Maury Johnston recently sent me the following essay. I reprint it here with his permission.
PLAYING THE NUMBERS GAME
(c) 2006 by Maury Johnston
Recently, we have heard an ever-increasing refrain from our conservative detractors in the Episcopal Church that the denomination is losing--and will continue to lose in even greater numbers--a substantive portion of its membership due to its progressive (conservatives read that as "permissive") vision affirming the ordination of a GLBT bishop and the possible theological legitimacy of same-sex blessings. Inherent in this dire accusation of "doom through dwindling" is the assumption that God is where the numbers are. By this logic, the ultimate sign of apostasy is a shrinking church. After all, it is often said that contemporary mega-churches are signs that growth is the result of good Gospel preaching (i.e., a "Word"-centered church). By these spurious standards, however, the ultimate Word (you know, the One made flesh) was an evangelical failure.
At the beginning of his ministry it seemed as if the religious numbers game was turning out to be a stunning success. Whenever the crowds thought there was going to be the possibility of healings and holy handouts, they were at the feet of Jesus in a nanosecond, their minds filled with marquee fantasies reflecting hopes and expectations for improvement in the mediocre moment: "Christ, the Main Attraction!" "Thousands Fed with Five Loaves and Two Fish!" "Future King of Israel with Foolproof Welfare Program!" "Gravy Train from God!" (not unlike those spiritually thrill-seeking evangelicals trucking to their stadium churches for Sunday morning concerts with sunrise smiles, scripture choruses, and prosperity affirmations which would make even old Jabez blush.)
Jesus' church crowds were getting so large he had to flee in order to hide from his hungry, fickle flock. (Can we see in this an example of the unexpected down-side of success?) But he knew how to get the upper hand on the situation by preaching a dose of truth that hit too close to home, making them run like roaches for the corner crevices in the floor: telling stories about treating Samaritans with respect, preaching sermons on a mount that took all the hate-filled satisfaction out of resisting the Romans; he even legitimized Caesar's claims on their money. "This guy a messiah? Forget it! Give us Barabbas! At least he will put up a good fight against Roman Gentile scum!"
The Johannine Jesus is reputed to have gone even more against the grain, preaching sermons advocating the violation of levitical law by encouraging his followers to drink his blood and feast on his body in some sort of ritual cannibalism which none of his listeners quite understood. Talk about a shrinking congregation! The only ones left were a few of the most loyal disciples who reluctantly admitted, "To whom else shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life!" (John 6:68). The gospel narrator implied that there was a spontaneous resistance to these sayings of Jesus, even on the part of his closest followers; suddenly, "unpopular" as a description of Jesus was an understatement.
The Cross was the eventual price Jesus paid for saying the wrong things and siding with the wrong folks. Needless to say, the conservative Pharisaical establishment was quite pleased with the prospect of a dead Carpenter as the butt of upcoming cocktail party conversations. Now things could get back to normal, their orthodoxy unimpaired by a heretical Galilean who ignored Sabbath piety, liturgical ablutions, and questionably catered to women groupies.
Time machine fast-forward from 31CE to 2006CE: Same Jesus, different religion. Same Cross, different creed. Same divisions, different squabbles. Instead of Judaism, read Episcopalians, all prim and proper. Instead of the Shema and the practice of polygamy, it's Nicaean orthodoxy with straight-laced sex and moralistic sensibilities. Instead of Pharisees extolling the pleasurable virtues of sex on the Sabbath, we see Anglican conservatives crusading for "family values" and no sex on Sunday.
General Convention, 2006: The die is cast, the battle lines are drawn between the spectacle of mutually Christian combatants in a dysfunctional denomination. Conservatives see themselves as white knights riding to the rescue of orthodoxy and keeping at bay the salacious hordes of gay barbarians at the gates of Canterbury. Progressives prefer to forego such chivalric fantasies, keeping one foot in reality and a good grasp on their Kingdom invitation to the most riotous party ever thrown (being otherwise known as a Christian lifestyle lived not under religious legalism, but under grace, while loving one another with reckless abandon).
Episcopalian/Anglican homophobes (as well as some non-homophobic, but crusty conservatives) would no doubt like to crucify the whole lot of liberal "revisionists" for ruining the stately reputation of their church, but they have been fortunately checked by their Christian conscience to pray for us instead, in between attacking us through toxic tirades and verbal assaults on David Virtue Online. These denominational die-hards of theological reactionism sit smugly in front of their cyberscreens quietly congratulating themselves on the effectiveness of their internet expertise, having as they do, the most furious fingers in the blog-o-sphere; but make no mistake about it: as many of them suspect, perhaps Old Cloven Hoof himself IS on our side with false signs and wonders waiting in the wings for the General Convention; and you just never know what kind of magical rabbits will emerge from the hats of liberals who have willingly sold their souls for sexual justice, honesty over hypocrisy, and the radical egalitarianism of inclusivity.
Theologically neolithic Episcopalians are genuinely horrified by the prospect of a progressive power play at this summer's General Convention. They see in that possibility the Mystery of Iniquity even now insidiously at work throughout our church to pave the way for its takeover by apostate forces and the realization of their most lurid imaginations: Gay "fashionistas" using vestmental caricatures of High Church for high coutere; perverted priests recruiting Ganymedian acolytes for "extra-curricular" activities; diversity-friendly rectories discretely hosting the hedonistic revels of raunchy circuit parties. And last but not least, they envision the resurrection of the Beast Whose Deadly Wound Was Healed: TV's aborted "Book of Daniel" as cinematic blueprint for future parish activities and administration, not to mention other abominations of desolation. Yes, it is certain from a conservative perspective that the "righteous remnant" must flee from Sodom's Episcopal Ecclesia before its structure implodes upon itself, the size of its sheepfold a shrunken shade of its former self due to its dalliance with the devilish deceptions of heresy and homosexuality. (In all probability a good percentage of the piously outraged are leaving the church because prophetic commitment to sexual and gender justice can cause a few too many behinds to squirm in pews accustomed to the snores of the spiritually sedated.)
Now, just when we were beginning to dwindle so well, divesting ourselves of self-righteous trouble-making contingents, we hear dark rumours of planned capitulation on the part of a Carolina committee of pointy, mitered heads seemingly set on the preservation of their plump paychecks and pension potentials, willing to pay any price for continued communion with Canterbury and high tea with the queen. In what could be wildly stretched exaggerations, we are given to understand through bits and pieces of bloggish information on the internet that expressions of collective "repentance" for our actions at the 2003 General Convention, a temporary "deep freeze" on all GLBT bishops, and a continued moratorium on same-sex blessings, are all in the offing as probable resolutions for General Convention, 2006, from a House of Bishops determined to publicly present themselves to the world as a bunch of cowardly, jelly-quivering, ecclesiastical caricatures who haven't a resistant backbone between them; and who will do anything to staunch the flow of the "frozen chosen," the moneyed membership, and the remaining conservative "true believers" from the ranks of the Episcopal redeemed--and not even a word of censure for the African Anglican Antichrist who, like his ancient predecessor (Daniel 7:25), continues to harass the frightened GLBT saints cowering under his churchly jurisdiction.
These disturbing smoke signals indicate that this summer's Moment of Decision may indeed be an Armageddon or sorts to determine whether the Episcopal Church will continue to be the safe haven for Mammonites and the landed gentry willing to sacrifice the GLBT community of faith upon the altar of financial, cultural, and religious expediency. The irony seems to be that Old Cloven Hoof is alive and well indeed, but working within the ranks of the other side who seems to be so fondly addicted to his paralyzing vices of the need for acclaim from superiors, community approval, and the "unity-at-all-costs" mentality.
For those of us who cast our lot with the dwindling numbers of the "deceived," there is still a message of encouragement from the God who likes to throw parties for the non-kosher, the sexually questionable, and all the other previously uninvited (Luke 14:15-24), "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom" (Luke 12:32). We should all strive to remember the old axiom: quality over quantity. The Kingdom is inherited by the few thousand who have not bowed the knee, not the multitudes prostrate before the idols of rigid, religious traditionalism.
Maury Johnston is the author of Gays Under Grace: A Gay Christian's Response to the Moral Majority (Winston-Derek Publishers, 1984), and a member of the Church of the Holy Comforter (Episcopal) in Richmond, Virginia.