The Bishops’ Deckchairs

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Deckchairs on the Titanic represent the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.
The deck chairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged, at least for now

In May 2021 the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States crated a minor flap when they voted to withhold Holy Communion from the most powerful person in the world: President Joe Biden. (In the end, they did not follow through with their proposed action — President Biden can still participate in the church’s most important rite.) The reason for the Bishops’ threat was to do with abortion. The Roman Catholic church strongly condemns the practice; President Biden permits it to take place. The bishops felt that the situation was important enough to take this unusual and controversial action. ​ The church was roundly condemned for its action for two reasons. The first and most important reason was that communion should not be withheld from anyone, as long as they are willing to say the words such as the following (taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer).

We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed . . . We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

The bishops were also criticized for mixing politics with religion. Their action was perceived by many as expressing support for one political group. Not only does this go against the principle of the separation of church and state, it creates division within the church itself. (It is also likely to be counter-productive.) ​ But there is a third factor to consider. Through their actions the bishops effectively said that abortion is the most important item on the Christian agenda. Other issues do not elicit the same level of disciplinary response, therefore we can assume that they are less central to the church’s beliefs. ​ There is no question that abortion is a profoundly important concern, and the bishops are right to speak strongly on the topic. But is it the most important topic? It could well be argued that climate change is even more important. After all, if some of the more dire climate chaos predictions come to pass, billions of people could suffer profound hardship, or even lose their lives. On this topic President Biden, who is trying to push climate change legislation through Congress, is on the side of the angels, and is supported by the sentiments expressed in Laudato Sí, written by Pope Francis in the year 2017.

Titanic sinking represents the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.
The Titanic — before her one and only voyage

The phrase “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has come to mean, “making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail” or “futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe”. (The story of the luxury Titanic ocean liner is familiar. She sank on her maiden voyage in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg . Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.)

The ‘Rearranging the Deckchairs’ phrase can be applied to the manner in which the church is setting many of its priorities. The issue of abortion has just been discussed. But it is not the only one. For example, in recent years church leaders have spent much time and energy debating topics such as same-sex marriage and ethnic/racial diversity. Once more, as with abortion, these are profoundly important matters, but they pale into significance when compared to the potential impacts of climate change. Maybe our theological focus needs to change. If we persist with the old theological debates then we are rearranging the deckchairs on the church’s Titanic.

There is much concern in the church to do with the chronic decline in membership and attendance. Maybe it is because young people, in particular, see the church as focusing on yesterday’s issues — not on what matters in today’s world.

Titanic sinking represents the actions of church leaders in a world impacted by climate change.

The Parable of the Blind Golfers

Parable about three golfers: a priest, a doctor and an engineer. Shows how people may react to climate change.
Credit: Daily Mail

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A priest, a doctor and an engineer are playing a round of golf. All is going well until they reach a group ahead of them who are playing badly and slowly.

They ask the greens-keeper why this group is playing so slowly. He replied, “These men are firefighter heroes. They all lost their eyesight while rescuing children from burning buildings — they are totally blind. In recognition of their service we allow them to play here for free.”

The priest says, “What heroes. I will offer prayers of gratitude for their sacrifice and I will pray for their recovery. I will also look for resources to make their lives more comfortable.”

They turn to the doctor who says, “There have been big advances in eye surgery recently. I will contact some ophthalmologists that I know; they may be able to offer medical help.”

They then all look at the engineer who says, “Why don’t they play at night?”

This parable appears to point to the foolishness of the engineer. He sees a way to speed up the golf game, but he fails to recognize the human side of the situation. He does not understand that the way in which we treat others is just as important as problem solving.

And yet . . . the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Matthew 21) appears at first to be about the young man who wastes his fortune, and then returns to his father for forgiveness and acceptance. But a deeper reading of the parable soon makes us consider the other actors in the drama: the older brother and the father. How do we interpret their actions? Is the parable really “about” the young man, or is it about his father and brother? There is no answer — that is the nature of parables, they make us think.

So it is with the golfers in this week’s story. Is it about the engineer, or does it really tell us more about the doctor and the priest? Both the doctor and the engineer look for solutions. The doctor will try to mend the eyesight of the blind men, the engineer thinks of ways to speed up the golf game. But what is the priest doing to improve the situation?

As we say repeatedly at this site, ecological, environmental and resource predicaments are bearing down on us. Time is pressing. Science (the doctor) and technology (the engineer) may be able to help us reduce the pace of change and/or reduce the impact. But they cannot change the overall trajectory. They cannot provide solutions.

The challenge for the priest in the story, and for the church in our world in its current state, is to develop responses that neither the scientist or the engineer can offer.

Will They Return?

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Two months ago we published a post entitled COVID-19: The Church’s New Normal. The theme was that the pandemic had forced a reduction in church attendance because people were not able to assemble in person. Remote services and meetings helped control the decline. Indeed, technology opened up a new way of communicating that will remain. Nevertheless, the pandemic had a adverse impact on overall attendance, membership and participation.

That post was written at a time when the pandemic was declining but still required severe restrictions on in-person gatherings. Since then, most churches are almost back to normal. The buildings are open, congregations are assembling and people are mingling with one another. Some restrictions are still in place, particularly with regard to the shared communion cup. Nevertheless, church life is back to normal.

Well, almost back to normal. We are not yet seeing people return in pre-pandemic numbers. One reason for the slow return may be that people are still feeling cautious. After all, many church members are elderly; they remain concerned about picking up an infection, even if they have been vaccinated. But there is a concern that attendance will never return to pre-pandemic levels.

On June 29th 2021 David Sharp of the Associated Press published an article Millions skipped church during the pandemic. Will they return? In the article Sharp quotes leaders from a wide range of faith organizations. The short answer to his question, “Will they return?” is “No”. The step change decline in attendance that occurred during the pandemic appears, at this point in time, to be permanent. One survey suggests that the drop will be around 7%, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the actual number is considerably larger.

Earlier posts in this series showed the following chart for membership in the Episcopal church.

Episcopal church membership trends. Impact of COVID-19.
Credit: Ian Sutton

Membership in the Episcopal Church has been falling steadily at a rate of about 3% per annum over the course of the last three decades. A straight line projection shows that membership hits zero around the year 2045. (Other denominations report similar trends.) Although the curve will exhibit some type of asymptote or dog leg before that date, the trend line is ominous. If attendance and membership have fallen even further during the pandemic then the situation will become even more worrying.

A related problem is that the membership is growing older — the “gray hairs” are not being replaced by young people in leadership positions. It was suggested in the earlier post that one reason for the relative lack of youth engagement is that the church does not “speak to their condition”. We need to identify the issues that generate passion among younger people and to organize appropriately.

The problem of declining membership is, of course, one that has occupied many of the finest minds in the church for decades. But the pandemic has created a sense of urgency.

In addition to the many other causes that are put forward for church decline, it is suggested here, and in other posts in this series, that two factors deserve particular attention.

The first factor is that, during the pandemic, the church had nothing special to say. Church leaders acted responsibly and followed the rules and guidance from secular authorities. They also provided comfort and support during difficult times. (For example, my church organized a daily, on-line morning prayer service — something that had never been done before.) Nevertheless, churches merely acted as responsible citizens; they did no more than most other organizations. To reiterate,

The church had nothing special to say during the pandemic.

Ugo Bardi (1952- )

Ugo Bardi, an Italian chemistry professor, had this to say about the church’s response to the pandemic at his post 2020: The Collapse of the Christian Church.

It is curious that such an old and resilient institution was demolished by such a humble creature as a virus labeled SARS-Covid2. But that was how it happened. Facedwiththevirusthreat,theChurchfoundnothingtosay,nothingtoobject,nothingtopropose. It meekly submitted to the superior power of the state.

So, in Italy, this Christmas the state ruled that the traditional midnight mass was to be held at 8 pm. Of course, it is hard to believe that a virus could infect people at midnight but not at 8pm. On visiting a church, you would find someone at the entrance pointing a laser gun at your forehead. You saw the benches with places crossed with red tape. Instead of holy water fountains, you would find bottles with disinfecting solutions. People hiding their faces in front of God just like Adam had been hiding from God in the Garden of Eden. And, finally, the final insult was the virtual mass, with the priest turned into a 2D image confined in a little square on a screen, virtually blessing virtual believers.

Bardi’s comments are to do with the catholic church in Italy. But they apply equally well to the church worldwide. I am a member of the Episcopal church, and reside in the diocese of Virginia (USA). We do not have a traditional cathedral building in the center of a large town. Instead, we have an open air shrine called Shrinemont located in the mountains of the wester part of the state. It’s a beautiful area — here is a picture of our “cathedral” in normal times.

Credit: St. James the Less Church

And here is a picture of the same cathedral last year.

Credit: Ian Sutton

If the first factor in the church’s accelerating decline is its lack of a message during the pandemic, the second factor could be that the church is not speaking to the concerns that people, particularly young people, have as to what is going on in the world.

The pandemic is not the only major news item. Climate change is starting to really bite. It’s happening now, it’s getting worse, and people are frightened. For example, the recent heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is unprecedented. The following headline and image is taken from a Washington Post article. (116°F is the same as 46.7°C.)

Credit: Washington Post

The deeper message here is that science and technology have failed — they have created a world where conditions are getting worse year by year, and there is no solution.(As we stress throughout this site, we face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions. When the solution is found and implemented the problem goes away. Predicaments do not have solutions. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away. Climate change is a predicament. If we had taken action decades ago it is possible that we could have maintained our current way of living, but we didn’t take action, so here we are.)

So far, the church’s response to the virus has been to develop new ways of communicating and to help people who are have been adversely affected. But the church authorities have continued to cede leadership to the secular authorities. But maybe the tables have turned. If science and technology have indeed reached an end point — a point where they have created predicaments that they are unable to solve — then maybe the church and people of faith have an opportunity to step up and to put forward new ways of understanding the world. This in turn could lead to new ways of living that put us more in harmony with the natural world. If this insight is correct, then we will need a new theology, one that speaks to people who feel as if they are in their own Babylonian Exile.