I was recently stunned by a statistic shared with me. The person giving me the information was far wiser in the Episcopal Church, and I have no reason to doubt the information. He was commenting on my blog about the lack of Episcopal Chaplains in the US military and noted that one reason there were so few was the average age of many when they are ordained is in their mid-forties, and the average age of Episcopalians is 56! Apparently, some 40 years ago, the church decided to turn their focus away from the young. I found this startling and a bit disheartening. How can a church remain relevant and growing without young people? Frankly, it is time to rethink this policy.
I have heard it said that church or religion is for the very young (as in Sunday School) and the very old (as in nearing death). But why should that be? I understand that older people find it more reassuring to receive counsel from someone with a few gray hairs, rather than a very young priest, but aren’t there plenty of roles to go around? I think the church can and should be relevant and engaged with all ages.
Given the information above, it was with some trepidation that I googled the question: Episcopal Church Involvement in the “March for Our Lives.” I was marching with my youngest son, and I was just curious what our church was doing with this very “young” event. I was excited, proud and relieved to see that various dioceses and parishes were participating both in the Washington march and local activities. The Washington, DC Diocese was particularly helpful, and Forma had guidelines on how to protest and the importance of knowing your civil rights.
This involvement is as it should be, a full-throated active faith participating in one of the most important movements of our time. Lead by children who are acting like adults, while the adults act like children, the March for Our Lives was extraordinary, not only for its size but for the long list of inspiring teenage speakers. Being of a certain age with a history of protesting during the civil rights and woman’s movement, it was not hard to remember how my generation had made change happen. We Episcopalians have a long tradition of making a difference not only in our faith but in the country.
I was so fortunate to hear Bishop Moore’s famous sermon Easter Sunday 1976 admonishing the wealthy business community of New York to “look over your city and weep, for your city is dying…” His chastising of what had been in many cases the backbone of the Episcopal Church for abandoning their city in a time of crisis got everyone talking and thinking and eventually returning to NYC. I was so moved I returned to the church as a participant, not just a Christmas and Easter attendant. While Bishop Moore was a liberal and a progressive, not to everyone’s taste, he was part of a movement to engage the church and its membership in issues of equality, economic justice, and peace. In parishes all over the country, there are veterans of those protests and movements to effect change. I want young people to know, that while it is bad form to boast, in our church, there are hundreds of activists working to protect undocumented workers, feed the homeless, and march to ban assault weapons. We, older types need to be sure our church is reaching out to the young and sharing our experiences while letting them lead and learning from them how to make our church, our faith relevant.
Maybe we need to begin again to encourage young seminarians so that they may minister to this group. Perhaps we need to retell the stories of our heroes to past causes, like Jonathan Daniels. Daniels was a 26-year-old seminarian who gave his life to protect a young black civil rights worker from a gunshot. To tell the story of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a devout Episcopalian, who fought for education equality long before he was on the bench. Not enough has been said about the martyrs of Sudan, strong, committed Episcopalians who stood up to the savage assault against them when Sudan fell under Shariah Law. Young women like those who spoke on Saturday at the march need to know that in our church, we ordain women and we have a day on the church calendar to honor the first ordinations in 1974. Young people need to be part of the church’s movement to include the LGBT community in all aspects of the faith. Besides those of us who are members how many young people know that we have had an openly gay bishop, a woman as the highest-ranking or presiding bishop and are now led by an African American Bishop? We are such an inclusive church; we have been involved in so many vital movements; we need to reach out to more young people. As much as I enjoy being in the majority, it is time to start tipping our statistics both for priests and parishioners’ to something more like the mid-’30s.
I understand that the church made a decision to not focus on youth recruitment some 40 years ago, but according to a 2014 Pew Research report only 13% of the membership is millenniums and the trend isn’t getting any better. It is time to step up, reach out, and listen to those marching teenagers. In a little over 30 days, they were able to move millions, we need them, and I believe they need us.