One of the many issues we face for the future of the church will be its viability, which is to some extent related to the size of its membership. However, I do not think it wise to fall into a consequentialist ethic based primarily on the numbers of our members, their increase or decline. Like the abundance of possessions, this is really not the point.
For doing the right thing may cause a loss in membership, and doing the wrong thing can lead to growth. No small number of observers appear to me to be making an explicit judgment that the loss of members in the Episcopal Church, which one frequent poster to the HoB/D list refers to as a “hemorrhage,” is being caused by the trends promoted by TEC leadership over the last decade or so; that these are both bad things; and that to reverse the former we should change the latter.
I have no doubt that some people have left TEC on account of its “liberal” trend. But that in itself is not a proof that the trend is wrong. I have pointed out a number of times that there are very conservative church bodies that have also lost significant numbers of their membership over the last decades — so connecting liberal trends with inevitable decline is, in itself, questionable. I take no joy in seeing any church decline; but parishes and dioceses also decline under conservative leadership. And churches also decline due to conflict within them.
There is more at work when we look at the larger picture. Many reports have been written charting some of the complex reasons for decline in many if not most religious bodies over the last decades. These do not appear, for the most part, to be based on the teachings of any particular church, liberal or conservative, but fundamentally on a crisis of faith in the wider population, dismay at hypocrisy and wrongdoing within the churches, and the increasing secularization of society through decline in the protections churches once enjoyed — such as the blue laws that favored a quiet Sunday. I know that my parish loses more due to the soccer field and the Sunday workplace than to antagonism towards Gene Robinson.
So I very much doubt, all things considered, that a shift in teaching on the part of TEC in a more conservative direction will stop the “hemorrhage” any more than continuing to hold fast to working for the full implementation of the Gospel (which is what I think we’ve been doing in this so-called liberal trend) will speed many more losses.
Some will continue to depart, no doubt, because they can no longer abide in a church in which same-sex couples are given the same honor and celebration that they enjoy for their own relationships. If I believed they were departing from the Church with a capital C, and risking their salvation, I might be worried for them. But I think in the long run those who cannot abide because of their convictions are better off leaving; and so are those who remain because of their convictions. And I am more concerned with those who are not churched being drawn into a welcoming church, than I am for those who are merely shifting their denominational allegiance. That, to me, is real evangelism.
It may be, that like the woman who suffered long with her affliction, TEC will only be healed of its hemorrhage when it has the courage to reach out to grasp the hem of Christ’s garment with full confidence and faith, choosing to follow him regardless of how many may take offense at him, and flee.
Tobias Haller BSG