Barbarians at the Gates, or Reflections on my Peers in the Diocese of Olympia

Last night in front of a urinal at a pub, I had a moment to reflect upon a question, posed by a friend, about the trends I've noticed while working for our Diocesan Commission for Emerging Mission, traveling around and talking to young Episcopalians. Here's what I've noticed. I'm guessing this is loosely reflective of the national situation:

1) In our church, there is a group of young 20/30-something "Lifers" - cradle Episcopalians - who really grasp the "pearl of great price" that is Anglicanism. They've been formed by the community and its liturgies, institutions and practices, and have stuck with it despite the fact that most of their peers are long gone and their churches are greying. These people find something essential in the Episcopal tradition (often relating to personal and community connections or sometime social justice concerns, and often to the visceral transcendence of the Eucharist), and seem to quite frequently end up in the discernment process for ordination. They also often communicate something of an air of desperation and/or resignation, related to the observable fact that for the last 30-40 years, Episcopalians have been losing the religious conversion race, and no one seems to know what to do about it - including most alarmingly the majority of those who sit in leadership of the church. These folks make up about about 4/10 of the Episcopal Young Adults I meet. They are generally curious about and a bit suspicious of:

2) Anglimergents: This group, in our diocese, makes up the bulk of young adults in church on a given Sunday, and is almost entirely comprised of converts - people mostly from evangelical traditions (4/10), fewer from the Catholic Tradition (1.5/10), and fewer still from non-Christian religious backgrounds (.5/10). This group has been drawn into the Episcopal tradition most frequently by its theological and social openness, the beauty and structure of its liturgical worship, and/or its strong emphasis on social justice. They have been squeezed out of their former traditions by outmoded modernist religious strictures or homophobic or patriarchal attitudes of leadership, or by the meaninglessness and loneliness of irreligion. Having been hurt by religious leaders in the past, this group often tends to bristle against the hierarchical structure and institutional culture of the Episcopal Church, but finds it to be a church of last resort - the only place where they could continue to be Christian (I'm speaking for myself here). They too find something really vital in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, and as converts hold out a lot of hope for this particular tradition as an antidote to American religious woes.

3) The real problem at this point is that the two groups frequently don't get along. Anglimergents love Episcopalianism, but they don't necessarily love old guard Episcopalians - those stodgy, institutionalist, upper crust liberals. Lifers say they want converts, and that they want to grow the church, but they don't generally want to (or have the capacity to) deal with the immaturity, challenge and necessary change that comes along with new blood and fresh ideas. To Anglimergents, the Lifers project a need to defend their own honor and protect their own territory, and a seeming lack of understanding of the depth of the Episcopal church's mission crisis. To the Lifers, the Anglimergents project a dismissive disrespect and a too-easy tendency to challenge structures that have proven useful for generations. (I would say here that this dynamic is more evidenced among boomers and young Anglimergents than Gen X/Y Lifers - primarily b/c Gens X/Y hold almost no power in the Episcopal Church.)

4) The hope in this situation is that the Anglimergents have what the Lifers don't - a strong sense of mission, marketing and evangelism skills honed during Evangelical Protestant upbringings, and a keen sense of what is valuable about Anglicanism for the outside world. And conversely, the Lifers have what the Anglimergents don't - a lifelong experience of the soul-shaping power of Anglican worship and community, and a depth of wisdom and understanding about what it means to be a part of this tradition. At this particular crisis point, the Episcopal Church is lucky that it is being invaded by convert barbarians - the barbarians ultimately just want to be friends, and really don't want to break what the Episcopalians have. If the barbarians can figure out what is appropriate and what is not when it comes to challenging authority, and if the Episcopalians can get used to the smell, we're going to have a pretty damn good team. Anglican Christianity - as a theological and spiritual system - is the most palatable Christianity out there for my money, and we have the potential to form both a group of expert Anglican practitioners and a group of expert Anglican salesmen. If we're smart. Which we might be. But which we also might not be.


wow - i think you hit that nail on the head!
Anonymous said…
Another insightful, funny and damned accurate commentary.
- Mary
Anonymous said…
I think you give an accurate picture of the two cultures that are colliding, but I part company with you at the end. I'm not in the church to be an Anglican Christian (or to promote the Episcopalian Church), but to be a Christian. To the extend that we orient our actions to fulfill the call "to be one" with the fellowship of all believers, we will find our way. I wouldn't describe my church as more "palatable." It speaks to me, but may not work for everyone, and that is ok.