"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

where from here - part 2

After my last post, I've been thinking more about the future shape of the church.  I've heard lots of people tell me what the future of church looks like; everyone seems to have a preferred model (house churches for everyone!).  But it strikes me that there isn't one ideal model out there, and whatever the future looks like, I think we'll be seeing a much greater mixed economy of "church" than we've seen in a long while.  There are places where the traditional parish model still works (and well) and is very effective.

Looking specifically at my situation here in West Virginia, one of the most obvious things about this diocese is its lack of urban areas (see last post) and given the open marketplace on religious affiliation, many locales are not able to support the traditional parish model

[As an aside, it strikes me that there are plenty of places where rather than 14 branch offices of Christianity, they would be much better served by just one community church.  The ever present desire to go our own ways and dismiss Christians who see things different from ourselves as somehow lesser is a cancer on the body of Christ.]

But isolated, self-supporting worshiping communities have not always been the norm.  It may be true that such a model has been the preferred way, but are there any examples of a relatively thriving Christian Church in the absence of cities?  Well yes, there is - ancient Ireland.  The Christian Church managed to establish itself and spin-off some pretty amazing folks (Ss Brigid and Columba for example) who remain as example and who were instrumental in the spread of Christianity elsewhere in Europe.  And what I recall is that the locus of activity for the Irish church was not the parish or the diocese, but monastic communities.

Now I don't necessarily think that the future of the Episcopal Church in rural America is monasteries, but what about intentional communities of some sort?  I'm imagining a core of individuals and families committed to worshiping together, committed to a revenue generating activity, and committed to a focused ministry.  Perhaps, if such communities could be fostered and grown,  they could operate as Christian centers whose influence could spread across a much wider region, supporting smaller worship communities and perhaps even developing new focused intentional communities on the same model as themselves.

I'm not suggesting this as THE answer, but something like this has worked in the past and it thrived for hundreds of years.  I don't see it as an impossibility, so if anyone has some usable property (or maybe a little cash) to offer in Southern West Virginia, let me know.  Maybe we could start our own Christian micro-distillery!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And where from here?

The Episcopal diocese of West Virginia was established 140 years ago, about ten years after the state established its separate identity during the Civil War.  And the diocese has 68 congregations, 3/4 of which were founded before 1900.  Like most places, West Virginia has changed significantly since 1900.  The 20th century saw a boom in coal and railroads as energy resources buried almost everywhere under the state was dug up and shipped off.  Coal mining and railroads were once huge, sprawling industries and extremely labor intensive and so people flooded into West Virginia and towns sprouted up and fortunes were made.

And though a great deal of coal is still mined here, it is not anything like as labor intensive as it once was and neither is rail-roading.  So it turns out that all those little coal camp hamlets and the bigger towns that arose to serve their needs from doctors to movie theaters aren't quite the thriving places they once were.  Exhibit A is the city of Welch in McDowell county at the south end of the state.  In 1950, 100,000 people called McDowell county home and Welch was a bustling place.  Today 22,000 people live there and Welch is a much quieter place.

All of which is a prelude to asking, if we were to start from scratch establishing the Episcopal Church in West Virginia, would we build something that looks the church we have now?  My guess is, probably not.
The image below is taken from an amazing project called the Census Dotmap which aims to show the location of every single person in America.  As you can see, West Virginia has only a few clusters of people.
To locate our churches we would need to know about how many people are needed to support an old-fashioned Episcopal parish (probably about 100 households)and how much of the population can we attract to an Episcopal Church (historically, 1-2%). This would suggest to me that you need at least 10,000 people and probably more like 20,000.  West Virginia has 13 "metro-areas" with more than 20,000 people.  If we built a church for every 20,000 people in those areas we would build 40 or so parishes.  If we were smart though, we'd shoot for a couple of really big congregations in the largest metro areas, which would leave us probably more like 25-30 parishes.  Remember, we have 68 now.

I think the other thing we would do is to develop those parishes with a much greater sense of responsibility to the whole diocese, so that some large portion of their revenue would be directed towards support of ministry centers in the many small towns where we didn't build a parish.  What if we could attract 5% of the population though?  Well, now we're talking about needing roughly 5000 people to make a viable parish.  These are the places where would focus our efforts as a diocese to evangelize and do mission.

I think that to some extent, our desire to recreate the English vision of a parish and a gentleman in every village of the land has meant that we only ever have one goal - a full, self-supporting parish - for our ministry expansion efforts.  I think we can be more creative than that and be ok with letting go of that vision where the population just won't support it but where the progressive Christian tradition at peace with human knowledge championed by the Episcopal church would be an important beacon of hope is needed.  I also think we won't ever reinvigorate this diocese without being willing to let go of the old vision and be ready to go where the people are now and not try to cling to where they were a century ago.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why aren't there any Centering Prayer studios?

Ok, quick quiz - raise your hands if you know someone who claims to be Buddhist.  Ok, now raise your hands if there's a Buddhist temple with 50 miles of you.  My guess is that most everyone could answer positively to the first and much fewer to the second.  So how exactly does Buddhism spread?  And more importantly, your friend who says they're Buddhist - what does that mean exactly?

image from mydeepmeditation.com
Now as far as I can tell, the number of people in America claiming to be Buddhist is increasing.  Wikipedia
 (I know, but this isn't for credit, so deal, ok) says there are between one and a half and six million self-identified Buddhists in America whereas I'm guessing 50 years ago they could probably be numbered in the thousands, with almost all being ethnically Asian.  So how does a religion with little or no infrastructure grow by millions, while Christianity, with a branch office on every corner has declined by many millions in the same time frame?

It seems to me from my own brief immersion in Eastern religion long, long ago (Taoism for me, I like to be different) that part of the appeal was an attraction to a spirituality divorced from a largely unattractive cultural Christianity, part of it was its lack of organizational structure, and part of it was a young person's desire to differentiate myself.  I never pursued it in depth, but I still own my copies of the Tao-Te-Ching and Chuang Tsu, where they sit in my priestly office and there's a reading concerning death, that I still find very comforting.

But I also wonder to what extent, eastern practices are attractive.  I found Taosim through karate, and most serious Buddhists I know meditate faithfully.  The entry way to Eastern spirituality, at least here in America, seems to be through taking up a physical manifestation, a discipline.  I'll throw in Yoga as the most successful of these eastern spiritual practices.  Now, not everyone who takes up karate gets into Taoism, but there's no denying that these activities operate on more than one level (double ditto for Yoga).

So, why does most Christian evangelism start with convincing people of our doctrine?  And further, why do we primarily offer only our devotional life as our entry way?  Are there other Christian practices than worship that might be an easier gateway?  Could we reorient our churches to being homes to different spiritually-based activities (that people pay for, btw) that would be a boon to the spiritual life of the believers as well as offering something meaningful and beneficial for the agnostic or spiritual seeker?  Maybe entering into faith wouldn't seem so intimidating.  Jesus tells the parable of the sower, but who says the seeds have to be asking people to swallow the wholly grown plant?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Grave Digging

I have found the life of a parish priest to be endlessly interesting, drawing me into places and encounters I would never have imagined.  Which is how yesterday I found myself, early in the morning, in the memorial garden digging two graves as snow softly and quietly came down.  Now, these are graves only meant to accommodate the ashes of the dead, not a full size casket so it wasn't particularly strenuous, just unexpected.  But I'll share something else I wouldn't have expected.  It was deeply gratifying to do this final task for someone entrusted to my care by God.  I have always found the whole foot-washing thing a little creepy and invasive, but I think that in digging out these two small graves I discovered in new and more visceral way what it was that Jesus was trying to show us.  There was a dignity in this small service I was able to render, and I found myself thankful.

I should also confess that I had some help, from my daughter.  I appreciate that grave-digging isn't the usual kind of father-daughter bonding experience but it happened something like this.
Me:  I have to go over to the church now
Daughter:  Can I come Daddy?
Me:  Well, I have to clear the snow and dig some holes
Daughter: why do you have to dig holes?
Me:  Well, two people died and we're burying them today.
Daughter: Can I help?
Me: Well... I guess so - put on your snow pants

And off we went.  She's only four so it's unlikely she will remember the details of this day, but I won't be surprised if something of it doesn't lodge within her memory somewhere.  I know I'll never forget.