Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley asks a haunting question in his book What do You Seek?:
…all Catholics must ask themselves—why so often was the legacy of centuries of establishment (of the church in Europe), of institutional productivity and security and religious art, frequently a profound alienation and de-Christianization? Why is there a cultural absence of God where those very institutions that should have ministered to his presence were so powerful? And to be more concrete and particular, does one find anything similar in the United States—a powerful presence but a growing disbelief, alienation, disgust, and distance? Part of that reason may well be that very power and wealth. Perhaps because local churches and large Christian communities that possessed, for whatever reasons, political power and extensive holdings became strangers to the massive social inequity and outrageous poverty and humiliation of so many, and came to accept comfortably a social structure that was impoverishing and unjust (p.76)?
Although The Episcopal Church—and other denominations for that matter—are small potatoes compared to the size and institutional presence of the Roman Catholic Church, we must ask ourselves the same question. When we look back at our periods of growth in members, wealth and influence, was the church “becoming strangers to the massive social inequity and outrageous poverty” in our midst, and is that why our witness has become increasingly irrelevant to many?
This weekend over 300 members of the Diocese of Southern Ohio are gathering to reflect on our mission in light of the story of the Exodus. My fear is that this gathering will be seen as the first step to becoming a church that is once again growing in numbers and influence rather than a step towards becoming a church that is less a stranger to human suffering. Don’t get me wrong! I would be delighted if the Episcopal Church grew by leaps and bounds, but only if that growth is about a deeper commitment to what Jesus cared about. Unless I missed it, Jesus wasn’t primarily concerned about how many members he had; he was concerned about how many followed him to those who were the forgotten members of society.
My hope for this gathering is that each congregation will discover a burning desire to connect with people who are suffering, listen to their stories, and see where that connection leads. My hope is that The Episcopal Church’s decline in power and influence will have led to an increase in strangers who have become friends. My hope is that this gathering will lead to less anxiety over our own institutional survival and more passion for how God is using us to build a neighborhood where everyone is included.