which will be elected by the group's House of Bishops at the convention, are seeking the top post. Among the finalists is the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry of North Carolina, who if elected would become the first African-American in the post.

Virginia rector the Rev. Alley wants to see the Episcopal Church's leadership, including the new presiding bishop, allow more deliberation and debate when liturgical changes are proposed.

He is referring to a proposal to approve a "special" liturgy for same-sex marriage. While that approach is quicker than adding a new liturgy to the church's Book of Common Prayer — a process that generally takes six years — the Rev. Alley said Episcopal leaders risk a situation where members can't depend on the church following its own canon law when addressing an issue as important as same-sex marriage.

"How are we going to attract new members if we really don't have any assurances for them of who we are and what we're going to be doing," the Rev. Alley asked. "From liturgy to sacraments to canon (law), it's chaos, quite literally."

Bishop Sauls acknowledged the Episcopal Church's changes on human sexuality has been a factor in membership decline as more theologically conservative dioceses and parishes have fled.

"If we take a compelling moral position (it) doesn't do much good for us unless we let people know," he said. "Ours is a church where gay and lesbian people can find a way to be a Christian and be affirmed. We need to do a better job of telling that story."

'Reimagining' proposed

Along with "telling that story," Episcopal leaders say their church needs to align its operations with a movement that is "one small voice among many competing for influence in the public sphere," as the reimagining task force's report to the church put it.

The issues driving the "reimagining" process may well be common to many mainline Protestant denominations. Along with the Episcopal Church, membership in groups such as the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ has declined 18.8 percent during the past seven years, according to the Pew Research Center's 2015 survey of "America's Changing Religious Landscape."

In introducing its report, the Episcopal task force noted the movement's current challenges.

"Many of our parishes are no longer financially self-sufficient and cannot afford full-time stipended clergy," the report stated. "Many of our churches are disconnected from the neighbors who surround them, with expensive buildings that consume too many resources to maintain. Young people called to ordained ministry face a mountain of debt at the end of their seminary training that they may not be able to repay. While our church (administrative) structures and governance have offered a platform for public witness and have helped to create a more inclusive church committed to practicing and advocating for justice in the world, they have been less effective at addressing other pressing issues."

The reimagining task force has asked the delegates and bishops to approve 10 resolutions aimed at streamlining operations and making the church more responsive to changing times. There's no indication, however, as to how many of the proposed measures will be implemented.

Among the group's proposals are merging the church's two legislative bodies into one unit; structure the presiding bishop's job to equal that of a corporate chief executive officer; cut the church's Executive Council membership in half; and eliminate most standing committees, all in an effort to save money and streamline operations.

One cleric said the proposals may not go far enough. The Rev. Susan Snook, an Episcopal priest and church planter in Scottsdale, Arizona, is part of a group called Episcopal Resurrection, which is calling for the church to "refocus our energies from building up a large, centralized, expensive, hierarchical church-wide structure, to networking and supporting mission at the local level."

She said that approach will bring new people into the Episcopal family, including young adults, Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner