It appears that the Episcopal Church is beginning at long last to take evangelism seriously. Over at the very useful news source RNS, there are not only the usual stories about evangelicals holding mass meetings and preaching to tens of thousands of people. Evangelism is, after all, not just a question of Rick Warren preaching a ‘sermon on the mound‘ to 50,000 fans on opening day for the California Angels. No, as the RNS also tells us, there is a distinctively Episcopalian form of evangelism, and there’s a heartening recent example.
The rector of Christ Church in Manlius, New York has the latest in Episcopal outreach: Episcopal Barbie, a Barbie doll with a complete set of high-Anglican kit down to the thurible. The Reverend Barbie (who serves a parish in Malibu) is a labor of love; 100 hours of hard work went into her vestments; her collared blouse was made from an actual clergy shirt. She has a Facebook page with more than 5000 friends as of this morning. She will soon be joined, I am happy to say, by a diverse group of friends. Bishop Barbie will be African-American; the soon-to-be finished Canon Ken will be Latino, and Ken’s friend will be Deacon Steve, also African-American. (Glenn Reynolds has also linked to this heartwarming story over at Instapundit.)
The Reverend Ms Barbie’s current custodian has high hopes for her future. As the RNS tells us, the doll’s owner “thinks Barbie could be a tool for evangelism for the Episcopal Church—particularly for conveying that ‘we have a sense of humor, we can be fun.'”
“Barbie’s very versatile that way,” said her owner. “She’s open to new possibilities, so evangelism is definitely in her future.”
This, frankly, is a tremendous relief. Every now and then I am tempted to believe that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States is in a death spiral as its membership ages and dwindles, as more and more of its parishes go on life support, as its top heavy diocesan and national structures totter toward bankrupt irrelevance and as its seminaries close their doors one by one. As it moves inexorably toward expulsion from the worldwide Anglican Communion, and as conservatives peel off at home and both sides in the split lawyer up for a bitter and exhausting battle over church properties that, often, neither side can fill or afford to maintain, I sometimes wonder just where it will all end.
But then I see something like this. There is still hope; we Episcopalians still have a message to the contemporary world. We are ‘fun’. We dress up. We are PC. We have incense. As a church which has borne Christian witness in this land for more than 400 years falls to pieces on our watch and around our ears we have hundreds of hours to spend making vestments for dolls.
Actually, in a healthy, living Episcopal church I would have no bones to pick with the rector of St. Babs-by-the-Sea in beautiful Malibu. Or with Canon Ken and Deacon Steve. And those who make Reverend Barbie and enjoy her have every right to spend their time and talent as God gives them light and I wish them all nothing but the best.
More to the point I suspect that Bishop Barbie at her worst wreaks far less havoc on the church than some of her colleagues. There’s a diocese not five hundred miles from the stately Mead manor that would have been better served for many years by Bishop Barbie and Canon Ken than by those who actually filled the positions. Compared to some bishops in the church, Bishop Barbie is a new Phillips Brooks — and I have known canons who make Canon Ken look like St. Paul.
We Episcopalians seem to be living proof that the old story about the frogs in boiling water must be true. For years we’ve sat passively as things gradually got worse; we’ve become skilled at accepting the unacceptable. Otherwise, surely we would be screaming and leaping about as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States continues to melt down and fall apart.
On the other hand, we did successfully vet the lyrics of the 700-plus hymns in our hymnbook for ‘sexist’ lyrics. We have repeatedly made certain that the world understands that we think that poverty, injustice and war are wrong. There is no fashionable virtue that we don’t praise, no unrealistic aspiration of the foundation left that we don’t sprinkle with holy water. Our procedures and our canons are among the most complex and recondite in Christendom. We tithe mint and dill and cumin while the house is burning down.
I hate to say this, guys, but I think God mocks us and holds us in derision. I think the disasters we have already experienced and the much greater ones that are coming closer every day are signs of his wrath. I think he is giving us the taste of wormwood and gall: he’s letting us face the full consequences of our own silly deeds. He waited patiently for decades as we frittered away the inestimable riches and advantages accrued over centuries. He bore our hypocrisy — incompetent busybodies and Mrs. Jellybys lecturing the rest of the world on how to manage its affairs as our own household fell progressively into deeper disarray — and our general inconsequential messing around with low priority issues like ‘sexist’ hymn lyrics as our seminaries edged steadily closer to bankruptcy. But we’ve exhausted God’s patience and spent down our endowments. The Bailiff of Heaven is knocking at our door; the notice of eviction is in his hands.
General Seminary is on the brink of collapse. According to the article, this flagship seminary has suffered from stagnant or declining enrollment for thirty years. It has roughly $100 million in deferred maintenance on its buildings. It has an annual operating deficit of roughly $3 million out of a total budget of $8 million. It pays its bills by drawing down its endowment. Not living on the interest, but eating the principal. Now it appears that the endowment-eating process is approaching its natural and inevitable end, and the seminary is hoping to get into the hotel business to stay alive by converting part of its operating plant into the “Desmond Tutu Center” which will be used for conferences and, when no conferences are scheduled, will rent rooms out to tourists. But the Center didn’t open on time (surprise! surprise! administrative incompetence in the Episcopal church!) and the seminary is $2 million to $4 million short of what it needs to operate next year.
The ever active rumor mill, for what it’s worth, says things are even worse than the seminary admits. I have no idea; but after decades of incompetent, spendthrift denial the seminary leadership can hardly be surprised that nobody trusts that it either knows or tells the truth today.
This crisis did not come out of the blue. It has been growing steadily for thirty years, during a period in which the virtually the entire leadership of the Episcopal church busied itself by industriously looking the other way — and issuing public statements telling public officials and various other people that they didn’t understand moral values and were doing their jobs wrong. $100 million in deferred maintenance and the endowment is being chewed up year by year: did they think Jesus was coming again before the buildings would finally collapse? Were they waiting for the Rapture? For a new Miracle of Cana that would turn the red ink black?
No, they were doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of dressing Barbie dolls. They were dressing up and performing as bishops, deans and trustees — playing church. As long as money can be scraped up somewhere, the show can go on. The trustees and leaders of GTS are no worse than the rest of the church. Cathedrals and parish churches are falling into disrepair all over the Episcopal church: business as usual. Endowments are being eaten out. Eyes are averted from inevitable, onrushing doom.
A whole generation of Episcopal leaders neglected their duties to God and their fellow believers, reveling in salaries and status while blatantly failing to perform the vital tasks with which they were entrusted. And we laypeople cannot escape condemnation. We voted these bad shepherds into office. We enabled their behavior by failing to supervise them properly and to take decisive action as the inadequacy of the church’s leadership became glaringly obvious. Out of indifference, culpable ignorance or a misplaced sense of charity, we tolerated accumulating failure until its consequences have become unavoidable and perhaps irreversible. Judas Iscariot is not the only person who betrayed our Lord with a kiss.
Meanwhile the basic model of church life is clearly falling to bits. Our shrinking congregations cannot pay salaries and fringe benefits that would enable priests to carry the cost of a three year postgraduate degree program. Nor can they maintain the buildings and physical plants of the past. These trends were perfectly plain 25 years ago. Nothing was done. They were even more obvious ten years ago. We got better at denial. The Episcopal church has stood unmoving in the road for thirty years, waiting patiently for the oncoming truck.
Even for a purely secular institution this is a miserable and unworthy performance. It is pathetic, dishonest and undignified. For people who claim to be on a mission from God, charged with the unspeakably weighty responsibility of bringing the Word of Christ to a needy world, it is an unfathomable disgrace and discredit. But the Church Pension Fund is the about one financially solid organization left, so at least the incompetent spendthrifts who have ruined the church will all retire well. It will be their successors who pay.
On the day of judgment it won’t just be the Queen of the South who rises up and testifies against this generation of Episcopalians. Marie Antoinette will rise up against us as well. She only played at being a shepherdess while the real shepherds and peasants of France were oppressed and mistreated. Our generation has played at being bishops and priests and lay leaders while the work of the church goes undone and the church fell into what may well be irretrievable ruin.
I think Anglican witness will continue in the United States. The future of the Episcopal Church is harder to predict. The looming expulsion from the Anglican Communion — a perfectly avoidable disaster which a competently led and effectively organized church could have avoided without sacrifice of principle — is likely to be a more deeply damaging blow than our befuddled leadership can quite grasp. There are many people in the pews who do not hold extreme theological views (either liberal or conservative) and have been shamed and grieved by the fecklessness and failure of their church for many years. They have endured the foppish incompetence and the self indulgent follies of the church bureaucracies and political establishment out of loyalty to a larger idea. Losing the bond with Canterbury will be a heavy blow for those hundreds of thousands of faithful Anglicans. If that wider identity and historical connection is lost, the disintegration of the remaining bits of the Episcopal church will perceptibly speed up. No branch can flourish cut off from the vine, and this particular Episcopal vine is already in trouble.
To look at the Episcopal church today and to love it and care about its future is to know what Jeremiah must have felt wandering the doomed streets of Jerusalem. The framework of the country was falling apart, the enemy was approaching and the inexorable doom stepped closer day by day. But inside the walls, the hypocrisy, folly, pretense and denial reigned on. Love of the city, rage at the rulers, sorrow and pity must have warred in his heart as he begged and pleaded that they turn, even now, to face the real horror of what they had done.
What a heritage we had, and what a waste we have made of it.