The Diocesan Council of Virginia was cut short yesterday due to the storm warnings for heavy snowfall on Saturday. As one of the Diocesan Staff announced, Council would come to an end late Friday night due to Richmond's adopted emergency plan for snow removal, which he called, "Melting."Intrepid is a member the council of The Diocese of Virginia.
For those with an interest in theology the end of a long day was a merciful thing, ending a day long buffet of theological confusion. Those attending the investiture of Bishop Shannon Johnston were given one taste of theology (or perhaps two, the message was far from clear) and we received very different readings from the Bishop of Virginia and the Bishop providing meditations, the Bishop of Panama. We were treated to a dizzying display of Pelagianism, modern liberal theology and a throw back to old catholic sacramental theology of a kind with which even I was not comfortable. And that's going a bit as I was sitting reading Aquinas during the breaks.
We began the day with the Presiding Bishop preaching on a familiar passage, Isaiah 55. The reference to coming to the table and eating for free lead to a discussion of how well we are doing at feeding the poor, in Haiti and in downtown Richmond. They need to come to the table, we need to provide. It was hard to see how this fit with God's invitation to come find him, or that he provides, but let's call it preacher's license. Then we went into a personal story of going to the dentist, a man who had been born in a Jewish slum in a far off land, was brought up in a Roman Catholic School until later when he finished his schooling in an Islamic High School. When he graduated his father told him he could choose to be whatever he wanted to become. This then set the tone for the end of the message ... and it seemed we really had moved a long way from God's provision of food without price, invitation to come to the party, and command to seek him while he wills to be found. Instead I found we were talking about choosing to become who we could be and doing more to help others. I doubt Isaiah would have been able to follow the path from where we started to where we ended up. Nor do I imagine, would he have wanted to ...
The Bishop of Virgina gave a corporate pep talk with a repeated line that seemed to have been recycled from the most recent presidential campaign. He kept saying something like, "And don't think we can't do it" or something like that. We can do it all ... especially if we stop talking about what separates us and get busy with the mission of the church. This was a winning line of argument at my table of 8 ... where before things got underway the same thing could be heard by delegates:
"Did you see the resolutions? Some of them seem fairly controversial."
"I wish we could get over this. I'm tired of talking about these things."
"Yes let's get on with the mission. I fully support them anyway. Let's just get on with it."
As there are very few of us left to disagree with this approach, and it's doubtful our voices can be heard over the whistles and wheels turning as the train leaves the station, the strategy seems to be working. Let's not argue about what separates us. Let's just roll up our sleeves and work side by side. It seems to have been said enough to have taken root in the minds of delegates throughout the diocese, even among folk who do not support the most liberal of resolutions. The tired factor has finally won out. "It's the mission, stupid" bumper stickers might be a hot selling item for future conventions. Of course that begs the question of whose mission. Ours or God's? However, at the theological buffet it's best to taste a little of everything and not worry about details.
Then we had meditations from an animated and well spoken bishop from Panama. He stressed another line of theological thought that was present at many levels of the Council, that we are bound together by our Baptismal Covenant.
(There was an exceedingly tortured opening prayer by a priest of the Diocese who worked in again and again the way we are bound together in unity by our diversity or in our diversity we find unity or some such thing. I had to get a chuckle though throughout this prayer that while the Baptismal liturgy is pretty clear about baptizing people in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the priest could not bring himself to mention God as Father, but more of source of this or creating force or something else equally inane. Go figure. Or not.)
The Bishop of Panama served up a great deal of older theology, speaking about how we receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism, become in Christ, and saved. The emphasis was certainly on receiving the Holy Spirit ... that there are not two baptisms ... that people should never be rebaptized ... that baptism does not have to do with "feeling" the Spirit come ... that we have an ontological change in baptism, it changes us no matter what. While he did not say anything terribly wrong, the emphasis was certainly away from any sense of "If you confess with your lips and believe in your heart" sort of thing. The sacramental theology (and believe me I love sacramental theology) was almost mechanical. It certainly was uncomfortable except of course in that it played nicely into the continuing story line that what binds us together is our baptismal covenants.
You know, who came up with that one? Where is the theological basis for this? Or a Biblical basis. You kind of figure there were no Baptismal Covenants in the time of the Book of Acts. The first Christians felt themselves bound together by something else, dare we say, something stronger? Like being one in Christ. The more I hear talk about the unity and diversity we have binding us together as one in our Baptismal Covenants the more I sense an attempt to control things. We've entered a religious Matrix. The institution and the liturgy (properly "performed" I suppose) are what hold us together. Bishop Johnston, God bless him, spoke about the need for evangelism and even, dare we say it, planting new churches. He acknowledged that most of the old church plants up and left leaving people gun shy of ever planting anything ever again and angry at those planters who took the diocesan money and ran away. But the Bishop's call to evangelism was an institutional one, talking about how we need better PR about what our church has to offer so more people will come and see, and join. Not really a clarion call to seek out the lost, broken folk and help them find Jesus or enter eternal life.
With the institutionalization of evangelism, baptism, unity ... we have kicked Jesus out of the equation. He was inconvenient you know, since he might call us to repentance and obedience. We can't have that. It would mean we might have to stop doing what we see as best, stop interpreting what God said in more modern (sensitive) ways. We would have to stop sinning and stop redefining sin as living up to our potential as expressed in our Baptismal Covenant ("Hey Lord, you can't judge, me I've got a Covenant!"). You know we might have to stop trying to be in charge of the banquet, and instead, seek the one who is, and who makes it available to us freely. I know it is possible to do this, but whether or not it is possible for the Diocese of Virginia to do it, or likely without the second coming of our Lord, is unknown.
With all due respect Bishop Johnston, I am one who does not think we can do it.
Note: The Diocese will reconvene at a later date to finish its business and pass resolutions. The date will be determined by the Bishop, possibly a Saturday in Lent, "Because," as the Bishop sternly reminded us from the chair, "there will not be any weddings during Lent."
It was the only moment I have seen the Bishop show his authority as the Ordinary of the Diocese, the official voice of what will or will not happen liturgically in the churches under his jurisdiction. Now if he could only remember that he has that same authority to allow or prohibit liturgical acts when it comes to authorizing SSB's, we wouldn't need annual resolutions about them, just his resolution to "Just say No."
But then that's for another day.
Thanks to the friend who sent the cell phone photo of Bishop Schori yesterday at the Richmond Marriott.
UPDATE: Julia at the Washington Times has her reflections up as well. She also notes the same aversion - or as Bishop Johnston's described it as "gun shy" that Intrepid noted to "church planting" - oh, where have all the planters gone?
Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon S. Johnston, in his first diocesan convention speech as leader of the nation's largest Episcopal diocese, made a few surprising remarks today. One of them was that weekly church attendance in the Old Dominion is embarrassingly low.Read it all here. Bishop Johnston's speech is here.
Speaking at a diocesan council meeting at the Richmond Marriott - which was cut short due to a pending snow storm headed toward southern Virginia - he first talked about an informal poll he recently conducted through a series of town meetings around the diocese. As he talked with Episcopalians about their priorities for church life, he found one thing missing: a lack of desire to start new churches. This did not completely surprise him, he said, considering that the 15 conservative churches and mission congregations that left the diocese from late 2005 to early 2007 (over theological differences and gay bishops) were known for their success in church planting.
In his words: "The context here is a sharp contrast with the priority from some years ago of establishing new congregations. Given our recent experience with many of our new congregations leaving the diocese (having received tremendous spiritual, personal and financial support), it is obvious that many of us across the diocese feel a deep sense of loss, grief and, yes, betrayal and thus are quite “gun-shy” about new congregations. It should be no surprise, therefore, that church planting ranked last on all but one tally, where it was next-to-last. The sense is that with resources being spread very thinly the resources could be used for more stable and proven ministry, such as for our already established congregations. I certainly do understand this, but can you truly affirm our diocese abandoning any vision for starting new churches? I don’t think so. I know I can’t."
Now someone help me here: Is it possible that the diocese has not planted one new church since the Great Exodus that ended three years ago this month? The bulk of the churches that left now form a group called the Anglican Diocese of Virginia and they are planting churches like crazy all over the northern part of the state. Every time I turn around it seems like I am getting a press release about another clump of new churches in places like Alexandria, Arlington and Vienna. I just heard of an even newer effort to move across state lines into Montgomery County ...
... The bishop went on to say his diocese will put more effort into youth ministry, especially 20-somethings. Note to bishop: Don't just look at the Gen Y types. The Washington area - along with Boston - has the largest singles demographic in the country. Reach out to singles, not just to an age group. Singles are the biggest unchurched population of all.
But that's another column.
Lastly, the bishop revealed the diocese's ASA (average Sunday attendance) figures has dropped by 19 percent over 20 years. Again in his words:
"Since 1990, although the number of our communicants in good standing has grown from 53,000 to 64,000 (nearly 21 percent), our average Sunday attendance (the most telling statistic in the Church’s ongoing life) has actually decreased by 19 percent. In other words, we’re growing with people who support the church but fewer and fewer people are actually attending worship with regularity. With a current Sunday attendance average of 24,200 and a “good-standing” communicant strength of 63,900, we show a discouraging 37 percent of our people at worship on the Lord’s Day. "
I believe the ADV folks made a point of saying, when they left three years ago, that *their* ASA stats were quite high. So, again, the bulk of the frequent attenders are out the door.
You can read the bishop's speech here. And if you want to see a different set of numbers, look at this press release from the Herndon-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a sister group to the ADV. They only got going three years ago and they're now at 90 congregations across the country.
It's not rocket science to figure out where all those church planters went.
And as the snow falls ...