The Church’s Mission: Let’s Be Honest

by Elizabeth Drescher

You know, I sometimes wonder whether the Israelites heard the call of the psalm we read today as I sometimes do: “Sing to the Lord a new song…? Really?”

I mean, let’s be honest, even in the most literal sense, we struggle with this idea, resisting in our churches music that might nudge us even ever so slightly out of the nineteenth century. Oh, I’m not talking here about going all “U2-charist,” or bringing in hip hop hymns that’ll get the young folks dancing before the Lord. After all, we know that the few thriving emergent communities in our church are more likely to sing songs from the Middle Ages–a little Gregorian Chant, a remix of Hildegard of Bingen, or, to modernize just a smidge, some shape note tunes–than they are to be jamming to the spiritual stylings of Gospel Ganstaz. But they are singing those old songs in a new way–inhabiting them bodily, infusing them with a spirit that is often missing from our churches, truly “lifting every voice” in glorious praise.

Outside of these communities–the Crossing at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, Open Cathedral at St. Mark’s in Seattle, Thad’s in Los Angeles, Transmission in New York–“singing a new song” has, in the least nuanced, least metaphorical way, been something of a challenge for us.

And that makes me worry about how far along God’s path we may be able to travel these days as we seek to realize the peaceable kingdom Isaiah prophesied. If we can’t get the theme song down, what chance do we have to be so much as bit players in the whole new cosmic drama–the heartwarming story of true love realized across the earth that, as Paul reminds us, Jesus narrated with his life, death, and resurrection?

Of course, Paul points in his letter to the Ephesians to what throws us off tune in our efforts to sing a new, harmonious song, to live as one diverse body: barriers and the hostilities they cause among us. What do these barriers look like in our church in particular? If you’ve just lept in your mind to things like women’s ordination or diverse opinions on human sexuality, I’m going to suggest that you guess again.

Last Sunday, I had the great pleasure to hear Stephanie Spellers–emergent church leader, writer, chaplain to the House of Bishops, and, as it happens, my editor–remind a gathering of what we may safely assume were progressive Christian hipsters at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco of what separates us as Episcopalians from much of the rest of the world. You can be relatively sure that the folks gathered under the flickering stained glass rainbow on the top of Nob Hill were most likely feeling pretty pleased with their success in sorting out all the fuss over women clergy–indeed, nearly every ordained soul at the altar was a woman–and the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer/questioning people (LGBT/Q, in case you missed our memo on the latest acronym updates) in the church.

I know I wasn’t prepared for where Steph was going after her joyfully sung introduction. Pointing to the findings of the Pew US Religion Landscape Survey, she noted that our little denomination–as the joke goes in religious studies circles, there are fewer of us than there are of the Amish–has something of a bizarrely skewed demographic profile. We are merely one percent of the total population, and a slight six percent of mainline protestants. But we pack a demographic wallop.

92 percent of us are white, making us among the least ethnically diverse of Christian denominations

5 percent of us are African American

1 percent each are Asian, Latina/o or mixed race/other

35 percent of us make over $100,000 a year, making us the wealthiest denomination by far, while we are half as likely as people in the population generally to make less than $30,000

51 percent of us have at least a college education, with half that many having earned graduate degrees, making us the most educated of all Christian denominations

And though all of that might lead you to believe that we are a smart, ambitious, hard working, if somewhat pasty, club in which anyone would love to be a member, by the time they reach adulthood, 55 percent of the children raised in our churches will have left–20 percent claiming no religious identity at all as adults. That, by the way, makes us the biggest contributor to the fastest growing religious demographic, “nones”–people who answer “none” when asked with what religious group they identify.

Let’s be honest here: we are hardly the 99%. Indeed, of late, I’ve come to think of too many of our churches as spiritual cafes of a sort–lovely little soul shops where we come once a week (ish) to pick up a nip of comfort, a soupçon of companionship, and a healthy dollop–oh, go ahead, you’re not here every day–of the nostalgia encoded in our songs, our lush liturgies, or our beautiful prayerbook.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in love with our prayerbook and our liturgical tradition as much as most of the dwindling number of people who visit our churches each week. Or, perhaps, I should say that I’m in love with our liturgical customs. The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish–a colleague just down the mountain at Calvin Presbyterian Church in my hometown of Zelienople–reminds us in his important book Humble Leadership us that we confuse tradition with custom at our peril. Our prayerbook tradition is that all God’s people should have access to the basic forms the liturgy of the church and to the psalms for “the exciting of piety and devotion in the worship of God” (BCP, Preface, 9) among all the people, regardless of vocation, station, class, gender, or other accidental circumstance.

Which is to say that the tradition of the church is to include me–me, with my excessive eduction, my overpriced Silicon Valley home, my access to an endless assortment of advantages, and my discomfort with any recitation of the Lord’s prayer that doesn’t include the stilted pronunciation of “hallowED.” But our customs are not meant to be shaped around my preferences any more than the tradition of giving thanks to God that we will enact later this month can only be handed forward in all places and to new generations with turkey, chestnut dressing, yams, and gravy. As Jesus intended.

Maybe we are not all the 1 %, but, let’s be honest, very many of us know how to get to the neighborhood. And God loves us nonetheless. God loves the 100%. Let’s be very clear about that. God doesn’t hate bankers any more than God hates fags. God certainly doesn’t hate Episcopalians, who, after all, have used our privilege not insignificantly in the service of peace, justice, healing, and sustainability not merely across the US, but in every country in the world. Indeed, I like to hope, with all the humility I can muster, that God is well pleased with the way in which we have transformed so much of the tragic architecture of Anglican colonialism into a robust network of service and support in times of crisis and need, as after the earthquake in Haiti and the famine in Sudan.

But God also calls us away from our inaccessible customs and the lives that our privilege have bought us in America and across the globe. We are called, our mission as a church, is to live into the vision shared by the prophets, the apostles, all the saints, and borne out in God’s body on the cross as the Christ of unity and peace–“a dwelling,” Paul tells us, “in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Such a body travels light, carrying “neither purse nor bag nor sandals,” Luke insists. We are meant to leave all of our baggage behind–not only the mountains of stuff we have accumulated, but also our divisions, our hostilities, and even the customs of which we are so fond if we are to be true bearers of God’s holy peace to those whose language, or culture, or generational experience render our quaint customs–our pipe organs, our Ralph Vaughn Williams hymns, our vergers, and our other hallowED liturgical practices–incomprehensible. We are to be the very kingdom of God when we come near to those we serve.

What might that look like today?

I am no more certain than is anyone else in these transitional times. But, let’s be honest, there are those who will say that the new song of Episcopalians will never be written or sung by the likes of us Western Pennsylvanians, with our aging yinzer culture and shaky economy. They look to Boston or Seattle, Chicago or San Francisco, with their edgy, progressive cultures and what often seems like an endless reserve of creativity.

But, not very long ago, I saw something of the sort of enduring, regenerative creativity folks in these parts bring to the ecclesial songfest. My sister and brother-in-law have a cabin near Brookville, where I visited with them a couple months ago. It was the first time I’d been there, and the first time I’d ever heard the song of an elk. Now, you all surely know the story of the elk’s return to the Allegheny mountains after horrific decades of unbridled massacre at the turn of the twentieth century.

In a blink of historical time, the over-hunted elk disappeared, unsettling not just the mountain ecosystem, but also significant parts of its economy and its culture. But, of course, someone–Teddy Roosevelt, that kinda-sort Episcopalian president–had the vision to recognize and redress the loss, working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to import pairs of elk from the western US to resettle in Elk County. Now, a few decades later, their songs ring out across the meadows and fields, a whole species brought back into relationship with the land and the people of this region.

Okay, let’s be honest, the revitalization of the church in these parts might not include quite as much glitter and glitz as it will in other parts of the country and the world. But it surely can have a certain kind of grit and groundedness that is hardly without the creativity and daring that we need to realize the vision of God’s kingdom. Surely, the song of the Pennsylvania elk is but a line of the new song of healing and wholeness we are meant to sing out to all God’s people. Surely, the revitalization of the church could start right here, blossoming like the bright crocuses that reach out of the snow after each long winter.

And, just as surely, it is only the beginning of what Episcopalians can do with our education, our privilege, our traditions of love and justice, and our hope for a future where swords are beaten into plowshares, and foreigners and strangers–even hip trendies from San Francisco–join with us in the common household of God. Because, let’s be honest, if we can’t rouse ourselves to refashion our beloved customs into resonant, relevant, engaging new songs, we won’t go the way of the elk, but of the dinosaur. God knows, no one needs that.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and professor of religious studies and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. Her research and writing focus on the spiritual lives of ordinary believers today and in the past. She is the author of Tweet If You ♥ Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation (Morehouse, 2011). Her forthcoming book, Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse 2012), written with Lutheran pastor and blogger Keith Anderson, will be released in May. Her Web site is

This essay was first presented as a sermon at the Convention Eucharist of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern PA, November 4, 2011. The readings were Is. 2:2-4; Ps. 96; Eph. 2:13-22; Lk. 10:1-9.

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