Stewart Clem Addresses ECF Board Members
November 13, 2017
Last week, 2017 ECF Fellow Stewart Clem addressed ECF’s Board of Directors at their annual fall meeting. His message focused on the important role of the Episcopal Church and the significance of “truth” in contemporary society. You can read the full text below.
I’d like to share three stories with you this evening. One is set in the past, one in the present, and one in the future.
The first story, set in the past, is about the Episcopal Church – although not all aspects of this story are unique to our denomination. Now, we should remember there are many ways to tell a story, and I’m merely repeating the version that’s often told.
That story goes like this: There was once a force in America that went by the name of mainline Protestantism. This force was not merely an idea or a movement, but an institution – a pillar of American society. This institution gave birth to a host of vibrant seminaries, thriving congregations, and a whole slew of public theologians, activist clergy, and committed laypersons. Mainline Protestantism served not only as the nation’s moral compass – it was a source of unrelenting hope and optimism. This optimism was so strong that it even gave birth to a magazine titled no less than The Christian Century.
Fast forward to 2017. The story is no longer one of triumph. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It has become a story of despair and anxiety. Countless pundits have predicted or already declared the ‘death of mainline Protestantism.’ According to an article in the Washington Post published this year, at the current rate mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left before it disappears from the face of the earth.
Even if we are tempted to shrug off such outlandish exaggerations, the Episcopal Church knows these anxieties all too well. There is no denying that our numbers are shrinking. Average Sunday attendance is in decline, the median age of our clergy is on the rise, and many of our seminaries are struggling to maintain their existence. It would be foolish to ignore these realities.
And we should note the typical mode of response of many Episcopal churches in light of these challenges: too often, we fall into a ‘chaplaincy mode’ of ministry, in which we simply open our doors and hope that the world notices our presence. I say this with all due respect to actual chaplains, who do much, much more than simply offer their own physical presence. What I’m describing is something like a caricature of chaplaincy.
But when churches fall into this faux-chaplaincy mode, it is because we feel incapacitated to make an actual difference in the world. We become self-conscious about our lack of cultural capital and we shy away from challenging people to become disciples of Jesus Christ, lest we scare away even more of our diminishing membership.
I want to pause here and draw our attention to another story. It’s a story set in the immediate present. This story has to do with the rapid transition of American culture into what many have called a ‘post-truth society.’
The Oxford English Dictionary recently added the word ‘post-truth’ to its pages, with the following definition: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” But it seems that this barely scratches the surface of the rapid transformation that is taking place in our society. This definition doesn’t capture the fear and the deep and profound skepticism we see all around us.
As journalist David Roberts explains: “The US is experiencing a deep epistemic breach, a split not just in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know.” There are many theories attempting to explain how we have gotten to this point. I’m not an expert. I don’t know. But what I do know is that things are different than they were even just a few years ago.
I teach a course in Christian Ethics to college students at Notre Dame. One of my students, who is an atheist, recently confided in me: “I used to think it was edgy to deny the possibility of objective truth. But now, when I look around, I’m scared about everything that’s going on in the world. There’s a part of me that really hopes that the teachings of Christianity are true.”
I think that this student represents many people of his generation. People need to be given space to ask questions, but sometimes we forget that they are also looking for answers. The question for the church is: are we prepared to give those answers?
I would like to share the words of someone who had profound insight into our current situation:
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for [today’s world].”
These words were written in 1963 by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. But they could have been written yesterday.
Our culture needs more than a social club. It needs preachers. It needs someone to do more than hold its hand. It needs someone to offer guidance. It needs someone to do more than listen. It needs someone to provide clarity.
If we don’t see this, then we are missing an incredible opportunity. And this opportunity leads me to my third, and final, story. This story is set in the future; it is yet to be written.
Our culture is literally crying out for answers. The smug skepticism that was once held toward institutionalized religion has morphed into a deep uncertainty about all of our societal structures. No one knows whom to trust anymore. The question asked by Pontius Pilate two thousand years ago, “What is truth?” (John 13:38), has become our motto.
It’s time for the church to step in. If we want to see renewal within the church and relevance beyond its walls, then we need to do nothing more than proclaim the Gospel – in both word and deed. As Martin Luther King warned, we cannot let the anxieties about our own future become shackles. We cannot settle for ‘church of the status quo.’ This is no longer an option, because in our post-truth age, there is no more status quo.
The Episcopal Church often prides itself – and rightly so – on providing space where people can ask questions. But we must also be sensitive to the fact that people are looking for answers. They want the truth. Even the New York Times has caught onto this. Listen to their new ad campaign: “The truth is hard to find. The truth is hard to know. The truth is more important now than ever.”
These are words that the Episcopal Church should take to heart: “The truth is more important now than ever.” Yet so often we shy away from the truth. We hesitate to share the good news of the Gospel lest we offend those whose religious beliefs differ from our own. We’re also sensitive to the fact that many people throughout history who have been certain that they possess the truth have caused a great deal of harm.
But we must remember that we don’t ‘possess’ the truth. The truth possesses us. Jesus declared that the truth shall set us free (John 8:32). If we think that we have the truth, but that truth doesn’t set people free, then it’s not the truth. At the same time, if we hide our light under a bushel because we don’t want to impose it upon anyone, this is only false humility.
Thankfully, we are not forced to choose between declaring the truth, on the one hand, and taking posture of humility, on the other. If our current situation tells us anything, it tells us that that our choice is between declaring the truth in love, on the one hand, and leaving a void that can only be filled with hatred, violence, and injustice, on the other.
I believe that the Episcopal Church is in a better position than ever to fulfill this task. Despite what the statisticians are telling us, people – especially young people – are discovering the Episcopal Church that they never knew existed. What they’re finding is an ancient faith that is open to the challenges of the modern world. They’re finding truths that are not oppressive, but nourishing and inspiring.
Our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, is fond of telling a story about the early 20th century evangelist, Billy Sunday. Bill Sunday had been invited to St. George’s Church, here in New York, to do a revival. He had never visited an Episcopal church before, and when he made his first visit to the church, he happened to walk in the pews and saw a Book of Common Prayer and he started reading it. And as he read the prayer book, he lifted his head and said, “Heaven help the rest of the Protestant world if the Episcopal Church ever wakes up.”
This is why we’re all here this evening. We believe in the Episcopal Church. We believe in God’s promises. We support the work of the Episcopal Church Foundation because its ministries are keeping the church awake.
Stewart is a John Templeton Foundation graduate scholar and doctoral candidate in Moral Theology & Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on the ethics of language, with a special emphasis on lying and truth-telling in contemporary society.To learn more about Stewart's work, as well as the work of the other 2017 Fellows, click here. For more on the ECF Fellowship Partners Program and how to apply, click here.