By Tom Ehrich
Conservative commentators like Rupert Murdoch’s predictable stable and Ross Douthat of The New York Times are feasting on what they perceive as the “death” of “liberal Christianity” and the Episcopal Church in particular.
They add two plus two and get eight. They see decisions they don’t like — such as the recent General Convention endorsement of a rite for blessing same-sex unions. They see declines in church membership. They pounce.
Such “liberal” decisions are destroying the church, they say, and alienating the very young adults they must reach in order to survive.
Never mind that surveys of young adults in America show attitudes toward sexuality that are far more liberal than those of older generations. Never mind that other denominations — including all but a handful of conservative traditions — are also in decline.
Never mind — the most inconvenient truth — that mainline denominations began to decline in 1965, not because of liberal theology, but because the world around them changed and they refused to change with it.
Anti-change attitudes not only prevented necessary responses to a changing world, but their bitter resistance to any change, no matter how small, fed a public perception of mainline churches as argumentative, judgmental, dull and old. It is that perception that young adults are shunning.
What changed in the 1960s? Everything. Urban neighborhoods — where many mainline congregations had thrived — lost population to white-flight suburbs. Children lost interest in attending churches where they no longer knew anyone. Parents connected with suburban activity centers, such as soccer leagues. Neighborhood venues — drug stores, hardware stores, schools — gave way to larger venues.
Denominations were slow to establish suburban congregations. In a fundamental management failure led by the anti-change cadre, mainline churches tried to preserve a neighborhood ethos. When they did establish suburban churches, they tended to be too small, too under-funded, and too focused on replicating old ways, rather than responding to the very different ways suburbanites were living.
Conservatism’s deadweight continued to drag down mainline churches as the change era accelerated. They waited to deal with the civil rights movement. Even as women were entering other professions, conservatives resisted opening ordination to women. Even as new cultural forms were emerging, conservatives fought to prevent any adaptation of mainline liturgies and hymnody. As people sought new expressions of faith, in response to changing times, traditional leaders mocked “renewal” as “happy-clappy.”
It was those fights that drove people away. It was also the looking-backward attitudes that prevented church leaders from responding to cultural shifts, many of them painful, such as decimation of the middle class, collapse of disposable income for all but the very wealthy, collapse of employment and safety nets, and eroding infrastructure.
In time, many mainline churches became precious enclaves of old people doing old things. We were still arguing about paint colors when people needed us to help them find fresh purpose and confidence.
Douthat and Murdoch’s mouthpieces couldn’t be more wrong in their analysis of mainline Christianity.
Nor do they understand the present moment, which isn’t churches galloping ahead of their people. It’s leaders finally getting ready to do what they should have been doing for 50 years, namely, looking outside their walls at a deeply troubled world and asking what God needs them to do in this larger venue. Spending up to 90% of their budgets on Sunday worship alone won’t cut it. What’s the more?
General Convention’s decision on same-sex blessings wasn’t a leap beyond; it was the last gasp of old ways of thinking, namely, that Sunday worship and liturgical rules are what matter.
Now leaders can look outward and onward. Conservatives will find themselves ignored, not because mainline traditions have lost their way, but because they are determined to find their way. Anti-change, my-way-or-the-highway conservatives have cried wolf too often.
Their next round of emotional and financial blackmail won’t find much of an audience, except, of course, on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal.