Support the Café

Search our Site

Not dead yet!

Not dead yet!

Diana Butler Bass responds to Ross Douthat:

In recent days, conservatives have attacked the Episcopal Church. …

Many of the criticisms were mean-spirited or partisan, continuing a decade-long internal debate about the Episcopal Church’s future. However, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat broadened the discussion, moving beyond inside-baseball ecclesial politics to ask a larger question: “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?”

The question is a good one, for the liberal Christian tradition is an important part of American culture, from dazzling literary and intellectual achievements to great social reform movements. Mr. Douthat recognizes these contributions and rightly praises this aspect of liberal Christianity as “an immensely positive force in our national life.”


According to him, the Episcopal Church and its allegedly trendy faith, a faith that varies from a more worthy form of classical liberalism, is facing imminent death.

His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. ….

That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same.. …

The Roman Catholic Church, a body that has moved in markedly conservative directions and of which Mr. Douthat is a member, is straining as members leave in droves. By 2008, one in ten Americans considered him- or herself a former Roman Catholic….


Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is–in some congregations at least–undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were “counter-intuitive” to the usual narrative of American church life.

There is more than a little historical irony in this. A quiet renewal is occurring, but the denominational structures have yet to adjust their institutions to the recovery of practical wisdom that is remaking local congregations. And the media continues to fixate on big pastors and big churches with conservative followings as the center-point of American religion, ignoring the passion and goodness of the old liberal tradition that is once again finding its heart. Yet, the accepted story of conservative growth and liberal decline is a twentieth century tale, at odds with what the surveys, data, and best research says what is happening now.

Jay Emerson Johnson writing at Peculiar Faith also discusses the current commentary on the Episcopal Church in the Wall Street Journal and New York TImes:

I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.

Set aside for the moment all the problems involved in defining those highly-charged labels. I think lots of people would find it intriguing if not compelling and attractive to suppose that one’s social liberalism could derive from one’s theological conservatism. It’s a wonderfully peculiar notion and it apparently suffices to short-circuit the otherwise rational brains of journalists (among many others).

The bottom line: Mr. Douthat argues that liberal Christianity needs to recover a “religious reason for its own existence.” I beg your pardon, Mr. Douthat, but you haven’t been paying attention – those religious reasons (plural) have been articulated aplenty. Take solace, though, in knowing that you are not alone. Hardly any other major media commentator understands liberal theology as theology either.

So I write this as a passionate liberal and a committed conservative, even though those labels are ridiculously malleable. And that’s exactly the point. If what lots of people are seeking (as Mr. Douthat hints at in his piece) are ways to embrace the historical traditions of Christianity while also adopting socially progressive postures toward cultural issues, well, come on over to the Episcopal Church!

The fact that Mr. Douthat would apparently not comprehend my invitation speaks volumes about the evangelistic task now facing Episcopalians following our General Convention. And that’s my point here: We Episcopalians need to be much more proactive and far less apologetic about our love of tradition for the sake of social change. Episcopalians? How about ALL self-styled progressive Christians? Come on folks, that’s what the world is hungry for!

And more from Adele Stan in the Washington Monthly.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

One thing that never gets said about GC is that the overwhelming majority of delegates went home and worshiped the following Sunday from the 1979 Prayer Book, which is, by modern standards, pretty conservative/”orthodox”. Yes, every big city has a parish or two known for doing non-bcp liturgies, but the overwhelming majority of TEC parishes around the country pretty much pray the bcp. And GC 2012 once again didn’t start the long process of revising the prayer book. The heart of what we wild eyed theological radicals do together on Sunday morning hasn’t really changed in 30 years.

Mark Preece

Cynthia Katsarelis

I guess we’re taking different looks at theologically “conservative.” Theologically conservative might very well embrace the radical love expressed by Jesus, and his radical disregard of the law when it came to human need.

I can’t speak for Jay Emerson Johnson’s meaning of “religiously conservative.”

I can’t speak to the liturgies put before GC, as I haven’t seen them. I am not thrilled about SSB’s because I think that the Sacrament of Marriage should not be withheld from us LGBT’s. I am Anglo-Catholic, but I have also traveled widely and experienced a wide variety of worship. There is some fabulous language that is perfectly consistent with BCP but richer in feminine imagery (say from Wisdom) and social consciousness, has the Words of Institution, the Epiklesis, etc. That richer imagery would be consistent with a “conservative” theology of God’s radical love in a diverse creation.

I long for such language, sensitively included in our BCP. That would be my hope.

C. Wingate

Maybe it’s just me, I but I would interpret the fate of the liturgical resolutions at GC as representing at best a certain resistance to some of the more extreme innovations. The same-sex blessing rite is not conservative, not for what it proposes to do, but because you can pretty much get through it without using any text of the BCP other than the Lord’s Prayer. The other rites proposed have even more novelties; I lost track of exactly which ones managed to make it through the episcopal gantlet, but it strikes me that in a genuinely theologically conservative church, there wouldn’t even be voting on most of these texts because nobody would have ever put them before GC.

Cynthia Katsarelis

Jay Emerson Johnson says “I am socially and politically liberal because I am theologically and religiously conservative.”

I say: YESSSSS!!!!!!!!! Finally someone has nailed it!!!!!

And again, when he says: We Episcopalians need to be much more proactive and far less apologetic about our love of tradition for the sake of social change.

Again I say yes, that is the job. Thank you, Jay Johnson for expressing it so well!

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café