September 6, 2013

Decline: Causes and Circumstances

Over at Facebook someone has posted a link to a year old article blaming "progressives" for the decline of the Episcopal Church. And just about every other decline, including the decline in numbers of Roman Catholic nuns.

Well, I'm rather familiar with both subjects. Let's address the nuns first. The real "progressive" move that had major impact on religious communities was the shift in teaching regarding the superiority of celibacy over marriage. The latter, for over a millennium point five, was officially seen as a concession to weakness, and a necessity to keep the world (and the church) going; but if you really wanted to be an earnest Christian, you'd best be a nun or a priest. (This took rather seriously the Gospel passage we will hear this coming Sunday, by the way, about what it takes to be "a disciple.")

When in mid-20th-century terms the issue was reexamined, the teaching was nudged to place marriage on an equal, if not even slightly higher, plane. (This is when we started seeing misguided efforts to liken a married couple to the "image of God.") This move, hardly "progressive," had impact on women religious in particular, where the "bride of Christ" analogy had been played for all it was worth. I recall hearing from one late-middle-aged nun, the angry recrimination, "You mean I gave up my life and now you're telling me it's all the same!"

A similar shift in emphasis came with lightening the strict observance of Sundays and Days of Obligation, which — I can recall from childhood in pre-Vatican II circumstances — were held over our heads with dire threat of serious sin. As soon as you lighten the leash that has been held firmly in place, the critter will try to run free. Again, I would hardly call this "progressive."

When it comes to the Episcopal Church, the author does not present a terrifically accurate portrait, at its writing in 2012 or now. Decline in the Mainstream Churches has little to do with progressive / conservative issues. It has to do with a shift in the culture away from "church-going" as the primary focus for one's spiritual life. The 50s were anomalous in terms of the "institutional church" — a boom period connected to post-war and cold war angst (that certainly fueled the Merton-led phenomenon of young folks flocking to religion) and a culture of conformity and propriety. When the post-war fervor faded, distrust with "institutions" of all sorts evolved post-Vietnam, the door to the monasteries was found to swing both ways, and the kids (whose parents diligently forced them to attend) forsook "organized" religion when they reached adulthood in the 70s and 80s. They are not visiting the requirement of religious conformity on their children.

The world caught on, of course, and around the same time started doing things on the formerly sacrosanct sabbath — the Blue Laws have faded to pale grey, like parish records kept in fugitive ink. I can recall the announcement when Macys first said they'd be open on Sunday. Gimbels soon followed. Now even liquor stores are open on Sunday in some places, schools plan major sporting events on Sunday morning, and people have found they have better things to do with their time than attend worship which, as C S Lewis once quipped, makes it seem that "God is a nice old man who likes to be read to." If they are going to read, it will be in bed with the Sunday Times.

What's new attracts — for a time. But even the megachurches are seeing declines, as the novelty wears off. Churches that put on a good show — whether Rock or Roccoco, praise band or plainchant — still "draw" and likely have a future. Good preaching, good fellowship, a sense of identity and mission — these all help. But the days when the culture simply "expected" people to be church-goers is gone, and it isn't coming back.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


David said...

Well said, and completely correct IMHO :)

June Butler said...

Well said, Tobias. You left out the blame for climate change, that is if you believe in climate change. Surely, it's the fault of progressives.

Paul said...

Yes. Thank you.
It is a good thing I retired because church has no appeal to me anymore either.

JCF said...

Popularity. Demographics. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of THE LORD.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, all. Since I wrote this in haste earlier today, a few other cultural phenoms of note came to mind. Isn't it, for instance, interesting that the post-war angst and drive toward conformity and "values" may have encouraged the rise of Communism in Asia and E Europe at the same time those same influences drove the rise of Christendom in the US -- and set them at odds!

Barbara said...

That's interesting. I'd always assumed that the reason for the decline in RC (and other) nuns was that prior to the 1960s-ish, most woman couldn't have a professional life of any kind (and, of course, a gay woman couldn't have a life at all).

The convent offered women a "cell of one's own," so to speak, and good and interesting work to do at a time when that wasn't generally available elsewhere. After the 60s, though, women who wanted a professional life could have it - and women who loved women could find a way to do that, too.

RCC convents in other parts of the world are still going pretty strong (see this page for data) - and some US convents are now populated primarily with women from abroad. Priestly vocations are actually up outside the U.S., it says. I think all of that is for another, older reason: monastic life (and the priesthood) was a way out of poverty.

Of course, none of these things have anything to do with doctrine!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think that's a big part of it all, Barbara. But that is also part of the cultural shift away from the norms of 50s culture in the US.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I think that's a big part of it all, Barbara. But that is also part of the cultural shift away from the norms of 50s culture in the US.

Jon said...

Plus very few people enjoy fights or other unpleasantness, so the places that experienced the worst declines aren't consistently progressive or conservative. They're places that dealt poorly with strong disagreement.

C. Wingate said...

Kirk Hadaway's old paper largely attributed the change to the demographic shift. While it's not unimportant in the short run I have to think that this explanation ultimately doesn't make sense because it implies that the only reason we got enough people was because a higher birthrate made up for the large fraction lost to apostasy. At any rate the stability of our church's stats in the 1990s isn't consistent with this theory.

What I do see is evidence that in the century departures from our church explain a lot of the losses. The schismatic dioceses alone account for a very large fraction of the decline, but there are hints in the numbers that we are losing a lot of middle-aged members. At any rate, given the rates of baptisms and receptions, we ought to be seeing something a lot closer to stability than relentless decline.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, CW. While I think demographics plays some part, my sense is that the shift in the culture is much bigger, and concerns more or less all "churchgoing" churches across the board. Some, such as the Romans, are actually bolstered by demographics -- the immigration factor, without which the decline would be steeper.

I'm also not so sure how "relentless" the decline will be. I expect that just as there have been plateau peaks, there will be plateau valleys. I think we are likely approaching a new "normal" in the coming decade, that will be significantly lower than high levels of the 50s-60s.

What I would love to see, and have not seen, is a chart showing variability in the "church-going share" of each church in relation to the church-going total, and also in relation to the total population. My impression, given the data at hand, is that TEC is holding its "share" fairly well in the face of a near universal overall decline.