Disestablishment and Discipleship

One of the biggest benefits of being a professor is the opportunity to have a sabbatical. Since mid-January I have been on sabbatical from my church history position at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I have been living with my family in Oxfordshire and enjoying my position as a visiting scholar at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college preparing people for ministry in the Church of England and elsewhere.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to questions of ecclesiology.  So it has been a great pleasure for me to be at Cuddesdon (as they call it) and to spend time listening to and talking with Mark Chapman, an important voice in Anglican ecclesiology. Mark Chapman has been teaching at Cuddesdon for 20 years and last weekend there was a symposium held in his honor.

I was only able to attend his lecture (a family outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine at the Didcot Railway Centre held precedence for most of the day). In his talk, Mark Chapman spoke of the decline in the established Church of England. He quuickly laid out the statistics showing decline in the Church of England in terms of active membership (about one million), current baptism rates (about 20% of the population), and current confirmation rates (about 12%). But he refused to bemoan these statistics. Chapman argued instead that it is in keeping with the gospel vision that Christianity should be a minority religion. When a church becomes established, becomes normative, it loses it vitality and sense of mission. But a small church is one in which all members are called to do the work of the church and engage in a life of active discipleship. When an established church devolves to the work of being a local church it can overcome the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. People are called upon to act for themselves to achieve the gospel vision of a community of love, justice, and peace. As I interpret these words, when a church begins to conceive of itself in local terms, and not in established terms, it also begins to conceive of itself as a community of disciples, not a community of consumers.

All of this got me thinking about the difficult situation the Episcopal Church has found itself in. There has been a signficant decline in membership over the past decade. Currently  there has been much outcry about the new budget for the Episcopal Church. Behind those budget cuts is the story of the decline of this denomination. For a long time, the Episcopal Church has acted like a quasi-established church in the United States. It has assumed that it held a place of cultural prestige because of its wealth, its association with American elites, its aesthetically pleasing liturgy.  But none of those assumptions have held.

Amidst the tumbling down of assumptions, Chapman’s words are useful.  It is at the moment of decline and of crumbling assumptions that we can best hear the call to discipleship.  Perhaps now is the best time to abandon Henry Hobart’s dream that the Episcopal Church will become the national church of the United States. Now is the time to stop assuming that if we just show how we worship in the right way, people will be drawn to us. Now is the time to stop assuming that because we once were influential we still are. Now is the time to take up the opportunity to reimagine how best to be a church called to discipleship.  If the Church of England needs to own up to these questions, so do we.


Filed under Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Church of England, Discipleship, Ecclesiology, Episcopal Church and Anglicanism, Ripon College Cuddesdon

14 responses to “Disestablishment and Discipleship

  1. Thank you for saying this, Dan. I think it will have to be said a thousand more times before we start acting this way as a church. Nostalgia too often rules our expectations and hopes, rather than being curious about what the HS is up to. Nice maiden voyage!

  2. I think the “gospel vision” fits a number of cultural incarnations of the church, especially if we think the Spirit leads us forward rather than back to reclaim vitality, and the Establishment of Christianity actually did a number of good things (slave trade, mission), but clearly this has to change in England and in the Anglophilic Episcopal Church. Being someone who came over for the via media and liturgy, not establishment, I have found polishing the silver and dressing for dinner while the house collapses around us tiresome and producing exactly what is now at hand. If this is the Reformation we have been hoping for, then God grant us the courage and vision of our ancestors to live into the details and the chaos. Thank you.

    • Thanks for both comments, Rebecca and Michelle. I do agree, Rebecca, that establishment has had positive benefits and can indeed be providential at time. I suppose the larger question is what should the relationship between followers of Christ, the structures of being church, and other cultural and political forces and powers. If we are not constantly mindful of this, the life of the church will become distorted.

  3. Susan Willm

    This theological explanation fits with what I see in churches in the United States, and I think especially in California. Each community (hopefully) has one church that is thriving, attracting young families and young adults as well as holding on to the boomers and seniors, reaching out to the community not to increase their membership but because of their mission. And that thriving church could be affiliated with any one of many denominations, but not uniformly. The churches that are moving forward are those who don’t necessarily follow the official rules or discipline or canon of their denomination but rather step around them, sometimes gently and other times calling attention to it.
    What is a church if it isn’t meeting the needs and yearnings of its own faith community as well as the world at large?

  4. Lauren Lukason


  5. Lyn

    Wow, so depressing for those of us who actually enjoy worshiping in a way that feeds us. Why is it that the people who have used the Church to get where they are seem to be the ones most ready to tear it apart. And, how fortunate for people like this who work for the dreadful Episcopal Church and/or it’s institutions that they despise, that they can take Sabbaticals. Would that the rest of us lowly Lay people who labor at our jobs could be so fortunate. Maybe we should reduce our pledges?

    • I am sorry you read the post in that way, Lyn. I do enjoy worshipping in the Episcopal Church. It feeds me and my family and I belong to a wonderful, thriving, caring parish. I am in no ways tearing apart this church. I, and many others, are looking around and are seeing its massive decline and asking what can be done to make the church thrive again. The answer I offer is discipleship, the core of the gospel call. Regarding my sabbatical: I work 60 hours a week in support of this church by working hard to equip people for ministry by teaching, advising, preaching, administrative service, and on. I am a lay person. The Episcopal Church gives no money to its seminaries, each has to fend for itself. The six month sabbatical I receive every three years is to give me the time to write and engage in professional development for the life of the church. None of the funds for my sabbatical come from your pledge to your parish. You might wish to decrease your pledge. I will increase mine.

      • Lyn

        Dan, I personally have no wish to decrease my pledge and in fact my husband and I actually tithe 10% to our own church, we give to the small church that my daughter ( a graduate student) in CA, as she does not have the means to support that small wonderful traditional Episcopal church that feeds her! We also give to the National Cathedral and Episc Relief & Dev. I am personally happy that you receive a sabbatical, as do clerical employees of the Church. I am a lay employee (a youth minister with 18 years of experience as a paid employee) but also think it’s a shameful situation that no other professions have the benefit of sabbatical time (within and outside of the church). Perhaps your article hit me wrong for several reasons: 1. I have just come from a conference of lay youth ministers and there was much discussion from those who are fighting just to be paid a living wage by their churches and the fact that each of these people needs and deserves a sabbatical, makes it frustrating to hear about yours. I suppose there is envy there, as I am feeling overwhemed by bad news about the church, lack of support for people in my profession, and answers that seem wrong-headed to me. As for our Episcopal educational institutions, I know that my church and my former church send financial support to several Episc. seminaries. I cannot speak to whether Episcopal colleges, seminaries or school should get money form the Episcopal Church at large, but just the fact that these institutions are Episcopal institutions makes me sensitive to the suggestions coming from writers and educators saying that traditions that we honor within the church should be changed to increase our numbers makes me wonder why we can’t find ways to educate people about the Episcopal Church and why we value scripture, tradition and reason. 2. I listen to NPR and heard an interview with an author who recommends that we change to make our traditions of worship to make us “more attractive” to people to increase the size of our Church. She also had the same negative things to say about the Episcopal Church that I seemed to understand from what you wrote – that we are all privileged and rich people who just want to protect the status-quo. I am neither wealthy, privileged nor born to an important family. Just a hard-working woman with 2 full-time jobs married to a hard-working man, both of whom love this Church. I am, and have raised my children to be disciples of Jesus and we all have done much mission work, outreach and in-reach and continue to do so. If I had to make an educated guess, we gave over 2500 hours of time for outreach each year for the past 10, all through our Episcopal Church. We are already disciples, thanks to our Episcopal Church. 3. I live in the South, where we have all kinds of weird churches who worship rock-star “pastors,” have rock bands that “lead” the worship “experience” and the people all feel the need to be entertained. This bothers me to no end. 4. I notice that there seems to be a huge apathy toward church throughout the country outside of the South. I think this might be a problem of the way in which the institution seems to be abandoning traditions and understandings of what it means to be a disciple. Perhaps that is where we went wrong.

        I probably should not have posted on your blog, and can’t really figure out why I did, except that it was probably a perfect storm. I haven’t done this before, and probably won’t again because I dislike the kind of conflict that I feel that I’ve caused here. I wish you the best in your sabbatical endeavors and hope that the Episcopal Church can retain what makes it special to me and many people like me that i know. .

      • Hi Lyn,

        I think we actually have a lot in common in both our context and our concerns.

        I think I made myself misunderstood. I actually don’t want to get rid of our traditions, especially our eucharistic worship and approach to thinking about the Christian life. What I do wonder is if our assumptions about our position in society and what is the most effective way of reaching out to people need to be re-thought. I think we carry a DNA that assumes society will listen to us because we are the Episcopal Church. My background is like yours — no rich family here. And I probably lucked out more often than not because of my white privilege. My questions revolve around whether we have the right structures in place and the right ways of empowering the ministry of all of us to effectively speak to our wider culture. I hope you keep on commenting here, I would love to hear more of your thoughts!

  6. Yes. This. Thank you, sir. Micah Jackson and I were discussing this just today (He’s in the Berk). He and I are of similar opinions.

  7. Dan: Thanks for being one of the folks paying attention to our church.
    One thing I notice in our talk of discipleship is the way we express that in terms of “what we do.” It sounds like we are saying “Go be like Jesus!” I would love to hear ‘us’ speak more about discipleship in terms of being WITH Jesus, changing our hearts thereby, and then walking out our Baptismal Covenant under the control of the Holy Spirit. Prov. 4:23..”Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” What’s in our hearts is what comes out of us. The Spirit gives life.
    I find that the churches that are really making a difference in their communities are the ones that really exalt Jesus, and take their guidance for ministry from Him.
    My 2 cents…

  8. Allison C.

    I think if any of us had “the answer” we would be spreading it to all the churches and we would all be filling the pews or seats everywhere… I don’t think there is ONE answer on how to reform church and bring in the thousands that are not in our churches today. I also value that there are numerous styles of worship that touch us all differently. I was raised on organ and choir, but that is not what I want now (most of the time… there are still some choral pieces that are exquisitely beautiful and can bring me to tears because they are sooooo well done). What I want now are songs and sermon that I can sing along with easily so that I can hear the words in my heart and a message that challenges me to change and grow closer to Christ. For each of us that is going to be different. There will continue to be those who love our established way of doing church worship… there are still others outside our doors who don’t connect with that style… they are just as hungry for God… we just need to figure out ways to reach them too… “there are other sheep not of this fold, I must bring them too. So that there is one shepherd and one flock.”

  9. Ironically, the ecclessiologial foundations of the current Reformation were been laid in the 60´s recovery of Patristic ecclessiology by Vat. II and our own appropriation of it in the 76 BCP. In daily parlance we call it a “baptismal ecclessiology,” as you know, but that is only one aspect. Such a baptismal ecclessiology also includes a missional/social justice slant –which is probably more pre-Nicea than post. (John Chrysostom being the exception, IMO). The current silver polishing angst (thanks, Rebecca!) stemms precisely from our stuckness in the establishment model (220 yrs after we refused it!) and our fear of an approach based on organizing ourselves to transform social structures (“mission”).

Leave a Reply to Lyn Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s