Bishop Wayne Smith's address to convention
Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the past few years, during this my annual address required by canon, I have spoken about the gradual demise of Christendom, the privileged place which the Church in the West had occupied for a millennium-and-a-half. It has been a tacit, very real mutual sponsorship between Church and culture. At its recent high-point in this country, late 1940s through early 1960s, Christendom made the Church look pretty impressive. Large attendance numbers, big Sunday schools, new buildings, all growth, all the time.
It made what I call the Field-of-Dreams heresy appear true: If we build it they will come. Well, pretty much they did come. And they don’t any more.
Christendom began its long death sometime between John Kennedy’s assassination and the first moon landing. That is to say, sometime in the 1960s. Demographers say that the demise of Christendom, mostly over and done already, will actually quicken in pace beginning in 2018. There remains, however, a stubborn nostalgia for these times gone by and the way things were when we the Church were driving the bus. Sometimes I hear nostalgia in its unadorned form, a pining away for the days of three services on a Sunday, two of which were packed houses. Sometimes I hear the nostalgia in certain questions: Bishop, does the diocese have a program to help us grow? And sometimes I hear it in unfulfilled yearnings, as in we just need to draw in more young families with children—even when the Church’s neighborhood has no one who looks like this anymore. Old vocabularies persist in words and phrases like these three: christening, go to church, membership—when more apt words are at hand: baptism, be the church, discipleship. Word choices from Christendom, and now.
Dear friends, these ways which were so available to us during Christendom’s long arc are no longer sufficient. When we try these old ways now, we mostly find them frustrating.
Which is not to say that we are without resources. By no means. Our Prayer Book revised in 1979 was designed to be the first ever post-Christendom Prayer Book. Even the casual Christian will notice how different it is from its nine predecessors, in the lineage of our Church. The current Prayer Book was built for a people devoted to baptizing, and being the church, and growing in discipleship. To the extent that this Book does not work, it is because of efforts to superimpose onto it the outdated template of antecedent versions. A '79 Book with a '28 shape. I am of a mind that we don’t need a new Prayer Book; I think we would do well to try the one that we have.
Baptism is a case in point.
The Easter Mystery and its corresponding sacrament of baptism provide the foundation for everything else in the '79 Book. Easter Mystery—which is shorthand for the crucified, risen and living Christ Jesus, the one whose actions and person make the whole creation new. All of who he is, and all that he is about. The liturgies of Holy Week and especially the Great Vigil of Easter mark the calendar with this central mystery of Christ. Baptism grafts new believers onto this mystery of Christ’s life, and death, and new life. The Eucharist is this mystery’s weekly banquet, a regular encounter with the risen Christ within what the community does. It all hangs together in this Prayer Book, and the Easter Mystery, or the Paschal Mystery as it is also called, makes it hang together. Everything in our worship refers back to the mystery and its corresponding baptismal sacrament. The burial rite makes us look death squarely in the face—and still find the wherewithal to proclaim resurrection, the sure and certain hope made present and palpable in baptism. Marriage is an articulation of baptism’s calling, and not the only one. The ordination rites are other articulations of this calling. Formation, Christian education, catechesis, whatever we want to call the learning of faith and discipleship, historically has looked to baptism as its focus. The Church from its earliest days has catechized and taught believers before baptism. From the early Church, we actually have more materials from the catechesis, the teaching, that came after baptism. The ancient methods emphasized experience first, with learning to follow. We would do well to incorporate both pre-baptismal and post-baptismal learnings.
It is commonplace for Episcopalians to say that our theology of the Church, our ecclesiology, if you will, comes from an understanding of baptism. We claim to have a baptismal ecclesiology but often do not act as if that were true. We claim a baptismal ecclesiology, but often that means that we say, “According to our baptismal covenant, then this, or that, or the other.” And that may be the end of it. If someone does say “according to our baptismal covenant,” then the reference is likely the last of the eight interrogatories: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” In the life described in the most treasured scriptures and recapitulated in the baptismal rite, the full dignity and responsibility of the Christian life comes through the waters and in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, which changes a life, a church, and a world thereafter and forever. That’s what it means to live under a baptismal ecclesiology. Our Church functionally opts for something else. Our Church functionally roots its ecclesiology in good old-fashioned, high-medieval-style ordination. If our Church were to have full-bodied baptismal ecclesiology, then no one would much care whether they get ordained. Or not. I have known people who want to get ordained in the worst way. Who are convinced that that the world hinges on ordination—their ordination—and not baptism at all. If we had a robust baptismal understanding of ourselves, then ordination (or not) would be one of the many subsidiary details about life in Christ. So, for example, it’s always a deal when it comes to giving consent for a bishop’s ordination. A majority of diocesan bishops and Standing Committees have to give consent before anyone can become a bishop. If we really had a thorough-going baptismal understanding of ourselves, then Gene Robinson’s election and consent in 2003 would still have been a deal—but a smaller deal, not a great big world-wide deal. Back in those days, I tried to have a discussion with someone who disagreed with Gene’s ordination, and, foolish me, I went to baptism. The person said to me: Pffft. Baptism. That’s nothing. Little babies get baptized. We are talking about a bishop.
I expect to spend whatever years remain of my time as your bishop focusing on baptism and its place in renewing the Church. What would such a thing look like? Well, take a look at our ordination liturgies, the living example of the mock Anglican motto, “if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” Can we so imagine baptism taking on some of the glorious ritual excess that we associate with ordination? Baptism would also lose its daintiness, its tiny fonts, its stinginess with water and oil. Baptism would evoke the presence of mighty waters, of both danger and life. People would get wet. We forget that in every Prayer Book, beginning with 1549, immersion is the preferred method—and was the usual manner of baptizing, through the early nineteenth century. Candidates and sponsors would learn about baptism beforehand, and keep learning afterward. There are people in this diocese with expertise in this manner of teaching and learning, and I will ask them to pitch in. To that end, and for a broader project, I expect to appoint a Task Force on Baptism to report back to the 179th Convention next year. If baptism is a sign of God’s saving act and cosmic in scope (as Paul writes in Romans 8), then baptism might well happen when the cosmos, or at least the community, can see it happen. Never in private. It happens in Church. On Sunday or Holy Day. Preferably the five baptismal occasions which the Prayer Book names. Most preferred of all being the Great Vigil of Easter, the calendar’s linchpin. Easter mystery finds its expression in baptism.
The nineteenth-century English theologian F. D. Maurice put baptism in a crucial place for mission, the sacrament situated as it is on the borderland between Church and world, where the world might enter Church. God is at work saving the world. Baptism is what such salvation looks like, and binds the baptized to the work of God’s reconciliation. Baptism gives an important sense of purpose to a Church in our situation, with numerical decline, three percent decline in this diocese just in 2016, and uncertainty about our futures. Church Pension Group also projects that 22 percent of active clergy church-wide will retire during the next five years, 27 percent in the Diocese of Missouri. Just when we need leadership, leadership is going to become scarce. Another symptom of Christendom’s demise—which might not entirely be a bad thing. Because it might force the issue of all the baptized taking part and taking responsibility. Now might also be the right time to make a big deal anytime that someone comes to be baptized. Those who crafted our Prayer Book had the tremendous foresight to imagine a setting like ours. In which the culture is indifferent to belief and will do nothing to pass along the lore of faith. That’s on us. Completely on us.
A friend who is on a literature faculty at Exeter College in Oxford tells about teaching a story which had in it allusions to the season of Lent—which none of her students seemed to get. So she asked them outright: Do you know what Lent is? Silence. Then someone asked, Isn’t Lent sort of like the Christian Ramadan? In a college at one on the great centers of learning in the English-speaking world. It has come to this.
The good news at this moment of bad demographics is that parishes and missions all around this diocese are discovering a sense of purpose. They are finding it in doing the basics of education and pastoral care, and doing them well. They also find it in their neighborhoods. They find it in food ministries, and eldercare, and tutoring. They find it in nursing homes and by opening their doors to the larger community, for lots of groups and occasions. Many of them are able to say that they do this because they believe that God has compelled them, that Jesus has a purpose. I get to see what you are doing, and hear your stories. Little congregations of ten people can do audacious things in these strange times. Big ones do it too. It makes me very happy. And I say: God give us more.
One of the generational challenges facing us in this diocese is racial reconciliation. There is enough in those words to fill our lives with mission. To be sure, the landscape is rife with needs for reconciliation of all sorts—political reconciliation is obvious, civic reconciliation, class reconciliation. But racial reconciliation has a particular claim on us in Missouri, both because of our history, and our present. The death of Michael Brown in 2014, and the subsequent judicial decision, woke a lot of people up. The 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, and the subsequent judicial decision in September this year, made many people even more determined. Demonstrations and actions have become almost daily matters around metropolitan St. Louis. I have shown up for a few of these, and I have spoken up for racial justice and reconciliation. The Rev. Chuck Wynder, Jr. who serves on the presiding bishop’s staff, is with us to introduce a terrific resource, “Becoming Beloved Community: The Episcopal Church’s Long-Term Commitment to Racial Healing Reconciliation, and Justice.” Note the descriptor, “long-term.” This is not the work for a long weekend or a retreat. It’s the work of generations. I have to acknowledge the continual, calm support that Chuck gave to me and to my office in the hard season immediately after Mike Brown’s death. Chuck, I thank you for that ministry.
Residents and staff from Magdalene St. Louis are also here, to talk about their life and work, and to invite this Diocese and our parishes and missions into a pattern of healing and reconciliation which is central to Magdalene’s life. The executive director of Magdalene is a priest of this Diocese, the Rev. Hope Welles Jernagan, and she is the preacher for the Convention Eucharist.
Let me note by title three other points of mission among us, with details and reports to come later: the Diocese of Lui in South Sudan, with whom we share a partnership; Deaconess Anne House, in Old North St. Louis, an intentional Christian community for young adults; St. Francis’, Eureka, whose brand new church we will consecrate in two weeks. Cause for joy!
Times are changing, and the Church of Christendom is over and done. I think that Church was easier but also less interesting. As we stand on the cusp of more and significant demographic shifts, I find a deepening faithfulness among the communities of this diocese. People are intuitively settling into the basics of parish life and God’s mission. It is possible for us to thrive in this setting. Settling more deeply into the meaning of baptism, and what it demands from us, and the graces which it bestows upon us, is a way forward. We are baptized as a present and real sign of Christ reconciling us to God. Reconciliation is part of the great work ahead of us. So reconciled ourselves, reconciliation becomes a way of life for us. The so-called Chinese curse was probably made up by a twentieth-century English member of Parliament and cabinet minister, Austen Chamberlain. “May you live in interesting times!” is no curse at all. These are interesting times—maddening, uncertain, peevish, and full of possibility. It is a great time to be alive, and an even greater time to be a Christian. I ask you to join me for the facing of the day, because it is going to be a doozy.