Ross Douthat—Can Reappraising Christianity [especially as practiced in Mainline Churches] Be Saved?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

In 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. 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.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, ...[Episcopal] church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryEvangelism and Church Growth* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* TheologyEthics / Moral TheologyPastoral TheologyTheology: Scripture

14 Comments
Posted July 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. SC blu cat lady wrote:

The question in my mind is-Should this *form* of Christianity be saved?  No doubt in my mind that the one true faith is always worth saving. This pseudo-“Christian”  whatever nonsense should be allowed to die. I fear for the number of souls that will die with it.

July 14, 9:03 pm | [comment link]
2. Ad Orientem wrote:

This was a remarkably good article. And I am stunned - almost floored - that it was printed in the NY Times!

July 14, 9:30 pm | [comment link]
3. deaconjohn25 wrote:

In reading the “blessing”  liturgy I noticed how, at the start, one of the prayer choices eliminates addressing God as Father (Christ’s word: “ABBA.”) Which confirms for me that the very start of the collapse of the Episcopal Church morally, ethically, organizationaly, etc. began with pretending a woman could be a priest and could stand behind the altar “in persona Christi.”
    Such was nothing but the start of massive gender confusion and unwittingly began within mainstream Protestant Christianity the loss of a sense of being part of a universe whose Creator can best be described as a supremely loving, but also rational, principled Father of all Life.
  Instead He became, not the God of Revelation,  but the God of
our own construction and cultural desires. A weak God not worthy of anyone’s worship.  A God who it is foolish to address with the very traditional invocation: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy on Us.”
    Putty in human hands isn’t worthy of such a prayer.  However, we are the ones who are the clay and God is the potter. Modern liberal religion has heretically reversed this, but God, Our Father, will have the final say.

July 14, 10:02 pm | [comment link]
4. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

Perhaps in fairness TEC ASA should be evaluated after subtracting out those parishes and dioceses which left en bloc in the last decade. It would still be ugly, but probably not so shocking. Most of those departures were one-off events unlikely to be repeated, except possibly in South Carolina.

July 14, 10:28 pm | [comment link]
5. Milton Finch wrote:

I’m with you, Ad!  That one made everyone think, ...and think good!  The author made us do what we should do without his meddling.  Good preaching is always meddling when one sees one’s self in the piece.  It’s a shame that he is being skewered in such a fashion over on his own site by a vast majority of liberals pouncing like flees on a sleeping animal!

July 14, 11:24 pm | [comment link]
6. montanan wrote:

I second #‘s 2 and 5 - a very good article and a very great surprise it saw light in the NYT!  His point about the social movements of the 60’s having Christians deeply believing in the fundamentals of the faith and well-versed in the mechanics of learning, sustaining and imparting those fundamentals (Bible study, devotions, etc.) and the contrast with those today was incisive, IMHO.

July 14, 11:49 pm | [comment link]
7. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

Unbiased, accurate, inclusive .. how could the liberals be upset?  Rather easily, by facts they would rather not face.  Oi vey!

July 15, 12:39 am | [comment link]
8. robroy wrote:

Implicit in this article is the caricature that conservative Christians are uncaring, cold hearted elitists.

The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life.

If you mean by “social justice” feeding the poor, visiting the prisoner, tending to the ill, conservative Christians are very concerned. They are far more likely to personally act such as volunteer at a soup kitchen, rather than voting for more taxes and letting the government address these social ills. If you mean, as Glen Beck pointed out, what the liberals mean by “social justice” which expanding the welfare state and government dependency then conservative Christians have their eyes open about the terrible consequences of this modern, dehumanizing slavery.

July 15, 12:50 am | [comment link]
9. paradoxymoron wrote:

social justice is a term that means justice according to liberal values. conservatives, who treat people as individuals rather than as favored groups, are for justice. please recognize that when you work for social justice, you’re working to advance liberal values and politics.

July 15, 1:23 am | [comment link]
10. D S Hamilton wrote:

On a Sunday - ask where will I be in 25 years?  If the answer is within 5 years of US life expectancy, then look around you in church.  Where will all these people be in 25 years?
It isn’t SSB or transgender access that will finish the TEC - it is the actuarial tables and our profound lack of procreation.  We’ll have wonder buildings and valuable real estate - just nobody to pay the bills.  We will have unscrewed ourselves to irrelevancy.
So can Mainline Christianity (read the Episcopal Church) be saved?  Nope!  Enjoy the ride.

July 15, 2:18 am | [comment link]
11. MichaelA wrote:

“Perhaps in fairness TEC ASA should be evaluated after subtracting out those parishes and dioceses which left en bloc in the last decade. It would still be ugly, but probably not so shocking. Most of those departures were one-off events unlikely to be repeated, except possibly in South Carolina.”

By definition, any particular person or group leaving is never going to be repeated!

But why should those particular departures be taken out?  Let me explain why I think that would be misleading:  those four dioceses had orthodox leaders prior to 2009 and as a result many orthodox Christians stayed in those dioceses when otherwise they would have left.  So TEC got the advantage of those numbers which otherwise it wouldn’t have got.  But those numbers carried a flip-side: If TEC pushed those orthodox bishops beyond a point where they were prepared to go, and they left, the numbers would go with them.

There is no point in TEC complaining about this: It only had those numbers in the first place because of the ministry of those orthodox bihsops and their clergy.  The faithful parishioners hadn’t stayed in Quincy, Fort Worth etc because of loyalty to pathetic and incoherent leaders like Frank Griswold and Katherine Schori!

Also, re South Carolina being alone: remember that bishops from 11 other dioceses read out the “Indianapolis Statement” from the floor of the house, and delegates from several other dioceses stood up in solidarity with them.  I have no idea if any more dioceses will leave TEC en-masse as occurred in 2009, but if it does happen I doubt that South Carolina is the only candidate.

July 15, 2:20 am | [comment link]
12. MichaelA wrote:

I agree, its a great article and it just demonstrates that the secular media can see the writing on the wall well enough.

“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.”

Precisely. 

“They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.”

Except, that the decline in South Carolina was very small, and much less than any other diocese.  Which just proves the point: liberalism kills churches.

July 15, 2:27 am | [comment link]
13. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

Robroy (#8),

Social justice - in its day - included both Basil Jellicoe’s Somers Town slum renewal project in London’s St. Pancras District during the 1920s or - to take a non-Anglican example - the Catholic priest-led unionization of western Pennsylvania during the 1930s.

By today’s standards (and indeed by contemporary ones), both would be considered undue interference with the market by churchmen who ought to have known better, but neither Jellicoe nor Charles Owen Rice (at least not in the 1930s) could be considered liberal modernists. That interaction with the state may today be less advisable doesn’t invalidate the concept in toto.

Susan Howatch provides a convincing portrayal of a liberal modernist Anglican priest grounded in personal prayer in her Ultimate Prizes.

July 15, 4:28 am | [comment link]
14. robroy wrote:

There is a related article on the decline of the National Association of Evangelicals by the IRD’s Mark Tooley: Contraceptive Evangelicals?. (Perhaps it deserves its own thread?)

Jeremy, I was thinking of social justice/social reform along the lines of Wilberforce and Newton.

I am convinced that today’s Christian abolitionist emancipate the modern slave. The irony is that the modern slave’s chains were formed by the “progressives” whose policies have been anything but forward moving. The modern slave is a slave to sexual sin whose sin has been denied away by relativism, and the other modern slave is the person utterly deprived of hope being stuck on the government dole.

Of course, there are those bound by both chains. Women have unfortunately succumbed to the lie that they can and are required to give up their sexual purity to attract a man. We then have out of wedlock births as the number one cause of poverty and government dependency in women.

July 15, 8:47 am | [comment link]
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