Last week, we learned that the 10-year membership and attendance numbers for the Episcopal Church show a steep decline. For those of us who love the Episcopal Church, this news was sobering and even upsetting. It has inspired many people to question their assumptions and consider anew the urgency of thinking in new ways—thinking adaptively, in the parlance of organizational development—and trying things that we’ve never tried before.
These kinds of ideas are just what the Becoming Beloved Community and Evangelism grants, created by General Convention and now accepting applications, are intended to encourage. I’ve been inspired by the number of creative ideas and initiatives being discussed, and by people’s desire to work together to create new models and new expressions of the church that make sense in their communities. I believe that these responses to the seismic change we are experiencing are the best and most faithful way forward into the uncharted territory that lies before us.
I’ve learned recently on Twitter—more on that in a moment—that my favorite theologian, Paul Tillich, has fallen out of favor in some circles. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, I’ve been reflecting anew on a sermon of his, reprinted in his collection titled “The Shaking of the Foundations.” In it, he says:
Nothing is more surprising than the rise of the new within ourselves. We do not foresee or observe its growth. We do not try to produce it by the strength of our will, by the power of our emotion, or by the clarity of our intellect. On the contrary, we feel that by trying to produce it we prevent its coming. By trying, we would produce the old in the power of the old, but not the new. The new is being born in us, just when we least believe in it. It appears in remote corners of our souls which we have neglected for a long time.
As we continue wrestling with how we are called to participate in God’s mission, I think we need to pay close attention to what is in the remote corners of our souls. If we look carefully, I hope we’ll find our Baptismal Covenant, in which we affirm the Creed, repent of our sins, proclaim the Good News, and promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being. I hope we’ll find our history of seeking the kingdom of God by distributing authority among clergy, bishops and laypeople so that all voices are heard, all people are welcome, and all visions of justice and mercy are honored. And I hope we’ll find a deep longing to be the body of Christ in a world that needs our witness and our transparent willingness to repent of our collective sins and seek a better way. Out of those very Anglican remnants, I believe the new will be born in us.
But there is another, far more worrisome, set of responses to the changing landscape of the church. Those are the responses that seek to blame and shame, to assign responsibility for numerical decline to those with whom one disagrees about theology or polity, or to use the occasion to elevate one’s own sense of certainty.
This summer I’ve been recovering from shoulder replacement surgery and have been unable to travel. In between physical therapy appointments, I’ve had more time than usual to survey the online landscape of the Episcopal Church. This, quite frankly, has been a mixed blessing. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up on updates from deputies and other friends across the church, and I’ve enjoyed the chance to share the joy of births, graduations, new calls, and other celebrations. But I’ve also witnessed conversations, particularly on Twitter, that have demeaned people based on their theology, discounted people based on the ministries to which they have been called, and shamed congregations for their websites or liturgies. More than once I have spoken to women who have been attacked by Episcopalians on Twitter so savagely that they have received anonymous death and rape threats. And more than once I have seen posts suggesting that these kinds of tactics will be present at General Convention in 2021.
Now, I am no Luddite. I was the first president of the House of Deputies to welcome social media on the floor, and I have encouraged and participated in the House of Twitter. Digital conversations allow deputies to engage with one another, with the wider church, with the wider world while we deliberate, and they also allow for some levity (#gc79pigeon!) during our long hours of work. But I am dismayed that what can be a platform for communication, humor, and spirited debate has also become home to intolerance, personal attacks, and theological purity tests that have no place in our church. I take very seriously the possibility that uncharitable behavior on Twitter might play a role in suppressing open debate and the free exchange of ideas at General Convention.
I am not suggesting that online behavior be policed. But if we Episcopalians hope to find new ways to spread the Gospel, ugly social media conversations are not going to help. And although it can feel as if Twitter, in particular, is a private room, it is not. Twitter is very public, and what we post there has material consequences for the way that people—Episcopalians, ecumenical colleagues, and seekers—regard our church and our witness in the world.
In the coming months, most deputies to the 80th General Convention will be elected. As deputations begin to form and organize our work, I ask that we all take seriously the need to use social media responsibly, charitably, and in the service of the mission of God to which we are all called.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings