This is part one of a two part series on the Catholic work of the Episcopal Church.  In this first piece I am simply noting changes that are upon us and in the second will look at specific ways that Episcopal Church might respond to position itself for the future.

One of the discomforts of entering the Episcopal Church is the discovery that it is a house divided about one matter or another.  It is a Church with as wide a range of perspective as can be encompassed in any one body – and perhaps wider.  Before I went to seminary, I had never heard Rite II.  I assumed that the entire Church celebrated the Holy Mysteries facing East in the prose of Cranmer.  My first Eucharist at General Seminary was a confusing thing.  I walked out and called my wife and said, “They are using some sort of rite that you would use at church camp or in a rec room.” It was Rite II.

I offer that not to indicate the rightness or wrongness of anything but merely to point out that it is perfectly possible to come into the Episcopal Church and find a logical, happy home and not realize how wide the spectrum of worship, theology, and practice is across the Church.

So, with all that diversity, I wonder what the uniting work is of the Church?  What is the Catholic – the universal, continuous, and uniting work of the Episcopal Church?

The Catholic work of the Episcopal Church is yet to be done.  I truly believe that our long-term identity is to be found in the very place we once aspired to – if not looking quite the same.  I believe that we are destined to be a national Church.  By this I do not mean a Church of the state nor a Church of any identifiable party or privileged class – but a Church that is as diverse in its expressions as our nation is diverse and yet is teaching and living the wholeness of the Catholic faith.

No Church is as ideally positioned for the future as the Episcopal Church.  Let me reiterate that.  No Church is as ideally positioned for the future as the Episcopal Church.

That may seem a large pill to swallow as we look at declining numbers, closing churches, and seemingly dwindling resources.  However, when one looks at the root causes of those declines one realizes that the Episcopal Church is strongly positioned for the future.

Population Shifts

It is first important to think about the changes that are impacting the Church at large.  One chief reason for our difficulties is the increasing urbanization of the United States.  We are in the midst of a population shift to urban and exurban areas – and out of both rural and suburban locales.  This will mean a decline in the churches that are rural churches.  We will face the closure of a large number of churches in rural areas.

According to a study by demographers at the Department for Homeland Security, “In 1870 one out of four Americans lived in urban areas. By 1920 the urban-to-non-urban ratio was 1-to-1. In 2010 four out of five Americans lived in urban areas. Today about 75 percent of Americans are concentrated on about three percent of the nation’s territory.” There is a projected acceleration of this urbanization through 2030.  In the graph below, one can note that the areas of projected growth are areas where the Episcopal Church is strongly represented.

We, however, like all churches will have to wrestle with the declines in some of the old industrial centers and find new ways to engage and serve those most hurt by the shifting economics of our society.

county concentrations

Now, there are a host of urban parishes closing.  Yet, I would maintain, that the strength of the Episcopal Church in urban areas remains a key factor for our future.  The churches that are closing are the ones that were most hurt by the flight from urban centers.  However, we are now seeing a reversal of that flight and, I expect, will see an attendant strengthening of those churches who have the resources and creativity to continue to operate.  We are well-positioned to attract those who are moving to urban areas for a number of reasons.

Demographic Shifts and Diversity

Not only will the growth continue but the population will become more diverse as well.  While it may not seem that this is a particular strength of the Episcopal Church right now – we do have the potential to take advantage of shifts in diversity based on our history and character.  We are not, despite our waspy nature at times, an ethnic Church.  Within our DNA is an ability to open ourselves to diverse expressions of the faith.  Moreover, many of those who are second or third generation immigrants are not looking for expressions of Church that will only cater to their ethnic identity but for faith homes that will offer them a place to worship and serve alongside those from a variety of other backgrounds as space for diversity is created.

The Episcopal Church will offer a home to those who are seeking a place that is at once familiar, which by nature of our worship and sacraments we can be, but also creates a welcoming environment for different cultures and ethnicities.  In a study by Rice University of Asian-American second and third generations in the US, it was determined that “As children of immigrants find jobs and become independent, most leave ethnic enclaves, losing their close proximity to extended families.” Moreover, “Catholics and, to a greater extent, Asian-Americans who were members of non-Christian religions faced more of a tension between their own agency in deciding which religious tradition to follow and having their religion determined by family tradition…”

As someone who comes out of an immigrant Roman Catholic family, I have some experience with this trend, though I would love to hear the opinions of those coming from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

My sense is that as children of immigrants move to urban areas seeking new jobs and educational opportunities, a robust Episcopal Church, can offer a place for these true seekers to explore and find a spiritual home.  We can become a natural home by offering elements of traditional faith that are deeply connected to long tradition while also having the local flexibility to welcome in new and vibrant ways and ensure that those coming to our churches are not simply welcomed but are allowed to change who we are as a community.

This diversity will also mean a recognition of the dramatic shifts taking place in our society around issues of gender and sexuality.

Space for Questions

It may seem obvious, but the Episcopal Church has, as a chief strength, its ability to welcome those who have substantial questions about faith.  This cannot mean that we are devoid of answers or unable to articulate faithful responses to real and deep needs but our character and essence is one that is reasonable in its expression.

Our unity is found in our common worship and in our ability to hold in tension the varied places which people are in when they come to the Church.  One of the passages of Scripture that always appeals to me as an Anglican is the story of Thomas.  Of course, we all know of his so-called doubting – his unwillingness to hope that his deepest longing was true.  Yet, the often overlooked piece of the story of Thomas is that even when he expressed doubt, was held by the community in love, not run off for unbelief.

John 20:25-26 reads, “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’”

That week for Thomas must have been what so many of those longing to hope are searching for – a community that will walk with them as they encounter the living Christ.

Many come to our communities wanting to hope yet not daring to do so.  The Episcopal Church offers home where we can balance hope with sincere doubtful longing.  Moreover, many are now able to access a wide range of information in a pluralistic society.  They are hyper-informed and the Episcopal Church offers a way of being that honors their own search even as we offer a way of being faithful that can sustain them for the journey.

Longing for Authenticity and Tradition

Alongside the faithful questioning that so many have is a concomitant longing for the deepest elements of our tradition.  We are seeing study after study and have many pieces of anecdotal evidence that emerging generations are longing for places of authentic engagement with the Holy.  Our long tradition gives us all the tools for an authentic, deep-rooted faith that is expressed in ways that reach back millennia.

This means more than worship and Sacraments though.  It means churches that live in sacrificial ways that speak to the heart of a lived Gospel.  The Episcopal Church has a stated concern for justice in many places that, if actualized, might actually manifest itself as a drive for justice.  This will have to mean more than vague diocesan resolutions or the like – it will mean congregations that have members and leaders who are visibly and consistently risking status and position for the sake of promoting not only social justice but a justice rooted in the Communion between Christ and his people.  In other words – it must be a clear matter of faith not simply a marker of relevance.

It must be clearly noted that this longing for authenticity and tradition is, first and foremost, a longing for God even if it is not always recognized as such.  It is a longing for a fixed point of reference in a constantly changing world and society.

I will talk more extensively about this in the next post.

The Catholic Work of the Episcopal Church

The next post will focus on why this is Catholic work and what that means for the Episcopal Church and our future.