In a neat synchronicity, three different voices across the internet spoke to the intersection of past and future of the Episcopal Church, largely lamenting a sense of something lost but also looking hopefully at the potential of a new beginning.
At Vox, Tara Burton reviews Public Religion Research Institute’s founder and CEO Robert Jones’ book, The End of White Christian America. Drawing on decades of research and polling data, Jones views the decline of the church primarily as a sociological phenomena to examine rise and fall of mainline and evangelical churches that were dominated by whites.
[Jones] “traces the decline not merely of a demographic, but of the racial and religious contours of that very culture. Jones described the decline of “a shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary … [a] lingua franca.”
Though the book begins and ends with a mock eulogy for white Christian America (WCA), it’s not quite a eulogy, nor is it gleeful grave stomping. Rather, it is a sensitive, nuanced look at the decline of a world “where few gave a second thought to saying ‘Merry Christmas!’ to strangers on the street … a world of shared rhythms that punctuated the week: Wednesday spaghetti suppers and prayer meetings, invocations from local pastors under the Friday night lights at high school football games, and Sunday blue laws that shuttered Main Street for the Sabbath.””
Burton writes of Jones careful look at these two strands of Christian tradition in America; how the mainlines social gospel efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries faded away towards bland cultural conformity while their evangelical cousins rebelled against that very conformity.
“But Jones recognizes, too, that mainline Protestantism largely squandered its enormous political, social, and financial advantage over its evangelical cousins to the South, inadvertently ceding its status as the mouthpiece of American Christendom. After all, he says, mainline Protestantism’s contributions to civil rights “were ultimately more symbolic than revolutionary, and more focused on the press than grounded in the pews.””
Burton’s primary critique is that a failure to examine that theological and ecclesiological differences leaves out some important foundations for the differences between these two poles of white American Christianity(WCA)
“Jones’s interest in WCA is cultural, rather than theological, and at its most incisive when he’s chronicling the death of a certain identity: one far more tied into whiteness and the rote wishing of a “Merry Christmas” than any particular theological stance. (If anything, this is the book’s one weakness. Other than a brief mention of Walter Rauschenbusch’s “social gospel,” very little of Jones’s approach to WCA investigates how differences in actual theology or the structure of worship services might reflect, or tie into, the cultural differences that separate mainline Protestants from evangelicals, and from everybody else.)”
Burton also says that the perhaps the key takeaway from Jones’ book is that Christianity itself suffered because of its alliance with a domineering white American culture. If there is a bright side in this shift, it is that Christianity may only be able to thrive when it is separated from power.
“It is that paradox that lies at the heart of The End of White Christian America, and in discussions of Christianity and public life more generally. How can a religion often defined as a religion of outsiders — one whose sacred texts embrace the overturning of the money changers in the Jerusalem temple and celebrate those who leave their families behind to follow a wandering preacher — ever function in a dominant paradigm without losing its distinctive character?
It is that question that Jones’s book leaves us wondering: whether the death of White Christian America, as a cultural construct, is a good thing for Christianity, the religion. For a religion that was once subversive, Jones hints, being countercultural may just be the ideal way to be.”
The second voice is that of noted humorist and poetry fan, Garrison Keillor, who writes in his unique wistful style of a world that is passing away. Titled “From Giraffes to Episcopalians, World Going Extinct,”Keillor laments its passing.
“Giraffes are dying out because they are a joke, an ungainly mythological-looking amalgamation of a horse and a stepladder. God is not proud of the giraffe. In Scripture, He refers to horses, sheep, cattle, swine, snakes, camels, but nothing about this oddity. Isaiah did not write, “All we like giraffes have gone astray” – their problem isn’t a willful nature, it’s bad design.
As for lions, they used to roam Europe, but do you want to get off your tour bus in Rome and walk into the Colosseum and suddenly hear low raspy sounds and turn and there is the MGM lion 15 feet away with a napkin around his neck? You, a good Episcopalian, about to be martyred by a circus act?
Episcopalians are also facing extinction, along with the rest of the orthodox wing of Christianity that takes the Bible at its word. The Church of the Beautiful Hair is taking over the habitat, humunga-churches where magenta spotlights sway and peroxided men in spangly jumpsuits play Metallica with spiritual lyrics and ponytailed preachers tell the multitude that we are the Chosen and the Lord is going to maximize and monetize us.
Extinction is all around us. Look at me. My uncle Jim farmed with horses as Grandpa had before him, and I was privileged to ride on their backs as they worked. Gone, long ago, and all that’s left are a few Brownie snapshots. Likewise, the newspaper shop where I worked as a teenager, with the clattering Linotype machines and the alcoholic pressman who stood beside the flatbed press and flipped an enormous sheet of paper on it as the roller whooshed over it and the paper was trimmed and folded and out came the Anoka Herald. Gone, gone, gone.”
Somewhere between the cautious optimism of Jones and the sly despair of Keillor is the voice of author Andrea Dilley writing at Faith and Leadership. Dilley reminds us that things change and we would be wise to be careful of our responses so that we don’t lose something essential.
She begins by telling of her own departure from the church of her youth (her parents were missionaries in Kenya) and later return.
“When I came back to church after a faith crisis in my early 20s, the first one I attended regularly was a place called Praxis. It was the kind of church where the young, hip pastor hoisted an infant into his arms and said with sincerity, “Dude, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The entire service had an air of informality. We sat in folding chairs, sang rock-anthem praise and took clergy-free, buffet-style communion. Once a month, the pastor would point to a table at the back of the open-rafter sanctuary and invite us to “serve ourselves” if we felt so compelled.
For two years, my husband and I attended Praxis while he did graduate work at Arizona State University and I worked as a documentary producer. As someone who had defected from the church at age 23, I thought it was the perfect place for me: a young, urban church located four blocks from Casey Moore’s Irish Pub, an unchurchy church with a mix of sacred tradition and secular trend.”
Undoubtedly, many people have seen such efforts as an attempt to reach a different population than usually shows up on Sunday mornings. But Dilley has a word of caution about chasing generational phantoms.
“For some, the instinct is to radically alter the old model: out with the organ, in with the Fender. But as someone who left the mainstream church and eventually returned, I’d like to offer a word of advice to those who are so inclined: Don’t. Or at least proceed with caution. Change carefully; change wisely, with thoughtfulness and deliberation. What young people say we want in our 20s is not necessarily what we want 10 years later.”
People change and grow and want and need different things throughout their lives.
“When I slipped back in, I wanted what my own parents had wanted in their hippie youth back in the 1970s: an anti-institutional church that looked less like a church and more like a coffee house. But after two years at Praxis, the coffee tasted thin.
I felt homeless in heart. I missed intergenerational community. I missed hymns and historicity, sacraments and old aesthetics. I missed the rich polity — even the irritation — of Presbytery.”
Eventually they ended up looking for something more rooted, and now…
“We take communion from an ordained priest who holds a chalice of blood-red wine and lays a hand of blessing on our children. We sing the Lord’s Prayer and recite from the Book of Common Prayer — in which not once in 1,001 pages does the word “dude” ever appear.
In my 20s, liturgy seemed rote, but now in my 30s, it reminds me that I’m part of an institution much larger and older than myself. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz said, “The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.””
Dilley recognizes that here experience is anecdotal, but nonetheless believes there is life in much of what we have held onto for centuries.
“I can’t alter statistics or trends. I can’t tell congregations or their pastors what they need to change, if anything. I can’t speak to church marketing or survival strategy, nor can I enter the fraught (and important) theological debate between liberalism and conservatism, which drives some of the attrition of young people.
What I offer instead is a word of encouragement that reminds the church to take the long view.”
There are likely lots of potential Andrea Dilleys out here.