Out-of-the-mainstream beliefs about gay marriage and supposedly sexist doctrines are gutting old-line faiths.
The accelerating fragmentation of the strife-torn Episcopal Church USA, in which several parishes and even a few dioceses are opting out of the church, isn’t simply about gay bishops, the blessing of same-sex unions or the election of a woman as presiding bishop. It also is about the meltdown of liberal Christianity.
Embraced by the leadership of all the mainline Protestant denominations, as well as large segments of American Catholicism, liberal Christianity has been hailed by its boosters for 40 years as the future of the Christian church.
Instead, as all but a few die-hards now admit, all the mainline churches and movements within churches that have blurred doctrine and softened moral precepts are demographically declining and, in the case of the Episcopal Church, disintegrating.
It is not entirely coincidental that at about the same time that Episcopalians, at their general convention in Columbus, Ohio, were thumbing their noses at a directive from the worldwide Anglican Communion that they “repent” of confirming the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire three years ago, the Presbyterian Church USA, at its general assembly in Birmingham, Ala., was turning itself into the laughingstock of the blogosphere by tacitly approving alternative designations for the supposedly sexist Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Among the suggested names were “Mother, Child and Womb” and “Rock, Redeemer and Friend.” Moved by the spirit of the Presbyterian revisionists, Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher held a “Name That Trinity” contest. Entries included “Rock, Scissors and Paper” and “Larry, Curly and Moe.”
Following the Episcopalian lead, the Presbyterians also voted to give local congregations the freedom to ordain openly cohabiting gay and lesbian ministers and endorsed the legalization of medical marijuana. (The latter may be a good idea, but it is hard to see how it falls under the theological purview of a Christian denomination.)
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The Presbyterian Church USA is famous for its 1993 conference, cosponsored with the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other mainline churches, in which participants “reimagined” God as “Our Maker Sophia” and held a feminist-inspired “milk and honey” ritual designed to replace traditional bread-and-wine Communion.
As if to one-up the Presbyterians in jettisoning age-old elements of Christian belief, the Episcopalians at Columbus overwhelmingly refused even to consider a resolution affirming that Jesus Christ is Lord. When a Christian church cannot bring itself to endorse a bedrock Christian theological statement repeatedly found in the New Testament, it is not a serious Christian church. It’s a Church of What’s Happening Now, conferring a feel-good imprimatur on whatever the liberal elements of secular society deem permissible or politically correct.
You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.
When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1960, members of mainline churches — Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and the like — accounted for 40% of all American Protestants. Today, it’s more like 12% (17 million out of 135 million). Some of the precipitous decline is due to lower birthrates among the generally blue-state mainliners, but it also is clear that millions of mainline adherents (and especially their children) have simply walked out of the pews never to return. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, in 1965, there were 3.4 million Episcopalians; now, there are 2.3 million. The number of Presbyterians fell from 4.3 million in 1965 to 2.5 million today. Compare that with 16 million members reported by the Southern Baptists.
When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.
It doesn’t help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark (“The Rise of Christianity“) and historian Philip Jenkins (“The Next Christendom“) contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents’ commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women’s ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.
Despite the fact that median Sunday attendance at Episcopal churches is 80 worshipers, the Episcopal Church, as a whole, is financially equipped to carry on for some time, thanks to its inventory of vintage real estate and huge endowments left over from the days (no more!) when it was the Republican Party at prayer. Furthermore, it has offset some of its demographic losses by attracting disaffected liberal Catholics and gays and lesbians. The less endowed Presbyterian Church USA is in deeper trouble. Just before its general assembly in Birmingham, it announced that it would eliminate 75 jobs to meet a $9.15-million budget cut at its headquarters, the third such round of job cuts in four years.
The Episcopalians have smells, bells, needlework cushions and colorfully garbed, Catholic-looking bishops as draws, but who, under the present circumstances, wants to become a Presbyterian?
Still, it must be galling to Episcopal liberals that many of the parishes and dioceses (including that of San Joaquin, Calif.) that want to pull out of the Episcopal Church USA are growing instead of shrinking, have live people in the pews who pay for the upkeep of their churches and don’t have to rely on dead rich people. The 21-year-old Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas, for example, is one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country. Its 2,200 worshipers on any given Sunday are about equal to the number of active Episcopalians in Jefferts Schori’s entire Nevada diocese.
It’s no surprise that Christ Church, like the other dissident parishes, preaches a very conservative theology. Its break from the national church came after Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, proposed a two-tier membership in which the Episcopal Church USA and other churches that decline to adhere to traditional biblical standards would have “associate” status in the communion. The dissidents hope to retain full communication with Canterbury by establishing oversight by non-U.S. Anglican bishops.
As for the rest of the Episcopalians, the phrase “deck chairs on the Titanic” comes to mind. A number of liberal Episcopal websites are devoted these days to dissing Peter Akinola, outspoken primate of the Anglican diocese of Nigeria, who, like the vast majority of the world’s 77 million Anglicans reported by the Anglican Communion, believes that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible with Scripture” (those words are from the communion’s 1998 resolution at the Lambeth conference of bishops). Akinola might have the numbers on his side, but he is now the Voldemort — no, make that the Karl Rove — of the U.S. Episcopal world. Other liberals fume over a feeble last-minute resolution in Columbus calling for “restraint” in consecrating bishops whose lifestyle might offend “the wider church” — a resolution immediately ignored when a second openly cohabitating gay man was nominated for bishop of Newark.
So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program — ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth — or die. Sure.
Charlotte Allen is Catholicism editor for Beliefnet and the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”