On Liberalism and Church decline: A response to Douthat

It’s true.  The church is losing numbers.  And yes, it has changed.

But I’m skeptical that the church’s decline has really been due to its liberality.  The liberal tradition is older.  Some trace it to Calvin, Luther or Erasmus; others Schleiermacher or Rahner; or the late 19th century pastors who dared to read Darwin.   Reading the bible was once a “liberal” act because it placed moral authority upon the reader rather than the clergy.  A few dare to trace liberalism to Jesus and the prophets.

The specific Religious Liberals, the modernists who conservatives critique have been around for more than 100 years.  Their authority and status built social security; promoted contraception and suffrage; they developed the framework that would build the UN, implement the Marshall Plan, justify decolonization and support civil rights.  They were church people who were comfortable in the halls of power, and had something to say.  For the most part, they were victorious.  Then in the 1960′s, in the midst of their success, that world changed.

This kerfuffle is not just about liberalism.  What changed is that the church became forced to compete.  And the pill.

As the economist Albert Hirschmann noted in Exit, Voice and Loyalty in the 1970s, Churches became less like families and more like franchises.   Previous generations did not leave a family.  In franchises, however, if the institution didn’t satisfy the congregants, who by this time had become consumers, they went elsewhere.  The beliefs of churches became products;  the doctrine of the church – or its practical mores – became another part of the free market.  And so, some left the church for other traditions, sports, or the church of rock and roll.   Some just decided to sleep in and didn’t care what the neighbors thought.  This liberalism freed us from some degree of oppression; it also liberated us from the burdens of obligation.  Thus attendance declined.

The other shifts were the cultural changes that gave women more power; and in particular changed the way the culture thought about sex.  Granted, the changes have, when coupled with capital, not been easy; but the liberal church accommodated those changes in practice, if not in doctrine.  That’s the particular liberalism at stake now, and why monosexual and patriarchal institutions are flummoxed by the Episcopal church’s movement.  In the Episcopal church, gay people and women have power.  It is not equal to the power of straight, white men with hair, perhaps; and it still reflects the culture; but the voices are not mute.  And this change is what threatens business as usual.

The church, the liberal church, hadn’t prepared for these changes institutionally. As the culture changed, progressive Priests were trained in the pastoral – professional model, assuming the reign of Christendom, that the culture would naturally return to their roots.  We didn’t think the world would become a mission field as people joined other tribes.

And so I will agree with one element our conservative commentators imply:  our church’s liberalism, our personal branding, our identification with niche of the Christian progressives, will not substitute for strong and powerful leadership.  In a highly balkanized environment, where communities are self-selecting and religious labels are like brands, our work is cut out for us.

Putting a sign on our office door saying we are inviting persons isn’t going to convince anyone they should spend time in a Christian community.  As one atheist said to me, “I’ll never enter to church, but if I did, I’d go to an Episcopal one.  Especially if it had Gospel music and lap dancers.”  It felt great to get his approval; perhaps he needs not join a Christian community.  But our numbers, if they matter (and perhaps they don’t), aren’t going to suddenly change because we’ve got the right progressive credential or passed a resolution to illustrate how awesomely liberal we are.

Conservatives often say, “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon be a widow.” I understand the sentiment.  For if our actions derive solely from cultural approval they will undoubtedly fail.  The qualities of leadership have much more to do with confidence, responsibility and an interest in other people than a particular political faith.  Certainly our rejoinder that the incarnation commands an openness is an appropriate one.  But its another task, and a very different one, to live that out.

The liberal church at this point could behave like Esau – it has inherited a church that once had power; but overwhelmed by the responsibility with the power and wealth that remains.  It could be too willing  to sell our inheritance for a moment of sustenance and temporary survival.  Or we complain:  “This expense could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”   Our shame about the misdeeds of the past may disable us from claiming a power and authority we could proclaim.  It seems righteous to diminish our ambiguous inheritance, but perhaps we would merely abdicate it to the market, and it would be sold for a pittance, and we’d continue to diminish our own voice.

Let’s admit that inclusivity is not necessarily inviting.   Shouting to the world “you’re invited” can be a meaningless act of theo-political theater.  What matters is our ability, person to person, to make connections within our communities – even if they do not directly benefit the church.  Our choices may signal to others that Episcopalians can fit in to educated society; that we can have coffee with religion’s cultured despisers, but our liberality will not substitute for the hard work of building relationships.  And this takes not merely resolutions, but another sort of resolve.  For it doesn’t matter if we’re liberals in the office.  It matters if we’re followers of our savior in the world.

The consequence is that clergy cannot merely be pleasant pastoral directors of its sheep-like congregations (who in Episcopal Churches behave nothing like sheep, by the way), but persons who seek to share in building a liberated humanity, one where the values of empire have been turned on its head.    That is not merely proclamation; nor is it pastoral care; it is the slow and steady work of reconstructing a certain sort of world.

And what of the snark, Church growth?  Nobody really knows how that happens:  it could be demographic luck; a handsome clergy family; strong laity; priests who’ve just stuck it out a long time.  One journalist suggested to me that the Episcopal church could grow if we just were more aggressive:  “You know your natural market, right?  Disenchanted Catholics.”

Of course, 50% of my church is exactly that.  Every priest knows the joke that church growth for Episcopalians means divorced Catholics and drinking protestants.  There are certainly some technical church growth habits parishes could practice more conscientously; but we still don’t know how to evaluate their success, and success isn’t guaranteed.  I will say that most of the people who’ve entered are those who want to be connected, and want a spiritual practice that sustains them in their life.

However, there is also evidence, all over the country,  of thriving liberal churches.  Not all are megachurches, but they are healthy, self sustaining and making a difference.  I can name a few immediately.   They have strong, uncompromising, inviting leadership.  They communicate to the needs of the people; they organize; they are social entrepreneurs.  The congregants are excited about their congregations.  Powerful and connected leadership builds churches.  It’s built conservative churches.  It can build liberal ones.

Liberalism was never the reason the church declined; but I suggest neither shall it be our savior.   It is enough that we will remember our risen Lord; and because he is risen, we are fearless; to risk loving the unloved.