I have been attending a lot of conferences recently. It was both a joy and a challenge to address the diocesan conventions of Indianapolis, Southern Ohio, and Chicago. It was a joy to stand before large groups of more or less happy and excited Episcopalians. There was much affection expressed for their bishops, all three of whom seemed genuinely to enjoy their jobs. Seeing this was a welcome contrast to the conventional wisdom among Episcopal clergy my age, which is that being a bishop is the worst job in the church, and that most bishops spend a lot of their time thinking about early retirement. This might have been the case during the culture wars and ideological schisms that roiled the church in the late nineties and early 2000's, but these dioceses and these bishops appeared to be in this business for the long haul, and to relish the prospect. There was another good thing I noticed about these gatherings. The deputies seemed genuinely to like each other, and to love the church. This came through in several ways—in the camaraderie of the various meals taken together, in the vibrancy of worship, and the sheer civility of open conversations on issues that mattered deeply to people. For the first time in a long time, it seems safe for church people to disagree.
As I say, it was a joy to address such gatherings, and a privilege, for which I am thankful to Bishop Waynick, Bishop Breidenthal and Bishop Lee for their invitation and hospitality. But it was also a challenge, as the Episcopal Church represented by the dedicated people in those hotel ballrooms bears little resemblance to the actual religious future Americans now face. I am not just talking about the diminished numbers of Episcopalians, or the dramatic graying of our congregations dramatically reflected (with significant and heartening exceptions) in the demographics of these assemblies. What I tried to stress in these talks was the radically changed religious landscape that every mainstream Protestant church will encounter in the coming decade. In just ten years, the number of Americans professing no religious affiliation (the "nones") has doubled, a rate of growth that far outpaces the rate of growth in our congregations. The reasons for this growth are complex. Everyone interested in the future of the church should read Robert Putnam and David Campbell's American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York, 2010), or the results of the latest surveys from Pew or the Public Religion group. The kinds of generational and demographic shifts of allegiance described in these seminal studies dramatically mirror the generational and demographic shifts of allegiance we experienced in the November general election. And the people whom the researchers identify as "nones" bear many similarities to the people whom the post-election pundits identify as an emerging political and cultural coalition, pluralistic in both instinct and conviction, and impatient both with polarizing ideologies and with religious organizations that seem obsessed either with forcing their political agendas or with shoring up their crumbling administrative structures.
My joy in these past weeks has been to witness three church gatherings that have focused on mission rather than structure. But the challenge for all of us—especially those who lead great dioceses like these, and for those of us who seek to train and nurture such leadership—is to reshape the church to engage with the "nones" of this world, to respect and even celebrate their integrity, and to allow ourselves to be reshaped in the process.