I’m counting.


I’ve got these big thick books – the parish registry.  They include all those batpized, confirmed, married and died.  I have no idea how people actually used them.  Because all I want to do is get an actual count.   Have people moved?  Did they just disappear?

I’m ready to put an attendance sheet in the back of the church.

I just want to know:  Who is in it?  Who wants to be in it? Who is being counted?

Does it matter?

It’s clerical work.

What Obama can teach the Churches

Over the last two years, we’ve witnessed the rising of one of the most important social-political organizations since the Christian coalition became the effective foot soldiers for the Republican party: Obama’s political campaign.

The campaign should be of immense interest to mainline denominations. Not because Obama shares our political beliefs, which he may not; not because he is a Christian in a mainline church; but because the methods of community organizing hold the key for the rebirth of mainline churches.

Why did Obama campaign work? It had a clear mission. People met people: they knocked on doors; they invited; they began conversations. They told people about the Obama campaign and what it means for their communities.  Community organizing 101 is another name for evangelism, and it is what progressive churches should be doing.

It requires training. It’s hard for shy Episcopalians to meet people and get to know them. Being forward in a ingratiating and commercial way seems false and deceptive.  Becoming more public may ruffle the feathers of the reserved.  Lots of people think that religion should be private, and that public religion borders on the religulous.

But in an organization that truly cares, these concerns can be directly confronted, challenged and mitigated. Our goal is not the verbal assent to a particular proposition about Jesus or an agreement that affirms identical thought.   We do not even presume our thoughts and ideas were as pure and holy as God’s.  Instead, we merely connect with people to build bridges of trust, thereby embodying the trust that God has in us.  We say, that the church is here for them, the unchurched.

Some call them sinners.

Organizing, getting out in the field, greeting and meeting people, might raise the fears of the unchurched and non-religious.   They might worry that I’m encouraging mainline churches to proselytize like Jehovah’s witnesses or the Mormons.   They might be anxious that we will become just a mirror image of fundamentalist churches, inviting people into our peculiar cult.

The first step for us, however, is to let go of the idea that church is necessary.  We should admit that nobody is interested in church. They don’t want to go, and they won’t.  They have pressing problems in their own lives, and for many, church is experienced as parasitical, hypocritical and greedy.

For this reason, let’s not ask them to church.  It isn’t where they are.  And we’d save ourselves a lot of agony if we didn’t pretend it would be easy for us to convince them.  So let’s not do it.  Besides, if we did it for that reason, it would be more out of selfishness than for their own needs.  So when we meet people, let’s eliminate the pressure we have for feeling like we have to drag someone into church who really just has better things to do on a Sunday Morning.  It isn’t necessary.

Instead of asking people if they are saved, or have a church community, our mission is to find out where God is already leading them.  We might not even refer to the word “God.” It’s more important to discern what people are looking for so that we can better serve them, out there, the places where God is also working.

There may be a few people who decide we’re doing the right thing. A few might decide they want to be part of our meaning making institution.  Some might decide they are called to follow Christ and share the gospel.  But there aren’t any guarantees. All we can set out to do is discover our connectedness and mutual interests.  Community organizing is much more about having the church engage the community rather than shape the community for the church’s needs.  Let us be prepared when the subject of “God” or conversations about meaning come up.  Our first role is merely to make a connection.

Because God is also working outside the church to build people up.

The church has an opportunity. Just as people are deeply dissatisfied with the administration of George Bush, there is also a deep dissatisfaction with religion. People think of Christians as homophobic, judgmental, political, and naïve. As Barna has demonstrated, most people think Christians are jerks who want to people to think like they do.

We’ve seen that the idea that knowing Christ makes one a more beautiful, a more loving, a attractive sort of person is not always true.  So instead, perhaps it is time to learn from people outside our churches what a true Christianity could really look like.  Because I suspect they have promising dreams of what Heaven is.

This requires expanding our connections. We’re not good at this. I asked people in my parish how many new friends they had over the last year, the number was small: any new friends they made, they made through the church. Perhaps people in our smaller, struggling churches just don’t make friends in the community, and it’s not worth it to them to invite their friends to their church community. We should ask why.

This will not be easy. The initial challenge for us is to ask: are the stakes high for our churches? Do we have a mission that we care about? Can we describe this concretely, and with passion, comprehensibly?

Many churches have decided that their properties and their liturgy are more important than connecting to the people around them. They have spent their energy mainly on maintaining the old order rather than on offering a vision of the world that is inspiring. These churches are going to find the waters rough in the near future. For example, one priest once challenged his congregation: “Would you die for your grandchildren?” And of course, they all said yes. “Would you change your music for your grandchildren?” The response? Silence. The message: we’d rather be dead than listen to their music.   I have heard plenty of parishioners praise the joys of a small church, uninterested in the high quality of ministry that larger churches often offer.  The consequence:  churches that will remain small and die.

A change in practice will also require a new description of the priest’s role. Priests can’t be caretakers or therapists in relationship building organizations. They will set goals and hold people accountable for visiting. They will be less concerned about the building and more concerned about strengthening relationships within small groups. They identify leaders and call them to share the vision, and the mission, of their church. From these conversations, a priest may learn what role a church can actively play in a community. Priests will also and train parishioners to do the same: meet neighbors, have conversations, and identify ways to connect with the community.  And they will have to be evaluated and held accountable for their work.  No more easy sinecures.

Most important, we can build if we in the church believe what we say. I wonder if the angry conservative wing of the church have the mainline church pegged: we don’t really believe. Do we believe enough that we are making friends with the people around us? Do we believe enough that we think the communities we form are worthwhile? Are clergy sitting in offices, redoing old bulletins, waiting for our retirement, hoping that the few remaining people in our churches will help us buy a little studio when we’re finished? And are our parishioners satisfied that they have their own personal chaplain who will cater to their need to be valuable in a time of crisis?

The churches that will survive are those where the clergy are the sorts who actively train and lead communities into building each other up. It is not merely tinkering with the liturgy and changing the creed; nor is it a matter of simple advertising. It is participating in the lives of people in the community where churches grow. Can they do this? Will they? The past practice has not been encouraging.

The Obama campaign has learned to do this through hard work, strong organization and mutual accountability. The consequence? A black president, an event previously only in the furthest reaches of the popular imagination.

Churches won’t identically replicate Obama’s success. The goal of his election was short term (although surely it hasn’t felt like it); the passions rich; and the mission wasn’t merely about race or religion. There was a deep disenchantment with the current administration, and Obama tapped that.

But who knows what would be on the horizon of a church that sought to know the deepest needs, desires and prayers of the unchurched? It means doing things differently. And perhaps in this election cycle we’ve been shown how.

Perhaps we would begin to learn that people crave the Gospel. And we would learn again how to share it.

Anglican Communion Fantasy

The other night I was at a bar, thinking about my ex-girlfriend when I saw this really hot blond with legs that just wouldn’t stop.

She was dressed in a red cashmere sweater, had modest earrings that looked vaguely South Asian. A light patterned scarf from Hermes draped around her pearls, and wore a classy, tight, knee length skirt.  Her legs indicated a discipline of tennis and running.  She was drinking a Fuller’s London Pride:  not a great brew in my book, given that there were so many great American Beers, but I knew her type.


I walked over to her.  I’d been planning for this.  I knew that even if we did decide to provide each other some mutual comfort only for the evening, we would have enough in common for a combative friendship.  We could discuss pressing world issues like incense, the New Zealand Affirmation of Faith, and zuchettas.  But if she were of the provincial variety, I’d have to start from the medieval perspective.

“So….  What do you think of this new Anglican Province?”  I winked.  She might get flustered, I figured, if she didn’t wasn’t one of those who took a dim view of same sex affection.  Not just the sort that includes hand holding.  Not merely a joint checking account.  Not just sharing laundry or doing dishes.  But affection with orifices and orgasms.  In the orthodox view, orgasms are strictly for those within the property covenant.

She might respond with a casual, “I don’t know what they are thinking,” demonstrating sadness in the direction of the Episcopal Church, or “well, TEC will survive,” expressing hope in their magnanimity.  Perhaps she would say, “It’s about time.  I’m now going to attend church.   I’ve been waiting for one that was led by Bishop Duncan, who can now properly be called a pope.”  Relief that after years of being a wanderer, finally a conservative church which understood her liturgical tastes.   There were gazillions of them, I know, waiting finally for the true church to unshackle itself from the rude heretics that made up The Organization that calls itself Episcopalian.

I was prepared to engage.

I continued,  “Anglicans in North America.  Can you dig it?  Bishops.  Lots of them.  Getting it on with protecting Christian civilization from the gay people.  Maintaining the FOD.  That’s Faith Once Delivered.  Foddites.   The one true historical Christianity, the one that is the biggest and best of the many.  Because if we won’t, who will?  God?  Who’s going to protect Him and the faith?” If she was sympathetic to my conservative Christian line, I was in.  But I could play it off like a joke if I needed and she turned out to be a liturgical Unitarian.

She looked at me for minute as if I had been dropped off from another planet.  A planet with only Lutherans who still insisted in doing the mass in Swedish.   As if I’d argued that Anglo Catholicism was invented by closeted Gay Brits who shared a secret affinity for Oscar Wilde.  She began to open her mouth when I said, “Don’t worry.  We can still be friends, even if we don’t agree.”

She blinked a couple and said, “Excuse me, but what the fuck are you talking about?”  I forgot that Anglicans sometimes use blue language.

I wondered, however, if I had her mistaken.  Maybe she was a high class Methodist.  One of those social justice types that occasionally did Zen, but whose parents had made enough money to send her to Kent School or St. Paul’s.

“You know, the new Province.  Can you dig it?  Purple shirts, getting together and not having gay sex.  They look gay, but they aren’t.  Very counter cultural.  It’s the new reformation.  With Africans.  The press will pick it up.  And then the millions of people, young and old, black and white, men and a few women, straights and closeted gays who’ve left the Episcopal church because of the out gay people who kill babies and deny Jesus, will finally have a home after living in the spiritual wasteland of the Terrorist Episcopal Church.

“The New province.  You know what I’m talking about.”

She wasn’t buying my enthusiasm.  Did I read her wrong?.  She just stared at me, pretending she didn’t understand.

“What else could bring us together, babe?  Finally, a real world issue.  Gay sex.  And brave, manly men like Bob Duncan, keeping the faith.  The man was meant to be the pope the way Obama was meant to be president.  He even has an American English-like accent.”

After a minute she raised her eyes, ready to tell me what I wanted to hear.  She was  truly a poster child for the new Anglicanism.  Which means, she was smokin’. She raised her eyes to me said,  “Is this a Real Life episode or something?  Are there cameras nearby?”

“Come on, sweetie.  You know why the church is dying.  LiberalismHumanismBishop Pike.  I know you shudder when you think of him.  Let’s just say later I’ll turn you on by calling him ‘heretic Pike.’”

“This is a little weird,” she giggled a bit.  I guessed that “weird” was a secret code for Anglicans.

“Granted, the real problems happened with Women’s ordination, but we can gloss over the … problem of gender until the next time we meet with the Romans.”  I hoped she wouldn’t tell me that the Roman Catholic Priesthood was the safest place for gay men.

“Look, I do find you kind of cute, but I have no fucking idea what you are talking about.  Are you a religious freak?”  At least she was smiling.  She knew what I was talking about.

“Aren’t we all religious freaks?  I know you have a thurible in your room and read the collected works of Richard Hooker every night.  I know you have Robert Gagnon on your mind.”

“Robert Gagnon?  Isn’t he a porn star?”

“Well, he knows a lot about gay sex.  And where to find it in the bible.”

“I’ve never heard anyone use the bible and porn as a pick up line before.  What’s a thurible?”

“You’re playing.”  Or perhaps she was a low church evangelical.  They’re passionate about what they believe, and get right to the point.  None of this ritual gesture business.  They say it when they mean it.

“Wait, weren’t you on American Idol?”

I knew she understood the connections.  Pike.  Women.  The 1979 BCP.  Spong.   The Episcopal Church was dying because of them.  “No.  You watch?”

“Of course!  Doesn’t everyone?  Weekly.”

“It’s like church.”  That might be the cue.  I’d find out exactly where she stood.  Would it be St Mary the Virgin, the Anglo Catholic church in Manhattan?  She didn’t know the rector had gone Episcopal.  Or All Angels, where Bishop Minns once preached the word?  Or Church of the Resurrection?  Or maybe it was that new little Anglican joint down in Midtown.  I had to know.

“Church?  You mean, like, uh, churchy church?  Like God?  Is that what you mean by the bible?”

“Yeah, baby.  Churchy church.  Without … heretics.  Just as the bible says.”  I let heretics slide out of my mouth slowly.

“Heretics, going to … hell.”  I smiled, making eye contact.  Eye contact is crucial for seducing Anglicans.  “Or Apostates.  Whatever turns you on.”

“Well,” her eyes kind of darted to the side,  “I… believe in God, but, um, I just haven’t gotten around to it.  Sometimes I watch Joel Osteen, late.  But… this is very weird to talk about this at a bar.  Why don’t you just ask me for my number.”

“Uh,” I was a bit flustered, taken aback by her directness.  “OK.”

“But generally, don’t use the Anglican thing as a pickup line.  Nobody cares.”

“I just thought…”

“Well, there’s so much harm done in the name of religion.  It seems quaint and sometimes old-fashioned.  Most services are boring.  Old music and desperate people.  Sad.  It could be different, maybe.  But now I just want to par-tay!”  She shook her fist in the air just a little, as one of her friends looked over, checking to see if she needed protection.

“Look I’ll buy you a drink if you just tell me your denomination.”

She smiled.  “Silly.  I’m an Episcopalian.  You don’t recognize me?  I’m your senior warden’s daughter.  Let’s do shots.”