Saturday, July 15, 2006

Liberal Christianity Losing It?

This article appeared in last Sunday's LA Times (may require free registration but they don't spam). My first reaction was that this a conservative Catholic wrinkling her nose at the grossness of gay people under a veneer of moral rectitude and incorrect "facts" about the decline of the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches. Basically, our churches are "failing" because we let in the gays, ordain women, and don't demand a list of righteous do's-and-dont's from our members (we actually let people think for themselves...scary). She's also mad because we won't do resolutions that state things we obviously believe because we say them in our creed every week. In her world, all churches of these denominations are down to 80 people who will die in a generation leaving no Episco's or Presby's anymore.

I hope she never visits California. All the churches of that ilk that I've attended out here are - gasp - thriving. Really. If the Presby's are so bad off, I'm not sure why hundreds of them come to my seminary each year to reach a deeper level of discipleship and often pursue ordination. If the Episcopalians are so bad off, I'm not sure why my church has 250 children in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Anyway, I can only go from my own anecdotal evidence and my gut reaction (not that I'm incapable of doing a fine response, I'm just too busy reading hundreds of pages about eschatology right now - and I gotta say, for the end of the world, it's not as exciting as you might think. Say you what want, Left Behind is at least engaging). But our bishop wrote a really lovely response, which I will post for you now.

Open Hearted, Open Minded Christianity
by The Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno and The Reverend Bryan Jones

In recent years the Episcopal Church has acted from a firm foundation of biblical, historic faith, not on “whatever the liberal elements of secular society deem permissible or politically correct” as contended by Charlotte Allen in her diatribe against the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, “Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins” (Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 9, 2006).

Episcopalians seek to follow Jesus’ own understanding of scripture when he identified two commandments from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” as greater than any other portions of Scripture (Matthew 22:36-40). We believe that the central biblical mandates are clear: to love, welcome, and include all people into an egalitarian Christian fellowship, in which “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). It is in these overarching commandments and central mandates from the Bible as a whole that we find the authority of Scripture. We do not look for that authority in any handful of scattered, isolated passages selectively gathered to rationalize intolerance, cruelty or unfairness.

This basic call of God in Christ leads Christians in each age to new awareness of still unresolved divisions and unaddressed exclusions in the Church and in society. In our own times, this dynamic has led the Episcopal Church and many other American churches into conflicts over injustice and oppression against people of color, the poor, and immigrants, as well as over the equality of women and the full humanity of gay and lesbian people.

Our current conflicts are real but should not be overblown. Out of more than 7,000 congregations nationwide fewer than 150 have sought to leave the Episcopal Church. Out of 111 dioceses, seven are seeking ecclesiastical oversight from someone other than our newly elected Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, while making it clear that they do not wish to leave the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church is open to all people regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. Within the broad parameters of essential Christian conviction and practice, it celebrates a diversity of opinions and positions on many issues. We are bound together by common prayer and shared worship, so we have no need to impose uniformity in thought and doctrine. At our best we are open-hearted and open-minded followers of Christ. We democratically elect our bishops, priests, and lay leaders at all levels of the church. We respect each person’s right to conscience. We know our understanding is limited and often mistaken but we strive together to hear God’s voice in Scripture, in the tradition of the Church and in our God-given capacities to think and feel, to reflect and to learn.

In her article, Charlotte Allen paints a picture of the Episcopal Church in particular and the American religious landscape in general that is simplistic and inaccurate. In her view churches can be neatly divided into denominations which are declining because of their liberalism and denominations which are growing because they are conservative. Reality, as usual, is a bit more complex. The Episcopal Church was never simply “the Republican Party at prayer.” It always has been and still is home to people who are both theologically and politically conservative, moderate and liberal. It is the church of Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, but also of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a life long active Episcopalian whose social conscience was formed by the Episcopal schools of his youth. Even the Southern Baptists are more diverse than their commonly assigned caricature. The last three Baptist Presidents were named Truman, Carter and Clinton.

Declining Church membership and attendance is a broader phenomenon as well. The Southern Baptist Convention now publicly worries that its plateaued membership numbers and declining baptism rates augur future decline. Some recent studies reveal that attendance has started to decline in evangelical congregations and conservative mega churches as well. It is true that the overall membership of the Episcopal Church has declined since the 1960’s. But it also true that a majority of its dioceses experienced increases in their active members (communicants) between 1993 and 2003. For example here in California the “liberal” diocese of Los Angeles and the “conservative” diocese of San Joaquin grew at nearly equal rates. (13.9% with 1,018 new communicants for San Joaquin and 12% with 5,869 new communicants for Los Angeles.)

Christianity in North America is moving through a great historic transition which may have first expressed itself among mainline denominations, but is not stopping there. We have moved into an era where, regardless of nominal identifications, only a minority of Americans are active, church-going Christians of any stripe. The rivers of societal sanctions and cultural norms no longer flow through church doors depositing people in the pews. Today the majority of Americans no longer fear either social ostracism or eternal damnation when they choose not to go church. The palpable tone of hostile resentment in so many public voices of American Christianity today arises out of grief at the passing of that socially conventional church. But we are convinced that its passing is all to the good. Too often the motivation of religious fear bore the bitter fruit of anxious lives and judgmental communities, hardly the joyous fruits of the Spirit which the poetry of St. Paul sings praises to (Galatians 5:22-23). Far better for churches of any size to be filled with people who have consciously chosen to sing praises faithfully and gratefully towards the loving God they find there.

And while we are at it, let’s sing a few praises for Katherine Jefferts Schori, newly elected as the first woman Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Her ministry continues to embody what Christian churches in the 21st century should be about. Her vision for the Church calls us beyond the current disputes to Christ’s call to comfort the mourning, feed the hungry, and preach good news to the poor.

Every week in tens of thousands of churches, including Episcopal congregations, people are quietly living into that vision by caring for their neighbors. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that presently 50% of Americans report they have fewer than three people in their lives they can confide in. Twenty-five percent report they have no one to confide in at all. In such unprecedented social isolation, loneliness may be the hunger and poverty that is shared most often by people at all levels of our society. Although we make no claims that it is the only place where a life different from this can be found, we know the local Episcopal congregation offers a blessed alternative. There you will find a faith community where people know and care for each other; respect differences, and share the presence of God, whose love passes all our understanding.

J. Jon Bruno is the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Bryan Jones is Rector of St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Long Beach.


janinsanfran said...

Thanks for posting this. It is indeed lovely.

Marshall Scott said...

This is a good response. And in fact the statistics, while not what we would want, are hardly what the catastrophists proclaim. If we're proclaiming the Gospel, we'll be okay. If we're not, any growth will be accumulation of the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

Anonymous said...

As Hugo Schwyzer (and others on various blogs) pointed out, Charlotte Allen doesn't explain why her Roman Catholic church isn't posting record growth, despite its conservative pedigree!

Mike L. said...

I think that the numbers do show a real shift or trend in church growth but I also think the numbers are a bit misleading. What we are seeing is not a downturn in "liberal Christianity" but a shift in numbers between mainline denomination churches to Evangelical denomination churches. Now that may seem like people are moving from liberal to conservative ideas but I think most people are flowing to the churches that seem to be paying attention to their culture and ignoring the theolgical and social implications.

It seems to me that there are a growing number or people (like me) that worship in an Evangelical curtural setting but have more and more liberal theological and political views.

Like me, many people feel caught in the crossfire of this age old debate of liberal v. conservative. I feel like I have to decide between 2 less than desirable blends of faith. The first is a medievil liturgy with pockets of more current theology that exists in the some mainline churches or do I go with door number 2 that gives me more current cultural expressions of faith but is buried under the weight of medieval literalist theology.

What is a 21st century follower of Jesus to do? It is possible that many of us will leave building of Christianity entirely. Some will exit stage right and some will exit stage left.

Anonymous said...

"Charlotte Allen doesn't explain why her Roman Catholic church isn't posting record growth, despite its conservative pedigree!

Actually, this question of "liberal Christianity" is also the subject of a very heated and ongoing discussion within the Roman Catholic Church, which is not made up just of the Charlotte Allens and Mel Gibsons but also of the Martin Sheens, Joan Chittisters, etc. The Vatican may have a conservative reputation, but the Catholic Church is made of of much more than just the Vatican.

Anonymous said...

"Her vision for the Church calls us beyond the current disputes".

Can the good Bishop Bruno really be saying this???

With the stroke of a pen, the Most Rev. Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop, could end the legal battles with parishes wishing to remain in the Communion, but NOT wishing to submit to the ECUAS. But she and her legal team, supported by the House of Bishops, fight on.

The first result of this is the continuance of anger as both sides of the conflict focus on differences than similarities. The second is the transferance of wealth to the pockets of attorneys AWAY from ministries which might actually demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ, in concrete terms.

If Bishop Bruno really believes this claim, then let him ask the Presiding Bishop to end the litigation, which she can do with the stroke of a pen.

And By the way, I live neither in Fresno, nor in Pittsburgh. But take seriously the admonition of St. Paul in 1st Corinthians against Christians suing each other. Is there no one in the House of Bishops who takes this seriously??