A Kairos Moment for the Church

ECF spoke with 1983 Fellow, Kelly Brown Douglas, Susan D. Morgan Professor of Religion at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland, and Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, to learn her views on what it means to be a leader in today’s Church. Rev Douglas is a featured speaker at the CEEP conference in February and a keynote speaker at Unholy Trinity: the Intersection of Racism, Poverty and Gun Violence: A Conference Facilitated by Bishops United Against Gun Violence, in April this year.

It is no surprise that the Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, a 1983 ECF Fellowship Partner, has put her education and her gifts as preacher, teacher and writer to work for God’s justice and reconciliation in our nation and the world. “When I think of the privilege I had and other students have,” she says, “I have to ask to whom we are accountable. And for me, you’re always accountable to those that are on the underside of the outside.”

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Six weeks after the 2016 national election, Douglas discussed how showing up and speaking up with and for those on the underside of the outside can build confidence in the church’s relevance in the world today.

Be church and they will come
“The Episcopal Church has to be called back to what it means to be church,” says Douglas. “And that is about way more than who we are as a social religious institution.” Our task, in her thinking, is to be as concerned with those outside of our doors as those on our rolls.

Well aware of the Pew studies and the rising numbers of Millennials, who describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religion, Douglas believes that these “spiritual but not religious” nones are nonetheless capable of religious affirmation. “It’s not that they’re not searching for something more, a greater connection in their lives,” she says, “it’s that the religious institutions have not acted in ways compatible with what it means to be church. They’re turned off by the institution, not by religion itself. That’s the indictment.”

And while she does not dismiss the need to be concerned with the bottom line, she thinks it’s the tail wagging the dog just now, not our principle mission. “If, indeed, we go ahead and make ourselves visible in the world as church, as people who care about the people that Jesus cared about, those people will come,” she says. “I really believe that.”

Church leadership that engages the world
Douglas believes that clergy training needs to have one foot firmly in the world beyond the seminary. “We have to put the same concern we place on doctrine and how to say mass on preparing clergy who are engaged in the world,” she says. “There should be this consistent dialogue between the world and our biblical and theological training. There has to be this link between what we do in our churches on Sunday mornings and what we do in the world—and that link is justice.”

A way to explore that connection between Sunday and the rest of our lives, one that Douglas sees as critical, is for our churches to provide space for the difficult discussions about race that this country refuses to have. “For black parents,” she says, “we don’t have a choice. We have to have these conversations about race. What are white people talking about?”

That kind of discussion is not easy, and our clergy need training to lead and support such efforts in their congregations. “Just as we’re concerned about people coming out of seminary with theological competence and literacy, with biblical skills and liturgical skills,” says Douglas, “they have to come out with racial competency.” Dioceses should require training in racial justice just as they require training on sexual misconduct, in her view. They need to understand that race matters. They need to understand the significance and meaning of whiteness. “The people who are on the underside of race always know what race is,” says Douglas, “but white people are raced, too. They need to see how being white plays out in their lives and the lives of others.”

The kairos moment is now
“I believe that if there’s anything good that can come out of this election, it is that it has called us to account,” says Douglas. And when she looks for God in the time we are in, she thinks of kairos times, times when things are disrupted and we are called to another place. “But we have to grasp the kairos moment, and I think the first way and a simple way is we have to show up.”

Showing up means mobilizing our congregations to take action. “Like if this administration goes forward with its plans to make certain people register—guess what, everybody registers,” says Douglas. And she means everybody. “We can’t be stuck behind our doors, stuck in our denominations, it’s got to be interfaith.” In actions like that, we stand with those who are “marginalized, oppressed, on the bottom.”

Showing up is also speaking up. “We stayed silent for too long on things like what has happened with the Voting Rights Act,” says Douglas. Just as Christians in Germany protested Hitler’s national church in the Barmen Declarations and as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” made it clear that engaging in the civil rights struggle was our duty as Christians, our churches need to be willing to speak up. “Our leaders have to say, ‘That’s wrong. You can’t disenfranchise people’.”

“There can’t be a moment when the church is silent,” says Douglas. She has no patience with those who claim the church can’t be partisan when it comes to its values and reflecting the values of a just God. “It’s not about being a Republican or being a Democrat,” she says. “It’s about values and it’s about who we are—not only as a nation and a people, but as a faith community. There ought not be a time during this administration’s tenure that they’re comfortable if they do what they’ve promised. We can’t let people ask at any time, as they have asked before, ‘where is the church?’”

Rekindling faith in the church
Douglas is convinced that focusing on the Pew studies and the Episcopal Church’s declining numbers is the wrong idea. “I really believe that if we focus on being church,” she says, “we’ll turn that around.People will once again have faith in the faith community, and the church will once again be relevant.”

“When we show up and speak up on the issues Millennials and others care about,” says Douglas, “when we show we can listen to their questions, that we care about their questions, when we’re clear about where we stand, people will come. We just need to be out there, being what the church has always been about its at its best—a glimpse of the justice that is the kingdom of God.”

Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, Renewal/Works, and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide, and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” published annually by Forward Movement.