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Invited to hurl whatever questions they pleased at their distinguished guest, many in the parish hall at Parish Church of St. Helena contently nibbled the last crumbs of their chocolate cake when the Rev. Jeff Miller dished up the discomforting but inescapable thought.
"This diocese finds itself in a difficult place, and the future is not entirely clear," Miller said.
What, he asked Michael Nazir-Ali, should church members know?
Nazir-Ali, the former bishop of Rochester, England, assured the group of about 100 people gathered for Friday's question-and-answer lunch that they are not alone: Their parish and diocese struggle with a more liberal national church and secular pressures.
"The overwhelming number of people in the Anglican Communion continue to be in a relationship with you," Nazir-Ali continued.
Nazir-Ali, also a member of the English House of Lords, is visiting the area this week. Friday's lunch offered the audience a chance to pose questions to an authority on Christianity and the forces of secularism, multiculturalism and radical Islam.
Most questions concerned the future -- of Christianity, of religion, of the Anglican and Episcopalian churches. The Parish Church of St. Helena is in the middle of structural change, as the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina recently split from the more liberal national church. The diocese, headed by Bishop Mark Lawrence, left after years of disagreements over issues such as gay marriage and ordination of gays.
Nazir-Ali, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to Christian parents and ordained as an Anglican priest in 1976, traced issues between secularism and Christianity back to the 1960s. He said the effort to deconstruct culture has resulted in people who no longer identify as "religious," preferring terms such as "spiritual" instead.
"Religion is a negative word," he said. "No one wants to be religious. ... If you ask even regular churchgoing people 'are you religious?' the answer will be no."
He said an important part of Christianity is community and cooperation, which buck a cultural celebration of the individual. Nazir-Ali cautioned against such attitudes.
"That then results in a low view of community, a low view of society and also it results in permissiveness and promiscuity," he said. "So if the individual is all there is, then he or she feels able to do what he or she likes."
Nazir-Ali said he was with a group of Anglican primates, or chief bishops, when the national church issued a statement declaring Lawrence had "abandoned" the national church.
They immediately issued a statement of solidarity with Lawrence, he said.
Parishioners' questions about the state of Christianity and the influence of secularism tie directly into the issues St. Helena currently faces.
"I think you've ended up where you are because of everything we've been talking about," Nazir-Ali said.
While Nazir-Ali said it was fortunate the diocese is, largely, standing together, it isn't enough long term. The church and diocese need to build relationships with other like-minded religious communities.