We have started a series of fictional pastoral letters, set in the future, from the priests at Trinity Church, an Episcopal church located somewhere in the United States. This first letter is dated for the year 2020.
It is available in .pdf format here.
Pastoral Letter: 2020 – ‘OK Boomer’
My Sisters and Brothers of Trinity Church:
This year marks my 15th year serving you as rector of Trinity church. We have had some wonderful times together — worshiping, praying and serving our community. But it has also been a difficult fifteen years; our beloved church, and the Episcopal church overall, faces profound long-term challenges.
One of our parishioners prepared the following chart from data available at the church’s national web site. It shows nationwide membership in the Episcopal church in the United States.
You can see that in the year 2005 — about the time I was called as your rector — the national church had about 820,000 members. Now we are down to 550,000 — a drop of 35% in just 15 years. If this trend continues then we will have no members at all in the year 2045. I know that organizational changes (maybe mergers with other churches) will change that trajectory somewhat. But we have to recognize that the Episcopal church is fading into insignificance.
Here at Trinity we have seen a similar pattern. Our attendance at Sunday worship has drifted downhill, the average age of our parishioners is rising, and our finances are stretched. We are spending an ever-increasing amount of our budget just keeping the building and property maintained instead of serving others in our community. And whatever needs to be done, it seems as if it is always the same volunteers who show up. They are getting tired and discouraged.
Change is needed — both here at Trinity and in the church at large. Therefore, I have decided to hang up my vestments and move into semi-retirement. The time has come for a fresh vision, fresh leadership for Trinity.
Who is the right person to lead our parish in these difficult times? That decision is, of course, up to you — the parishioners and vestry of Trinity. But, as I depart, maybe I could offer a few thoughts.
Let’s start by understanding that our difficulties do not arise from internal disagreements to do with issues such as same-sex marriage. Such topics may matter to us, but they are not the reason for our decline. The real reason that we are in decline is that the world around us is changing, but we are not changing with it.
So how is the world changing? What are the issues that really matter? What do we say when Pilate asked of our Lord, “What is truth?”
I suggest that the issue that has moved to front-and-center in just the last few years is climate change. It matters because it affects everyone, everywhere, all the time. No exceptions. Throughout 2020 bad news to do with the climate kept piling up. What brought that news home to us here at Trinity were the unprecedented floods that covered our farmlands for the second year in a row. These floods were followed, as we are all aware, by three months of drought. We learned — as if we did not already know — that climate change is no longer just about melting icebergs, stranded polar bears and forest fires on the other side of the world. It is something that is affecting members of our parish here and now. Two of our parishioners who own farms had to sell up — and this year’s weekly Farmers Market was the worst that we have ever seen.
So far, our response to this crisis has been to treat it as yet another item to be added to our church’s “To-Do” list. Climate change is not seen as an existential issue at the core of other problems. Our environmental committee has done great work in encouraging the use of biodegradable products, and in researching the possibility of solar panels on the roof of the rectory. But I think that we all know that the issues we face require a more fundamental response.
Although the situation that we face is discouraging, there is hope. Let’s take a look at the image that closed out 2019: Time magazine’s Person of the Year — that remarkable young lady Greta Thunberg. She and many other young people like her bring just the qualities that our church needs: youth, energy, truth-telling, leadership and a sense of mission.
Yet, when it comes to climate change, our national and international political leaders are not, in fact, leaders. And they never will be leaders because any honest response to the climate crisis means that we will have to reduce our material standard of living. Talk like that soon makes a politician an ex-politician. But Christians can talk this way because they know that Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday.
So, let’s connect the dots here.
- Trinity Church and the national church badly need young people to provide fresh leadership and vision.
- Young people are reacting with passion, even anger, when they look at the world that they are inheriting from us older folk (where the word “older” means anyone over 20 years of age). Their slogan in 2019 was, “OK Boomer”. This year it seems to be, “Faster than Expected”.
- We can provide with them with a faith structure for their passion and work. The Christian church has done it before, it can do it again.
- Let’s invite them in and so provide our church with a wonderful opportunity for leadership.
But the above requires a new way of thinking, a new interpretation of scripture. For too many years we have followed the words given to Noah following the flood (Genesis 9).
Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.
The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.”
Well, we pretty much aced that one. We have indeed been fruitful. In Biblical times the population of the earth was probably around 0.5 billion. Now we are at 7.5 billion and rising. And the beasts, birds and fish certainly live in dread of us. We need a new interpretation of scripture, not one based on our domination of nature, but on living within nature’s rhythms. Let’s try Ecclesiastes 3.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance . . .
. . . As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
I’m not so sure about the phrase, “Everything is meaningless”. But a theology that stresses living within the biosphere, not dominating is what we need.
So, my fellow parishioners, you can see why I have decided to move on. We need a leader who provides realistic hope. He or she will not offer “hopium” — the trap of, “They will think of something”. But the new leader must also provide a means for channeling the energy and anger of our young people so that we do not become fatalistic. He or she will provide our beloved Trinity church with a vision of Realistic Hope.
In closing, I ask us to keep in mind the words from Philippians 4:6,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
In Christ, your friend and pastor,
P.S. Just after writing this letter I heard from the Bishop that our national church is setting up a Council with other denominations to come up with responses to the climate chaos crisis. These responses must be faith-based and workable. I have been asked to serve on that Council, and — maybe this was a mistake — I agreed. So it’s likely that you will be hearing from me again!