Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Goals for Lent

So the presiding bishop wants us to think about the Millennium Development Goals for Lent:
I invite you to use the Millennium Development Goals as your focus for Lenten study and discipline and prayer and fasting this year. I’m going to remind you that the Millennium Development Goals are about healing the worst of the world’s hunger. They’re about seeing that all children get access to primary education. They’re about empowering women. They’re about attending to issues of maternal health and child mortality. They’re about attending to issues of communicable disease like AIDS and malaria and tuberculosis. They’re about environmentally sustainable development, seeing that people have access to clean water and sanitation and that the conditions in slums are alleviated. And finally, they are about aid, foreign aid. They’re about trade relationships, and they’re about building partnerships for sustainable development in this world.
But they are also about obsessing about the sins of others, rather than our own sins. Look, I can give two reasons for leaving the MDGs to fend for themselves for a while, and neither of them is concerned with whether, as political points, they are even good ideas. The first reason is that old Mary/Martha thing. Much as my sympathies have always been with Martha, the Episcopal Church now has a serious problem with taking the Mary side for granted. As a church, we need to give people religious reasons for coming to us, and by and large, we haven't bothered with that; instead we have tended to take religion for granted, and spent all our effort on this work in the world stuff at a time when the powers that be are more resistant to us than ever. It's really about time we actually spent some effort trying to make more people into believers and getting more people baptized and into communion with us. That 3% a year loss needs to be the first focus of church action.

But beyond that problem in priorities, the emphasis on contemplation of social action, specifically action which we cannot carry out, means that we sit around for weeks congratulating ourselves on what right-thinking people we are. It is, in other words, an invitation to self-righteousness. That's not the way to keep a holy Lent.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Support the Right to Bear Armed Coffee

I've never spent much time at Starbuck's because I've never acquired the coffee habit. Therefore I couldn't really effectively boycott them, because the difference between the five or so cups of tea I've gotten from there and the sixth cup wouldn't exactly make a meaningful mark on their bottom line, though of course it wouldn't hurt my Daily Sanctimony Expression Requirement at all. But never fear: there's always some Episcopal organization ready to take up the cause for me:
Buttressing its commitment to non-violence, the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) is joining with gun victim groups both faith-based and secular to launch a boycott of Starbucks coffee shops on Valentine’s Day.

“While states have rightfully forbidden weapons inside taverns for decades, Starbucks is alone among major retail outlets in allowing customers to bring their gun(s) – open or concealed – into its coffee shops,” said the Rev. Jackie Lynn, EPF executive director. “We know guns and alcohol don’t mix. Why allow guns and caffeine?”
I hate to say this, but I can't really bring myself to care. There was a murder around these parts some years back in a coffee shop, and I think it was even a Starbucks. But you know, I don't think a sign on the door forbidding carrying a piece would have deterred them. Peace is a good thing; we should all work for peace, don't get me wrong. But our parody image as representatives of right- er, left-thinking upper middle class liberals is bad enough as it is. There aren't enough Episcopalians left to make such a boycott mean anything more than to confirm how out of touch we are with anything but our own sense of righteous self-worth.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Not That Kind of Relationship Either

Our buddies at the Standing Committee of Liturgy and Music, aka the Foxes Guarding the Henhouse, have a blog. And today we have, filed under the heading of "Resources for Same-Sex Blessings", we have a little discourse on being Called into Relationship. Long-time readers will know that I have a particular loathing for the word "relationship" when applied to sexuality. It tends to a sort of spineless, precious vacuity. For me, living in relationship means, in practice, working out who cleans up youngest's child's potty accidents and other moments of deeper intimacy still. It lacks the rosy sociological hues that adorn the word in isolation. But here we are, and the first phrase in the referenced post is "falling in love", and at the end of the first paragraph we find talk of "deciding to enter into a lifelong commitment with someone".

It is all so very indefinite. Younger folk may not realize that the 1979 BCP spells out in fair detail just exactly the covenant of marriage entails, in contrast to previous books: husband and wife are united into a family for mutual joy, for mutual aid and comfort, and for the procreation and raising of the next generation. People in the past, of course, had lots of other reasons for marriage beyond falling in love, or indeed fulfilling any of these three purposes. And people these days, falling love, are often wont to keep the escape hatch from Relationship wide open by avoiding or minimizing commitment.

But the reality of marriage for the Episcopal classes is a lot more complex. Well-educated people are, in fact, getting married at close to traditional rates. Which is to say, more of them are in marriages at any given time: the divorce rate, on a per-marriage basis, is still very high, though it has dropped from its early 1980s peak. People in the lower, uneducated classes are the ones avoiding marriage: over 60% of mothers who have not graduated from high school are unmarried, and graduating from high school only pushes that rate down to 40%. Marriage is conspicuously delayed: the age at which 60% of the population is married has risen from 25 to 30, and there is no age at which the ratio reaches the historic peak of 80%. (One should keep in mind that the proportion of religious celibates was once much higher as well.)

And yet we are told that "a lifelong committed relationship with another person is a vocation", with the implication that it isn't for everyone. Well, OK, except that it would appear, what with the getting pregnant and all, that it is the vocation for the majority. It may not be normative, but it is normal. I would guess that it is still the case that over 80% of the population has children, in which case that same 80% should either be committed to abstinence, or be committed to life with the other parent, modulo various family-breaking and wrecking facts such as death, abuse, or gross infidelity. Conversely, the statement that "culturally, marriage has instead become a rite of passage into adulthood" is flatly and utterly wrong. That may have been true in 1960, when 80% of the population was married before age 25; it isn't even vaguely true now. Maybe sex is that rite of passage, or perhaps drinking, or having a child; getting married, though, is something which these days which these days tends to wait until people have been adults for some time.

And of course, the background of all of this is same-sex "relationships". OK, well, let's call the same sex marriages, in the interest of full equality. So, do we have any statistics on the unions that are now being performed in a few states? Well, Canada has some data, and among other info they report that the age upon first marriage is 13% higher for same sex than for heterosexual marriages, with the average age for lesbian marriages was 41.6 (it was higher for gay males). One can safely say that the need to marry in order to have children is not a factor; nor, one dares to suggest, do they first sample the joys of sex and companionship at such an age. No, forty is the traditional age at which the wear of time begins to make itself felt. Now this number is no doubt elevated because many elderly couples have not heretofore been able to avail themselves of the facilities of the law, but still, the age difference is striking.

The use of vocation as a category here, therefore, is suspect. One gathers that perhaps people increasingly see marriage as a sort of social tool: a means of creating the expectation of approval for a sexual state, or a way to pry benefits out of employers and the state. But they do not couple (so to speak) sex with marriage. On the contrary, they are still "guided" by the church's injunction to keep sex within the boundary of marriage; and on the one hand, they rebel against this as a burden, and on the other, they brandish marriage as a demand for societal approval of the sex they are having. If the choices are marriage or continence, well, people are not choosing the latter. And the church is having a very hard time telling them that they need to choose the latter.

Indeed, the sense I get is that, with all the panic about how this church is aging into irrelevancy, the obvious answer-- that Episcopalians needs to get married, have kids, and raise them in the church-- simply isn't on the table. If we're going to talk about this in terms of vocation, then we need to talk about that vocation the way the Roman Catholics do: that people should think first in terms of finding a mate and producing offspring. The continued obsession with homosexuality is an irrelevant sideshow to this, yet we keep getting musings such as that which I've quoted in which the childless union is, by omission, made the norm, and having children is treated (again by omission) as an unusual opinion instead of as the core case. There is so much talk of "covenantal life" in the passage that one might think that discussion concerns whether one should own a house under the sway of a homeowner's association (which is indeed not for everyone). People don't get married for so abstract a reason, and life in marriage is anything but that abstract. Talk of same sex unions and marriages needs to step up to the same level of anti-abstraction.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Statistical Day of Reckoning

The statistics nerds among us look forward with a mixture of longing and dread to the days when Kirk Hadaway and his crew release the annual numbers. Longing, because he gives us a lot of material to work with; dread, because of the inevitably bad news those numbers deliver. Well, for the latest Executive council meeting, they delivered a presentation which pulls together the usual summary numbers, plus other data not routinely released. Some lowlights:
  • Every church statistic is in the negative over the past decade: "we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction."

  • Membership has fallen since the mid-sixties, when we had over three million members. Now we have less than two thirds that.

  • Membership losses have accelerated since the early years of this century, and since 2004 shrinking congregations have outnumbered those showing growth by a considerable margin. Only 25% of congregations grew in 2010.

  • Attendance has fallen steadily since 2000 after being rock steady through the 1990s (ASA data doesn't go back further than that, unfortunately). In 2010 only 17% of congregations recorded growth in attendance.

  • Trends in other denominations are also bad. The UMC and other mainline Prots have been in decline for 25 years; in the past three years the SBC has also slipped into the red.

  • "For every parish that has opened in the past 10 years, 2.5 parishes have closed." Most new churches have been planted in the south.

  • We are old. Only 10% of our membership is young adults, compared with 20% of the US population; conversely, the oldest cohort holds 30% of our membership, as compared with 13% of the population at large.

  • Our clergy are old too. The average age at ordination is 46. Over the past three years we have not ordained enough people to keep pace with retirements.

  • Plate and pledge, adjusted for inflation, have steadily declined since the beginning of the century.

  • 72% of ECUSA congregations are in financial distress, far worse than the 58% of US congregations as a whole.
The reader will not be surprised to learn that this report has been met with consternation, not to mention a certain panicky urge to do something about it. The question, of course, is where the decline is coming from. Some possibilities:
  • Not enough kids. Hadaway's older analysis identified the drop in the white birth rate as a major source. However, this report is now a decade old, and it precedes the pattern of acceleration seen in the decade since. Also, this is a factor we will just have to live with.

  • People leave. This is not a negligible contributor. My analyses in the past seem to show this as perhaps the dominant factor; in any case, losses in the four departing dioceses account for 19% of the drop in domestic membership since 2007.

  • People don't join us. In our heyday it was commonly claimed that 50% of adult Episcopalians were converts. It's hard to pry that out of the data because of the many converts who don't show up in the offices, particularly as the expectation to be confirmed has just about disappeared.

  • We are not retaining our kids. This is everyone's favorite reason, but if adult conversions were what sustained us before, it follows that this was never one of our strong points.

  • Society is becoming more irreligious, and people these days don't join institutions. These are perhaps contributors, but again we don't have a way to track them.
I'm going to save my opinions on what to do for a later post. However I hope in any case that some of the complacency has been shaken off.