A Sermon Delivered by
The Reverend E. F. Michael Morgan, Ph.D.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 29, 2019
Trinity Bicentennial: 1819 - 2019
The task of the preacher on any occasion is to proclaim the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. Today is the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost; a day when we continue to reflect on the mystery of our faith and its relevance to our beliefs and convictions. It’s also an opportunity to look ahead in order to see where we may be going as Episcopalians in America, as well as what direction we’re heading since we share communion with Anglicans around the world.
The particular focus that captures our attention this morning is best perceived if we take the wider view. Information available to us has been compiled by the Public Affairs Office of General Convention for the year 2018. That’s the latest and best we can do. So consider the following numbers, and place them in context. In the domestic dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the United States at the end of the year 2018:
#1: Baptized membership was recorded at 1.68 million members, down 2.1% from 2017, and down 18.5% since 2008.
#2: Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) – the figure used to record how many people actually go to church each week, was listed at 533,000 for the whole country; down 4.2% from 2017, and down 24.4% since 2008.
#3: Plate and pledge income for the Episcopal Church at-large was $1.33 billion (dollars), which was down 0.4% from 2017, and yet surprisingly up 0.0015% since 2008, a marginal increase for the decade.
#4: And lastly, we should take note of what’s happening in a related ecumenical and interfaith context. The demographics are changing. Organized religion has generally been in decline throughout all of American society across the board, reflecting growing secularity: In 2018, for example, only 50% of the population were members of any organized religion; compared to 61% in 2008, and 70% in 1998.
Well what do all these numbers tell us, and what does church look like these days, anyway? Perhaps we might focus on where it all got started – the very proper and established Church of England in the UK – the British Isles. But listen to what’s occurring in Britain’s cathedrals.
“Defenders call them “missionary imperatives.” Critics deride them as “tourist attractions.” But they certainly are bringing in the visitors. Twenty-one English cathedrals, mostly in smaller cities, launched special attractions this past summer, united under the hashtag #WishYouWereHere. Among the highly publicized offerings were a miniature-golf course in Rochester Cathedral, a six-story “helter skelter” carnival slide in Norwich Cathedral, a lunar landscape in Litchfield Cathedral, and a gin festival in Peterborough’s Cathedral.
First Rochester: Twice as many visitors as last year, 13,000 of them, came to Rochester Cathedral during the first sixteen days of its “crazy golf” installation, according to a BBC report. The nine-hole golf partnership with a local charity filled most of the church’s 126-foot nave. The Dean of the cathedral, described the public response as “extraordinary,” and he noted with delight that the golfers paused reverently during the church’s twice-daily pause for prayer. Votive candle purchases were also up during the same period by 22% percent, and there has even been an uptick in the usually sparse crowds for Sunday evensong.
Elsewhere, in Norwich, the local Cathedral there, reported that 10,000 people slid down their aptly-named helter-skelter chute placed in the middle of its twelfth century nave for eleven days in August. But “it’s never been about visitor numbers,” said the cathedral’s Canon, who dreamed up and organized the event. “It has always been about engagement with visitors: helping visitors connect with the building differently, and particularly introducing visitors to our medieval ‘roof bosses.’ There you’ll find one of the finest collections of ‘roof bosses’ in Northern Europe.” ‘Roof bosses,’ I learned by the way, are sculptures carved in stone or wood, usually found in the ceilings of older buildings.
So if you happen to go to Great Britain, here’s what to expect at the Norwich Cathedral. Visitors at the door pay £2 to climb to the slide’s 40 foot viewing platform before gliding down the spiral path to the floor below. The Anglican Bishop of Lynn even preached his sermon from the ‘helter-skelter’s’ platform one Sunday, according to the local Press, and after finishing he slid his way back down to the congregation, apparently without paying the regular admission fee. That in itself, caused a flap; more so it seems, than the message of his sermon.
In general church spokesmen have consistently pointed-out to the media, the press, as well as to members of the venerable Museums and Heritage Council that the cathedral attractions mirror the more lighthearted approach taken by other cultural institutions. “It’s very much like the change in museums,” church officials explain. “People used to think museums were all about being quiet, with everything kept behind a glass case. Museums are increasingly doing more to interest and engage visitors; that’s what’s made museums and galleries come alive, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re part of that movement. These are not cheap marketing tricks; these decisions are made out of serious pastoral concerns. We are faced with a missionary situation of trying to connect people with the transcendent when we know from current social attitudes, people have given up on it. Yet the appeal we can make to people’s consciousness, and a way to help people get into some kind of relationship with a sacred building or sacred space should be applauded and not condemned.”
Well maybe that’s true! … but not quite so fast.
A situation has developed whereby the ‘#WishYouWereHere’ campaign has come under serious and even biting criticism by some church leaders. One bishop, for example, lambasted the attractions in a blog post where he described them as a capitulation to “a culture addicted to distraction and pleasure seeking,” and he further decried the cathedrals as participating in a betrayal of the transcendent spiritual purpose of sacred buildings.
Another critic suggested the summertime stunts were a powerful symbol of the Church of England’s inability to proclaim an authentic Gospel that would call the nation to turn to Christ. He was quoted as saying “Faced with the challenge to convert or be converted, the Church of England appears to be willing to surrender to the preoccupations and preferences of the lost people it was sent to save,” The bishop concluded “Since the church may no longer believe in heaven and hell, salvation and judgement, it may have downgraded itself to be a distracting source of spirituality, offering only entertainment rather than authentic healing for sick souls.” That’s pretty searing criticism.
On balance though, the cathedral deans could not be more pleased than they are with the summer’s crowd-pleasing projects. They say: “Membership numbers and visitor numbers are growing. Cathedrals have become heavily invested in new facilities; evidenced by book-shops, cafes, and visitor centers. Cathedrals are finally being innovative, creative, and imaginative in the things they’re doing.” So much for Merry-old-England…
Back here stateside in the USA … things are also changing.
At Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, CT, where it’s been decided that at least one service a month will be focused on the younger generation, the selected liturgy and music will be entirely hip-hop. Christ Church Cathedral already has an English-language Mass with no music, a Mass with choral music, and a Spanish-language Mass with a live band. But now a fourth option is being added to the mix: a hip-hop Mass.
In this historic New England Episcopal congregation, a not-so-typical Gospel is being proclaimed. With new clergy leadership, the first Latina cathedral Dean in America has declared, by using the hip-hop liturgy that:
"God is in the house.
“Moments of stupidity can be a lifetime’s repentance.
Take your time and weigh the consequence.
Read the fine print. Use your common sense.
You know, mama taught you better than that nonsense.”
Conceivably this medium, may become the wave of the future. And to that end, the Cathedral Dean states: This is a way of worshiping God in a contemporary, nontraditional way. It speaks to the urban reality which we serve.”. “Ours is primarily an elderly congregation, yet this is a way to reach out to the wider changing community. God is calling us to meet people where they are, and hopefully people will come because they are curious.”
And so returning full circle back here to Trinity Church, Morgantown, we too are going through a time of unprecedented change. Relations with municipal representatives, administrators at West Virginia University, the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion – all of these people and institutions are facing formidable challenges and evaluations. And we are too. In the days ahead, I encourage you to voice your opinion, and commit yourself to an intentional connection with the parish, so we can genuinely support the path of righteousness in whatever way it takes for all of us to find the “means of grace and hope of glory.”
We ask all this …
in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN
CREDITS, NOTES, & REFERENCES: available on request.