On That Lone Parishioner At The Portland Episcopal Church

Note: I wrote this piece before I learned of the survey I wrote about a while back at The Stream. Even though some of the material here overlaps, there are other facets of interest in this “case study”.

Fellow in the Portland Press Herald wrote of showing up to mass one afternoon at an Episcopal church (St. Luke’s Cathedral) in which he was the only parishioner.

The wide, empty nave was dark except for the light coming in through the stained-glass windows. My footsteps had never sounded louder as I walked toward the little octagonal chapel at the back, where the Rev. Anne Fowler sat alone by the altar.

“Oh,” she said. “I guess it’ll just be us tonight.”

Episcopalians are egalitarian and have, among other novelties, lady priests.

Such a poor turnout for an evening service isn’t surprising given the national trends. Episcopal churches, like those of other mainline Protestant denominations, are far emptier than they used to be. The Episcopal Church in the United States says average Sunday worship attendance at its churches declined 26 percent between 2005 and 2015. The Diocese of Maine says it lost nearly 17 percent of its baptized members in that decade, although some congregations in southern Maine are growing.

The numbers are something north of half a million who attend weekly services, which is, as most of these estimates are, probably a tad high. It is a useful exercise to attempt to find anybody to bet the attendance will rise in the next year, or indeed in any coming year.

The natural, and really only, question is Why. The writer gives us a clue.

The evening I showed up alone, the readings were both beautiful and challenging, as they often are. The first turned out to be from one of my favorite parts of the Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s a musing on the ephemeral cycle of life and contains some of the more recognizable verses in Scripture. (Its chapter about everything having its own season provides the text for Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!”)

There’s fame for you.

But this was one of the book’s darker passages, focusing on the futility of life on Earth. The walls echoed my own voice back to me as I stood in the center of the chapel, reading:

“What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.”

I was tired.

“Church is supposed to make me feel better about my life, not worse,” I thought.

Well, no; not really; not directly. Of course, it is possible to interpret this phrase in the sense that once you learn you must pick up and bear your cross, your purpose on earth is made clearer, and therefore you feel better in the midst of suffering because of this higher understanding. But it’s doubtful the author had that in mind. Perhaps he hoped for something from the Modern Gospel of Relaxation. Feeling better about your life in this sense can be had cheaper and easier by turning on the television. No need to wait for 5:15 Sunday to gather with others.

The Gospel was difficult, too: one of Jesus’ least comforting parables, in which a successful farmer stores his extra crops in barns only to incur God’s wrath for hoarding material wealth.

“You fool!” God says. “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” Harsh.

Yep: harsh. The thought of the just desserts awaiting people like Yours Truly and Portland’s author can be unbearable. Now unbearable means that which cannot be borne, and that which cannot be borne, therefore, isn’t. Harsh notions are put aside for more pleasing thoughts.

Episcopalians used to be Trinitarians, and if I’m not mistaken that view is still on the books. But in practice, the interpretation given to the relationship between Jesus and God is often unitarian, or something similar. God metes out punishment, or at least threatens it, and Jesus, a kind of super swell fella, forgives all. That “all” makes for the hopeful idea that all are saved. It isn’t only the Episcopalians sliding in this direction, as any reader of religious news knows. These seductions tempt many.

The Trinitarian view is that God the Father, Jesus, and the oft-forgotten Holy Ghost are one. That means it is Jesus Himself—and God the Father and the Holy Ghost—condemning sinners. And that thought is harsh.

[The lady priest] asked how the readings made me feel.

“Confused,” I said. “And a little afraid.”

She nodded.

“These are some tough ones,” she said. “This language of fear and uncertainty is troubling, especially when it comes from the mouth of Jesus.

“And yet,” she went on, “he is speaking. He is there. He’s showing us a path so that when things do go wrong, we know where to go.”

Troubling or harsh, take your pick. Fear is comprehensible, and scriptural. Fear is the right attitude, along with a little trembling. I’m not sure what the priest means, however, by “uncertainty”, unless she means from our point of view, where it is eminently understandable.

It would be a mistake, and not a pew-filler, to focus on fear and punishment alone, but there is almost a complete absence, and in some cases absolute absence, from the pulpit of these useful concepts in the Episcopal church. The reason is that, for many, they are not believed. And since they are not believed, they are not taught, and since they are not taught, the lesson learned by (ex-)parishioners is that there aren’t many reasons to attend church.


  1. Ted

    Glad to see you discussing Anglican catholics for a change, not just Papist Catholics.

    Episcopalians probably lost the path over a century ago, but inertia is a real force, and the denomination slowly rolls into the future. At age 57, I know it’s a real possibility that I will see the last baptism in our parish. On a humorous note, I have Papist friends that are concerned with how conservative their Diocese is, wondering what it will take to change things. We both ignore the city-block sized evangelical churches going up on the edge of town.

    A little over a year ago, the Anglicans demoted the Episcopalians within the communion and there are actually Anglican missionaries in the US.

  2. bob sykes

    And there is an Anglican Rite in the Catholic Church.

  3. Gary

    Pew-filling never has been the intention of Jesus. And most of the recorded things he said are, if not harsh, at least discomforting. Church sanctuaries are some of the most expensive property in the country in terms of cost per hour used. It’s worth noting that he sent is disciples out to the homes, not the synagogues.

  4. Ye Olde Scribe

    Absence of citing fear and punishment are also almost completely absent in Novus Ordo churches – after all, both the Novus Ordo pseudo-religion and the Episcopal rebellion have one thing in common: they are man-centered, not God-centered.

  5. Michael 2

    I do not accept the existence of eternal punishment as the word “punishment” is typically used. I do not expect God or anyone in heaven to mete out “punishment” on anyone. On the other hand, I *do* expect some weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth by souls who realized they could have had a much better resurrection had only they done this or that. I also expect that each of us will take into the next life pretty much the same personalities and behaviors we now have; which is to say, the place reserved for bullies will be filled with them, but at least not filled with their former victims.

  6. Joy

    This sounds like “be afraid, be very afraid” and we all love that don’t we?

    Just to say this writing is not about Mr Briggs or any people here. Speaking from experience and knowing Catholics and protestants a lot longer than I’ve not known people here.

    Those who crave punishment from God are high on or should I say low on guilt or low because of guilt?

    It’s a common problem amongst Catholic. in contrast to the depicted apparently guilt free relaxation seeker!

    They can do gilt for their country and they make it everybody else’s problem. That’s not to say that only Catholics feel guilt either, to be clear for the binary thinkers who are many amongst righteous extreme religious folk.

    When they’ve done nothing wrong they’re just as guilt ridden . I wonder if sometimes in some sick way this is why some people go and do wrong because in their childish way they think if I’m going to feel like this I might as well have done something to deserve it! Kind of anger from a source they don’t understand.

    This is not a recipe for good mental health. The entire point of Jesus’s coming was to show the world The Good News and that there is forgiveness from sin. There is hope, there is redemption. This is not something focussed on terribly strongly by Catholics *I speak from experience of these creatures. They focus on the fear, the knee trembling, the sin, the fire and brimstone, they learn to fake humility or else are beaten into it by their spirit crushing, soul sucking friends and family. It’s not always the wicked nuns and the evil priests. I hope people can read and understand that the last few words says something about some of the clerics. The entire method is a turn off and a deterrent from faith not a lure to it.

    Sin is a matter between a person and God. Some sins which are felt deeper are those which cannot be easily forgiven by man. People confuse this with God’s forgiveness and redemption. God always means the trinity and there’s no need to unpack it any further. It is more rewriting of the idea that God’s the one with the big stick and Jesus is fluffy. Some refer to God because they know in the presence of fusty dusty theologically fanatical types to even use the word Jesus evokes a sickly response and cynical Kumbaya references. In other circumstances to use the word God seems a little distant and cold.

    That is just politics and worldly concern for how things look superficially. I wouldn’t want to stop a Catholic being a Catholic ad there’s no reason for Catholics to think they must fight with protestants all the time for members! It’s politics and power. Leave that to Trump and The Pope.

    People are not put in place on earth to judge other’s mode of worship with anything other than a constructive motive. If they do, they are a politician. They know the facts in their head but don’t know the truth in their heart.

    There is no point making the thing a political issue. If churches rise and fall or fail then others will form and so on. If people really think God’s going out of fashion for good then they’ve lost faith. If the Catholics want to know where they fail they only have to look at history. Same for any church. If the will of Catholics is imposed on protestants there will always be trouble and vice versa.
    “Get up your own end! “ as the infant school children say.

    Birds of a feather flock together. It’s like porridge Some like it hot, some cold and some like it just right.
    Some don’t eat porridge and that will never change.

    The other thing people do is to make their sin everybody else’s problem. They think everyone else must be like them and so deserve the same flagellation as they give themselves.

    Yes, Catholics are absolutely obsessed with sex. Just like some other groups, not all religious. It manifests itself in a different way. THAT is their biggest problem and always will be. It’s in the nature of the thing. Sex makes the world go round. Some people are peddling harder than others. Twas ever thus.

  7. Yawrate

    I go to an evangelical Presbyterian church and they’ve never talked about fearing God or Jesus. They focus on the love that Jesus has for all humanity and the His example of doing good works. Very scriptural based sermons that give people hope.

  8. hmm, theology (of a sort) rears its ugly head. There’s a quote somewhere in the New Testament–found it, Matthew 10:34:
    “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

    The early Christians did not seek peace nor a comfortable life; had they done so, Christianity would have died out early on.

  9. oldavid

    [quote our favourite bitter relativist] Those who crave punishment from God are high on or should I say low on guilt or low because of guilt?

    It’s a common problem amongst Catholic. in contrast to the depicted apparently guilt free relaxation seeker! [/quote]

    Yes! You’ve got it expertly right AGAIN! Those dreamy relativists who care for no truth or virtue other than their vacuous opinions live in a wonderful utopia of fact-free pleasure and convenience. Hurry in the New Age New World Order!!

  10. Joy

    Had Jesus come to bring peace he did a dreadful job don’t you think? Had Jesus come to bring peace would he fail?
    We don’t need to answer that since the answer is obvious.

    Isn’t it rather obvious what Jesus came to do? Doesn’t the bible say this in the Gospels with the story of the nativity? It’s only been about two thousand years or so plus thirty days.

    You see neither did Jesus say I come to bring suffering and harsh words! He made no promises about life being a bed of roses for anyone.

    Some live short sad lives
    Some live short spectacular lives
    Some live long happy and contented lives
    some live long miserable brutal, unhappy and painful lives
    Some don’t know they’re born.

    Whether Jesus ‘came not to bring peace but a sword’ has no bearing on what life dishes up for people but he brings peace and comfort and Joy to some. If this is hard to swallow then you have crossed a line. He brings a message to those who are fortunate to interpret the message as they please. He brought forgiveness or the message that there was forgiveness clearly this must always have been the case since the beginning of time. What changed was our knowledge of God’s will. That man’s heart has become hard was a direct message, too.

    As for defending faith, It’s as well to wait until a real and present physical threat arises.
    Spotting threats at every Turn is neurotic. Nobody can change what is in the human heart by force. That includes deceptive, corrupt, psychological verbal battery as well as that which causes outward contusion. That is Nobody in the actual absolute meaning of the word. Nothing good will come from it.

  11. Joy

    “It would be a mistake, and not a pew-filler, to focus on fear and punishment alone, but there is almost a complete absence, and in some cases absolute absence, from the pulpit of these useful concepts in the Episcopal church. ”

    This seems to me to be an unfounded claim. Just a stab in the dark.

    Some, fanatics, or pretend fanatics, thrive on the need for others to feel their pain. They are sadists at heart. They are to be pitied, right up until they lift a hand or a word to another, at which point they must be dealt with harshly. Sadism is not in Jesus’s message. Nor schadenfreude. For that you can go elsewhere on the internet as I’m sure some do.

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