Wednesday, December 1, 1999

Which Way in the 90s?

Which Way in the 90s?

Evangelism or "Inclusive" Liturgy?

By Stephen F. Noll

AS WE enter the last decade of the millennium, the Episcopal Church is addressed by two agenda: one is the Decade of Evangelism, the other inclusive language liturgies. In my opinion, we cannot have them both.

We cannot have them both because each is costly in time, money and energy. Equipping a Church which has not evangelized effectively for decades will be a colossal task. Introducing new liturgies, we should know from the recent past, would be a decade-long preoccupation.

Evangelism and inclusive language liturgies are both controversial. The people and leaders of the Church have deep ambivalence about imposing their faith on others, even when they believe it is truly Good News. In my view, overcoming this reluctance will be the key to successful renewal on a broad scale. But it won't be easy. Any change in liturgy, even innocent change, will lead to controversy and an alienation of members. The decade of the 1970s has to be counted as a milestone in the course of negative evangelism: the Church lost about a half-million people. Frustration over liturgical change was a major reason for this loss. Do we really want to go back to Green Books and Zebra Books?

Are both these agenda perhaps not just the latest fads to hit the Church? It's hard to argue, given Christ's Great Commission, that evangelism is a whim of the moment. Perhaps the Decade of Evangelism might be, if its only goal is to increase church attendance or to produce a syrupy piety that does not count the cost of discipleship. But there is reason to think from the history of Anglican revival and mission that evangelism is compatible with a serious love of neighbor and concern for justice.

Inclusive God-talk, however, seems hopelessly trendy. How long has it been around? Less than a decade. Whom does it appeal to? It is clearly a top-down, not a grass-roots phenomenon: recent polls have revealed indifference or animosity from ordinary church people. Can its proponents point to one parish or diocese where its use has led to measurable renewal? Liturgical fussing is a sign of a Church that has lost its mission. Liturgy itself nurtures; that is its glory. But it does not normally convert. Conversion to Christ comes through preaching and witnessing (Acts 2:37-47). Is it surprising that in a Church of complex liturgical options and ten-minute sermons we find negative growth?

But finally and crucially, evangelism and inclusive language liturgies are working at fundamental theological cross-purposes. The goal of evangelism is submission, that people might accept Christ as their Savior and serve him as their Lord. The foundation of inclusive liturgies is offense at the Lordship of God and its program is consciousness- raising against the presumed oppressiveness of the patriarchal language and culture of the Bible.

How can we bring people to confess "Jesus is my Lord" and "God is my Father" when their liturgy conveys embarrassment over such language for God? How can men and women discover their need for a savior when their worship tells them that salvation comes from the realization that they should "kiss themselves and hug the world," to quote a prominent Church leader. How can they face the eternal consequences of a decision for Christ when God is portrayed as a cosmic nanny?

Historically the last years of any century or millennium have engendered apocalyptic expectations. Maybe the end is near! I am convinced that unless Episcopalians make hard decisions — for a genuine and costly evangelism and against dubious liturgical tampering — the Risen Lord may well come and remove our lampstand before this decade is up.


This was an editorial for Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council.

Copyright 1999 Stephen F. Noll. Posted 1 December 1999.


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