In Which The New York Times Gives Liberal Christianity a Punch on the Nose
In 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”. Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States…
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline… Absent a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
True story. For a fascinating analysis of liberalism, including some very helpful engagement with this very article, you should check out the ever-thoughtful Steve Holmes. He writes:
Giving priority to personal experience will inevitably lead to the embracing of an ethic that reflects the general ethic of the culture to which (the majority of) the denomination’s members belong. So, liberal Christianity assumed European racial superiority in the nineteenth century; supported imperial warmongering and argued in favour of eugenics in the early decades of the twentieth century (see particularly Anna Poulson’s doctoral research on the Lambeth conferences of 1920 and 1930); was unwelcoming to immigrants from the West Indies in the 1950s; turned in favour of the sexual revolution in the 1960s or soon after; became active in arguing for racial equality in the 1980s; embraced environmental concerns in a major way in the 1990s; and so on. This is not to say any of the positions are wrong or right (I have my opinions…), but to point out that the history of liberal Christian ethical reflection, which is a complex mixture of reactionary and progressive positions, can be very plausibly narrated if we assume that a granting of primacy to human experience is somewhere near the intellectual heart of the movement.
Both pieces are well worth a read.