I should say at the outset that I cannot predict the future. It is folly to think I can – or that anyone can. In each arena of life, there are too many moving parts. If we delude ourselves, we think that we can manage a few of those variables. But we really can’t. The vast majority of factors is out of our control and beyond our ability to see.
The future of the Episcopal Church is like that. We are a small boat in a vast sea of change. Societal and cultural waves are rocking our little boat, as they are with all the other ecclesial craft on the turbulent sea. Some are much larger than us, but none can control or even foresee the events which await us over the horizon.
We do what we do on a wing and a prayer. We make our decisions in hope. That is what the 78th Convention of the Episcopal Church did in Salt Lake City. The Convention made decisions which it hoped would move the church constructively into the future. Some celebrate that course. Some grieve it. But none of us knows for sure what awaits us.
It is with that caveat that I offer the following hopeful metaphor.
After General Convention, Nora and I traveled to Yellowstone National Park. It is a place of breathtaking scenery. The vistas there are beyond description. It would have been impossible for me to prepare myself for what I encountered there. It should be on each person’s bucket list.
As we made our initial drive into that massive park (more than 3,000 square miles), I was struck by one element of the landscape. Most of the trees we saw were very young. The forest canopy which I had anticipated was largely not present. The trunks of older trees were lying on the forest floor – like matchsticks thrown across a flat surface. I observed this phenomenon for miles and miles as we drove into the park.
Then it occurred to me. I recalled that Yellowstone had experienced devastating forest fires some years before. I remembered seeing the news coverage of the massive firestorm. The images of fire surrounding the Old Faithful Inn came to mind. I realized I was seeing the lingering effects of that blaze.
I could not recall precisely when that fire occurred. The older I get, the faster time seems to pass. In younger days, I could place all events within a specific context – how the events related to high school graduation, or a specific Ole Miss football game, or maybe a pivotal election (I was a political geek). However, I could not place the time of the great Yellowstone fire.
Then I saw a marker, commemorating that epochal event. The year was 1989 – much farther back than I would have guessed. By that reference, though, I was able to place those young trees in context.
I saw more information on the fire. While we tourists might view the fire as a terribly disruptive and destructive event, conservationists and the park rangers see the fire as a renewal of the forest. In the blaze, much of the overgrown forest floor is consumed. Dry wood and brush are burned. Old, dying trees go up in smoke. The forest is scoured by the flames.
Something interesting happens in the fire, though. The burning trees cast their seeds to the wind. The wind scatters those seeds and, along with them, the beginning of a renewed forest is born. The conservationists see naturally-occurring forest fires as a means for the land’s renewal.
Like the Phoenix, the renewed forest arises out of the ashes. Like Christ, the forest comes from the silence of the tomb. New life emerges from the old.
There was an additional element that Nora and I saw. As we traveled around the park (we spent four nights there, at three different lodges), we saw a mixed multitude of people there. The visitors and workers there were apparently of all colors, races, ethnic origins, shapes, sizes, and any other variable you might envision. There were Anglos, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Germans, Russians – lots of variety in the people around the park. There were so many languages and accents that I heard, I lost track.
It occurred to me that all of this – the forest, the scenery, the wildlife, the visitors, the staff – had all emerged through the experience of the fire. No doubt it was a searing and frightening experience. I suspect people wondered about the viability and future of Yellowstone – whether she would ever regain her lost glory.
Indeed she has. The park is certainly different now. No doubt about that. She is still emerging from the flames, the smoke, and the ashes. Yet she is drawing people from near and far, and she has a compelling beauty to share with all who enter her four gates. She has much to share.
Yellowstone seemed to me to be a metaphor for the Episcopal Church. We too have been through the fires which have raged around us. The fires go back at least to the 1960s, when the church began to wrestle with its sense of call to ministries of social justice. Those fires flamed in the years following, with the decision on the ordination of women and prayer book revision. In recent years, the flames have centered on diminishing membership, the prophetic voice of the church, and the church’s understanding of the appropriate sacramental response to people in same gender relationships. Serving as an overlay to all this is the significantly altered role of the Episcopal Church – from its historic place as a powerful, almost-established church to its place now largely on the fringes of culture.
We may have more flames yet to come. But if we are faithful, if we tend the soil of our hearts and spirits, if we are true to our call from God, we too will emerge from the ashes, blossoming with new life.
Perhaps, also, we will be like the renewed Yellowstone. We will draw a mixed multitude of people – persons of many races, perspectives, opinions, needs, and views. There is room for all.
The future is unsure. That is certain. But this is a vision of what may be.