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Episcopal Church Adapts to Culture, Answers Critics

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Miracles do happen. They are happening recently in the media world on the church front. Critics are responding to recent attacks on the Episcopal Church.
Inspired by reports of the obvious, that that church body has experienced very significant losses of membership and church attendance in recent years, critics in national newspapers and elsewhere beyond the confines of that denomination have gone public with accounts of what’s wrong with that body.

Notable examples were Ross Douthat’s “CanLiberalChristianityBeSaved?” in the New York Times and “WhatAilsEpiscopalians?” by Jay Akasie in the Wall Street Journal.

Most such headlined questions, on charges by writers who know the answers, are ignored.

Episcopalians, like members of all Christian bodies of which we have heard (since the time of the letters of the Apostle Paul) have been too busy fighting each other to pay attention to snipers from a distance.

Or Episcopalians simply yawned, changed the subject and kept doing what they were doing.

The frequent and notable recent responses to attacks do not deny documentations of “decline,” but, with their nerves touched, they find the ideologies behind the attacks and the assumptions of the attackers too weighty to ignore.

The attacks all come down to the charge that in recent decades Episcopalians have adapted too strongly to “secular liberalism.” We can only signal and touch on a few examples.

Thus, Bishop Stacy F. Sauls in a letter to the Times turned the attack on its head. The chief operating officer of the church agrees: Yes, “the church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it … for a long, long time.”

And now the church is liberating itself by trying “to be a follower of Jesus.” It is now “standing by those the culture marginalizes,” and thus is counter-cultural at last.

The bishop makes brief references to Jesus and to Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:28 to support his claim.

Sarah Morice-Brubaker chargesonline that Douthat poses false alternatives for the church: “Either Unpromising” archaism or becoming “a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance.”

Like other respondents to attacks, she invokes Jesus and the central Christian narrative in an attempt to show how the church that the critic dismisses is, on some ground, closer to the Gospel than are the critics, who are bound to other elements in the culture.

Diana Butler Bass, an upfront prolific writer on mainline Christian trends, sees “mean-spirited or partisan” criticism.

She finds Douthat and company stuck back in 1974 with a notable book by Dean Kelley, “Why Conservative Churches Are Growing,” which was astute about life 40 years ago.

She asks, has he looked lately at the decline in Catholicism, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, the Southern Baptist Convention – and, she could have added, non-growth or decline of denominations wanted to be counter-churches to the conservatives?

Face it, says Bass, today “liberal churches are not the only ones declining.” She’d prefer to see analysts facing up to that rather than attacking the groups they don’t like.

For her the question is not “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” but “Can Liberal Christians Save Christianity?”

In a future Sightings, I’ll take specific note of attempts to provide an interpretive framework by two significant historians, Jill K. Gill and David Hollinger.

No more than anyone else do they have answers to all the demographic, theological and churchly issues posed here, but their cautions should make the public take second looks at “decline” ¨and adaptations to “secular liberalism.”

So we have a debate? That’s miraculous!

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.