November 3, 2008

Bleeding Heart Liberals

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


Country Parson said...

I can only speak for the medium sized congregation I served for eight years before retirement. In a rural community and yet with three colleges, it is the only Episcopal Church, and there is no doubt that some members have left because of "liberal" issues. On the other hand, we had absolute membership growth each year, in spite of a very high number of funerals. What we did not have was an increase in ASA. That went down. New members tended to be new to Christianity, new to the Episcopal Church, new to the community, and without a life long discipline of Sunday worship. I'm thrilled that they joined and stayed, but their attendance is sporadic and their theological connection to Anglicanism is marginal. That's a sample of 1. I wonder what other samples might be like?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think what you describe is not at all uncommon. The biggest change has been in ASA, in part due to the rise in other options and a shift in the culture from rigourous Sunday attendance. I know this is true in my parish as well -- ASA is down slightly, but people are just as committed to the parish, and haven't "left" -- they just are finding it difficult to be in church every Sunday, and don't feel at all bad about it.

Anonymous said...

I take no joy in seeing any church decline

Then you're a better person than I am, Tobias. I do "take joy" when HATEFUL churches decline.

Beyond that, however, whether we like it or not, churches are human organizations: they have life-cycles (birth to death, but often birth to various kinds of rebirth, to decline, to???)

It's not unusual, that the so-called "Mainline" churches, wouldn't have the same kind of growth as the Mormons or Pentecostals, for example (when you start very small, it's easy to double!)

At the same time, I honestly believe that TEC is poised for rebirth---contraire to the Gloom&Doomers (who usually, though not always, are ROOTING for TEC's doom!)

TEC is on the tail-end . . . of a 40-year ("Wilderness Sojourn") transition, from a white, upper-middle-class patriarchal body, to something completely different (Vive Le Christ-like Difference!)

We just gotta get through the actual, um, child-birth, as it were. "Groaning together", n' all that.

God bless TEC! :-D

Fr Craig said...

Tobias - see TLC, Nov. 2, re: dubious notion that conservative Anglican church will attract members,

I agree with JCF re: demographics and both of you re: ASA declines due to competition with other activities. The 'glory days' for TEC (and other mainlines) were during the 'baby boom' years (my generation) - families with 4-6 kids were common and TEC was the 'rich, educated' people's church, the one relocating executives went to. Fact is, as family size shrunk we also faced serious new and unprecedented competition from non-denominational churches - who happen to be outstanding marketers to the younger generation, which could not care less about theology. I maintain that we also forgot about being the Body of Christ... I'm very much afraid that denominationalism is fading away - although I contend that liturgical and sacramental worship will prevail - it draws us out of our 'selves' and towards God. Sadly, what sells best right now is 'self-oriented' worship - giving ME a spiritual high, etc. Contra-gospel, and ultimately it will not stand (only been around 30 years or so vs. 20 centuries for the Church). VOTE!!

MarkBrunson said...

I wonder if we really don't encourage monasticism as much as we should - in fact, I know we don't.
The abuses of the monastic vocation in the Church's past have left many with a feeling of distaste for people "living off of" others. The truth is, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, being a monastic is something of a luxury, but, I believe, it's a luxury the larger church needs.
With all due respect to MDG's and outreach and all the other very necessary parish/diocesan/national-church activities and projects, it is also good to have places in which there are those given to the spiritual, or mystical, or theological dimension of our churches, and which provide a haven for others to approach the transcendent in a total environment of prayer and detachment. I think that it's healthy to have those who detach, even from worthy activities, as Mary sitting at Jesus' feet.
This certainly isn't the sole answer to the malaise in our - and indeed most - churches, but I think it is a major part of a solution.