Betty White, the Episcopal Church, and Why You Belong on a Restructuring Task Force … by Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale

The Golden Girls went off the air in 1992. After that, Betty White appeared in occasional TV and movie roles and did some Vaseline-lensed ads for animal-related causes. In a sign that she was riding off into the pop-cultural sunset, she received a star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and racked up lifetime achievement honors at the American Comedy Awards, TV Land Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild Awards. She was also named a Disney Legend, whatever that is.

If you didn’t follow Betty White’s career that closely, it could be hard to know whether to refer to her in the past or present tense. One saw Betty White around more often than Sasquatch, but not much more. For some reason I have a vivid memory of her as a foul-mouthed widow in 1999’s Lake Placid, an otherwise unmemorable movie about giant man-eating crocodiles.

The situation of the Episcopal Church today resembles what seemed to be the twilight of Betty White’s career. We’ve got gorgeous buildings that make excellent settings for awkward encounters in Six Feet Under or official mourning for Gerald Ford. We have a beautiful prayer book that makes a cameo appearance in Rachel Held Evans’ excellent new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and polite notice for its cultural significance in The Atlantic. But we’re pretty short on actual influence in the national conversation these days.

The last 10 years have been particularly bruising. Our average Sunday attendance has fallen by about 20% through the strains of schism and death’s inevitable toll on an institution whose average member is 62 years old. The popular metaphor among hopeful observers and participants is that we have been pruned for future growth. Fair enough.

Our church’s numbers have been declining for decades, but the fact that many parts of the church are supported by endowments from generous members past have meant that until the last decade’s economic and market disasters, our institutional structures could get by without adapting all that much. Maybe pruning is the right metaphor for this experience, but it feels a lot more like we’ve been knocked down. But we don’t have to be down for the count.

The renaissance of Betty White’s career began in early 2010 with a famous Super Bowl commercial for Snickers, depicting her getting knocked into the mud while playing football. The commercial inspired a social media campaign that soon had her hosting Saturday Night Live. Today Betty White is everywhere.

White’s return to the cultural mainstream isn’t just because of the commercial, though it was clearly a turning point. White is back because we have rediscovered that she has something to offer us: a sharp wit, openness, honesty about ugly truths (especially about aging), iconoclasm, and compassion. But her new career doesn’t resemble her old career much. There’s been no return to sweet-natured Rose Nylund, but an adventurous engagement with where pop culture is now.

The Episcopal Church also will not be the church we used to be. We were the church of the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts, but we’re about as likely to go back to that as Betty White is to have a reunion special with Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan. We will be the church God calls us to be, or we will wither away, cutting budgets and keeping up appearances the best that we can.

In the face of a public Christianity that devalues women and villifies gays, the Episcopal Church stands for the breadth of God’s love. In a country obsessed with consumer goods, we share the simple materials of bread, wine, and oil as signs of God’s presence. “Unfriend” is now an accepted verb; we offer real relationships. Instead of severing connections in the quest for the new, the Episcopal Church values the thread of history and tradition that connects us to the eternal. But outside our church, who even knows about us?

We as a church have resolved to change, but we have not yet resolved how to do it. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to establish a task force to restructure our national institutions. The Acts 8 Moment, a grassroots movement for church renewal, is gathering steam.

Today the Diocese of Indianapolis is collecting nominations for the task force for restructuring the diocese. It is unfortunate that the task force has such a wonky title. But the fundamental issue is this: it is time for the Episcopal Church to stop clinging to its past and managing decline. It is time for us to actively engage with the culture around us, where going to church is not a social expectation and Biblical illiteracy is the norm. It is time for us to manage our ample financial resources in a way that grows and serves the message of Jesus, not our self-image. It is time for us to change ourselves without losing the core that makes us Christians.

If you want to engage with these challenges, you may well be called to serve on the diocesan task force. But you have to let the the Executive Council know you are willing to serve. Nominate yourself or someone else with passion for the future of the church. Find everything you need to make that happen here. You have until December 22.

Betty White’s 2010 revival began with her lying in the mud. We’re there today, on the margins of American culture. And as the Rev. Suzanne Wille of All Saints, Indianapolis reflects in a recent sermon (also available in audio), that may be right where we belong:

As so often happens in the Gospels, truth and faith and Good News are found at the margins. It is the outcasts, the poor, the sick, who understand Jesus, the ones who help US see Him better, understand the Gospel better.

We reach this point with the ample resources of our liturgy, our plentiful real estate, and our objectively enviable finances, to say nothing of the grace of God. Our challenge is to focus less on ourselves and more on what has happened around us, to hang out on the margins, and to listen for what we are called to do next.

Reblogged from View from the Print Shop. A few details are specific to the Diocese of Indianapolis. If you know people in that diocese, make sure they know about this task force. The more nominations, the better!

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