NEW YORK -- Once diagnosed as heading into a stormy collision, mainline Protestant clergy and lay people now have shifted into closer accord, researchers have concluded after a study of the Reformed Church in America, the nation's oldest Protestant denomination.
"There has been movement on both parts," says sociologist Donald A. Luidens in describing results of an extensive study. "Collectively, they now have more that knits them together than separates them."
Some surprising reversals turned up, including these:
Lay people, who used to criticize the clergy as lax on doctrine, now are the most flexible about it. Clergy, once accused of neglecting doctrine to meddle in politics, now are the most devoted to it.
"Clergy have become the defenders of doctrine," Luidens said in an interview. "Lay people are more flexible about it. They tend to see personal piety and experience as touchstones of faith rather than the creeds and traditional standards.
"My sense is that the theological speculation of the clergy has been bought by the laity."
The study involved completed questionnaires from 1,756 lay people and 579 clergy in the Reformed Church in America, generally considered a middle-course denomination among mainline Protestants.
"Case studies have indicated it is quite exemplar, with the same ebb and flow that most of the mainline denominations have," Luidens said. "My sense is that mainline churches in general likely would show the same patterns."
The denomination is America's oldest Protestant body with a continuous ministry. It is rooted in Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian traditions. Medium-sized with about 340,000 members, it participates in major ecumenical organizations.
Luidens, who is chairman of the sociology department at the denomination's Hope College in Holland, Mich., and another sociologist there, Roger J. Nemeth, conducted the study.
It was prompted by questions about the relative calm in the churches nowadays in contrast to indications found in a study 20 years ago that clergy-laity differences were propelling them toward a clash.
In that 1969 study, "The Gathering Storm in the Churches," sociologist Jeffery Hadden saw evidence that the clergy's liberal theology and social activism was dividing them from a socially and theologically conservative laity.
But the new study finds that the signs of storm have passed and that "a form of rapprochement has taken place." Most lines of division no longer were found between clergy and laity but within those groups.
Moreover, Luidens said, much of the past "liberal agenda" seems to have become the "mainstream agenda" that is generally accepted by clergy and laity.
They both now largely "accept women's rights and support the poor and minority rights, are critical of the arms race and sometimes of U.S. foreign policy," he said.
However, on issues such as increased social programs, gay rights, defense spending, the death penalty, banning abortion and school prayer, clergy were found more liberal than laity.
At the same time, lay people were found more liberal than clergy on theological beliefs such the Apostles' Creed, the Heidelberg Catechism, Nicene Creed and other historic doctrinal statements.
Nemeth said that "in contrast to a single-minded conservativism among the laity and a single-minded liberalism among the clergy," some clergy and laity were liberal on politics and beliefs, while some clergy and laity were conservative on both fronts.
A "pluralist patchwork of perspectives" apparently has developed, the researchers said, making for "more grounds for agreement than existed in the 1960s and 1970s."
Hadden had speculated that as a result of the past conflict, one side or the other might capture control of the churches, or that the more radical clergy would leave the church to push their causes elsewhere.
Luidens and Nemeth speculate some clergy did leave, but their data don't deal with that aspect.