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The Demise of the Church Social?

By Hannah W. Matis

One image from the famously bohemian Glastonbury Music Festival this year seemed, at least to me, to sum up a great deal of the dilemma we now face as a society. A poster of the globe, surrounded by the slogan, “I don’t see any borders, do you?” hung from the eight-foot chain-link security fence around the concert grounds. Whether the poster was intentionally ironic or not depends, of course, on who hung it there. I would not put it past its organizers: Glastonbury has not historically been known for its sense of irony, and in the last several years some of the most vacuously inspirational mantras I have ever heard have floated in front of bank and car ads.

Many formerly grassroots civic celebrations, from the quaint to the daft to the merely local, are being increasingly run, and therefore monetized, by corporate organizers. Under a deluge of catastrophes — near-continuous mass shootings, the ongoing pandemic, flooding, heatwaves, and wildfires — in America we remain as politically and socially divided as we have ever been. We simply do not know how to be together anymore. We do not know how to be social anymore. Having valorized the achievements of the isolated individual, perched atop corporate structures we now realize we can neither understand nor control, the more fortunate are retreating to buffered lives, away from the consequences of the forces we have unleashed. The less fortunate know they still need their churches. I am not so certain about the rest of us.

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been the hollowing-out of the social and volunteer culture that makes many churches, and many small churches in particular, work. If we are honest, in many churches it usually comes down to a few people, a few families, often women, who give generously of their time and attention, alongside the more regular work of the clergy. While this remnant may remember how to hold a get-together that folks will actually make time to attend, in the Episcopal Church at least, the admirable art of being a social hostess is now riven with questions around class consciousness, elitism, gender roles, and TEC’s still-troubled relationship with alcohol.

My generation have young and not-so-young children consuming their scant time and attention, not to mention their money. Gen Z, never without the internet, has grown up simultaneously aware of the pressure to change society, to organize, and to be an activist, but also has been able to self-select friends, lovers, news, and entertainment via social media. I am not sure the former tendency overcomes or outweighs the latter, most of the time, and while it may be only my anecdotal perception, it seems now that social anxiety, in all its forms, is the norm among Gen Z rather than the exception. For people who prefer to text and never use their phone as a phone without prior negotiation, I have no doubt that online church services are more preferable to in-person; certainly they are more convenient. But for all its short-term successes, if they are not more apparent than real, relying on church as an online experience in the long run places it directly in competition with TikTok — and I have no doubt whatsoever that TikTok will ultimately win that particular battle.

In light of these social trends, I am deeply skeptical of any bureaucratic initiatives or easy fixes, and even more so of online solutions to them. I do believe that people are craving, and are even desperate for, real human connection, and connection, however faltering and tentative, to faith, spiritual language, and a tradition of belief in God, Christ, and Holy Spirit. So what should we do then? Many of these factors, of course, are beyond any of our control, which we must accept or endure with patience as best we can. But one thing at least seems clear to me, and which is within our capacity to change: in an age of the socially anxious, TEC in particular needs to stop its idolatry of the introvert. What we need to rediscover is how to be, and how to encourage clergy to lead, the Church Social.

Full disclosure: I’m not sure I believe in simple dichotomies between extraverted and introverted personalities, and I know I don’t believe in the structures proposed by either Meyers-Briggs or the Enneagram and all its works. However people classify themselves and whatever truth they find in these labels, I do think that the priesthood, like academia, has historically often acted as a shelter for introverts, and has tacitly relied on a gendered division of labor in which clergy wives and secretaries worked more or less quietly in the background to create the necessary supportive social fabric. As this structure has evaporated, the responsibility has fallen on the clergy person, however imperfectly, to fill both aspects of the job. Increasingly, the social component of the job cannot be assumed or taken for granted, and still less, shunted to the clergy spouse.

I vividly remember the argument, if not the author, of an editorial I once read, in the years when I was a graduate student adjuncting for my living, on why we so chronically undervalue and underpay teachers. We have all had so many of them, the editorial pointed out, and we are all so intimately acquainted with their shortcomings over such a long and formative period of our childhood and adolescence that we all unconsciously assume we know how the job of teaching is to be done. This is next to saying that anyone can do it, or that we could do it better ourselves. The (seeming) transparency of the job breeds contempt, while investment banking, say, retains a spurious aura of arcane mystery — and a commensurate salary. Most of us never test either aspect of this prejudice, of course. But anyone who has ever taught knows that it is a professional skill one improves but never perfects, however long one does it; anyone who has ever been a parish priest for any length of time knows how complex and challenging the role can be. In both cases, the truly gifted make it look easy.

In Evensong: People, Discoveries, and Reflections on the Church of England, perhaps the most appealing aspect of Richard Morris’ description, particularly of his own father, but also of an entire circle of post-war clergy whom his father knew or worked with, is a kind of cheerful social competence. This had nothing to do with placid fantasies of ivy-covered rectories: Morris’s mother worked throughout his life as a drama teacher, and the parishes he describes were either grim inner-city neighborhoods or purpose-built new suburbs. But the distant cousin, I believe, of that old sociability can still be observed among those who have been ordained for decades in the Church of England: the professional ability, whether one is privately a people-person or a cantankerous loner, to take on a school assembly, a full church hall, an unexpected funeral, a meeting of community organizers, or a combination of all of the above in quick succession, as a regular and expected part of one’s daily life and work. So long as church leadership continues to provide a path out of direct ministry, or to appoint its leadership from the barely ordained and credentialed elsewhere, it incentivizes and rewards those who have and who want to have least to do with its people, and it relegates its parish clergy who have that experience to the margins of its capacity to make collective institutional decisions. Privately, I do not believe the leadership of either the Episcopal Church or the Church of England really requires more managerial experience or expertise: what it requires, amidst the catastrophes of these latter days, is the ability to speak “human,” as it were, to real people about God, and to speak humanly to and about one another.


  1. Doctor, I disagree. May someone equally skilled in the art speak in contrast to your remarks. Please know that you are always most welcome at our (un-riven) coffee hour, every Sunday after 10:30 Mass.


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