Rearranging the Episcopal Deckchairs


Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.

Psalm 107

Titanic Deckchairs

The deck chairs on the Titanic — neatly arranged, at least for now

The phrase “Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic” has come to mean, “making well-meaning but negligible adjustments to an endeavor that is doomed to fail” or “futile, symbolic action in the face of catastrophe”.


The phrase can be applied to our current theological discussions. For example, in recent years churches have spent much time and energy debating topics such as same-sex marriage and diversity. These are important matters, but, in the context of the Age of Limits, maybe they are not all that important. Maybe our theological focus needs to change. times. If we persist with the old theological debates then we are, indeed, rearranging the deckchairs on the Episcopalian Titanic.


The story of the luxury Titanic ocean liner is familiar. She sank in the early hours of April 15, 1912, off the coast of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg during her maiden voyage. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.


The sinking of the Titanic has generated many other quotations such as,


  • Until the moment she actually sinks, the Titanic is unsinkable.
    (Julia Hughes)

  • Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the 'Titanic' who waved off the dessert cart.
    (Erma Bombeck)

  • When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experience in nearly forty years at sea, I merely say, uneventful. Of course, there have been winter gales, and storms and fog and the like. But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident . . . of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.
    (E.J. Smith, Captain of the Titanic.)

  • . . . the disaster suddenly ripped away the blindfolds and changed dozens of attitudes, practices, and standards almost literally overnight (Brander, 1995).


The magnitude of the incident led to a total overhaul of the safety standards as sea (known as SOLAS). Those standards are with us today, and have saved countless lives. Maybe there is a similar message for the church now — maybe we need a new set of standards, a new theology as the S.S. Progress slowly sinks beneath the waves.


The “rearranging deckchairs” meme came to mind when I read when I read an article in the Washington Post about the debate that is going on within the Episcopal Church as to whether the words to do with God as used in the Book of Common Prayer should be replaced with gender-neutral language. On the same day I also ran across article in the journal, Mother Jones. Its title was, Why the Extreme Heat is Way Worse Than You Think, with the subtitle, I’ve never seen something like this on this kind of scale. What the Mother Jones article told us is that global warming is proceeding apace, that it’s happening now and that the future is much grimmer than most people realize. Eventually — by which term is meant within the lifetime of many people living now — climate change is going to dramatically, even catastrophically, affect us all. Meanwhile the Episcopal church is discussing gender-neutral language. Such discussions have, as one of their unstated foundations, an assumption that the present physical world will continue in its current form and that, on the whole, life will go on much as it does now.


We see the same dilemma with the calls within the church for “environmental justice”. Once more, an unspoken assumption behind many of these calls is that, if we take the proper actions, then we can maintain our current lifestyle, or something close to it. But, if industrial society is indeed heading downhill due to resource limits and drastic changes to the environment, then discussions to do with the language of the Book of Common Prayer are going to seem rather quaint — and utterly irrelevant to the true quandaries in which we find ourselves. Indeed, our children and grandchildren will most likely say to us, “What on earth were you thinking? Or were you even thinking at all?”


If the above assessment is correct then our church leadership should place less emphasis on yesterday’s battles and try to figure out what is important to people now and then to show leadership particularly if the path forward looks as if it may involve hardship and sacrifice.


Moreover, if the future is one of material decline then the traditional progressive/conservative divide is increasingly beside the point. Indeed, the very words “conservative” and “progressive” are often applied incorrectly. Many “conservatives” aren’t conservative at all — they are radicals. Far from conserving earth’s resources they are consuming them with absolutely no plan for replacement. Nor do they concern themselves the survival of the planet. They have a faith that the forces of the free market will somehow conjure up supplies of oil, fresh water and other resources. They also have faith that technology will somehow solve the problem of climate change. No consideration is given to the laws of physics, ecology or thermodynamics.


Many progressives also seem to be somewhat detached from reality. They have grown up in a society of more or less steady growth, therefore they don’t question that the resources that they need to maintain “progress” will always be available; it is just a matter of distributing them more fairly. Once this is done injustice, hunger and disease will be brought under control. They fail to grasp that the society that we are entering is not one of growth, and that the operative word will not be progress but adaptation.


So, we have a situation in which many church-goers are committed to helping those who are being hurt by climate change. But, by and large, they lack an understanding of the systemic problems we face — they address the symptoms but not the causes. They are rearranging the deckchairs on the Episcopal Titanic, thus missing an opportunity to help people to the lifeboats as the S.S. Progress sinks.


Hence the need for a new theology.