Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Collapse of the Episcopal Church's Moral Authority

Keeping up with Internet articles and blog postings on the recent meeting of the Episcopal Church's General Convention could easily be a full-time job. As expected, the perspectives range from the positive to the profoundly negative. Among the less than positive assessments, articles from the Wall Street Journal ("What Ails the Episcopalians") and Beliefnet ("Why is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse?"), and Ross Douthat's New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?", have generated much discussion and debate.  (For two interesting responses to Douthat from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, see "Why Should Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" Part 1 and Part 2 at The Life of Meaning.)

One article in particular caught my eye: "The Light that Failed" by Walter Russell Mead.  Mead writes:

New numbers reveal that the collapse of the Episcopal Church dramatically accelerated in the last ten years. The denomination is literally falling apart, with attendance down 25% between 2000 and 2010. ...

The numerical decline, bad as it is, matters less than the collapse in the moral authority of the church. The Episcopal Church has made many controversial pronouncements on social issues; at the latest General Convention the church declared that transgendered persons cannot automatically be barred from the priesthood. One can agree or disagree with some of these individual decisions, but what is striking over time is the decline in the moral weight of the church.

It used to matter what the Episcopal Church thought of this or that social issue. Other mainline Protestant churches and many social and political leaders followed its theological and political debates. Now, basically, no one outside the dwindling flock in the pews really cares what The Episcopal Church says about anything at all. General Convention can pass a million resolutions, and nothing anywhere will change. No one is even really angry anymore at anything the Episcopal hierarchy does; at most, there is a sigh and a quiet rolling of the eyes. Soon, there will not even be that.

It’s an extraordinary decline in an institution that a generation ago was still one of the pillars of American life. At this point the disaster appears irretrievable; those running the church are determined to run it into the ground and it is hard to see how that can change.

For Anglicans, the theological and demographic collapse of their church is a bitter blow. The traditions of this church exert a powerful hold on those who were raised in it; those declining attendance figures bespeak a lot of sadness and despair. But The Episcopal Church has moved on, headed down what looks increasingly like the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself.

Let us wish The Episcopal Church well on its journey towards whatever hope its bureaucrats and functionaries see glimmering ahead of them in the deepening twilight. God moves in mysterious ways, and the failure of a church is not the failure of a faith. Christianity is all about hope in the face of death; America’s Anglicans are learning a lot about what that means. For this, perhaps, we need to learn to be thankful.

Read it all.

Commenting on Mead's piece over at Stand Firm, the Rev. Timothy Fountain wrote:

Mead is a progressive, not someone in lockstep opposition to what TEC declares.  For him to post this sober analysis is devastating to TEC spin.

Reading Mead's piece I'm struck again by the question: are we missing the mark by trying to be "relevant"? 


Father Ron Smith said...

" no one outside the dwindling flock in the pews really cares what The Episcopal Church says about anything at all. " - Walter Russell Mead -

Obviously, this statement is an oxymoron. Just who 'outside of the dwindling flock in the pews' is here commenting on the situation? I'll bet he's not one of them in the pews!

So! Many people DO care about what the Episcopal Church is able to do to release the caring ethos of Gospel freedom into, and through, the life of the Church - at a time when many Churches are questioning the morality of withholding the Good News of Jesus Christ from the minorities in the world - those for whom religion is often seen as the 'enemy' rather than their Friend.

"God so loved the World" - not just the Church! Our task is to learn to Love the World - with God's Love.

Dave Halt said...

Henri Nouwen in what I consider a masterwork, In the Name of Jesus, names relevance as one of the great temptations of Christian Leaders. The counter to this temptation, he lays out, is the discipline of contemplative prayer.

I cannot help but think that the irony of the temptation is that the more relevant we attempt to be the more irrelevant we are.

C. Wingate said...

Fr. Smith, Mead's father was a priest, and at least some of the articles I've pulled up from his blog hint that he is still a church-going Episcopalian.

Also, the fact that at least two transgendered clerics went up to the mike in Indianapolis is evidence enough that this church, at least, has hardly been grinding their kind under its collective heels. Progressives spend way too much time bragging about how right-thinking they are, as for instance in all those useless political resolutions that have to be affirmed through at GC.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Fr. Ron.

You wrote: "Just who 'outside of the dwindling flock in the pews' is here commenting on the situation? I'll bet he's not one of them in the pews!"

This raises a good question insofar as I don't know for sure where or if Mead worships in an Episcopal Church. I do know that he has commented regularly on matters in the Episcopal Church over the years. And I also know that Mead's father is an Episcopal priest: the Rev. Loren Mead, who, among his many accomplishments, founded the Alban Institute and has written numerous books, including The Once and Future Church and Financial Meltdown in the Mainline? On that basis alone I'd say that Episcopalianism runs in the family!

But let's assume for the sake of argument that Mead hasn't darkened the door of an Episcopal Church in years. Does that fact alone disqualify him from commenting with authority on what's happening in the Episcopal Church? Not necessarily. After all, there are cradle Episcopalians who haven't the slightest clue about what's happening in their own denomination. Would the mere fact that they show up for worship every Sunday make them better authorities than someone who doesn't darken the door but has done the research and studied the trends?

As to the counter-argument that "many people DO care about what the Episcopal Church is able to do," I'm sure that's necessarily true insofar as as the term "many people" can mean, well, ... pretty much anything! It could mean 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people - whatever definition of "many people" works to make one's point contra Mead.

Speaking as an insider within the Episcopal Church, beyond the headlines that inevitably appear in the first week or so after our General Convention meets, I'm not aware that the grand stands we make every three years really do matter all that much to the average American or citizen of the world. And if they do, it sure isn't translating into ways that are reversing the big picture trends of institutional decline!

Bryan Owen said...

Hi C. Wingate. Your comment was waiting for moderation as I was responding to Fr. Ron. I welcome your comment as complementing my own response to Fr. Ron's comment.

Bryan Owen said...

Dave, thanks for the reminder about Henri Nouwen's book In the Name of Jesus. I haven't looked at it in years, but I agree that it is a masterwork. You are inspiring me to read it again!

C. Wingate said...

Thanks for the kind words. I've been mulling over what to say about all these various articles: in a nutshell, the WSJ article is exaggerated too far, Douthat is a little too Catholic-triumphant, and Bass is too liberal-triumphant. I think Mead comes closest to the truth.

The whole battle against communing the unbaptized points right back at the most basic problem: the liberals are having a great deal of trouble bringing themselves to answer that most basic question: "why should I be baptized?" All their faith-through-works campaign combines with the doctrinal flabbiness to say, "well, don't bother, you don't need to be. You just need to be a good person, by the secular liberal standard thereof." Liberal seculars therefore look at us and say, "nice of you to get on board," and then ignore us; people who lack that socio-political commitment hold us in contempt. People of orthodox faith are increasingly driven out. About our only source of membership, it seems, are dissident Catholics of a particular narrow stripe, and that is evidently not a good enough basis to keep us going.

Jon in the Nati said...

"Are we missing the mark by trying to be 'relevant'?"

I can speak only for myself, as a former ECUSA pew-sitter, one-time seminarian and still pretty young person.

I was a self-described liberal Christian when I came into the church, but I became increasingly traditional over the course of about three years. As I became more traditional, and more desirous of orthodox/patristic teaching, deep spirituality, and proper, reverent liturgy, the Episcopal Church did become increasingly irrelevant to me. Maybe others find ECUSA 'relevant', but to a young, serious orthodox Christian, it eventually had nothing of significance to offer me. I don't say this out of spite; it hurts me to see what the church is now. But if I am to be honest, it is what I would say.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Jon in the Nati. Thank you for the honesty of your comment. I do wish things could have been otherwise for you in the Episcopal Church, but I respect your decision. And I resonate with this snapshot of your journey. I, too, returned to the Church as a very liberal young man. Over the course of time, I have become more "traditional" in my theological outlook, "more [as you put it] desirous of orthodox/patristic teaching, deep spirituality, and proper, reverent liturgy." Since I am now a priest, the burden of providing such things at the local level falls increasingly on my shoulders. I do not necessarily expect others (much less General Convention) to do it for the Episcopal Church more broadly.

Jon in the Nati said...

"Since I am now a priest, the burden of providing such things at the local level falls increasingly on my shoulders. I do not necessarily expect others... to do it for the Episcopal Church more broadly."

I can appreciate that a lot. I once thought that this was my future as well. I thought that perhaps I could, as Ghandi said, "be the change [I] want to see" in the church. But I eventually realized that the battles I would have to fight as an orthodox clergyman in a church where hostility to orthodoxy is widespread and being anything but an orthodox believer is celebrated, were not battles I wanted to spend my life fighting. So I left the seminary, and eventually left ECUSA altogether. Perhaps a coward's way out, but it was how I felt, and how I still feel.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing more, Jon. I've no doubt that your decision was a very difficult one, and I wish you well in wherever God leads you.

Your additional comment comes as I've been reading a brief piece by Timothy George entitled "3 Lessons from Crisis and Decline in the Mainline." Here's part of what George writes:

Within each of the mainline denominations, there are many faithful believers who have not "bowed the knee to Baal." Often they face harassment, discrimination, and litigation. Pray that they will remain faithful in the face of such assaults, and pray that they will find communities of love and support in what for many will be an increasingly isolated position. Some impatient evangelicals on the outside may be tempted to say, "Well, why don't you just leave?" But breaking with the church in which one has been nurtured in the faith, often from childhood, can be like abandoning one's mother. Like marriage, according to the Book of Common Prayer, such a decision should not be made unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in the fear of God. The words of the apostle Paul are surely pertinent here: "Let everyone be persuaded in his own conscience."

But while we pray for those who remain as faithful witnesses swimming against the tide, we should also lift to the Lord in our prayers those who have responded to the Spirit's leading to establish new communities of faith and ecclesial alignments. There is no place for self-righteousness on either side of this divide. However much ecumenical advance we have made, Protestants of all kinds remain divided from the Roman Catholic Church, the most glaring evidence for which is the lack of a common table to share the Sacrament of Unity. Going back even further, Catholics of the West have been separated from Orthodox believers in the East since the Great Schism of 1054. In the meantime, let us renew our commitment to the quest for Christian unity, even as we find ways to celebrate what Tom Oden called 25 years ago "The New Ecumenism." In all of this we seek to bear witness to God's love and grace in this fragile world.

Jon in the Nati said...

Thank you for that, Fr. Owen. I was reminded of, and want to share something that I found on Bishop Dan Martins' blog. Reflecting on the ridiculousness of the Convention, he writes:

"I have begun to nourish a fond hope that there might somehow (not at convention, but later) be an informal meeting of those who are driving the majority agenda in TEC with those who are finding themselves a disappearing minority. The question at that meeting would be, "What has to happen for you to declare victory and give it all a rest?" I have grown intensely weary of opposing whatever The Next Big Thing is. So let's just fast forward to the end: What does Mission Accomplished look like? And in that scenario, is there a place for people like me?"

Reading that brought back a lot of complicated feelings for me. It must be very wearying, always playing the opposition and knowing that you will never not be the opposition. I understand, on a very small scale, how he feels. I don't know what the answer to his questions are, but I'd also like to know, even though I am now an outsider looking back in.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing that from Bishop Martins' blog, Jon. I seem to recall coming across that at one point (his blog was one of the things I read regularly during General Convention). I have a great deal of respect for him, and I'm looking to folks like him to offer the leadership that orthodoxy needs to survive in TEC.

Anonymous said...


Many thanks for offering a recap of all the many and varied bits of GC coverage. Very helpful indeed.

Although I resonate with Jon in the Nati's comments above, I do see signs of younger people returning to the Orthodox and Patristic roots of the Episcopal Church, and this gives me hope - despite the posturing of the 'hierarchy' (not that there's anything wrong with hierarchy!).

As right and left, conservative and liberal, continue to disintegrate and more pressing and real life concerns come to the fore for younger folks - meaningful work, community, place - I think we'll see the beginnings of a return to Orthodox practice and faith.


Bryan Owen said...

Hi Robb. Thanks for chiming in on this conversation. I am aware of some of the signs you cite, and I sincerely hope you are correct about "the beginnings of a return to Orthodox practice and faith" in the Episcopal Church! Assuming that such signs do, indeed, point in this direction, I suspect that it won't be an easy turnaround. It might even require the younger persons you cite to make some difficult, even painful, decisions, particularly as the surrounding culture becomes increasingly post-Christian (and, in many cases, knee-jerk hostile to Christianity).

Jody+ said...

I'm not sure that Walter Mead is appropriately characterized as a progressive, at least from his articles on "The American Interest." I suppose that's subjective since Mead isn't primarily a social commentator, but specializes in foreign policy.

Walter Mead's father is the Rev. Loren Mead of the Alban Institute.

At any rate, my main comment is that I think the decline in moral authority of the Episcopal Church is based primarily on three primary factors: the general decline in moral authority of religious (and other) institutions and the propensity of the Episcopal Church to say too much about too little and finally, a tendency to fret over issues that no one, aside from a very privileged minority, care the least bit about. After all, it's not as though TEC still has moral authority with those who *agree* with the more progressive stances, so the problem has to be with more than the specific policies etc..

Evidence of this is seen in the way Episcopal clergy are presented (the few times they are) in the media. They're (we are) seen as nothing so much as bumbling idiots who don't quite believe in what they're doing.

Take this clip from the defunct show "FlashForward" as an example: http://frjody.com/2009/10/episcopal-clergy-in-the-media/

At any rate, our goal of course, isn't popular influence per se, but I do believe we can learn from Paul's example that an appropriate form of respect from our non-Christian neighbors (to say nothing of our brothers and sisters in Christ) should be cultivated.

G Lyell said...

Thank you for reference to these articles, especially "Why Should Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" I particulary agree with the assertion, in Part 2, that:

"True faith is a direct relationship with God (prayer), the purification of the heart and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit such that one’s thoughts and actions are inevitably transformed."

He then, quite logicly, relates this to his assertion that:

"Ultimately, the only way to genuinely transform the world around us is through the transformation of the self."

The leadership of the Episcopal Church obviously doesn't see it this way. Remember The Great Western Heresy?

Dave Halt said...

Fr. Owen,

Thank you for the kind words.

Jon in the Nati: I wish our paths had crossed when I served there, I would have enjoyed the conversation. I entered my M.Div. program, following an MA in Theology, as a certified "Borgspongian" and taught the same in my home parish and contextual education. In contrast to what I saw of my peers, during the program I became enamored with the Fathers and moved in a more traditional direction. I remain a Creedal Christian within TEC.

Rob Scot said...

Fr. Owen,

Thanks for the article from Timothy George. His assessment of the seriousness with which one must consider whether or not to leave or remain in the church of one's upbringing is right on, and really speaks to me. As a life-long Episcopalian who is finding myself increasingly drawn to a more catholic understanding of the faith as I seek to discern my vocation, I seem to be in good company with several who have commented here.

I would like to ask you for a response to a couple of comments by Jon in the Nati. He wrote:
"But I eventually realized that the battles I would have to fight as an orthodox clergyman in a church where hostility to orthodoxy is widespread and being anything but an orthodox believer is celebrated, were not battles I wanted to spend my life fighting."
"It must be very wearying, always playing the opposition and knowing that you will never not be the opposition."
From your perspective, is this an accurate analysis? Is this what it is like to be a priest who holds to a traditional understanding of the faith in TEC today?

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Rob. Thank you for your comment and questions.

I respect what Jon in the Nati has written, and without in the least intending to call the truthfulness of those comments into question, I think the answer to your questions is that it really depends on where you are in TEC. Some dioceses and some parishes are more orthodox than others, so the truth of Jon's analysis is, IMO, still largely relative to context.

Is it true that the leadership of TEC (meaning most of our bishops, deputies to General Convention, etc.) are charting a course that pushes us further and further to the left? Absolutely. In that regard, things are shifting. And as I've noted in a previous posting, they aren't shifting in the direction of greater clarity about and accountability to the orthodox Christian faith as received within Anglicanism.

Are there still faithful Episcopalians among the laity and the clergy who don't bend the knee to all of the leftist agenda du jour? Yes, absolutely! Will they have a future in TEC in the long run? Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure: if everyone who adheres to the orthodox faith of the Church abandons TEC, then what Ephraim Radner has recently described as "the inevitable fruit of faithfulness whose seed is well-sown" will never blossom and bear fruit.

Rob Scot said...

Fr. Owen,
Thanks so much for the response. I greatly appreciate it.