This is predicated on the latest data from various polls and surveys. In the Episcopal Church, there’s been plenty of pixels dedicated to our recent attendance reports, which demonstrate that we are shrinking as a denomination. The always wise Crusty Old Dean has very good thoughts on this, if you want to read them.
Of course, this leaves pastors like myself in a quandary. What are we to do? How do we stem the tide?
For many, the solution seems to be events like Social Media Sunday—which looks fine on paper, but in this millennial pastor’s opinion tends to come more across as a gimmick. It’s effectively “you can use your phone in church” day. People use their phones all the time outside of church. What makes social media in church different?
I will avoid the temptation to complain about Social Media Sunday. Like I said, I have my thoughts. And I will say that events like this do help us create space to address some of the issues that are facing contemporary American spirituality and how The Church—specifically, The Episcopal Church—can serve the gospel in our shifting landscape.
My friend Michael recently sent me this article about millennials in the Church. The language is a bit salty at times, but it makes a very good point: contemporary America wants and needs the beauty of ritual, and ritual taken seriously—ritual connected to something bigger.
Another friend, JP (with whom I share a podcast), speaks of religion as “having a relationship with the grand mysteries of the universe” which I think is lovely.
Put together, these two notions speak to the need of every human, but specifically to that of contemporary Americans. We long for a formalized and ritualized relationship with the grand mysteries of the universe.
What evidence do I have of this?
The September 26, 2016 game pitting my beloved Miami Marlins against the New York Mets.
You see, on the morning of September 25, 2016, Jose Fernandez—ace pitcher for the Marlins, a young man who embodied the very spirit of America as represented in its great pastime—died suddenly and tragically in a boating accident. He was 24.
The game that night was cancelled. And, bewilderingly, the team managed to pull together and play the following night. But, as one would expect, the game was atypical.
It opened with a team huddle at the pitcher’s mound, which had been decorated with the number 16, Jose’s number. Every member of the team was wearing Jose’s jersey. They stood around the mound and knelt in silence.
Following a tribute by Dee Gordon, normally a left-handed hitter, batted right in honor of Jose while also wearing Fernandez’s helmet. While at-bat he managed to hit his first home run of the season, breaking down weeping as he crossed home plate.
On Twitter, a GIF of Jose Fernandez celebrating was posted by an official MLB account with the caption saying that this was Jose looking down and celebrating the hit.
All of this. The jerseys, the kneeling, the wearing of helmets, the GIFs—all of it is theological. Profoundly theological.
Theology, rooted in ritual.
I will refrain from taking a tangent about the over-discussed “American Civic Religion” that is often enshrined in American professional sports. Yet, this demonstrates that we as a people recognize that there are grand mysteries, mysteries like death, and are open and desiring of a life after death. And we feel the need to ritualize the transition of life to death, ritualize key moments of change—whether it be within our families, communities, or our professional sports teams.
And we Episcopalians need to learn from the Marlins and Major League Baseball (insert a joke about “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” here).
As the [millennial priest article] points out, we have spent too long diminishing our rich tradition of ritual and mystery in the name of “accessibility.” We have chased the specter given us by the large congregations of megachurch evangelicalism, and their emphasis on being casual, and lost something very very important.
We may never be a large denomination. We need to be okay with that. At the same time, we, The Episcopal Church, will only stem the tide of decline when we take seriously what the world is already taking seriously—these grand mysteries of the universe and the rituals made to enshrine and enflesh them and bring us into relationship with them.
We take this seriously and point to the answer: the grand mystery is Jesus, is God robed in our humanity.
As William Reed Huntington once put it: Christ gave His people a doctrine clothed. In The Church, the grand mystery of the universe can be touched and gazed upon. A relationship can be enacted. It is not removed from this world. Rather, God is intimately acquainted with it. With us.
All the evidence is there that the world longs for and turns to ritual in order to understand mystery. Jesus knew this and gave us water and bread and wine and words and actions to emulate. The Church enshrined all of this in Holy Scripture, so that we might always be equipped to tell the world: Here is where mystery is beheld.
Here is God.