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.

Anglicans and Catholics

The Vatican has given a home to Anglicans.

I’m glad.  Everyone needs a home.

We, the Episcopal Church, were not a good home for everyone.  We’ve decided that gender and sexuality are no bars to liturgical authority.   So although we gave lip service to being inclusive, we’re not nimble enough to share our institution with those who think differently.

But God need not be a zero-sum game.  If anything, let us praise them for not to join the various splinter Anglican groups, with their army of mitre-hungry, purple loving priests, sects who have nearly as many bishops as congregations.

Instead, they’ve shown humility.  For a bishop, the formerly Rt. Reverend Steenson, to give up the benefits of purple for the sake of their view of truth, shows some spiritual depth.  Although I’m sure the former Bishop (now just an ordinary priest) didn’t give up the generous pension, we should not begrudge him many years of service for the Episcopal Church.  Instead, praise him for offering solace for disaffected Anglicans.   Their views may not be correct, but there’s no need for a war or judgement.  Our faith allows some grace that we may not know what the ultimate truth holds.

Anglicanism has always held its Catholic traditions close.   But for them gender and sexuality are crucial parts of it.  Let them now say their rosaries, pray to the saints and the pope.  We can, in different spaces, pray alongside them.  But perhaps now we can each do so with less acrimony between us.  We’re not fighting for the same crumbs anymore, and they will be in a church that loves them.

Let’s be honest – we’re secretly glad they’ve left.

It won’t be easy for them.  Many of them were politically conservative, and see religious traditionalism and contemporary conservatism as coterminus.  But they may be surprised by the Roman Church’s liberal views on immigration, health care and poverty.  They may find the Catholic Church too culturally strident on contraception.   They may be blindsided by the private accommodations of the Roman church to its closeted gay clergy.

And will they find their voices heard within the vast hierarchy of the church?  Or will they also eventually find themselves as sidelined as so many Catholics, who go to church but find their voices mute?    Perhaps this small ordinariate may provide even more grace, more room for the Roman church to consider matrimonial options for their vocations, as it struggles with the implications of mandatory celibacy.

So we need not gleefully either despair or cheer when people decide they need a different sort of authority.  When a Roman Catholic enters our doors, often they do so with guilt, ambivalence and fear.  It is our duty to handle their journey with charity and magnanimity.  It’s never easy to leave a family, no matter how challenging that family is.  We must respect that journey, even when it is not in our favor.

Gloating over the failures, the mistakes, or the challenges of our mother church is not our mission.  It speaks ill of us when we do so.   We want people to find a home that is best for them.

If it is within the Holy Roman Church, then let it be.   Our building of disciples need not include any anger or hostility toward the church that has held, however imperfectly, the gospel.  If anything, being good Episcopalians means, I suggest, helping the Roman Church become more responsive church.  We can do this by always welcoming their disaffected with joy and hope, and becoming diligent disciples of the same Christ in the way that we know how – by showing no bigotry toward them, or their church – the one that nurtured them.

I hope that is the Episcopal way.

Don’t Invite People to Church

I recently read a fabulous article by a young Episcopalian. Her tag: stop inviting people to church.

Yep. Don’t invite people to church.

I understand why she says such. “Conversion” is often confused with “you’d better believe what I believe, or else.” I know it is a misunderstanding of the word; and I’m personally convinced that the Episcopal Church may save all that is good and holy and just in the church. But as someone with an interfaith background, I’m simply not interested in proselytizing.

I suspect Jesus was less interested in getting people to think the same, than to invite them into peaceful relationships.

Since we are in a post-Christian age, the faith will encounter lots of suspicion. The stereotype of Christians are that we can’t stand difference, sex and bomb Muslims.

Clearly, Episcopalian, modernist Christians will be misunderstood.

So stop inviting. That just affirms the wrong things about the faith.

Besides, it’s not working for us.

Instead, she suggests, just get out there and listen. Meet people and enjoy them. Chances are they are just expecting you Christian person to be another crusader for an agenda they don’t believe. Defeat that expectation.

When they say “I hate organized religion,” you can agree – we’re theologically disorganized, after all, compared to our sister Roman church. When they say they are “spiritual but not religious” there is no reason to mock their lack of commitment. And when they express their fears about religion, you can hold their hand.

It’s enough that you know that St. Barts is a different place. You are making it into a different kind of institution. In the fullness of time, our church will respond better to the lives around it – as we become a listening, learning, organization.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. When your religious identity comes up, articulate it. State what you believe: I don’t hate gays, I don’t think other faiths are damned, I believe in evolution, but I follow in the path of Jesus Christ and believe that he liberated us from the powers of the world. If you aren’t sure you can say at least Yes, for what it is worth, I believe, even though I don’t always know what the end of that sentence is.

Chances are they are expecting you to convert them. Instead, stop. Don’t let it cross your lips. As they ask you about your theology, your commitment, your practice, do not invite them to church. If they ask to visit, don’t tell them how much you want them to be there. Say instead how much you love the community and what it has done for you. Be the church by simply letting the holy love lead them.

But don’t invite them to church.

You are now, and forever, off the hook. It is enough to hold fast to the idea that the Divine Affection cradles you in His arms and loves you effortlessly. I promise you, it will come up, where you to church. Tell them I’m not allowed to invite people. I’m only allowed to care for them.

Yes, we are called to preach the gospel. But the strongest evidence that we have inculcated the Gospel is a confidence in our own hearts; one that trusts that He knows what He is doing, even in the lives of those who misunderstand the nature of God, Christ, and His Church.

Because the faith is not just holed up in the institution. It is manifest in every relationship we create. It is enough to get out there, love and challenge the world that has been created, and work to build the peaceable kingdom with those who would have it.

Dennis Canon Wins in CA

The members of the communities in the diocese of LA seeking to keep the land TEC holds in trust have lost the battle.

Although winning is pleasant, one question for both sides is whether or not property is worth the battle.  Is keeping shrines what we’re all about?   Perhaps St. James could pay rent as 1/2 the assessment, with the idea that they would continue to pay for keeping the building.  But it would be “rent” rather than an “assessment.”  Those members of the congregation who wanted to remain in TEC might have a tentmaker priest who would share the building.

One church in Upper South Carolina decided that they would leave the building – I suspect they will do well.  [Via]