Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs

Deckchairs Titanic neatly arranged

Book Release

Priests in a hurryEvery week we release a section of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits. This week it is the second part of Chapter 1 — For the Christian in an Hurry: The 300-Year Party. The document is a .pdf file that can be downloaded at no cost here. (The Table of Contents for the complete book is available here.)

While working on this blog and on my book A New City of God three events occurred at roughly the same time. They were:

  1. Greta Thurnberg made her speech to the COP24 Conference in Poland. Her words went viral and they have encouraged young people around the world to take action.
  2. The Methodist church in the United States is going through turmoil with regard to same-sex marriage and related issues.
  3. I carried out a calculation to do with the membership of the Episcopalian church while writing A New City of God.

Pull these three threads together, and I am reminded of the image at the head of this post, which shows the neatly arranged deckchairs on the doomed Titanic on her fateful journey across the north Atlantic.

The Titanic

Titanic Sinking
Der Untergang der Titanic

The story is familiar. The luxury steamship RMS Titanic sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The submerged portion of the iceberg scraped against the hull, tearing a gash along much of her length. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy North Atlantic.

The quotation, “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has become a staple of our discourse. It implies futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe. Indeed, the sinking of the Titanic has generated many other aphorisms and oft-repeated quotations such as,

Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable.
Julia Hughes

Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the ‘Titanic’ who waved off the dessert cart.
Erma Bombeck

. . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight.
Brander 1995

When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.
E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic

Captain E.J. Smith — Titanic
Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1907)

The Brander quotation is important. The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives.

Three Events

I started this post by saying that three events had made an impression on me. Let’s take a quick look at each of these events.

The Thurnberg Speech

Greta Thurnberg accusing world leaders of not acting on climate change
Greta Thurnberg (2003 – )

We have already discussed Greta Thurnberg’s clear, honest and courageous speech. It has encouraged thousands of young people to follow her leadership. To state the obvious, these young people (and many of their parents) are interested in staying alive. Consequently they are also highly critical of the actions of the hypocrisy of the generations that have preceded them. Maybe there is a message for the church there.

Climate Change Protest

Methodist Turmoil

united Methodist church

At the time of writing (February 2019) the Methodist Church in the United States was starting a conference at which LGBT and same-sex marriage issues were to be voted on. The result could be a breakup of the church. The USA Today says,

“What the United Methodist church will look like in March will likely be very different than it is today,” said the Rev. Ron Robinson, a chaplain and religion professor at Wofford College, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. “This has the most significant potential for major division out of anything in my lifetime.”

Now gender issues are of high importance to many Christians — not only to Methodists, but also those in other denominations. The catch is that such discussions have, as an unstated assumption, that the present physical world will continue more or less in its current form. The passions are strong and deeply felt. But, if Age of Limits issues are going to create wrenching problems, then such discussions do have a flavor of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Episcopalian Membership

While writing my book, I decided to research the status of the Episcopalian Church in the United States. Using 2017 data from the church’s web site I developed the following rather  scary chart.

Episcopal Church Membership
Episcopal Church Membership: 2006-2016

Membership in the church has declined steadily over a period of ten or more years. (Attendance at Sunday services is probably a more important figure than nominal membership. But it shows the same trends. Average parish attendance in the year 2011 was 65; by 2016 it was down to 58.)

While church membership is declining, the nation’s population is growing. The Episcopal church’s membership was 0.28% of the population of the United States in 2005, but had dropped to 0.19% in 2016. So, in the period 2005-2016 church membership fell from 827,000 to 601,000, a 27% drop. But the church’s percentage of the population fell from 0.28% to 0.19%, a 32% drop.

A simple linearization of the line, which has remarkably little scatter, shows that membership is declining by roughly 22,000 per annum. Given that current membership is at around 600,000 we can expect to hit the zero point somewhere around the year 2045. This is not what will actually happen, of course. The line will show an asymptote (hockey-stick effect) near its end; membership will level off at a low level, but it will not hit zero. Or the church may merge with another denomination struggling with a similar data set.

But, if the church is to have any meaning for the population at large, this trend must be reversed. I recognize that religious faith is not just a matter of numbers, but numbers do matter.

Related to the  decline in attendance and membership is the fact that the church’s congregations are getting older — not only are more members needed, it is even more important to attract young people.

Assessment

So we have the following situation:

  • Young people are growing increasingly passionate about climate change issues.
  • The church is spending its time and energy on issues that do not seem to be important to those young people.
  • Church membership and attendance is down. In particular, youth participation is dwindling.

And so the conclusion is . . .

Yet most church communities are not responding to climate change issues with the same level of passion as are young people. (After all, we don’t want to be controversial, do we?) This means that, from the point of view of these young people, church leaders are, by and large, simply rearranging the deck chairs on their sinking Titanic. So, unsurprisingly, they have little interest in joining the church. Who can blame them? No wonder that membership curve is declining so precipitously.

Moreover, even when the church does consider climate change, it tends to treat it as  just one concern among many. Most churches have committees to organize activities such as food banks, spiritual retreats and mission trips. So the tendency is to treat climate change, and other Age of Limits issues, as being just one piece of the overall program. (“We will form a committee to take care of that.”) But climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) are existentially important — they are the Titanic. And, if the Titanic sinks, i.e., if the climate is drastically disrupted, then the other activities will sink with it.

Conclusions

If the church is to engage the trust and the confidence of young people growing up in a world that is changing frighteningly fast then Age of Limits issues need to become central to the mission. They are not just one activity among many — they are core to our beliefs and our actions.

Which means that a theology that fits this new world is needed.

Stay tuned.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

5 thoughts on “Rearranging the (Episcopal) Deckchairs”

  1. Thank you, Ian, for using this metaphor of the Titanic so well and for bringing together these issues. Would you say that we need to make a pact with our youth (and the young people of other liturgical Christian denominations) to carry Christ’s light into an uncertain future? Or that we will actively work to get them on life boats ? What are the life boats of this crisis? I think they are permaculture farming communities and other, similar forms of intentional communal living.

    1. I suggest that we allow the young people to take the lead. It’s their world now. For the last 30 years or so we have proposed incremental improvements such as driving smaller cars or recycling our waste products. These activities are good and should be supported. But they have not really had much of an impact. The heart of the Green New Deal is that it takes a radical approach — it seems as if young people know that what we are doing is not enough.

      Your comment about the lifeboats is interesting — the Titanic’s lifeboats were only half full. Many more people could have been saved had they been better organized. Maybe there is a lesson for us there. One of the reasons for the lifeboat failure is that they followed the mantra, “Women and children first”. This meant that many male passengers and crew members were unnecessarily lost. Maybe our focus on gender issues in the church is analogous.

      How would the church organize a permaculture program?

      1. Very interesting about the disorganization of boarding the lifeboats! Aren’t there stories about men donning women’s clothing to get aboard? I recall some such stories…I’m not sure if they are true. As to permaculture, I would point to Shalom Farms and the Harvest of Hope gleaning program. As Christians who celebrate the Eucharist, we should be all about feeding people!

      2. I had not heard about the men using women’s clothing — would there have been sufficient time for them to make the switch? I believe that there were cases where men ignored the “women and children first” rule, and jumped the line, so to speak.

        Can you provide details regarding the two permaculture programs you refer to?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s