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Has the Last Episcopalian Been Born?

On gris-gris charms and the decline of liberal Christianity
Has the Last Episcopalian Been Born?

Philip Jenkins, a scholar and Episcopal layman, does the math and finds out that at the Episcopal Church’s current rate of decline, there will be no more Episcopalians by the end of this century. Excerpt:

If we extrapolate that rate into the not-too-distant future, then the number of people attending Episcopal churches on a typical Sunday will be negligible by mid-century, typical of a tiny sect rather than a great church or denomination. It won’t reach zero for a while, but in effect, the church will cease to exist. We might need a new vocabulary of religious decline. How about church evaporation? That mid-century date is really not far off. In fact, the baby baptized at my church last Sunday will by that point only be a young adult in her 30s. Non-attending notional members will persist for a few years longer, but by the end of the century, we should be talking total disappearance. In that scenario, America’s last Episcopalian walks among us today. At some point, young people contemplating a clerical career will have to consider just how long there will indeed be a church for them to serve.

Read the whole thing. The Presbyterian Church USA, another major liberal mainline Protestant church, one almost the same size as TEC, is declining at an even faster rate. Church statistics from 2011 show that the median age of a PCUSA member is 63, and has been rising. This means half the people in the PCUSA are over 63. This also means that over the next couple of decades, half the PCUSA’s current members are going to die. Are they being replaced?

(By the way, TEC is a younger church, but not by much. A 2011 report said that the average Episcopalian is 57. Same demographic decline too. You might recall that the Presiding Bishop of TEC said back in ’06 that the failure of Episcopalians to have babies to replace dying members is actually a sign of virtue. “We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion,” she told The New York Times.)

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is also in freefall — the sharpest of all the top mainline denominations; 500,000 left the church after its 2009 decision to approve ordination of gay clergy in committed monogamous relationships. In 2008, the average age of an ELCA congregant was 58; that has almost certainly risen.

(On the other hand, the conservative Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod is also graying. I can’t find reliable recent stats for the average LCMS age, but I think it’s roughly the same as the ELCA. Pastor Matt Harrison, the LCMS head, speculated last year that the later marriages and much smaller families of LCMS Lutherans has much to do with this.)

Without a doubt the percentage of young Americans affiliating with particular churches/denominations is declining across the board (see Pew’s big study for more). The trend for almost everybody is bad, though Mormons and Pentecostals, to the contrary, are growing. Catholics are growing, but this is only because of immigration; if not for Latin American Catholics moving to the US, the Catholic Church in the US would be shedding members at the same rate as the Mainline Protestants. It’s tempting for Christians in conservative churches to look at the rolling collapse of liberal churches and feel affirmed, but leaving aside the duty to basic Christian charity, the situation is much too serious for Christianity on the whole to warrant conservative Schadenfreude.

That said, some churches are in much worse shape than others. Consider that the average age of a Southern Baptist is 49.  Now, Southern Baptists have had some demographic reversals in recent years, but as Ross Douthat wrote back in 2012:

[I]t would take literally decades of decline for conservative churches to come close to sharing liberal Protestantism’s current sickness-unto-death. Consider the following statistics (taken from Rodney Stark’s “The Churching of America”): In 1940, for every 1,000 churchgoers in the United States, 224 belonged to one of four major Mainline bodies (United Methodists, PCUSA Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Congregationalists), while 77 were Southern Baptists. By 2000, the Southern Baptist share of the churchgoing population equalled the share of those four more liberal churches combined — not because SBC growth was extraordinary (though it was significant), but because the liberal churches’ decline was so astonishingly steep. The fact that the SBC has struggled in the period since those numbers were published tells us something important about the challenges facing even conservative churches. But five years of declining membership is simply not the same thing as a multigenerational (and perhaps accelerating) collapse.

There was some hurt and anger in the comments thread from this weekend’s post making fun of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut’s decision to make a big issue over ceasing to refer to its clergy as “Father” or “Mother,” and to do so as a matter of social justice. I don’t apologize for snarking at that nonsense any more than I apologize for snarking in the past about clown masses in Catholic parishes. Some things don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Besides, as I said over the weekend, the people who suffer the most from this kind of thing are the orthodox faithful still holding on within those parishes or denominations. I count some of these Episcopalians as good friends, and better Christians than I am.

Why does this stuff interest me? In part it’s because I want to learn from the mistakes of others. On Sunday evening we went to a party, where I found myself talking to a new friend, a man who works at the Exxon refinery. I forget how, but we got to talking about a region of Louisiana that suffers from economic and social decline. You drive through there, and you can easily see that towns that once were vibrant are now decrepit, and winding down. We agreed that because these are small towns a lot like our own, it’s important for us not to be complacent about our own economic situation. What happened to those towns could happen to us if we are not careful.

True, some things simply can’t be helped. Those towns, for example, all suffer from the big changes in agriculture over the past few decades. But given these broad shifts in the economy, were there things these towns could have done to have made themselves more resilient? Were there mistakes made that accelerated their decline? These are not simply interesting sociological questions, but for people like me and my new friend, who live in a town and parish that’s beautiful, but that is also not growing population-wise, and that faces pretty serious economic challenges, these questions have to do with the life and death of our community in our lifetime.

It’s the same with churches. Philip Jenkins is right: the last Episcopalian may have been born (though certainly not the last Anglican; there’s a difference). That being the case, it is beyond absurd to see the Connecticut Episcopalians doubling down on the progressivist strategies that have done nothing to arrest the church’s decline, and that have arguably exacerbated it. Why do organizations do things like this?

Example: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents most Catholic nuns and sisters in the US, is dying. There are as many American nuns over the age of 90 as under the age of 60; the average age of an American nun is 74. Yet in 2012, the LCWR invited this blissed-out weirdo to be the keynote speaker at its national assembly. (N.B., not all American nuns are affiliated with the LCWR; 20 percent belong to a more traditional organization for nuns. Though the alternative organization represents only about one-fifth to one-sixth of the number of nuns represented by LCWR, the traditionalists are getting most of the new vocations.)

When the rate of decline of your church or religious organization is so steep that it is possible that someone born today may live to see it evaporate, and you have the leadership class of those churches or religious organizations responding with crackpot gestures, what else do you do? It’s like watching those African tribal fighters don gris-gris charms they believe will make them invisible, then go into war against people with real guns.

UPDATE: Mr. Pickwick comments:

Man, does this hit home. My wife and I have bounced back and forth between ELCA and PCUSA congregations for decades now, and we see the phenomenon of decline every Sunday. I really don’t see how my particular congregation is going to keep the doors open 10 years from now; we simply don’t have enough of a younger cohort to step into leadership positions (much less fill the pews).

And yes, fruitiness from the theological Left is part of the reason (in the mainline denominations). But my wife’s LCMS pastor brother sees similar decline in his (very conservative) denomination as well. So there’s something happening churchwide.

To be honest, I am of two minds. On the one hand, I mourn the passing of the traditional church, which nourished me for years on my walk of faith. But that church is almost entirely extinct, replaced instead by three equally unattractive alternatives: from the Left, goofy political correctness. And on the Right, either mindless happy-clappy, seeker-sensitive worship raves or the hardline Tea Party at Prayer. Given those alternatives, sometimes I wonder whether the demise of The Church As We Know It is a godsend.

These days, my wife and I have decreased our reliance on the institutional church for our spiritual nourishment, turning instead to other resources (Mars Hill Audio, books, close friends and such). Is this what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in mind when he mused about the coming of “religionless Christianity”?

Hector (an Episcopalian) gives an explanation that is simple and wise:

Because, as Georges Sorel said, people make existential choices based as much on myths as on facts. The diocesan convention attendees have a myth that makes sense out of their lives, and unless they’re confronted with a better myth, no amount of facts is ever going to get through to them.

That strikes me as exactly right. The myth (in the sense of the story that helps them make sense of the world) that they believe is not the myth of historically normative Christianity, but the myth of Progressivism. From my point of view, it’s a radically false gospel, in that it cannot be reconciled with historic Christianity. But it has a powerful hold on the minds of many.

Sociologist Philip Rieff, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, observed that institutions die when they can no longer communicate their core values to the next generation in a convincing way. He said this to support his contention (in 1966!) that Christianity was dying in the West, because we Westerners have become hostile to the ascetic spirit that is inextricable from authentic Christianity, and has been from the beginning. As you know, I believe Rieff was right, and that his being right is not something that traditional Christians should take comfort in, except in this one way: a Christianity that does demand something sacrificial from its followers is not only being true to the nature of the religion, but is far more likely to engender the kind of devotion that will endure through the therapeutic dark age. Aside from its radical theological innovations that are impossible to harmonize with Christianity as it was known for its first 1,900 years, Progressive Christianity has fully embraced the therapeutic mindset, in the sense that Rieff means. It is dying because it cannot convince young people to embrace its values within the institutional churches. It can’t be denied that many of the young do accept the social liberalism embraced by the progressive churches, but it also can’t be denied that most of them don’t see why they have to be part of a church to be socially progressive.

Theological conservatives had better watch out with this. If you raise up young people to believe that the truth of their theological beliefs is determined by the quality of their emotional experience in worship, you are undermining your foundations. Anyway, the universal challenge faced by Christianity in the West is how to communicate its values to a generation whose “myth” is inimical to the Christian message.



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