|The Wilderness of Zin…or of the Episcopal Church's
dry and futile search for a relevance
apart from its birthright.
The search for relevance in the Episcopal Church has often led to a denial of the very gifts we have to share with others. Too often in my experience the desire to be accessible, open, and inviting translates into bland, sloppy, and irreverent worship, teaching, and practice. Rather than achieving its stated goal, the Episcopal Church’s efforts have demonstrably led it into the Wilderness of Zin mentioned in the Scriptures: a place of irrelevance, wondering aimlessly in futility on the far borders of the community of faith.
I am thinking of this today because of a series of “coincidences” God brought to bear on my heart. I have been reading a number of books and blog postings recently about the way many more liturgically-rich congregations in the Episcopal Church are enjoying strong ministries even as they are often marginalized and ignored by the hierarchy. Then this morning we recalled Fr. James DeKoven on his annual commemoration, with his famous appeal for a sacramentally-robust witness in the face of a largely cerebral Episcopal Church. He was shunned and mistreated for his vision, but he was ultimately vindicated.
DeKoven strove to deepen our understanding of the Eucharist as the central act of Christian worship, as well as asserting the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements as a critical part of God’s active, transforming power in and through the incarnate ministry of the Church. He was a central figure in moving the Episcopal Church to embrace its catholic inheritance in more than the cool, intellectual terms then used. Because of courageous and faithful servants like DeKoven, the Missio Dei was deepened, clarified, and restored in visible and powerful ways, culminating in the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer. It is a vision that has yet to be fully accepted, taught, or even understood by many at our altars or in our pews.
After thinking about all of this, I cast my mind over recent Diocesan Eucharists, clergy gatherings, and comments from many recent seminary graduates of my acquaintance, and found a great disconnect between our heritage and those who are seeking it today on the one hand, and the current mindset of much of our clergy (and perhaps lay) leadership, on the other.
How many times in recent years has one witnessed Eucharists at our Convention and parishes where there seems to be a kind of studied and sloppy informality, leading one to conclude that this isn’t all that important? I can recall a Diocesan Eucharist a few years back where the consecrated wine was being poured back into wine bottles haphazardly; our parish received a large batch following the service because one of our members was so appalled by the way the elements were being handled that she took as much as possible home to our parish, contacting me to put it in the tabernacle in cruets. She said that the attitude present by those left with the "clean up" was that this was pretty trivial stuff.
Other diocesan Eucharists now feature the standard display of nonchalance: as many people as possible serving in street clothes. The image conveyed is that the liturgy is no “big deal,” certainly nothing worth making a real fuss over; it's just part of doing business, and certainly not a transcendent experience of the divine.
The result has been a steepening decline of significance in our Diocesan worship and the kind of liturgy offered in many congregations. At Convention, it has become a sort of semi-embarrassing formality before the really important work of having meetings, taking votes, and getting to the pre-function reception. The morphing of our time together as Christ’s Body from the worship of God and a celebration of our call to ministry into a conference-room quickie would be risible if it were not so sorrowful.
A while back, I was at a gathering of clergy where one priest remarked that we needed more “innovative liturgy.” When I pursued what was meant, I was told that we needed a “Mustache Mass,” an event where (apparently) everyone wore an oversized fake mustache. This was, it seems, self-evidently a good thing. To express any discomfort with so blatant a trivialization of the Holy Mysteries of Christ was to be a “downer” and labeled a sort of buzz-kill—apparently far worse than anything I could imagine.
The fact that most of the parishes in our diocese actually showing signs of health are still—with little encouragement from above—holding to the Prayer Book and Hymnal as the basis of their liturgical life seems to count for nothing. The reckless experiments in worship organized around trends, groovyness, technology, “contemporary music,” and minimal preparation sermon forms (lots of “dialogue,” with little patient exegesis and connection to basic teachings and the practice of faith) continue.
Even though blog post after post, book after book, poll after poll tell us plainly that rising generations are hungry for substance—not gimmickry—we just cannot seem to hear their voices. We are profoundly wedded to a sort of Christianity Light ™ that is neither particularly attractive nor all that joyful. Congregations, even in towns with growing demographics, continue to shrink because of an almost Cultural Revolution-like obsession with theoretically "relevant" worship and practice that almost no-one really finds meaningful or attractive. Gradually, parish after parish sinks out of sight almost without a word because the utter vacuity of our stance and ideology cannot be questioned.
What will it take for us to get beyond this pointless search for “relevance?” Time, I suspect. A gradual thinning-of-the-ranks is occurring: those who are opting for a deep embrace of the tradition—in High, Low, or Broad Church categories, or new forms rooted in the substance of the Anglican tradition—are likely to be the ones left after the winnowing process. The stubborn refusal to “hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” seems to be following a predictable path. God is not mocked, no matter how many Mustache Masses we celebrate, and there will be a time when those who are serious about witnessing to the power of God's glory will, like DeKoven, be vindicated.
When the coming generations return to the Church seeking the transcendent presence of God in the “beauty of holiness,” a great many of our red-doored temples will be closed, sold, and gone. But those that have been faithful—even if only partially—to what DeKoven called “the thing itself” (the presence of Christ dwelling in our midst sacramentally) will likely be what remains to greet them. I pray that the parish I serve and the one you attend will be among them. They may be among the very few with “ears to hear” while we wander in the Wilderness of Relevance.
The Collect for the Commemoration of James DeKoven:
Almighty and everlasting God, the source and perfection of all virtues, you inspired your servant James De Koven to do what is right and to preach what is true: Grant that all ministers and stewards of your mysteries may impart to your faithful people, by word and example, the knowledge of your grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.