Note: I wrote this piece before I learned of the survey I wrote about a while back at The Stream. Even though some of the material here overlaps, there are other facets of interest in this “case study”.
Fellow in the Portland Press Herald wrote of showing up to mass one afternoon at an Episcopal church (St. Luke’s Cathedral) in which he was the only parishioner.
The wide, empty nave was dark except for the light coming in through the stained-glass windows. My footsteps had never sounded louder as I walked toward the little octagonal chapel at the back, where the Rev. Anne Fowler sat alone by the altar.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess it’ll just be us tonight.”
Episcopalians are egalitarian and have, among other novelties, lady priests.
Such a poor turnout for an evening service isn’t surprising given the national trends. Episcopal churches, like those of other mainline Protestant denominations, are far emptier than they used to be. The Episcopal Church in the United States says average Sunday worship attendance at its churches declined 26 percent between 2005 and 2015. The Diocese of Maine says it lost nearly 17 percent of its baptized members in that decade, although some congregations in southern Maine are growing.
The numbers are something north of half a million who attend weekly services, which is, as most of these estimates are, probably a tad high. It is a useful exercise to attempt to find anybody to bet the attendance will rise in the next year, or indeed in any coming year.
The natural, and really only, question is Why. The writer gives us a clue.
The evening I showed up alone, the readings were both beautiful and challenging, as they often are. The first turned out to be from one of my favorite parts of the Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a musing on the ephemeral cycle of life and contains some of the more recognizable verses in Scripture. (Its chapter about everything having its own season provides the text for Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”)
There’s fame for you.
But this was one of the book’s darker passages, focusing on the futility of life on Earth. The walls echoed my own voice back to me as I stood in the center of the chapel, reading:
“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.”
I was tired.
“Church is supposed to make me feel better about my life, not worse,” I thought.
Well, no; not really; not directly. Of course, it is possible to interpret this phrase in the sense that once you learn you must pick up and bear your cross, your purpose on earth is made clearer, and therefore you feel better in the midst of suffering because of this higher understanding. But it’s doubtful the author had that in mind. Perhaps he hoped for something from the Modern Gospel of Relaxation. Feeling better about your life in this sense can be had cheaper and easier by turning on the television. No need to wait for 5:15 Sunday to gather with others.
The Gospel was difficult, too: one of Jesus’ least comforting parables, in which a successful farmer stores his extra crops in barns only to incur God’s wrath for hoarding material wealth.
“You fool!” God says. “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Harsh.
Yep: harsh. The thought of the just desserts awaiting people like Yours Truly and Portland’s author can be unbearable. Now unbearable means that which cannot be borne, and that which cannot be borne, therefore, isn’t. Harsh notions are put aside for more pleasing thoughts.
Episcopalians used to be Trinitarians, and if I’m not mistaken that view is still on the books. But in practice, the interpretation given to the relationship between Jesus and God is often unitarian, or something similar. God metes out punishment, or at least threatens it, and Jesus, a kind of super swell fella, forgives all. That “all” makes for the hopeful idea that all are saved. It isn’t only the Episcopalians sliding in this direction, as any reader of religious news knows. These seductions tempt many.
The Trinitarian view is that God the Father, Jesus, and the oft-forgotten Holy Ghost are one. That means it is Jesus Himself—and God the Father and the Holy Ghost—condemning sinners. And that thought is harsh.
[The lady priest] asked how the readings made me feel.
“Confused,” I said. “And a little afraid.”
“These are some tough ones,” she said. “This language of fear and uncertainty is troubling, especially when it comes from the mouth of Jesus.
“And yet,” she went on, “he is speaking. He is there. He’s showing us a path so that when things do go wrong, we know where to go.”
Troubling or harsh, take your pick. Fear is comprehensible, and scriptural. Fear is the right attitude, along with a little trembling. I’m not sure what the priest means, however, by “uncertainty”, unless she means from our point of view, where it is eminently understandable.
It would be a mistake, and not a pew-filler, to focus on fear and punishment alone, but there is almost a complete absence, and in some cases absolute absence, from the pulpit of these useful concepts in the Episcopal church. The reason is that, for many, they are not believed. And since they are not believed, they are not taught, and since they are not taught, the lesson learned by (ex-)parishioners is that there aren’t many reasons to attend church.