Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The gutting of liberal Christianity

Charlotte Allen, the Catholicism editor for Beliefnet and author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, wrote a provocative piece a while back for the Los Angeles Times entitled, "Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins" (July 9, 2006), about out-of-the-mainstream beliefs about gay marriage and supposedly sexist doctrines gutting the old-line faiths of mainline denominations:
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.

* * *

As if to one-up the Presbyterians in jettisoning age-old elements of Christian belief, the Episcopalians [at their general convention in Columbus, Ohio] 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.

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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....

* * *

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....

* * *

As for the rest of the Episcopalians, the phrase "deck chairs on the Titanic" comes to mind....

* * *

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.


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