By Hannah Matis
I have become increasingly convinced that the greatest challenge facing the Episcopal Church in the next five years and more is neither gay marriage nor even our fast-dwindling numbers. The greatest challenge facing the Episcopal Church in the near and foreseeable future is the generation gap: two armed camps, those 65 and older and 35 and younger, facing off with mutual incomprehension and occasional hostility, the divide manifesting itself in a thousand microaggressions in Sunday morning coffee hours across the country. To put it crudely, we have a stand-off brewing between the Boomers and the Millennials.
The danger is us, the responsibility is on both sides. To say it is the Episcopal Church’s greatest challenge is not necessarily to say it is our greatest problem: we have plenty of contenders in that arena. But the generation gap, or those issues arising from it, seems to be both insidious and yet one of the things most within our power to confront and address about ourselves, with real ramifications for the long-term survival of the Episcopal Church. As of yet we hear only the first rumblings, and yet among my peers it is a frustration so deep, so bitter, and so often expressed I hesitated to write this for fear of stating the blooming obvious.
I am a Millennial, if you define the term generously; more precisely I belong to Generation Y, which, along with Generation X, so often becomes the exasperated elder sibling to the Millennials’ prodigal son. As I write this, Virginia Theological Seminary, where I teach, will hold its commencement service for the graduating class of 2018. Many of the students who are graduating are my age; in this class many of them are younger, a few by as much as a decade. I am immensely privileged to work with and to get to know this next generation of the leadership of the Episcopal Church, and in many ways I feel like I get a sneak peek at what the future is going to look like. If it has anything to do with the young clergy and clergy-to-be I know, then the Episcopal Church is not facing the end of all things so much as a period in which the guard is being changed.
But as that happens our numbers will probably continue to fall, along with every other Christian denomination in the United States. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is an astringent corrective to the insidious prosperity gospel of numbers that Americans take in with their drinking water — and an instructive rebuke to a church that has nearly always been criminally sluggish at evangelism, preferring to wait and let the right sort of people come to join the table of the socially privileged.
That narrative of Episcopal privilege is outdated, and lands bitterly and cruelly on dioceses and parishes where the church is struggling to stay alive, on seminaries that are closing or facing the prospect of closure, and on seminarians who have moved their families across country, taken on student debt, and now discover, three years later, that there are no jobs waiting for them. And yet, the regionalism of the Episcopal Church means that experiences like these can coexist, even in the same diocese, with parishes that apparently intend to sit undisturbed on their endowment until the Last Day.
In an article here on Covenant last summer, Cameron Nations looked at the data from the Church Pension Group in 2015, and found that 55 percent of full-time Episcopal clergy are 55 and older. Of that group, 44 percent are women and 66 percent are men, and women, of course, make up only a third of full-time Episcopal clergy as a whole. Eighty percent of full-time clergy are older than 45.
What does this mean, I wonder, for my graduating students, most of whom are a full decade younger than that and more? So far, Virginia graduates have been fortunate on the whole, but that is no guarantee of the situation in the coming years. Nations argues that there is an abyss ahead of us, opening in the lack of systematic training and raising up of leadership among young clergy. There is an instructive and frightening parallel with the Church of England, which trained very few young ordinands in the 1980s and 1990s and now faces a similar vacuum. Both are turning to second- or third-career clergy.
For better or for worse, the Episcopal Church remains a hierarchical and clericalist denomination. When the hierarchy is overwhelmingly dominated by a rapidly aging population, there is a tendency for junior clergy to be treated as little better than staff, when they are not infantilized. To the rest of the world not in the Episcopal Church, to be 35 is to be neither young nor junior. But if what my students tell me is true, the category of youth minister has come to stand, not for ministry to youth as a Pentecostal congregation might understand the term, but for a miscellaneous grab bag of thankless jobs dumped on junior clergy, who are treated as disposable. If the junior cleric is a young woman, so much the easier.
Meanwhile, if the number of full-time jobs has shrunk, the number of part-time positions has ballooned: and I for one would not be surprised if those positions were disproportionately occupied by women, old and young, and by junior clergy hanging on by their teeth and, heaven forfend, trying to raise families on a part-time church stipend. Whatever our political beliefs, who we hire is a statement of worth: that we ordain women may be a balm to liberal consciences, but what does it say about those values if those women are doomed forever to be supply?
The gap between generations is being played out on a national level, of course, and contributes to the polarization of American politics: Our current president is 72. A hierarchy overwhelmingly dominated by one age group is tone-deaf to the concerns of its younger members — for example, the blessings and challenges of raising young children while in full-time ministry — and leaves them vulnerable to burnout and to exploitation by their congregations.
In the meantime, what is neglected is the discipleship of future leadership and the passing on of the traditions of the faith. Overwhelmingly, the students that I teach are converts, not cradle Episcopalians; there is no hinterland of shared experience whose existence one can assume. Instead, the joke in seminary is “That’s not what we do at my sending parish!” Never mind anything so trendy as Beyoncé masses: a friend told me how her diocese proposed a “U2charist,” to be met with the response of the Actual Young People who were to organize it: “Bono? Did he sing with Cher?”
O tempora, o mores.
The closest parallel I know with what we’re facing in the Episcopal Church in coming years is, unfortunately, American academia. There, the ever-so-slowly retiring ruling caste of tenured faculty is either being eliminated altogether by university administrations or replaced by contingent adjunct faculty paid $3,000 a semester. The rage of young professionals against the academy, having sacrificed a decade of their lives for a PhD that now sentences them to penury and joblessness, is palpable. And not surprisingly — and particularly if they are women — they leave.
That is both the lesson and the warning the Episcopal Church needs to heed: When Millennials don’t need either the political visibility or social advantages of the Episcopal Church and they (or their children) are treated like nuisances, they will just leave. When Millennial clergy bear the brunt of a demanding vocation and receive no investment from their church in them, their families, or their future, they will just leave.
What future does that leave us?