One of the main acts in American Christianity’s liberal version of the “circus” — the Episcopal Church USA — completed its triennial General Convention here in Indianapolis last week and, as usual, created a lot of conversation. You can read a summary of the General Convention and the decisions they made HERE, but here are a few highlights:
- A quarter of the nearly 400 resolutions involved structure, governance, and administration, designed to help the church continue to transition into the 21st century.
- In one of its more controversial moves, the convention authorized provisional use of a rite for blessing same-gender unions.
- In another well-publicized decision, the convention approved two resolutions that offer support for the transgender community. One makes clear that the ordination discernment process is open to them, and another guarantees their equal place in the life, worship and governance of the church.
- In a move that some call ironic, the church approved moving out of the Episcopal Church Center Headquarters in New York City for budgetary reasons. This took place in the context of the church’s actions in recent years, going to court to retain many church properties of congregations that seceded from the denomination.
Several articles have sprung up around the web, commenting on the week’s activities. Here are a few, obviously critical of the direction TEC is taking.
- Michael Bird said it was Not a Good Week to Be Episcopalian
- Rob Kerby states his opinions about Why the Episcopal Church is Near Collapse
- In the Wall Street Journal, Jay Akasie asks, What Ails the Episcopalians?
Three other pieces captured my attention, because together, they form a conversation, one I invite our iMonk readers to join today.
The first is an editorial in the NY Times by Ross Douthat called, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?
Douthat calls The Episcopal Church USA one of the “most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States,” and notes, “It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
In his most critical statement, he says bluntly, “Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”
Douthat, who also argues that conservative Christianity has been damaged by compromise with contemporary American culture, though in much different ways, offers a well-known conservative analysis of the situation.
This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.
…But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
For all his doomsday predicting, however, Douthat expresses hope for a better future for more progressive forms of Christianity. He quotes an excellent study by Gary Dorrien that gives an overview of the development of American Liberal Christianity. Dorrien writes:
For millions of liberal Protestants and progressive Catholics the church remains a spiritual home, a community of fellowship, and the place where they live out their idealism. For them the church remains distinctive for its capacity to inspire community and a sense of transcendent good. The idea of a liberal third way between authority-based orthodoxies and secular disbelief has no less relevance or coherence in the 21st century than it held one hundred years ago.
…To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God’s holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?
When the social gospelers spoke of the authority of Christian experience, they took for granted their own deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer, and worship. Today the loss of the transcendental, biblical voice in liberal theology is one important reason that much of it gets little notice. Liberals often show more concern about the postmodern status of their perspective than about the relationship of their perspective to gospel faith.
In this light, Ross Douthat wishes that liberal Christianity will rediscover a “religious reason for its own existence.” He does not see evidence of that in the recent General Convention of The Episcopal Church USA.
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Diana Butler Bass thinks Douthat is asking the wrong question, and so she wrote a piece in Huffington Post called, Can Christianity Be Saved? A Response to Ross Douthat.
Bass has never bought the narrative put forth by conservatives, and wrote a book to make a different case: Christianity for the Rest of Us. She reiterates her perspective in yesterday’s HP article:
His argument, however, is neither particularly original nor true. It follows a thesis first set out in a 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing by Dean Kelley. Drawing on Kelley’s argument, Douthat believes that in the 1960s liberal Christianity overly accommodated to the culture and loosened its ties to tradition. This rendered the church irrelevant and led to a membership hemorrhage. Over the years, critics of liberal churches used numerical decline not only as a sign of churchgoer dissatisfaction but of divine displeasure. To those who subscribe to Kelley’s analysis, liberal Christianity long ago lost its soul–and the state of Protestant denominations is a theological morality tale confirmed by dwindling attendance.
Diana Butler Bass thinks this misses the bigger picture. Noting that “decline is not exclusive to the Episcopal Church, nor to liberal denominations–it is a reality facing the whole of American Christianity,” her interpretation is that “decline only means, as Gallup pointed out in a just-released survey, that Americans have lost confidence in all forms of institutional religion.”
For Bass, then, “The real question is not ‘Can liberal Christianity be saved?’ The real question is: Can Christianity be saved?” Her answer is an unabashed “yes.”
Indeed, I think that the better story of contemporary Christianity is that of an awakening of a more open, more inclusive, more spiritually vital faith is roiling and I argue for that in my recent book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.
She joins others, like Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence), in suggesting that we may be at some kind of turning point in the history of Christianity. In conjunction with western culture’s transformation from Enlightenment modernism to postmodern thought and sensibilities, churches of all kinds are facing institutional decline, questioning at the foundations, and decreasing influence in their communities. In her book, Bass chronicles her growing understanding that
…inherited religious identities like “Protestant,” “Catholic,” and “Jewish,” were in a state of flux in the United States, that actual attendance at weekly religious services is significantly down, that people mix and switch religions more easily than in the past, that traditional religious institutions are in a sustained decline, and that even general belief in God has eroded over the last thirty years.
Many individual congregations may be successful, yes. But the overall picture for religious life in the United States is not terribly encouraging, especially for Christians.
(Can you say, The Coming Evangelical Collapse?)
In spite of the current trends, Diana Butler Bass remains confident that this “death” will result in a “resurrection” to new and even more vibrant forms of Christian faith in the future. How we face what’s happening is not just a matter for folks like the Episcopalians, but for all who bear the name Christian.
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The third article in this conversation was written by James McGrath. He comes back at Ross Douthat a bit more strongly, entitling his article, Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?
Like Bass, he has little confidence that “conservatism gives churches more staying power,” and he likewise notes the data that indicate they are declining right alongside their more progressive brethren. He disagrees with Douthat that liberal churches need to become more conservative to survive; in fact, he is clear about his opinion that the conservatives have been on the wrong side of history with regard to a plethora of issues, and still keep getting it wrong over and over again. Furthermore, it is their very conservatism that has been the problem, so how can it be an answer going forward? In addition, he decries the charges made by conservative Christians that those in more liberal traditions represent “a half-hearted, half-baked mixture of the traditional and the cultural, which does justice to neither,” and throws this counter-punch:“Those who claim to be ‘Biblical Christians’ are more prone than anyone to conflate their culture’s values (not all of them, to be sure, but many) with ‘what the Bible says.'”
Rather than seeing conservatism as the answer, James McGrath envisions a “big tent” Christianity in which respectful conversations can take place between those who disagree:
Douthat suggests that there can be a future for liberal Christianity, but it has to be one that sees renewed passion for conservative theology. I disagree – although I realize that only time can tell which of us was right. I think that a church which can embrace those who are theologically conservative, but also those who are theologically liberal, and become passionate about creating conversation between those who disagree, and passionate about the quest rather than adopting a particular stance reflecting a particular stage on the journey. We could even call ourselves “Evangelical Liberals.” We have a good news that we are passionate about proclaiming, and it isn’t about doctrines assent to which allegedly provides eternal fire insurance. Our core liberal convictions should lead us to stand on the front lines against injustice, and create meeting places where passion for our spiritual journeys is fostered, rather than a narrow conservative version which seeks to persuade people that they have already arrived if they just assent with all their heart to a creed or to four spiritual laws or to a particular doctrine of the atonement.
At any rate, he sees both traditions of Christianity continuing. The main question is, which forms will take center stage? Which will lead the way forward?