Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Numbers Game (Stockton)

What Numbers Tell Us and What They Don't
by the Rev. James Stockton

Numbers: The Wrong Path

When we are involved with the “Numbers Game,” we need to take into account that, by several measures, Islam is the fastest growing of the world's religions. On that basis if we are to treat numbers as prescriptive for our course as a Church, we will need to consider a drastic change in our direction. In addition, for 25 years, Fundamentalism has been the most widely and vigorously embraced theological method across any distinctions of specific religions. Thus, if we are to regard numbers as some sign of divine approval, we will need to alter our manner and our beliefs radically.

However, to the degree that we are critical thinkers and thoughtful believers, these numbers will inspire us to do no such thing. As the 20/20 Task Force recognized in 2001, growth is concerned with more than merely numbers. While the more conservative leaders in our Church seem to believe that God has set numerical benchmarks for the 21st century Episcopal Church, we will do well to let go of that peculiar idea and let God be God.

Reading about and hearing of the experiences of others tells me that my own is similar to theirs. The congregation with whom I serve experienced a huge change in our relationship with the wider community immediately following General Convention 2003. Like having a light switch turned off, we experienced an absolute absence of guests and visitors to our worship the first Sunday following the close of Convention, and this continued for four months. Though things have improved, we have never recovered the numbers of folks that we'd seen until that point.

Though it seemed then, and still seems so to some, I agree with those who suggest that the real impact upon our congregation's relationship with the world around us was not sexuality. Further, I believe the noted decline in attendance in churches in North America (the Episcopal Church among them) is not about sexuality. The election of Bishop Gene Robinson was not the catalyst for precipitous decline in Church attendance and membership.

Our Task

We have an important task ahead. What we've learned in my congregation is that we must work hard not to surrender the public face of the Episcopal Church to the secular and/or partisan media. We have learned that the media tend to look for a sensationalist first strike rather than seeking insight into a topic of interest. We've learned that we must be assertive in putting forward a positive and accurate depiction of the virtues of our Church. We need to celebrate being the kind of Church that could embrace the election of an unapologetically gay bishop as well as those who vehemently wish he had not been elected. In other words, we need to share joyfully the virtues of our Church, where difference co-exists with harmony and does not, as is true in some denominations, contradict it.

Where We Went Wrong

Decline in membership and attendance are not so directly related to the election of Gene Robinson as some either mistakenly or deliberately think. Instead, I believe the fault lies with our Church's failure – both nationally and locally – to make the most of his election as a tool to promote the virtues of Episcopalian breadth and depth.

As a parish priest, I consider it first the responsibility of our national and diocesan leaders and administrators to exercise the foresight and to do the necessary planning to frame the issue properly. Sadly, in 2003, while a handful of dissidents were clearly prepared to use Bishop Robinson's election for a destructive agenda, most diocesan bishops and bureaucracies seem to have been woefully unprepared to lead in a positive and constructive direction. I'm aware that for many of my fellow clergy and me, diocesan leadership was either paralyzed or asleep for months following the 2003 General Convention.

When it finally raised its voice, that voice seemed vacuous rather than vital. Because most diocesan bureaucracies were unprepared, they lost the opportunity to define the real issue and to lay the parameters of discussion and debate for the Church at all levels, including our parishes and missions, and so also for the observing public. The Church and the Communion have been paying dearly for this failure for at least the last four anxious years.

Globally, if the Archbishop of Canterbury and the primates had been as prepared as their hindsight now indicates they had opportunity to be, much of the angry furor would have been denied the platform from which it has inflicted needless pain and distraction throughout the Communion. The discontent isn't about sexuality, and the global leadership had a chance to state this plainly and to frame the ongoing study and reflection that remain important to the Church.

To suppose that Gene Robinson's election is somehow responsible for an increase in hostility against Christians in Africa is simply ridiculous. Does anyone really dare to claim that it was Gene Robinson’s election that pushed some Muslim young man over the edge into terrorism and that – had the election gone the other way – this young man would be a fine upstanding citizen to this day? The notion is absurd!

Had the self-appointed inquisitors here and abroad not been salivating at any chance to grab at power based on ideological division, and instead been intent on serving as spiritual guides, they would have been able to speak up for a Christ-like polity at work in Anglicanism – a polity that accepts and welcomes differences in the context of a mutual autonomy, a common faith, and a shared desire to live accordingly.

Clearly, the "Right" was more prepared for Bishop Robinson's election than was the "Left." So I tend to lay the recent decline in numbers at the feet of an unprepared, possibly naive national and regional leadership and at the feet of that minority of leaders who deliberately capitalized on the discord to make a play for power. Further, I think it undeniable that the power grab is far more evident and far more vigorous among those on the so-called "Right" than among those on the so-called "Left."

These factors, I think, combine to be the real force behind any decline in Episcopal Church attendance and membership, as well as similar declines in mainstream American Protestantism. However, thanks precisely to their prior preparation, the angry dissident minority has shown the rest of us how the use of secular media can help capture the opportunity to characterize the central issues of the Church in the popular mind. Happily, I believe the rest of the Church has finally begun to learn from this experience in a productive way.

Our Vocation as the Center of the Church

I see the decline now bottoming out, the discord winding down, the malcontents surrendering to their own frustration, and the customer-service orientation of Church life giving way to something better. Yes, we will always be in awe of the dinosaurs, their once-upon-a-time majesty and power. But thanks be to God, the dinosaurs in the Church really are extinct. In their place, I see the majority of the Episcopal Church, and the majority of the Churches of the Anglican Communion, determinedly and publicly returning to the business and ministry of Christianity.

Our new Presiding Bishop is calling attention to the Church's vocation to mission and to its efforts to respond to this call. Wisely, she has also called upon those in the Church who are responsible for and knowledgeable about relations with media to be purposeful about getting out the news of the Church's positive witness. The Church's creation of EpiScope and the Diocese of Washington's Episcopal Café are but two recent manifestations of that positive witness.

The more the people outside the borders of the Church become persuaded that the Church is tending to its ideals and is living the grace and love of God, the more they will be willing to invest it with credibility – enough to join the effort. So I rather think the future is brightening for the Church and for mainstream Protestantism in the West. Against the expectations of the dissidents, a progressive expression of Christian faith is gently but tenaciously effecting its ministry. We as the Church are communicating this vision and life to ourselves and to the world around us.

Numbers are useful for measuring progress of various efforts. However, I think we want to avoid regarding numbers as a prescription for the course we choose. It is easy to manufacture numbers of people through pandering and compromise. What is more important than mere numbers is the fact that already, many of us – I venture to say most of us – are feeling better about our Church and more confident about our faith. The attraction of the Gospel is showing through.

I believe that soon, the numbers (for what they're worth) will catch up. By then, though, I think we will have learned that sexuality was never really an issue over which to break apart the fellowship of the Episcopal Church, but a matter around which to grow it. By the time the numbers have caught up with the lived reality, we'll be distracted from their significance by the meaningful ministries we will be doing and by the progress we will be celebrating.

About the Author: The Reverend James V. Stockton is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin (Diocese of Texas). He has previously written for The Episcopal Majority here, here, here. and here.


Blogger Ormonde Plater said...

Parish leadership also faltered and proved too weak for the challenge.

6/08/2007 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Jim Stockton said...

This is true, but I can report from my own experience: I was blessed with the opportunity to do a television interview following GCon 2003. After a lengthy dry spell, it actually drew a few people to my congregation. However, it continues to be difficult for us parish clergy to lead when we have little or no substantive direction from our bishops or national leadership to validate and support our efforts. In my own diocese, we're seriously hindered by having a bishop who is a self-annointed leader of the oppositional dissidents whose message is that the Church is doomed, heretical, and heading to schism; in stark contrast to the positivea and forward-looking message of our Presiding Bishop. Parish clergy, yes, must share responsibility for the failure of leadership. But I continuet to emphasize that the greatest general failure is amongs our bishops and national leadership. They are, thanks be to God, turning this around.

6/08/2007 6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fr. Stockton, you have strong words to describe those who disagree with your perspective.
How do you deal in your parish with those who disagree with you on these matters, not simply "malcontents" but those whose study and journey in faith has led them to reach conclusions that are the opposite of yours?

Also, have you spoken with your peers in Egypt or other predominantly Muslim countries concerning their experiences after the election and consecration of Bishop Robinson?

6/11/2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger Jim Stockton said...

Dear Anonymous,
My article seems to have sparked something in you. Perhaps you've had bad experiences with folks who've disagreed with you? I regret it if this is the case. But let me suggest that Jesus didn't mince words with those whom he believed were called to know better, nor did the Apostles Paul and Peter. In my own small attempt to follow their examples and to respond to my call as a Christian and a priest of Chris's Church, my criticism's pertain to positions and behaviors, not to person. If these are 'strong words' that somehow offend you personally, I apologize; that is not my intention. At the same time, I cannot hold myself responsible for inferences that people make for themselves.

Assuming, then, that your questions are genuine, please know that people disagree with me and with one another freqenatly, freely, and openly here in the parish community with whom I serve. There are no thougt police here; it's one of the many blessings of being a liberal parish. As Paul urged the early Christians do to do, each of us and all of us together hold to that to which God has brought us,individually and collectively. In this we believe our manner of being in communion with one another to be thoroughly honest, respectful, and faithful to God. Perhaps this is your own experience? I pray so.

As for word from our kindred in countries that are predominantly Muslim, I'm not in direct contact with them, no. I can only respond to what I read and hear, and all of that is coming from the leaders, not the people whom they lead. If in fact I hear that people believe they are suffering additionally as a direct result of the actions of the American Church, I will urge them to consider, as I do here in my article, that they have been misled. The people I would most like to hear from would be the Muslim person for whom Bp. Robinson's consecration was the last straw that pushed him or her over into anti-Christian terrrorism; the person for whom, if this consecration only had not happened, then he or she would never have even considered persecuting Christians.

If you are aware of such a person, I urge you to help him or her to tell the story, for it will shed a great light of truth on the matter. If for one, when I read or hear from that person, will be persuaded that this one event really did have the dire consequences that have, to date, been claimed by only some few Christians for whom the tale suits their prior agenda.

I hope all of this helps you, dear Anonymous. And if not you, then perhaps it will encourage some other reader. In any case, thank you for your stimulating comments. All God's Peace to you.
Jim +

6/11/2007 6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are we called to pacify the Muslims, or to walk out the good news of Jesus Christ? (I'm sure many of the militant Islamists also object to the sharing of the gospel, in general, in Muslim nations.)

But, surely we cannot allow unrighteous opinions to dictate the actions of the Christian church.


6/13/2007 8:44 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

HUH?? Grace, I know you from many other blogs, where I have come to appreciate your gentle voice. But what you're saying here makes no sense to me! Please explain.

6/13/2007 8:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Unless I've misread one of your commentators, he seems to be implying that it was wrong to consecrate Gene Robinson as a bishop, for fear of the reaction of the Muslims.

I'm trying to share that we can't allow fear to control the actions of the Christian church in walking out the gospel. I think some of these militant Muslims would surely object to even the sharing of the "good news" at all in their lands.

But, as a church, I feel we ultimately need to follow the leading of God's spirit, regardless of the reaction or opinions of others outside the church.

Truly, I'm not trying to be hardhearted, and it maybe that this commentator was genuinely fearing for the safety of Christian believers in Egypt. I'm sensitive to that, but I don't even then feel the answer is simply accomodation. Where does it end?

Do you see what I mean?

God bless, Lisa. Sorry for the confusion.


6/14/2007 5:42 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for the clarification, Grace. Yes, I do now see what you mean.

6/14/2007 7:02 AM  

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