Followers of recent developments in the Episcopal Church have felt called to opine about the state, health and future of the church. As the person selected to be the next dean of Washington National Cathedral, it’s fitting that I weigh in.
The Episcopal Church just completed its 77th General Convention in mid-July. The biggest news to come from Indianapolis: After years of study, the church approved a rite for the blessing of same-gender relationships that will be available across the denomination next January.
So much for the big news from Indianapolis. Other important things happened there as well, however. Most significantly from my perspective, the church actually began talking about the institutional and cultural factors impacting church membership and attendance. The facts are striking. All mainline (so-called liberal and conservative) denominations are experiencing sharp declines in every marker of institutional vitality: not only membership and attendance, but giving and new church start-ups as well.
Everyone with an agenda wants to spin these numbers in the service of an ideology. Those who call themselves “traditionalists” claim that church attendance will rise once we return to the high Christendom establishment ways of doing theology and worship. The more progressive types claim that we are facing a crisis of relevance and that only a bolder social profile will draw the unchurched to us in droves.
While I tend toward the progressive side in this controversy, I am not persuaded by either analysis. My own sense is that we face a crisis of credibility. For those especially under 40, the Episcopal Church (and its companion churches and faith traditions) no longer seems a credible place in which to engage God, learn to pray or to give ourselves in ministry. We seem, to those outside us, exclusive and opaque.
Those of us who love the traditions (and habits) of institutional Christianity might feel somewhat wounded by the seeming disinterest in the practices we have come to live by. But if the Episcopal Church is to thrive in the 21st century, it must do three things. It must develop a clear, missional identity. It must project that identity outward and invite people into it. And it must take seriously the needs and concerns of those who come toward us and adapt to the new life and energy they bring.
Does that mean that we will no longer continue to worship in our stately Anglican ways? Of course not. But it does mean that we will need to find new modes of liturgical, musical, and theological expression to complement the great traditional strengths we already have. And this is not new behavior for Anglicans. Queen Elizabeth I forged a pragmatic consensus between Catholics and Protestants in 1559. Bishop William White of Pennsylvania led the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church to a uniquely American way of governance in 1789. The church opened itself up to the sacramental ministries of women bishops, priests and deacons in 1976. We have always been a pragmatic, evolving tradition.
Washington National Cathedral has been thinking about and studying a creative and faithful response to current realities for several years, and its leadership has developed a four-point strategic plan to help it face into the 21st century with vibrancy and hope. The cathedral will continue to be the nation’s church, a place where Americans come together to celebrate and to mourn. It will continue to be a sacred space characterized by beautiful music and liturgy and the continued preservation of an architectural gem. It will increasingly serve as the cathedral for the Diocese and city of Washington, working with congregations and community leaders to reflect the breadth of the area’s diversity. And it will expand its role as a convener of conversations and developer of projects concerning our national and interfaith life.
The leaders of Washington National Cathedral, in concert with Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, have worked hard to envision a new way forward in worship, ministry and program for this unique faith community. I am honored and excited to join them in work that will help get us closer in solving the church’s identity crisis and strengthen the Cathedral’s national mission.
The Rev. Canon Gary R. Hall is rector of Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and has been selected as the 10th dean of Washington National Cathedral.