Monday, February 15, 2010

Brian McLaren on the Importance of Being Episcopalian

We've heard a lot about Brian McLaren around the blog crowd. He's an author, a pastor, and a leader in the idea of the "Emergent Church" which Fr Jake and others have talked about quite a lot.

BP wanted to go hear him talk this weekend, where his topic was "The importance of being Episcopalian". He had been in San Diego talking at the Diocesan convention, and gave an additional talk at the St Paul's Cathedral Forum which is held at 9am each Sunday before Mass. So that's where we went.

Although not an Episcopalian himself, McLaren has a lot of respect for and interest in the Episcopal church, and noted that for a variety of reasons, TEC is at an important moment. His broad message was carpe diem: seize the day and merge past and present with the future. As he put it, everyone has been so good at maintaining the church of their grandparents, that they have created a church that is unwelcoming to their children. So, this was his prescription for the future.

You can see his whole talk at this website (it's about an hour long, look for the entry for Feb 14), but here are some interesting notes some of you may like to discuss in the comments. So have at it!

McLaren noted 4 significant advantages of the Episcopal church, which he described as the "birthright" of Episcopalians.
  1. Via Media mindset: the middle way between Protestant and Catholic. Accommodating to old traditions and new ideas; unlike many protestants during the reformation era, did not throw out the baby with the bathwater, but managed to keep some of the old ways intact.

  2. Celtic mindset: With a history of Christianity that was built on the fringes of empire, faith became integrated into the Celtic society, rather than replaced by Roman culture. Being on the edge, many aspects of the Anglican tradition escaped the Roman Empire and its authoritarian politics and power. For example, he noted that Celtic spirituality is more comfortable with the body and sexuality, rather than fearing the physical in the way that the more structured Roman tradition. (I have only recently been introduced to the idea of a distinctly Celtic component in Anglican Christianity; I needs to read me some J. Phillip Newell).

  3. Diverse mindset: big tent, in a land torn by religious wars. The genius of the Anglican tradition is that unity is based on practice rather than opinion. (Or was....!)

  4. A liturgical mindset, in which he described liturgy as organized mysticism and defined its purpose to create space for soul to experience contact with living God. Slow down, and experience honesty.
Of course, there are a matching set of Disadvantages:
  1. Upper Class mindset: association with top of social ladder and class, and a need to work hard for diversity.

  2. Institutional mindset. Institutions carry values across generations and preserve the gains of past social movements, and resist new movements that proposes change to current institutions. Paradoxically, movements do not succeed unless they are integrated with an institution. It's should be a dynamic tension, but lack of receptivity to new ideas leads to a certain stasis that is not healthy.

  3. Christendom mindset: by which he describes what happens when Christianity is combined with a kingdom or political system. Faith is lazy, and allied with power. He defines this as when people assume that everyone is Christian, and goes to church, a dominant paradigm that does not describe the realtity of most places in the US.

  4. Bipolar mindset: the liberal/conservative divide, which "polarizes and paralyzes."
In his prescription for the future, he had three broad suggestions.
  1. Bring them in spirit: natural evangelizing by everyone. NOT preachy, or "traditional" evangelizing, but involving people where they are, in long conversations, and don't hide your faith. The Institution can be in the way. He said, others will try to recruit people into a brittle, angry, judgmental, violent form of the faith. Time to speak up lest you and all Christians get labelled with the brand of hate and intolerance. (I would argue that this has to some extent already happened).

  2. Welcome an entrepreneurial spirit adding new services, modes, and ideas. Don't let yourselves just consume religious goods and services: set your mission as a welcome. Living liturgy has to have room to grow, not be a frozen remnant.

  3. Begin again spirit. Again, he invoked the Via media above the line between liberal, conservative or moderate. He sees this as resolved not by moving both sides to the middle, but by trying to transcend the linear vector and move beyond it or above it. (He was distinctly uninformative on how this ideal is to be accomplished.)
It was an interesting talk, and some parts of it are clearly things that can be accomplished and integrated into existing structures, especially where there is leadership that embraces the future, rather than turns its back to it.

But in a broader sense, it remains unclear to me how the polarization problem can be accommodated further. I've been following the Episcopal follies for some years now (rooting around Fr Jake's archives, I can see I posted there at least as far back as 2005, and I know I was on the defunct Every Voice Network and The Right Christians well before that). I used to read some of the sites on the Other Side but they were full of such bile that I gave it up. What I've seen happen in my time amongst you is no change in the conservatives and their line in the sand. The liberals worked very hard in those days to try to find space for everyone. But the conservatives escalated, and to me, when they refused to share Communion with those with whom they disagreed, they left that via media, that diverse mindset. And the liberals, worn out, finally said "just go then!"

How are you supposed to live together when one side insists that a gay bishop a thousand miles away is communion-shattering? I'd really love to hear one of these commentators explain how a "both/and" would work on a problem that seems intractably binary "either/or".


Grandmère Mimi said...

IT, I believe that Brian assesses the situation correctly, but how to get to the new place that he recommends remains the problem. Not having read his whole talk, which I will do and report back, I don't see much that's helpful to get us out of our ruts.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

What Grand'mère said!

klady said...

"As he put it, everyone has been so good at maintaining the church of their grandparents, that they have created a church that is unwelcoming to their children."

I'm sorry, this is largely nonsense and is what I believe is going to destroy TEC if the conservatives don't do it first. I have spent years listening to good folks like Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, and others say much the same thing, and have followed clergy (and bookshelf and video/DVD space in my own home) consuming the endless series of lectures, workshops, retreats, etc. promoting these ideas and preaching hope for a new and better, future TEC. They offer some excellent insights and thoughtful suggestions, but the cloak of prophecy that surrounds them, the often uncritical and unthinking acceptance of their historical and sociological analyses, makes it very difficult to discuss and sort through their ideas with any semblance of objectivity or reasonable caution.

What is offered are goals that no one can argue with - transcending social and economic class, embracing personal accountability, emphasizing inter-personal interactions, de-emphasizing or dismantling the old institutional structures and the culture that went with it. But it ignores the sometimes detrimental effect of having people sit and listen and lap up these rosy visions and possibilities, thinking that if only they give up all that is old or used that then everything will be better. The delusion is that the way one "does" church is what may cause it to succeed or fail rather than human nature itself and the ongoing struggle everyone has to love one another, day in and day out, regardless of whether we build and keep stone and stained glass buildings or quonset huts, meet in coffee shops, living rooms, streets, or internet chat rooms. "We" or "They" have not created or maintained "unwelcoming" churches, society has changed dramatically so that people are far less inclined to participate in organized religion, both due to the now nearly non-existent social pressure to do so and due to the fear of getting mired down by the negative aspects of institutional religion. Changing the music, the furniture, or even taking down the walls is not going to turn that tide. Arguably, what can best save the church is giving up the idea that we can, must, or should save it rather than the heart of the Gospel message.

The kind of church-renewal industry - even the best of it reflected by people like McLaren - strikes me as functionally the flip side of what conservatives are trying to do by remaking church guided by Biblical literalism and Puritanical views of social roles and human sexuality. If only... we can persuade others that things should and must be different in and about church, not through and in human hearts and minds regardless of the setting, regardless how one defines local groups, communities, or creates (or destroys) institutions. How absurd and presumptuous to think that what is forestalling the Kingdom of God is that we haven't yet finished Reforming The Church.

klady said...

Forgive me for going off on something of a tangent when, I believe your main point, IT, was the "bi-polar mindset" - suggesting that you do not see how or when TEC will ever be free of it. I agree that many of these commentators are excellent at pointing out serious problems but are not so good at offering practical solutions. It is one thing to say that we need to cease being "bi-polar" (or predominantly upper or middle-class or white or aging or whatever). It is another to actually accomplish it. Even when some have left, they are still always hanging around doing the best to meddle in our affairs and tell us how awful we are -- even after they have taken their leave. Meanwhile, no one at the center of the Anglican Communion seems to want to make any effort to address, let alone "cure" us of, bipolarity.

IT said...

Good points, klady, and lots to chew on! No worries about "off topic"; you aren't.

I completely agree that there is a tendency to do a baby/bathwater thing (throwing out the old just because it's old, is not a good idea) although to be fair, that's not the prescription I got from McLaren's talk. I didn't at all sense that he was going all happy-clappy, let's ditch tradition just 'cause.

Rather, I got the idea that an institution hung up on BEING an institution tends to be reactionary and conservative when faced with something new. Like, for example, the whole issue of GLBT inclusion; the institution becomes very irrelevant to a society where those outmoded conclusions and exclusions are no longer justified. An institution that is groaning with the shift that GLBT are People too, makes no connection with those whose response is, well, "Duh!"

So then a question is, what is the response to the absence of the young? How DO you make "church" and community generally, more inclusive of, say, my step kids, who at 18 and 20 have become Eastermas churchgoers (and that only under family pressure).

I agree that it's all very well to say what the community "should be". but I found McLaren's talk frustratingly incomplete in addressing "how to get there". I'm glad I'm not the only one.

KJ said...

Excellent thread, IT.

I know that it is not possible in all parishes, but I attend a large one in which, though the goings-on of those who wish all to be as miserable as them in their faith-walk is well-known to us, we are way too busy doing what needs to be done in a broken world to give it too much thought.

We've done will in economic diversity, ranging from those with very little, and those with apparently very "deep pockets", though the "deep pockets" do not receive, for the most part, special recognition, so I would have no idea who they are (I do believe that it is time for naming organs, chapels and "spaces" after benefactors to end. I'd rather see that honor given to those who really would not want it, and in response to a life of service.).

Racial diversity is a different matter, and I know a concern to our entire diocese. I think that here we encounter a cultural divide, but certainly not an insurmountable one. TEC is about as culturally different from the church of my youth as it could possibly be, yet I, and many others, immigrate there are a regular basis.

klady said...

Yes, to be fair McLaren and Tickle and others who often speak to Episcopalians do express respect for and some envy of the Anglican tradition of liturgy and music and do not, in fact, advocate tossing it all out. But in my experience, many who attend their lectures and/or read their books come away with the impression that they really must up-end everything, and if they don't, they (or those who ask questions or have reservations) will be impeding Progress or Salvation or whatever for all. So my problem is not really with the individual speakers and authors - I often like much of what I have to say - but the church change culture that they help to create, perhaps unwittingly. It seems to me that all their work really does is give occasions for overworked and frustrated clergy to meet and hear some words of hope and inspiration - not itself a bad thing except when people go home and rush around to plan more meetings, more lectures, more study groups instead of just attending to real people and real problems (IMO).

But you do ask the $64 million question, and yes, I have my own Christmas/Easter children to deal with (well, only one, but maybe another one as soon as she goes to college - although maybe Aunt Shel will be nearby to encourage her to stay with church). But if they do not attend (and when I did not attend at their ages) it was not because of the music and liturgy - on the contrary, if anything would make them attend on their own volition it would be that. The tough question is one of community.

Yes, there are ways in which parishes can and probably should work harder to include youth, but usually what this means is just trying to make "adults" aware of youth and more sensitive to their needs. This may remove some barriers, but I honestly don't think that youth primarily stay away because they don't feel "welcome". Rather, they just don't see the point to it no matter how friendly the older folks may be, and they just aren't seeing their friends and acquaintances making it a part of their lives anymore than they do a lot of other kinds of social clubs and activities older generations once engaged in. They live and breathe a plugged-in virtual social scene with small, discrete pairings and groups and little desire to be part of anything structured or permanent. If church is no longer important for appearances sake for one's employer, neighbors, friends, etc., then why bother?

I think all progressive churches can do is simply be as visible as possible and keep showing people that everyone is not "That" kind of Christian so that those who may find themselves wanting and needing a community may know where to find one. I wish Episcopalians were more Anglo-Catholic in the sense of observing Days of Obligation and making people, young and old, understand that there is something to be gained by being in church at least every week for the sake of both oneself and the community. But bottomline, I don't have the answers. I can only presume that if Christian community is, indeed, worthwhile, it will flourish somewhere, sometime, but possibly not in the forms or any of the ways we have come to expect.

Counterlight said...

The great unfinished bulk of St. John the Divine on Morningside Heights in NYC is testimony to how much the Episcopal Church has changed over the last 70 years or so. It has largely changed from the WASP plutocracy at prayer, to a much more middle and professional class church, though still very white. The cathedral remains unfinished because the old plutocrats who started and financed the project are all dead, and their children have either become secularists or evangelical Christians. The folks who inherited the Episcopal Church and the cathedral are mostly middle class converts from the Roman Church, from Evangelical churches, and from other Mainline churches. Where they do have the means, they'd rather spend it on something other than a big self-congratulatory colossus like St. John the Divine (and I'm a fan of the building).

As white as the Episcopal Church is now, it looks like the United Nations compared to the very white Methodist Church in Texas I was raised in. That desire to retain tradition while moving forward into the future is a great strength of the Episcopal Church that not many other parts of Christianity share. That aspect of Episcopalianism remains largely unknown outside Episcopal circles. Evangelicals and fundamentalists dominate the public conversation about Christianity, as they have for over 30 years. The teevee loves them because they appeal to that media fantasy that anything white and rural is a living Norman Rockwell painting, and because teevee loves a freak show, and the far right regularly delivers.

I'm not sure there is any way to bridge that bipolar gap. Maybe the way forward is to point out the gap. The Other Side looks much more like the rest of an already saturated market for patriarchal legalism. Maybe it's time to show the world our distinctiveness.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I can only presume that if Christian community is, indeed, worthwhile, it will flourish somewhere, sometime, but possibly not in the forms or any of the ways we have come to expect.

Klady, exactly. My thought, too. But, if that's to happen, I believe that our outreach will need to be focused more on the poor, the sick, the lame, and the blind. Not that middle class and rich folks don't need the church, but the younger folks who are attracted to a church which proclaims the Gospel will need to see us live the Gospel and embrace the outcasts of our society in a more visible way. And if the church moves in that direction, a good many of us middle class folks may feel a tad, just a tad, uncomfortable.

Counterlight, you've summed up the state of the church quite well.

IT said...

That desire to retain tradition while moving forward into the future is a great strength of the Episcopal Church that not many other parts of Christianity share

yes that was explicitly noted in McLaren's talk.

I asked my stepdaughter why she doesn't go to church. Basically, she doesn't feel she needs it, and she likes to sleep in on sunday morning.

The Werewolf Prophet said...

Psst! IT?

McLaren may have some good observations about TEC (I've not yet read his article, so no opinion yet) but rather like Caterbury, he recommends more study needs to be done WRT homosexuality and the church.

In addition, he suggests that perhaps there should be a 5 year moratorium on "making pronouncements". Sound familiar?

From Christianity Today's blog Out of Ur, in an article entitled Brian McLaren on the Homosexual Question: Finding a Pastoral Response, he says ~

Frankly, many of us don't know what we should think about homosexuality. We've heard all sides but no position has yet won our confidence so that we can say "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and us." That alienates us from both the liberals and conservatives who seem to know exactly what we should think. Even if we are convinced that all homosexual behavior is always sinful, we still want to treat gay and lesbian people with more dignity, gentleness, and respect than our colleagues do. If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that the biblical arguments are nuanced and multilayered, and the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex. We aren't sure if or where lines are to be drawn, nor do we know how to enforce with fairness whatever lines are drawn.

Perhaps we need a five-year moratorium on making pronouncements. In the meantime, we'll practice prayerful Christian dialogue, listening respectfully, disagreeing agreeably.

I bring this up as a way to say I distrust his POV; sugar-coated poison still kills.

IT said...

Thanks for t he links, Wolfie. There are more links worth following that explain his views a bit e.g., here, which are more nuanced. I think he is trying to live the argument he is making about being not so much either/or as both/and. It's not clear that can work, but the flak he caught from the Other Side about the post you quoted suggest he is grappling with these issues honestly, anyway.

I guess what I find frustrating is the wishy-washyness that is inevitable with his viewpoint. I don't think he actually got anyone on the two edges converted with that article.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Both/and is not a tenable position. Not to decide is to decide against equality. Of course, both/and can be a stop along the way, but it's not a place to get stuck.

Just my 2 cents.

JCF said...

I asked my stepdaughter why she doesn't go to church. Basically, she doesn't feel she needs it, and she likes to sleep in on sunday morning.

Well the second is easy enough: it's called "Saturday Night"!

As far the first goes, IT: I think the problem is she thinks of church as an "it": church is a "we" . . . and "we" need her! [Not in a "We need to grow our membership" kind of way, but in a "we need you to help us love your neighbor as yourself" kind of way.]



If we think that there may actually be a legitimate context for some homosexual relationships, we know that ....the pastoral ramifications are staggeringly complex.

Give me an Effing Break! >:-/ [Because it's so "staggeringly complex" to say "I pronounce you Spouses in Christ"?]

McLaren is another Concern Troll.

BP said...

Call me Pollyanna, but I got the impression McLaren was trying to say, "if you want to effect a change, then BE the change." Stop whining about what can't work and start talking to people: people at work, people in your van pool, people in yoga class. Nothing earth shattering, just a little, "hey, I heard something interesting at church yesterday..." Don't be afraid to drop the c-word. I previously couldn't tell you the last time I talked about church at work, but I happened to mention the other day that I went to a concert at the Cathedral, and the next thing I knew, this woman was asking questions about the community and viewpoints, and did I go there often... all from someone from whom I'd previously felt no churchy-vibe at all. What I heard from McLaren was this: Start the conversation. It's not gonna bring 'em in by droves, but it has to start somewhere.

Klady made a great point:
"I can only presume that if Christian community is, indeed, worthwhile, it will flourish somewhere, sometime, but possibly not in the forms or any of the ways we have come to expect."

and that's exactly what I heard from McLaren--TEC has advantages that can lead it there, but we’re not going to get answers from on high; we have to lead from the laity… because we can. My concern is churches like KJ's and St Paul's getting complacent because they DO have feet on the ground doing the work & getting out the Word...

IT said...

And, yes, that is MY BP, making her maiden post here at FoJ.

Welcome to the blog, honey! (waving madly)


NancyP said...

oooo! as soon as I scrolled the post into view, I thought "is that THE BP?"

It is a truism that young adults take a holiday from church, and from many other aspects of their upbringing, during the process of discovering their identity and goals. They come back once they want to have a stake in their community.

Arkansas Hillbilly said...

I say we need "real" advertising campaigns similar to what I've seen done with the Methodists and Baptists. Don't know what it's like in CA, but here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, you can't have the TV on for more than 10 minutes without seeing a commercial for "First Baptist of Icantreach" or "United Methodist Church in Oxnard" or "Whodananny Assembly of God". I have yet to see a the same for an Episcopal Church. Shoot, I would never have discovered TEC if my wife, the quasi-Catholic, hadn't wanted a christening for Spud. The Full Gospel folks I grew up with wouldn't do it, and I didn't want to become Catholic, so here I am...

If we want people coming in the doors, we have to let them know where the doors are and a reason to come through. And a 1 minute blurb on the local NPR station ain't gonna do it. Have real members talk about why they keep coming back, the same sex couple with kids in the middle pew, the business person in the front, the migrant workers in the back pew... For crying out loud, I keep hearing "How do we grow?" "How can we evangelize?" "Why don't people know we are here?" when there's a flare gun and a bull horn right there in front of us. All of us have stories... tell them! Put it out there for the world to see.

My favorite quote from the Sunday service is, "No matter where you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome at this table." My dream is to live that line...

Ok... off topic rant over.

JCF said...

Howdy, BP!

Still really sorry I couldn't make the wedding, but great to have you here (and, um, the "here" that is TEC ;-) ).


It's a conundrum, AH. My little parish in Michigan would typify the saying "It's hard to think about draining the swamp, when you're up to your neck in alligators"...

...and on the other hand, the way to REALLY get rid of alligators, IS to drain the swamp! [In this case, the appropriate substitutes are "budget crisis" and "church-growing advertising dollars"]

Arkansas Hillbilly said...


But you're not just one parish you are part of a diocese, which is part of the national Church. If one parish alone can't do it, join with others. I fail to see why, for instance, three or four parishes and missions in neighboring towns couldn't pool their resources together and create local ads like what I mentioned earlier. I have a template in mind that could work...

I know there is a risk of losing the "Anglican Identity" by throwing open the doors, but let's get these people in the doors first, then teach them "our way" of doing things.

We shouldn't be thinking we can't afford it and instead need to think we can't NOT afford it. It's an investment in growth not just for TEC, but in the people that will be coming in and finding a spiritual home and anchor behind our big red doors.

Maybe it's all the business classes I'm taking, but if we don't invest in growth, we will never grow.

Chris Harris said...

Long time lurker, first time poster...

Great Post IT (as always), just wanted to chime in on a point that klady made early on in this thread. Among some great points, I would however take issue with this characterization of Brian McLaren:

"...thinking that if only they give up all that is old or used that then everything will be better. The delusion is that the way one "does" church is what may cause it to succeed or fail rather than human nature itself..."

I would suggest that Brian was warning against EXACTLY that mindset. It's not about HOW you do liturgy or worship, or whether you've CHANGED it recently, but whether it's alive, transformative, formative, life giving, etc., etc. That people understand it, and then do something with it.

For example, someone suggested to me the other day that we need to vary our music in order to attract a younger crowd (as if THAT were a novel suggestion). I was in a somewhat petulant mood, and countered with a simple question: What do you understand the word “member” to mean in the post communion prayer? They had no idea. (A rough approximation of “in the club” was the best they could come up with.) They knew it by heart, but never really understood what we’ve been charged with as we walk out those doors.

I would argue, that rather than rearranging deck chairs for the sake of “change” Brian would argue that we should instead, dive deeper into our understandings of the Gospel, relate them to our liturgy, and in doing so bring it, as well as our faith, more alive, and then let God do the rest. (I do think that occasional change will come naturally from that perspective, but not for the sake of change, but as the natural, organic response to a living, breathing faith).

David said...

Episcopalians have always been against change for its own sake - and I think Chris (above) has nailed down a great, clear response to that sort of nonsense in his final paragraph. Huzzah!

I actually intend to forward a link to this whole entry to my vestry - since I'm now a member of that august body (::chuckle::), and have volunteered to be their liaison to Congregational Development for our parish :)

Grandmère Mimi said...

...since I'm now a member of that august body (::chuckle::)

Laugh while you can David!

What an amazing thread! I never did get around to reading McLaren's speech, and probably never will, but the mention of it inspired good online conversation.

BP, hi and welcome to your maiden voyage on the FOJ ship. You make an excellent point. Don't just bitch and moan. Speak up. Do something.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Hello PB - and Love!

JCF said...

Hello PB

++Katherine Jefforts Schori is now a Friend-of-Jake?!


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Sorry BP ;=)

I a m dyslectic...

Jane R said...

Read Stephanie Spellers'_Radical Welcome_. Then compare to McLaren's spiel and see which one sticks.

P.S. Word Verification: "rented" - I kid you not.