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Restoring the Ties That Bind
The Grassroots Transformation of the Episcopal Church
By WILLIAM SACHS, THOMAS HOLLAND
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2003 William Sachs and Thomas Holland
All rights reserved.
Introduction From Zacchaeus' Perspective
As a few members of an urban Episcopal church gathered to describe their congregation's life, one woman named Sarah was eager to speak. Proud of the place she now calls her spiritual home and of the people who have become her spiritual family, Sarah was bursting to tell the story of how her new life in faith had taken shape. As she did, she revealed more than she realized. More than the story of one person's growth in faith, Sarah's story also is the story of a widespread spiritual search that is reshaping American life in general and the life of the Episcopal Church in particular.
She began by describing a long walk she took one day, during which she discovered a beautiful old church. It was lunchtime, and she had been especially anxious to get out of the office that day and just go walking around. Something was going on with her. For months she had been using her lunch hour to walk and think and review the details of her life. It was a good life, she constantly reminded herself. She had much to be proud of: education, job advancements, a comfortable condominium, a circle of friends. There had been difficult moments, of course: the death of a parent had come on the heels of a job change several years ago, and recently there had been the pain of a broken relationship. But even these losses had become sources of reassurance. She had learned from these experiences and—largely by her own perseverance, she acknowledged proudly to the small group—she had eventually healed.
Increasingly, though, something had been gnawing at her that she could not understand or even identify. She sensed that her life was incomplete, that something was missing. Although she had accomplished much and survived more than she could have imagined, something still was missing. Her life seemed somehow to lack meaning, to be without roots, to be as aimless and wandering as her midday walks. She was searching without knowing how, roaming with no clear image of a goal. Something deep within her was calling her to step beyond where she normally walked. There had to be more to life. But what was it? And how could she get it? The only thing she had realized from her many walks was that this challenge was not like her others. This time she needed a sense of direction that she could not find for herself. This time she could not do it alone.
Off she went, determined that somehow she would bring back something ... anything ... from the day's walk. It was a beautiful spring day. Surely there would be something that might make life more than it had been.
Only a few blocks from her office in the city's small downtown district, she was surprised to come upon an impressive, Gothic church she had never noticed before. Christ Episcopal Church stood along the route she regularly drove to work. She had raced past it scores of times without ever seeing it!
Until that day Sarah would not have described herself as a spiritual seeker. She had little religious background; she felt uninformed about religion but was not embarrassed by this. She would not have seen signs or portents in suddenly discovering the church. Rather, she simply saw an open door and an opportunity to slip into a quiet, meditative space, a place to pause and reflect during her walk, a place where she could be alone. "But I didn't know what I was getting into," she laughed, then continued her story:
The church was more than quiet space. There was the strength of its stone walls, the beauty of the stained glass, and the simple power of the altar. Organ music was playing softly, and it appeared a service was about to begin. People were gathering, and I thought about leaving but couldn't. I just had to stay in the back and watch. I was deeply moved, in a way that I never had been. Even now I can't explain it, but I felt this sense of being invited and affirmed. One thing really hit me: the faces of the people who had just received Communion. There was warmth and assurance. They were reverent and joyful. I didn't understand all that was happening. But I sensed people were being fed spiritually, and I decided to explore this church.
She decided to visit again and, expecting to be left alone to her thoughts, again entered quietly. But on her second visit, a worshiper invited her to join the others in a light lunch in the parish hall. After several visits, she knew most of the regulars at the service as well as the church's clergy. The sense of invitation deepened. In both the people and the worship, she saw something that awakened possibilities for filling the void in her life. By stages, she was drawn into this congregation, discovering the power of joining her story with the stories of others. As her journey progressed, she eventually was drawn into the parish's leadership. What had begun as Sarah's private exploration had become a shared one.
During the group session, Sarah spoke knowledgeably of Christ Church's programs and proudly of its people. "I wish I had time to tell you about our outreach and education programs. They are wonderful!" As she described life in this parish, an impressive sense of spiritual community came alive. And the source of her new commitment became clear. Recalling the path of her involvement in this congregation, she immediately returned to her discovery of worship and its centrality for her spiritual journey. "That's what drew me. I had no church home, no religious background. I still don't know much about the Episcopal Church beyond here. I just know what this church has meant to me, and that is wonderful!"
Sarah was not the only person in the group who described a personal spiritual journey that led to Christ Church. Just as she unexpectedly discovered the possibilities that participation in a congregation can bring, so have other new members of the congregation. But when they gathered to recount their spiritual journeys, more than a series of individual accounts became apparent. It became clear that these spiritual seekers have formed a powerful bond of faith community among themselves and with the older members of the congregation. It also became clear that there is a new quality to the shared faith they have together. Unlike what might be described as a status quo understanding of community that prevailed a generation earlier, this community takes steps to attract and hold people on personal spiritual quests; it is a community of change—of seekers, rather than settlers. Steadily this congregation has developed innovative forms of worship, outreach, and education; perhaps more importantly, the process whereby these areas of congregational life were changed involved more than the clergy and the handful of long-established lay leaders who would have made them previously. Decision-making involves a much broader base of the membership. Major decisions are debated openly, and there are regular opportunities for church members to comment on the direction of congregational life. More women and young adults have assumed leadership roles, with new members prominent among them. The story of Christ Church has become the story of a new group of spiritual seekers who have brought new life to the congregation.
A COMMUNITY OF PILGRIMS
While Sarah's experience of Christ Church was similar to that of other recent arrivals, older members had a very different story to tell. Unlike the newer members, many of the older were "cradle" Episcopalians—raised in the church, fully dedicated to it, and steeped in its teachings, traditions, and worldview. They could recall a time when the Episcopal Church in general and Christ Church in particular had played very different roles in the world, a time when Christ Church had been a mainstay of its community. Its members had been among the area's leading citizens. They had been strong supporters not only of Christ Church but of the diocesan and denominational structures to which it belonged. Their sense of community, though strong, was taken almost for granted, as part of the natural order of things.
Then the world in which the church and its members were rooted began to change. There were wars and social upheavals; the Episcopal Church revised its Book of Common Prayer; women were ordained; and there was growing acceptance of homosexuality. Christ Church's members feared the loss of their treasured heritage. Membership declined as disaffected members left, at times in large numbers. Several clergy also left amid conflict. The church's budget plummeted and "deferred maintenance" seemed the building's fate. Conflict and dissolution defined a once-proud congregation.
But then something remarkable began to happen at Christ Church to reverse the decline. People like Sarah began to join. Most were relative newcomers to this city; education, work, and marriage had transplanted them. Although both old and new members had experienced divorces, deaths of loved ones, and job losses, these painful changes figured more prominently in the stories told by the newcomers and served as further indications of their overall feelings of disjointedness. For most of them, the Christian faith had not always been at life's center. Few were raised as Episcopalians. Some had little religious background. Several had cynically shunned religious faith. None had expected to discover religious commitment and be drawn into such a dynamic experience of congregational life. But their outlooks had changed. Like Sarah, they had felt the lure of worship and of the ideal of working together for common purposes. Joined together in a bond that had become the center of their lives, they viewed their collective task as building a spiritual community on the foundation afforded them by this religious institution.
The older members at Christ Church clearly welcome the influx of new members, which represents a reversal in the old trend of decline. But the recent arrivals mean distinctly more than that to the older members. They fully realize that the newer members are different from themselves (i.e., not the kind of cradle Episcopalians who can help them return to the past of their glory days), and they value them on their own distinctive merits. As one older man noted, the new arrivals brought fresh spiritual energies with them, and their intense longing for community—in marked contrast to the older members for whom community always was a given—added emotional vibrancy and bright new potential to the congregation. Similarly, the newer members prize the older members for their wisdom and their historic perspective. They are grateful when those who have been around for many years, and therefore have seen several cycles in the fortunes of Christ Church and of the Episcopal Church in general, are able to reassure them when they read contentious and fractious rhetoric in national church publications, or when attendance takes a temporary dip, or when there is a slump in the local economy, which also usually means a slump in the offering plate revenues. They also are grateful to the old guard for bringing Christ Church through troubled times and preserving its precious legacy intact for the future.
The generational divide at Christ Church can be quite a source of cohesion, bringing solace and renewed energy to either side, but the differences between the groups can bring tensions, too. During the focus group, when the older members talked of the old days, they exhibited great pride in their church's long heritage and in their stalwart devotion to it through the difficult times. Rightly they could claim to have ensured Christ Church's future. Consequently, they also exhibited somewhat proprietary attitudes about Christ Church's present. But the newer members expressed a very different understanding of how the past informed the present. Though grateful to the older members for their protective stewardship (without which no Christ Church legacy would have been possible), they nonetheless consider themselves the unquestioned inheritors of that legacy. They assume that they represent the future and are intent on imprinting their own new style upon their community.
Appreciative but not always comprehending of each other, they have found common cause but not always common strategies. When the small group began to focus on current dilemmas in their community, agreement on their church's priorities and strategies for addressing them was not always apparent. Sometimes the friction among them was thinly veiled. The ties of community remained intact, but their occasionally cautious treatment of one another expressed more uncertainty than perhaps they intended to convey. The group members were uncertain about exactly how they were going to integrate a new generation's altered priorities and style with older, established priorities and styles, but they were certain that—somehow—they would.
Without knowing it, this group and the congregation of which they are members are participants in a major change in American life. Until recently, religious life has been equated with the activities of large denominations and their centralized institutional structures. Episcopalians have been among the "mainstream" Protestant denominations that have exercised considerable public influence as religious institutions. Organized like major corporate or philanthropic entities, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and others have built elaborate institutional histories and complex institutional structures. For the sake of sustaining a variety of denominational programs and services, these churches maintain large staffs and office complexes. For decades, local church members loyally and unhesitatingly drew on their denomination's programs and contributed generously to the budgets that made them possible. But, as will be demonstrated frequently during this narrative, a new vision of religious life is emerging. A new kind of loyalty is taking hold.
A NEW REALITY
A major shift is occurring in the Episcopal Church. Increasingly people who define themselves as being on spiritual journeys are exploring Episcopal life and finding it inviting. The pews of many Episcopal congregations are filling with adults who are at varied stages of life but are united in their focus on life as a shared, spiritual journey. The impact of their entry into the church is becoming clear. Absorbing the foundations of Christian belief and practice, they have forged new assumptions about the church's intention. Embracing the historic Episcopal balance of traditional worship and theological breadth, they are challenging its organizational assumptions. Increasing numbers of people in its pews are better equipped to navigate local conflicts and controversial issues than many mainstream religious pundits and experts who seem immobilized. At its grassroots level, Episcopal life has moved from preoccupation with the intricacies of denominational life toward a practical focus on local community and mission. As a result, the meaning of being an Episcopalian now focuses less on being a member of a religious institution than on becoming a participant in a spiritual community.
This transition is still in process. The institutional structures and processes that have characterized the Episcopal Church for a century and more remain in place. The energies of considerable numbers of talented people are being devoted to reviving and refining those structures. This book is not a challenge to those structures or to those who work to improve them. By drawing the data from those whom these structures intend to serve, rather than from the structures themselves, this study has been able to locate a new underlying reality for the church.
The purpose of this book is to describe nothing less than a new reality that, gradually but steadily, is remaking the church from the grassroots level up—a revolutionary initiative that is local rather than institutional and spiritual more than religious. In describing this rebuilding, as indicated by our research data, we also will examine what this rebuilding might mean for Episcopalians and Americans. The fulcrum of this narrative derives from data indicating that the church's basis is shifting from an inherited emphasis upon the forms of religious institution to the challenge of building local, spiritual community. This book does not applaud or decry this major transition. The authors have no axe to grind with religious institutions in general or with the Episcopal Church in particular. The intent is simple: to report the results of face-to-face interviews with thousands of Episcopalians who have disclosed their perceptions of church life today and to interpret those disclosures.
Excerpted from Restoring the Ties That Bind by WILLIAM SACHS, THOMAS HOLLAND. Copyright © 2003 William Sachs and Thomas Holland. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
2. The Ties That Once Bound
3. Conflict, Culture, and Institution
4. The Turn to the Grassroots
5. In Search of Leadership
6. Making Connections
7. The Way, The Truth, The Life
8. From Religious Institution to Spiritual Community