The Episcopal Church’s recent resolve to bless same-sex unions and transgenderism, accompanied by continued membership implosion, has ignited a flurry of critical essays about the denomination’s demise. The New York Times’ token conservative, Ross Douthat, a Catholic, has ignited the most response with “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Here it is.
But a Wall Street Journal column, which focused on the frivolousness of the church’s recent General Convention, has also excited a lot of reaction. Church historian Philip Jenkins, himself a former Catholic now Episcopalian, has likewise penned a thoughtful analysis called “The Church Vanishes.” So too has foreign policy pundit Walter Russell Meade, the son of an Episcopal priest, in a piece called “The Light that Failed.”
Douthat concluded that the Episcopal Church and similar bodies “often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” He asked what “they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.” Absent an answer, he opines their “fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.”
Meade called the “theological and demographic collapse” of the Episcopal Church a “bitter blow.” Amid “sadness and despair,” the church is “headed down what looks increasingly like the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself.”
Jenkins suggested this theory about the Episcopal Church and similar denominations: “The numerical growth and success of a religious denomination is inversely proportionate to the favorable treatment it receives in major liberal media outlets (New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, New Republic).”
The respondents to these critics, including at least one Episcopal bishop but also including liberal Christians from other denominations, have angrily insisted the Episcopal Church is just suffering a temporary blip. Or it is experiencing what afflicts ALL institutional Christianity. Or it will rebound once all the transgendered and other marginalized eventually flock to its now mostly emptied sanctuaries. That liberal religion, by denying the full authority of its Scriptures, or almost any absolutes, is intrinsically incapable of exciting a mass following is an unacceptable premise to defenders of the Episcopal and Mainline Protestant status quo.
Religious practice, despite the nay sayers, has remained remarkably consistent in America for 80 years or more. About 40 percent of Americans say they attend church regularly, i.e. usually defined as at least monthly. This number was true in the 1930’s, and it is true today.
What has changed is denominational loyalty. Americans now easily flick from one church to the next, and non-denominational evangelical Christianity is the fastest growing religious movement in our country. Part of this phenomenon can be faulted to the collapse of once predominant Mainline Protestantism. Forty five years ago, one of every six Americans belonged to the “seven sister” denominations or their predecessor bodies: United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Today it’s one of every 15.
All of these denominations began surrendering to theological liberalism starting early in the 20th century. There are no major growing liberal denominations in America today. And the only major growing denominations or movements are almost all theologically conservative.
Liberal Christians, which now includes the Evangelical left, desperately want a faith that creates community and generates spiritual vitality without imposing firm moral and intellectual boundaries. But this combination is a contradiction.
It’s my observation that even many, perhaps most, liberal believers I know, especially young people, attend theologically conservative churches. Partly it’s because those congregations are more bustling with people and activity. But I think also, somewhat similar to teenagers who inwardly want parental discipline even as they outwardly cringe, that most spiritual seekers innately crave a faith that is more concrete than endlessly permissive.
Speaking of liberal Christianity, this evening I attended a gathering of United Methodism’s Northeast Jurisdiction, held in Charleston, WV, and which will elect three new bishops. It’s one of the denomination’s most liberal regions. The opening Bible study was not bad, but the speakers, a husband and wife team, were obliged to avoid personal pronouns for God. So it was “God, God, God, God, God…” Flimsy theology and terrible prose. Even an old spiritual’s words were adjusted for a “non-sexist rendering.”
Meanwhile, as I left the event, I almost stumbled over a massive “labyrinth.” One bishop smilingly warned me against treading on “sacred space.” Walking the labyrinth is an “ancient” Christian tradition that largely started in the early 1990’s in San Francisco at an Episcopal cathedral, of course.
Needless to say, United Methodism’s Northeast Jurisdiction is one of our church’s fastest declining regions.