Defenders of the faith

Three new articles address Ross Douthat's claim that the Episcopal Church is declining due to its "liberal" progression.

The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, in his op-ed "Can Christianity be revived?", dispels Douthat's conclusion:

The flaw in Douthat’s argument, though, is the causal link he creates. The Episcopal Church’s liberalism-- the changes in worship, reinterpreted beliefs, interfaith openness, and social and political involvement-- have caused the numerical decline, he declares. But if Douthat is looking for a comprehensive explanation, he won’t find it there. In fact, the conservative churches are experiencing major decline now as well. And as Diana Butler Bass has pointed out, Douthat’s own Roman Catholic Church, with its firmly disciplined and dogmatic approach to belief and practice, is shrinking as rapidly as mainline churches when the numbers are adjusted for the impact of immigration on their pews.

The truth of the decline lies not with "liberal" or "conservative", but the reality of social change:

To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.

A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members.

But Lloyd remains convinced that many churches are changing to meet the hunger people have for "a way of being Christian that recognizes that understandings of scripture and church teaching must evolve over time, and that to be a Christian is to have an inquiring mind and a discerning heart."

The Rev. Tom Ehrich's RNS op-ed appeared in the Washington Post, makes the similar point that "mainline denominations began to decline in 1965, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it":

Mainline Protestant church leaders are finally getting ready to do what they should have been doing for 50 years, namely, looking outside their walls at a deeply troubled world, resolving to turn their congregations toward being responsive and effective, and allowing young adults into leadership.

The Episcopal Church’s decision on same-sex blessings wasn’t a leap beyond; it was the last gasp of old ways of thinking, namely, that Sunday worship and in-house protocols are what matter.

Now leaders can look outward and onward. Conservatives will find themselves ignored, not because mainline traditions have lost their way, but because they are determined to find their way, and my-way-or-the-highway conservatives have cried wolf too often.

Writing for the On Faith section of The Washington Post's website, The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, newly elected President of the House of Deputies, suggests that some of what is best in Episcopal Church governance lays the General Convention open to criticism:

Our big, public legislative process puts all of our human frailty on display for critics and cynics to gawk at. Like the previous two thousand years of Christians, we’ve got colorful characters and prophetic voices, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. God is still speaking, as the United Church of Christ likes to say, and sometimes doing so in voices that make us uncomfortable. I don’t suspect anyone would have been happy to see Martin Luther or St. Francis of Assisi standing at a microphone at the end a long legislative day, ready to offer their detailed objections to the way in which the church was doing business. Yet, clearly, the church would have been poorer had it failed to hear them.

Enduring occasional mockery is a cheap price to pay for a church that elects its leaders and recognizes that lay people, clergy, and bishops must share decision-making authority in the church. Unfortunately, it tends to obscure what actually transpires at our General Convention.

Jennings believes that "a surge of enthusiastic Millennial and Generation X leaders" are accelerating the birth of a church better able to "meet the challenges of preaching and living out the Gospel in a rapidly changing society."

"We value Christian community over lockstep liberalism or any other ideological position," she writes, "and even though it opens us to ridicule, we keep inviting everyone to join in."

Comments (5)

Tis a delight to see our new PHoD weighing on on these shoddy journalistic hatchet jobs.

There is a cost to standing up and being direct on the issues of equality and for steps to enrich the well being of those at the social margins. There is also a cost to constant conflict. Who, after all, wants to join a community that is under attack. Only those whose own convictions are congruent with the positions taken and see, within conflict, the path through to a more Kindom oriented world.

Those who have left TEC and snipe from the edges prove to the world they have no other message than bitter bile. If they did they would indeed dust off TEC's dust and get on with making disciples; if they are actually capable of doing that.

They are true fanatics, they can't change their minds and they won't change the subject!

Amen! Madame President! Amen!

"Paradigm shift" may be an overused term, but in this case I think it's fair to say it is accurate. Now we as a church get to put our evangelism where our resolutions have been and tell the Good News of a church grounded in scripture, tradition and reason and growing into God's future -- drawing the circle wider rather than circling the wagons. And what I know from my experience at All Saints Church in Pasadena -- which is about to break ground on a building project to make room for the mission and ministry that has outgrown our facilities -- is that there are plenty of people out there who think they know enough about being Christians NOT to want to be one ... and when we invite them in we change their minds.

Susan Russell

It almost seems that we owe Mr. Douthat a note of thanks. His op-ed has created more energetic and insightful defense of our church than just about anything in recent memory.

Kevin McGrane

I have been an Episcopalian for more than 50 years. Conservatives have been preaching the imminent decline and extinction of The Episcopal Church for all 50 plus years. Somehow my church's doors remain open. I think many conservatives who have left the Episcopal Church for a more glamorous fundamentalist church now have buyer's remorse. And to add insult to injury, The Episcopal Church remains alive despite their absence. How could TEC possibly survive without them?

Bob Button

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