Sunday, May 29, 2011

Declining Sunday Attendance

May 28, 2011

In October 2010, Lovett Weems published an article in The Christian Century under the heading “No Shows”. Dr. Weems charted declining attendance in mainline denominations and concluded that even churches such a ours with larger attendance have been showing declining numbers since a turning point of sorts in 2000. Smaller churches have shown a decline in attendance for rather longer. This has certainly been true at All Saints’, Atlanta where our average weekend attendance has declined by well over 100 people per week since 2000. This statistical shift is something we have in common with many other churches across denominations. A few years ago the great Willow Creek church in Barrington, Illinois, looked at their attendance figures and began closing for the summer months altogether, saving money in order to “reach more people for Christ during the school year”.

This trend appears to affect attendance, but not other indicators of church life such as membership or numbers of households making regular financial gifts. These statistics appear to be holding steady or are on the increase across the board. I have friends and colleagues who are trying to measure ‘average weekly contact’ or ‘average weekly touch’ as a new measure of church life and health.

Pundits and commentators point to increased wealth making for more opportunities than in the past. It seems to have become an expectation and norm that families will travel away for spring and fall breaks in the school schedule. For us that means about six Sundays in the spring on which we cannot expect to have children or youth choirs at full complement. The same is true for volunteer Sunday School teachers and the like. Children’s sports, school trips and a host of other things are being scheduled on Sundays. Attendance at worship is becoming, or has become, something we do when we don’t have anything better claiming our attention. There are still some families who make a clear commitment to weekly attendance and for them that might mean five out of eight weeks. For many people one Sunday in five or six might seem pretty good.

This seems to work OK for those families who have a weekly commitment that builds faith and community along the way: choir practices, small groups, bible studies and the like. Children who grow up in our choirs and their families have a significantly different experience overall from those who do not make that commitment. Some churches seem to accomplish this kind of investment in community through church sports leagues and other such things.

All well and good, but I continue to wonder about worship. It seems to me that worship is our ‘core activity’. It is what we do. If we did not worship, I do not think we could call ourselves a church. Worship is where we hear and enact the story that shapes out lives. It is in telling and in some sense enacting the story that we are ‘oriented or turned (metanoia) toward that which is of ultimate worth’ (my rather technical definition of worship that people at All Saints’ hear about from time to time.) If we are not in worship on a pretty regular basis, then how are we being formed as people of faith? Where are we learning to put our whole trust in God’s grace and love such that it makes a difference in the way we live?

Should we be looking at how to offer significant worship whenever we gather for any purpose, and how might we do that so that it is integral rather than ‘extra’ to whatever is going on?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Middle East

May 25, 2011

I confess to being far from expert on anything much to do with what is going on in the Middle East. The Arab Spring seems to me to have the potential to be a good thing for Arabs provided that self determination does not open the door to grater oppression than they knew before. “Nature abhors a vacuum” it is said, and weakened power or the absence of power without a recognized and accepted political system invites every malignant possibility to see and seize an opportunity. This is certainly something that many churches have experienced when they have had weak or absent leadership.

One thing is clear to me however and that is that somehow, for reasons I don’t really understand, real change and the possibility of real peace for the region must include some kind of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘question’. President Obama in his speech about the region in advance of Mr. Netanyahu’s (reportedly frustrating) visit to the U.S. made lots of interesting and positive points to this amateur onlooker including pursuing a two-state solution based on the boundaries of 1967. No one involved is going to love that proposal but it has some virtues nonetheless.

What I think is missing at this point is that we are talking about the creation of a new (Palestinian) state without first having or building in a process for the full recognition of Israel as a state with a right to exist. Israel, thank God, is blessed with strong and clear leadership, who seem to understand that you don’t negotiate with someone whose started aim is to destroy you and whose ‘negotiating posture’ is built in part around a ‘right of return’. The U.S. and anyone else can say that we will ‘guarantee the security of Israel’ until the cows come home, but if I was Israeli or I represented the Israeli government, there would be no real negotiation without powerful and ‘official’ voices in the Arab and Palestinian worlds renouncing without ambiguity their aim of destroying my country and supporting my right to exist.

I would do what Mr. Netanyahu and many of his predecessors appear to have been dong which is staying at the table in hopes of receiving such recognition without which any compromise on ‘borders’ and ‘defensibility’ would seem to be capitulation.

I do not underestimate the cost of leadership on this from the Arab and Palestinian point of view. I find it hard to imagine Palestinians acknowledging the right of Israel to exist without significant pressure from the Arab world as that will end the dream of the ‘right of return’. I remember sitting in my little room (on the Quad in those days) at Yale Divinity School in October 1981 trying to write a paper about something or other now forgotten, when I heard on the radio that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. I remember my rage at the forces of evil that would do such a thing.

Can the Arab Spring allow for leaders of vision and courage to emerge? Can we forge and pursue a foreign policy that really encourages such a possibility while still resisting what we know to be opposed to any definition of freedom, (namely fundamentalism in any form)?

I would welcome any contribution here that could help me shape my understanding of all this that has within it the hope of positive change based in something other and additional to my trust in God’s love for the whole of creation and revealed desire that all humans be allowed to flourish.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Working Man

May 17, 2011

It is hard to know exactly where we are as a parish with regard to unemployment and underemployment. I still see a steady stream of parishioners for whom the wolf is knocking at the door and who need meaningful, or at least remunerative, work. We are blessed to be in a parish n which I have rarely had a request for an ‘informational interview’ or employment conversation turned down by a fellow traveler. My anecdotal impression is that in our community unemployment is returning to pre 2008 levels with the notable exception of the real estate and related sectors.

I am one of those people who must be annoying to the struggling print magazine industry in some ways. On the up side, I do like to read magazines and have not yet made a full transition to reading online. On the downside, the publishers generally want me to think I have ‘purchased a relationship’ and ‘become part of a readership community’ where I believe that I have bought six or twelve or twenty four issues with a subscription. If I don’t renew, it is because I want to read something else for a while. Those who ‘as a courtesy’ renew automatically without asking me don’t get any more money from me. This is all to say that I have returned to reading a magazine that I last enjoyed regularly in high school, namely The Economist. There was a fascinating article in the April 30-May 6, 2011 edition under the heading Decline of the Working Man. The article looks at the particular challenges of men without industry specific skills and a series of government policies designed to address them. It is pretty clear that we have not yet discovered either policy or stimulus that is going to change this reality.

I was surprised and pleased to learn that one innovative policy is at work here in Georgia in which unemployed people are allowed to work up to 24 hours a week for six weeks with a new employer, even as they continue to draw jobless benefits. The employer is able to take a look at a potential employee and the employee gets some work experience and on –the- job training even if that position does not become permanent.

The conclusion of the article does not offer a rosy outlook for unskilled men however. “Both Democrats and Republicans seem convinced that as the economy strengthens the labor market will heal itself. But although unemployment will continue to fall as the economy recovers, millions of American men will be left behind.”

We are gong to have to help these men learn skills, and preferably industry-specific, employer requested skills, if they are to survivie.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Getting Away

May 10, 2011

It has long been observed that we can travel just about anywhere in America and imagine that we are anywhere else. I remember the first time I went to a meeting in Dallas near a large shopping center not far from the airport. I might well have stayed in Northern Virginia, which apart from Alexandria and parts of Arlington always seemed to me to be one big suburban sprawl. Not terrible. Just not terribly distinctive. Those who work to conserve, preserve and restore historic buildings have my vote as do those who, like the Midtown Alliance in Atlanta, seek to develop livable areas of genuine character.

I found myself thinking about distinctive places to live during a recent visit to New Mexico. I stayed just outside Santa Fe at a place that was slightly run down in some respects called Bishop’s Lodge. (See here for a photograph of the chapel.)The Roman Catholic diocese of new Mexico was established officially in 1853 with Jean Baptiste Lamy as its bishop. Later he bought a plot of land outside Santa Fe where he had began building St. Francis’ Cathedral and built a small retreat chapel and dwelling. Those are still there in the midst of the severe, almost desert-like and inhospitable landscape.

I was able to drive to Bandelier national Monument, a park around the ancient ruins of people who lived in small communities and hillside dwellings that included caves and were often three stories high. The ruins have been preserved there and in one or two cases, restored. Apparently when Francisco Vasques de Coronado led an expedition from Mexico, all he found were these fortified Indian villages which he called ‘pueblos’ or town. These towns then gave their name to the Pueblo people who still live in various pueblos in the area and who honor the spirits of their ancestors who dwell in Bandelier and elsewhere.

It was really good to be ‘away’, dislocated, (with poor cell phone reception from any carrier). There is something about being in a place that is clearly ‘different’ from whatever is our norm that helps allow new perspective. Such a move need not be geographic, although that helps me. It could just as easily be a genuine place of retreat as it must have been for Bishop Lamy, a place with different rhythms of life from whatever is our norm and so a place in which we can begin to see ourselves and our world in anew way, remembering what is of true and ultimate importance.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Second Half of Life

May 3, 2011

I have enjoyed the past two days in the company of colleagues from around the country in conversation with Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation over twenty five years ago. His most recent book is called Falling Upwards and he develops an image of what he calls the ‘second half of life’. The ‘first half’ is the work of ‘making the container’, --the structures and institutions that give shape to our lives. After a period of going through some stumbling blocks and beginning the work of ‘dying to self’, we begin the ‘second half of life’ as enjoying the ‘content’. This period is marked by an 0overcoming of either/or thinking in favor of a more mature understanding of the unity of all things, the cosmic Christ and other such notions.

Rohr is an appealing a engaging speaker who was able to use some images and language for familiar concepts that brought a new perspective. Among the more fruitful conversations for me were questions about what liturgy or common prayer looks like that really addresses the real issues and gifts of this second half, but it was not somewhere Fr. Rohr was really able to go. He was more of the ‘leaving church’ school rather than finding ways for church to do what he says is important and necessary, namely the whole of life. He has stimulated some interesting thinking and conversations for me.

“Justice has been done”

May 3, 2011

So Osama bin Laden has been found, has predictably resisted arrest by US Navy Seals, been killed (in spite of possibly using his wife as a human shield), and been buried with a Muslim ceremony in the North Arabian Sea. As I watched the spontaneous rejoicing outside the White House and elsewhere, I was reminded of the service of thanksgiving that was held in London at the conclusion of the Falklands War in 1982. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher expressed her displeasure when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, himself a decorated veteran of WWII, declined to sound a note of triumphalism, asking instead that the congregation pray for the dead and those mourning on both sides of the conflict. He questioned nationalism as being close to idolatry and said:

“Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.”

I think there is much to celebrate in the death of Osama bin Laden. I am proud of the President, his advisors, the intelligence services and the Seals who carried out a dangerous operation. In distinction from some operations in the past, this one seemed to be careful and thorough and was given every possibility of success. Conspiracy theorists and general naysayers are questioning whether there really was a body in ways that cannot but have echoes of Holy Week this soon after the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus. A chapter has certainly been ended; there is much in American strength and perseverance to celebrate, and for those who believe in capital punishment, “Justice has been done”. A mass murderer’s life has come to an end and a message (which will serve to inflame the passions of our enemies) has been sent. Vigilance will need to be a watchword for some time to come.

I wonder if we need to keep on being an invading force in Afghanistan and Iraq at this point. One of the lessons of this series of events is that it has taken almost ten years to build the kind of human intelligence resources on the ground that have allowed us to move forward in spite of having a more-than-ambivalent ‘ally’. Why should we not withdraw our troops in the service of giving them some rest and rebuilding our economic base at home? At the same time we could prepare for such ‘targeted’ operations as we have seen in the Abbottabad compound when they are called for by events.

As for the call to pray for our enemies, we have been doing that all along at All Saints’, remembering all those affected by war and violence but singling out no one by name. Just so, we will not be singling out bin Laden and the others who died in the raid on his compound (Does anyone know their names?) in our parish prayers next Sunday. Instead we will give thanks that this particular chapter of our national life is over, give thanks for the safety of those who carried out this raid, and continue to pray for our enemies in the sure knowledge that warfare and violence, however necessary they may be in some circumstances, are never in accord with the intent and purposes of God for the flourishing of all life.

An interesting footnote: it was widely reported after the fact and after Thatcher had accused Runcie of being unpatriotic even as he stood by what he said in the sermon in 1982, that it had in fact been drafted, if not written, by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London who so many in the world heard preach at the recent Royal Wedding. Patriotism need not be idolatrous. Triumphalism almost certainly is.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Catherine of Siena and the Royal Wedding

April 29, 2011

I was delighted to hear the Bishop of London acknowledge the feast day of Catherine of Siena during his homily at the royal wedding today. She, like many mediaeval saints, was an odd bird, who began having visions at the age of six, did some writing about the ineffable love of God, saw herself as a bride of Christ and is honored, along with Francis of Assisi as a patron saint of Italy. Her shrunken head is preserved as a relic in a big Franciscan Church in Siena, not far from the shrine that is devoted to her.

The wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, now Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge was a glorious occasion that defied cynicism. In the midst of all the pomp and pageantry was a couple saying that the commitment of self-giving love in marriage is, for them, the way of life. I was struck by a number of things in the ‘traditional’ service, --essentially a rite from 1928—including the use of ‘betwixt’ and the older version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, which art in heaven…” For me that tended to underscore the increasing irrelevance of a faith that is becoming reserved for special occasions and has little to do with the rest of life. Certainly a wedding or funeral without ritual is a flabby and flaccid thing, but there must be some places where the larger context connects with what is going on. I also wondered about the decision to include a Kyrie, triggering the saying of the Lord’s Prayer without doxology and wondering if that slightly confessional note was necessary for some reason.

On the other hand, I was also struck by the amount of times in vows and prayers that the honoring of each other in, by, through and with their bodies was mentioned and saw that as a strength of the liturgy from which we could learn. In days in which Christian sexual ethics are undergoing change, (although you wouldn’t know that from some blog commentary about the co-habitation of the couple prior to the wedding), the honoring of the whole person, made so explicit, seemed to me a good thing.

It was a great day to be British and to celebrate something of our national culture that other nations, notably including America, do more regularly and in a wide variety of ways. I sometimes get nervous when love of God and love of country get merged together as though they were the same thing and a flag becomes a quasi-religious object, but I still love William Blake’s poem Jerusalem and the wonderful Parry tune to which it is set. Not just a patriotic hymn or “alternative national anthem” but a prayer for justice and a call to work for same.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green & pleasant Land