George F. Will has an excellent and fair summary of where the Episcopal church finds itself. You can find the article in the Washington Post: A Faith’s Dwindling Following. The summary is fairly straightforward:
As the church’s doctrines have become more elastic, the church has contracted. It celebrates an “inclusiveness” that includes fewer and fewer members.
He is, of course, not saying anything new or that we have not observed before. I have often marveled at how the so-called “progressives” in our church (I say “so-called” because such a term, like so many in politics, is used not to define oneself, but the other; the opposite of “progressive” is, of course, “regressive”) are so confounded as to why evangelical churches with a fairly straightforward message of repentance, acceptance of forgiveness, and Bible study have been growing so rapidly while our numbers dwindle. The answer is simple. Very few people want a religious community where “anything goes.”
People fundamentally understand that not everything can be equally right. We go to churches, synagogues, and mosques to hear guidance and direction. We know we aren’t perfect and recognize there must be a better way. The last thing we want to hear is “your OK just the way you are, don’t change a thing” because we know that we are not OK. A newer generation won’t get the reference, but we might say “I’m not OK and you’re not OK and that’s OK.” At the core of all the Bible and the Gospel particularly is the assertion that we and this creation were made for something much, much better than what we are now. We need clarity of message so that we can decide whether or not we agree with it. Say what you will about Willow Creek Bible Church, you know what they believe. You may not agree with them, which is fine, but you know what they believe. What does the Episcopal Church believe? Hmm. That’s a tough one….
In many ways I think that the Episcopal Church would be far, far better off if it simply decided to draw a clear line in the sand regarding the role and authority of Scripture. The church would probably lose members and it might gain them, but at least being decisive would allow those seeking a community of faith to know upon what (or whom) the Episcopal Church based their faith. Be hot or be cold, but no one finds luke wark palatable.
2 thoughts on “Latterday Latitudinarians Lumbering over the Limen”
I don;t think it’s as much a theological problem as it is a problem with how a church understands it’s tension with “the world”. Without some kind of sectarian characteristics that define such tension, it is hard for people to find a clear reason why they should persist or join. Thus, if you are progressive, liberal, etc. define what that means and then clarify through your mission, vision, and goals what you will do about it.
Although we should keep in mind that decline of mainline populations is largely accounted for by the demographic imperative – mainline liberals have less babies and are not as good at keep their kids in the same church over time – especially when they become young adults. Greeley and Hout have done a lot to help us understand these predictable trends. I would recommend their book The Truth about Conservative Christians which summarizes their published work in book form.
Drew, I will have to look into Greeley and Hous’s study because I have serious doubts about that assertion, at least as you have described it. We actually just spent a portion of the day at the Center for Strategic and International Studies talking about population growth and demographic change. It is a truism today to state that as a people become more affluent they have fewer children. This is an economic difference. So while is true that Americans who have historically attended mainline churches have fewer children than those in, say Mexico, I don’t believe that one could argue that they are having fewer children than those Americans who attend a church like Willow Creek Community Church, at least not in numbers that would be statistically significant. (So the growth in the numbers of Anglicans in Africa would be a more complex situation to analyze requiring all sorts of other data to be considered, including culture, political influence, economy, etc.)
Thus I would not accept, without substantial evidence (so I need to do some research myself), that the decline of mainline churches can be accounted for by birthrates and retention of children. I certainly do think the latter is done particularly poorly in mainline churches, however.
I certainly agree that mainline churches can help themselves by making their distinctions clear. That is what I meant by being either hot or cold and what I think was Will’s criticism.