There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage. Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.
Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door. Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement. That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful. The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing. It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines. Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that. And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.
My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town. Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer? This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God. It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.
A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola. Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church? Here’s what we value.” In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.
There are three enormous flaws in this section.
First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values. In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values. The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven. Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way. Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples. We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ. Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club. Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.
The second flaw comes immediately below the heading. There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church. You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement. I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise. I’ve seen no press release through ENS. I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication. I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting. Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.
Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church. Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone. Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate. Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates. I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment. He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering. He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us. The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness. There must be judgment here.
My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities. Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism. I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation. I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism. I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.” At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore. I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority. Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.
The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities. Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.” I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person. I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party. Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.
The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world. We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it. I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it. I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves. Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God. We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead. Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.