One of the things many of us in the Episcopal Church have counted on is that we are the established church. We are one of the mainline Protestant denominations. More Presidents of the United States have been Episcopalians than any other denomination.
We have been the established church in England since the 16th century. That exalted status has been with us in this country ever since the first Anglicans (our linguistic predecessors to the Episcopal Church) came to American shores in the early 18th century.
There have been some privileges that have accompanied this identity. And some costs. Dwight Zscheile points out one of them: "one of the things that the paradigm of establishment did to the church was to try and fix the sacred geographically – within consecrated buildings, tended by consecrated people (clergy). While Christian theology has historically affirmed God's presence and movement beyond the assembled community in the wider world, establishment tended to de-emphasize it." (Page 76, People of the Way.)
While many of us resist, regret and recoil at the shift from the Episcopal Church's place in the establishment to the disestablishment (along with virtually every other mainline denomination), it does open us up to a opportunity to see God at work in the world.
"In the Incarnation, God entrusts Godself to the hospitality of the world." (Page 77.)
As a church, we are no longer the mainline. We are outside. Instead of fighting that new place, perhaps we can take advantage of it and see how God is at work in the world.
"Put your money where your heart is" has in many cases meant pour money into this church building so it will be more magnificent to the eyes of the beholder and, oh, God. We are probably 3rd after the Romans and Orthodox churches in grandeur. I have oft felt that Jersus would have been as uncomortable in these mansions as many Episcopalians are when a poorly dressed and seemingly out of place person walks in and Heaven forbid, sits in someones pew. How about taking our light out from under the basket and having a service in a local park or on our front lawn. If people walking by could see and hear the joy of the congregation and listen to its voice they might find we are not so bad and hear maybe half a message. We have started to come out on Ash Wednesday and that is a good start. Why not a picnic on our lawns open to the public and with a good choir as entertainment?
While the PECUSA has been: "The Church" for many of us it hasn't been an: "Established" Church since 1789 - The Constitutions of both the nation and the states put an end to that. We get no operational funding nor official recognition from the elected government.
Yes, we have been the church that had a significant presence of wealthy families that endowed a lot of churches and built grand edifices. However, most of these wealthy families also had the sense that their wealth carried obligation greater than privilege. Perhaps we can only see the wealth and power that our forbears had and not their sense of moral/social obligation. That is not to say that all these people were nice in all aspects of their lives - they were, like all of us, human with all the foibles that we possess.
We live in the current age where wealth and power are worshiped in the media and today's wealthy are devoid of any sense of moral or social obligation and feel entitled to the power and privilege. We can look backwards, or we can look forward to a way to utilize the resources we have to fill the moral and social obligations that previous generations recognized. The popular churches are not all doing that and somebody needs to.
Simply closing all the grand buildings because we are now embarrassed by them isn't the answer. We have to evolve a new expression of the Episcopal church for the current era while understanding that our roots run deep. All those: "Smoke-stacks" are paid off. The largest budget item of every parish is the maintenance of a full-time cleric. We need a new model of ministry, not a dumping of, and on, the real-estate.
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