It is sometimes an interesting exercise to see what Google auto-complete will fill in when you begin a query on the search engine. They are often fascinating little blurbs that reflect cultural and social anxieties, fears, hopes, misperceptions, and trends. For example, if you type in “Is there…” the following four phrases are “auto-filled”
- Is there…a God?
- Is there…anybody out there?
- Is there…a cure for herpes?
- Is there…life after death?
With the obvious exception, it is fascinating that all of these are existential questions – questions of ultimate meaning and ontology. And one of seemingly pressing and worldly concern! These fill in the blank exercises are often a mix of humorous, sad, telling, and nonsensical. Like so many trends, it is difficult to draw distinct conclusions but it is possible to sense trends, perhaps.
I was intrigued, so I typed in the beginning of the query “Is the Episcopal Church…” to see what others were asking about the Episcopal Church. The auto-fill responded with
- …right for me?
Of course, I was struck immediately by the first – dying. The others are intriguing though for they may offer an insight as to how the first can be remedied. They also, however, offer potential pitfalls in thinking about how we self-identify, self-select, and evangelize.
It might be interesting to look at how the auto-correct fills in for other Churches and denominations as well. For example, when you type in “Is the Baptist…” you get “…religion a cult.” If you type in “Is the Presbyterian…” and you will get “…liberal” and “…a cult.” None of these rivals Rome’s apparent Google issues as when you type “Is the Roman Catholic…” you will get “…Church a cult” and “…Church the Antichrist.” Interestingly, almost all of the Protestant denominations get “dying” in the results stream.
What others do not get, however, is that fourth auto-fill option that the Episcopal Church gets – “right for me?”
Is the Episcopal Church right for me?
It’s a fascinating question that, apparently, the Episcopal Church is triggering in many people. There are many ways I suppose you could look at this. One could be long-time and disaffected people asking themselves (and Google) “Is the Episcopal Church right for me…anymore?”
I rather think something else is happening though. I think those other two factors are contributing to a new look at the Episcopal Church by many. Everyone is getting dying. Only we are getting the combination of “liberal, catholic, and right for me?”.
I was at a recent small group mass with several Roman Catholics – I was invited as a guest and the celebrant was a Roman priest of some advanced age. He celebrated mass earnestly and with a sense that something wonderful was happening in very mean circumstances. It was when we got to a period of reflections on the readings that things got interesting.
One of the readings was a rather unfortunate lesson on the role and value of women. A Roman Catholic woman at mass said, “This reading makes me feel…energized.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by “energized” and then she said that, as a woman, she was not sure what her place was in the Roman Catholic Church. She expressed a disappointment that her role seemed diminished by the structures of Roman Catholicism.
A man, well dressed and well spoken, then said, “Women have always had a place in the Church.” He said, “They have been nuns and have served in parish leadership roles.” I was expecting him to defend the Roman Church and its stance on women’s ordination. However, he then surprised me by saying, “We have had women in leadership, we have a shortage of priests, I don’t understand why we aren’t ordaining them!” This was met with nods and affirming statements. The sense of the entire room was that the Church was making a mistake by not ordaining women.
Then, a fellow turned to me and asked, “What is it like working with women priests?” I, as a guest, did not want to get on too much of a soapbox. So I offered that it was, frankly, not much different! I said that from my point of view, a woman had borne the source of all of our Sacraments and I believed that they were able to continue to bear Christ for us through the Sacramental life.
Then the conversation turned to ordaining married priests. Again there was a round of affirmative nods and exclamations. Again, I was asked for my perspective as a married priest. I simply offered that I did not know what it was like not to be a married priest but that I thought it brought a fullness and awareness to my ministry that was crucial to my own life as a priest.
In other words, these folks were entirely engaged in thinking about a Catholic Church that looked different from the one they grew up with.
For folks like this, the answer to the question, “is the Episcopal Church right for me” seems like it could be yes, absolutely!
That Google search auto-complete function which gave us “liberal” and “catholic” as auto-fill responses points toward how the Episcopal Church might thus offer a resounding no to the question, “Is the Episcopal Church dying?”
I believe that many, whether Roman Catholic or from other traditions, are looking for a Church that is Catholic in its expression of faith, connected to the early Church by tradition, is creedal and has a centered life of prayer. They are also looking for a Church that honestly wrestles with the challenges of the day even as it finds the answers to those questions in that time-honored exploration of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
We run the risk, however, of allowing any agenda to define the Church. When “liberal” comes up as an adjective, we need to ask ourselves whether this is because we have made one political agenda or another the Church’s defining attribute. It seems that living into the word “liberal” in the fullest sense of the word is a great gift for the Church. The Church’s liberalism must be apolitical – beyond politics and able to speak to it rather than for it.
A quick look at the definition of the word “liberal” finds the following:
“Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.”
If the Episcopal Church can live into this definition with integrity then we will have offered the Church a profound gift. If we are “not limited to or by” established ways of doing things then we are engaged in the process of holy listening that we are always being called to.
However, not being limited by does not mean not considering or not being guided by. There is a value to holding that which we have been given to safeguard with the continued movement of the Spirit. The “authoritarian attitudes” of the definition can be found in the most liberal of agendas. If our way of being is not one that invites constant conversation both with the voices of the present and the voices of the past then we will have sold short the wisdom of the ages.
However, it is foolish to assume that all in tradition is worth holding on to simply for the sake of doing so. There are things in it that are holy and true – though not all of it may be. One need only look at the damage from the clergy abuse scandals to see the cost of a too-rigid deference to tradition. It is the work of discernment, of a liberality of Spirit, to welcome the voices of the past into the conversation with the present. That willingness to engage both the world around us and the past while contemplating the hopes and fears of the future marks a Church that is free from “authoritarian” dogmas and views of any stripe or persuasion.
There are many asking the question, “Is the Episcopal Church right for me?” Our answer is yes! There are many looking for a Church that is rooted in tradition without being dominated by traditionalism. We offer a blend of forward-looking Catholic faith and worship that can draw people like those I talked with in that house group.
Moreover, there are many asking deeper questions beyond any one Church or denomination. Look at that first Google search again! They are asking, in huge numbers, “Is there a God?” We are a Church that can offer answers to that question that reflect our own honest wrestling with the anxieties of the present age and our hope for the age to come. Our answers are not ours alone either but are the answers of the Church over thousands of years whose questions are ours and whose belief ours as well.
At our best we are a liberal Catholic Church that is absolutely right for you! It is a blend of liberal catholicity that will offer a place for those weary of the absolutism of other traditions and while seeking a home that holds tradition in high regard while recognizing that God continues to speak. It is with that voice that we will be able to declare, in no uncertain terms, that the Episcopal Church is not dying.