In the wake of the Episcopal Church’s recent convention, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has leveled a broadside at the venerable but now struggling denomination. “Can liberal Christianity be saved?” he asks. He identifies two trends that seem to be sealing the once proud church’s fate. The Episcopal Church has been moving steadily in a “liberal” or “progressive” direction both theologically and politically, he declares, and t over this same period Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants have been steadily shedding members. On the face of it both points are incontrovertible. The last fifty years have been a time of social, cultural, and theological ferment as American society has moved from the post-World War II culture to the post-modern 21st century Information Age. Little surprise then that the ways we believe and practice our faith would change. And little surprise that a fast-moving, consumer-oriented, individualistic society would find the older traditions less compelling.
The flaw in Douthat’s argument, though, is the causal link he creates. The Episcopal Church’s liberalism-- the changes in worship, reinterpreted beliefs, interfaith openness, and social and political involvement-- have caused the numerical decline, he declares. But if Douthat is looking for a comprehensive explanation, he won’t find it there. In fact, the conservative churches are experiencing major decline now as well. And as Diana Butler Bass has pointed out, Douthat’s own Roman Catholic Church, with its firmly disciplined and dogmatic approach to belief and practice, is shrinking as rapidly as mainline churches when the numbers are adjusted for the impact of immigration on their pews.
What Douthat sees as a rising tide of liberalism increasingly weakening the mainline churches is in fact a tidal wave of social change washing over the face of Christianity in North America. To put it simply, Americans are in many cases finding in their churches little of the spiritual sustenance they once did. Many have lost confidence in the institution itself, and are too often finding little in church services to win them away from Sunday morning jogging, gardening, and soccer leagues.
A nation that once went to church on Sunday turns up far less. A culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment, consumer savvy, high entertainment expectations, and impatience with the demands of organizations, does little to encourage the patience required for life in local congregations. And, crucially, many churches have become so at ease in the American establishment that they have lost their sense of urgency for nurturing strong personal faith in their members. The churches have much to learn in this time of transition, and the good news is that the learning curve is now sharp and many are in the game.
The fact is, though, that there are plenty of signs of vitality scattered across the country in individual congregations as Christianity moves through a time of revision and renewal. Churches are reinventing themselves to engage a 21st century culture. Some speak of a neo-liberal Christianity, conservative in its core convictions and progressive in the patterns of worshiping and engaging the culture. It might be called generous-spirited Christianity, rooted in a biblical faith interpreted through contemporary eyes, ready to engage other faiths and traditions, determined to form followers in an ethos that reflects Christianity’s deepest convictions about service to the poor, honoring the earth, and working for a just and equitable world.
Douthat rightly acknowledges the social contributions that liberal Christianity has made in the 20th century, from women’s suffrage, to fair labor laws, to civil rights. It has been doing the same for the rights of gays and lesbians. And he cites historian Gary Dorrien in reminding us that leaders of those earlier social movements had “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” The Christianity that is emerging from this time of transition promises to embrace just this holy union—of love of God and service to humanity and the world.
Controversies over social issues and theological conviction will persist. But the hunger is real for a way of being Christian that recognizes that understandings of scripture and church teaching must evolve over time, and that to be a Christian is to have an inquiring mind and a discerning heart.
Faith is not disappearing in this country. Recent polls report that more than 90 percent of Americans continue to believe in God. This time of flux and transition actually poses a significant opportunity for all the churches. My guess is that regardless of denomination, those congregations that will thrive will embody a generous-spirited, intellectually alive, socially engaged Christian faith. We are seeing in our churches not only the recovery of the experience of God and the centrality of life community, but also the call to live the faith amid the ambiguities of a diverse culture. The real issue will not be which churches are conservative and which are liberal, but which are spiritually alive and which are not.
The Right Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III is the former dean of National Cathedral.