On Religion

A Liberal Strategy to Save the Episcopal Church

Once upon a time, the Anglican bishops at the global Lambeth Conference boldly declared the 1990s the "Decade of Evangelism."

This effort was supposed to spur church growth -- and it did, in the already-booming Anglican churches of Africa, Asia and across the "Global South." But in the lovely, historic sanctuaries of England and North America? Not so much.

"There was some lip service given to evangelism at that time," said Ted Mollegen, a businessman with decades of national Episcopal Church leadership experience. Membership totals continued to spiral down, and the Decade of Evangelism "basically faded away without much success ... because of a lack of effort and institutional commitment."

The Episcopal Church then created a "20/20 Vision" task force committed to doubling baptized membership by 2020. The goal was a renewed evangelism emphasis, along with programs for spiritual development, emerging leaders, church planting and improved work with children, teens and college students. Mollegen was the task force's secretary and a founding member of the Episcopal Network for Evangelism.

Episcopalians, however, promptly entered yet another period of doctrinal warfare and schism, symbolized by the departure of many large evangelical parishes following the 2003 election of a noncelibate gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Mollegen served on the national church's executive council from 2003-2009.

While legal battles roll on, and the hierarchy wrestles with tighter and tighter budgets, the 77-year-old Mollegen hasn't given up on starting more parishes dedicated to sharing his church's approach to faith. Thus, he recently released a 66-page church-growth manifesto to Episcopal bishops and lay leaders.

At some point, he said, Episcopalians -- as well as members of other shrinking liberal flocks -- must create their own effective brand of evangelism, including modern ways of discussing sin and salvation, heaven and hell.

Evangelicals have "traditionally placed more emphasis on making converts than those of us in mainstream churches and on the left," he stressed. "They have a strong motivation, since they believe that if people don't convert to Christianity then they're going to hell. I don't believe that, of course, and most Episcopalians don't believe it, either."

The church-growth stakes are high, as Mollegen has noted for years. Episcopal Church membership peaked at 3.6 million in 1966 and is now at 1.9 million, with 650,000 in church on typical Sundays. More than half of U.S. parishes had an average Sunday attendance of 70 or less, according to 2009 statistics, and roughly a third of active Episcopalians are 65 or older.

The bottom line: The Episcopal flock shrank 42 percent in an era in which the U.S. population grew 70 percent. Mollegen stressed that the news will get worse before it gets better, since "such a high percentage of our members are past their childbearing years" and Americans "under the age of 35 are less likely to join institutions of any kind these days, either secular or religious."

What to do? In addition to stressing church-growth basics from the 20/20 task force, Mollegen has urged Episcopalians to defend their liberal beliefs, rather than simply teaching "people who theologically are still Baptists how to use Prayer Books. You haven't completed the job until you've taught them what the Bible really is, and how to react to it with intellectual integrity."

Also, parish leaders in some parts of the country may -- with permission from their bishops -- try to court people who are "spiritual" rather than doctrinally minded by tweaking liturgies to say that worshippers merely "trust" ancient Christian creeds, as opposed to vowing that they "believe" them.

In addition to seeking cultural progressives -- such as families of gays and lesbians -- Mollegen's manifesto argues that Episcopalians should increase marketing efforts to "disaffected Roman Catholics." After all, Episcopalians claim Catholic roots, yet "we have avoided such latter-day aberrations as Mariolatry; misogyny; forced and unpopular clerical celibacy; widespread, persistent and covertly protected clergy ephebophilia; rejection of the most effective and convenient forms of birth control; and church leadership which both excludes and insultingly devalues lay leadership and women, and which is determinedly and unconsciously hostile to sexual minorities."

Eventually, he argued, many Catholics will embrace a spiritual home that is "more rational, more historically catholic, much more loving, and less hubris-encrusted." Outreach to disaffected Catholics, he added, may also "lead to improvements in how the Roman Catholic Church handles itself."

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