Special Report

Spiritual Decay

Washington's new Episcopal bishop is candid about the church's decline, but won't acknowledge the cause.

By 11.16.11

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It's commonly remarked that obfuscation is a job requirement for liberal bishops in the Episcopal Church. Never content with reading scripture's plain meaning, they often explain away parts of the Bible that sound unpleasant to today's supposedly enlightened ears. As if out of habit, this practice carries over into church operations, where decaying Mainline Protestant houses of worship situated near booming evangelical churches rarely lead to straightforward discussions about church vitality.

It may come as a surprise, then, that Washington, D.C.'s new bishop is being heralded for her candor in acknowledging the Episcopal Church's decline, even as she fails to identify the underlying reasons for the decline that traditionalists argue got the church into such dire straits in the first place.

Mariann Budde, the first woman to be installed as Washington's top bishop (another briefly led on an interim basis), comes to the diocese acknowledging years of decline and a culture of Episcopalians who, she told the Washington Post, have lost focus on the core missions of worship and evangelizing. Statistics released in October by the U.S.-based church reveal it has lost over 40 percent of its churchgoers since the mid-1960s. Budde replaces John Bryson Chane, who famously said he was "so sick and tired of reading reports about the statistical decline of The Episcopal Church" that he no longer reads them. In selecting a replacement, the diocese sought a candidate who did not fatigue as quickly.

Weak spiritual foundations and churches that don't demand enough commitment from members are among Budde's targets. In her interview with the Post she dramatically compared the denomination to the interstate bridge that collapsed in her hometown of Minneapolis in 2007. But while calls for children's ministries and stronger pastoral care are needed, the root of the church's crisis lies elsewhere.

Budde told the Post of people wanting to "connect to transcendence and the spiritual basis of life we call God" and cheered the Episcopal Church being "open-minded and inclusive of other faith traditions." The Minnesota cleric's choice of words was typical of a Religious Left uncomfortable with Christianity's exclusivist truth claims, instead opting for a belief system where nothing is certain in the character of God, save indiscriminate affirmation.

In Budde's view, the church's longtime expectation of monogamy in traditional marriage, and the loyalties inherent to traditional families, make way for "full inclusion."

Professing to be "thrilled" to be in D.C., where same-gender marriage is legal, Budde told the Washington Examiner: "I'm pretty confident that the gospel is clear on this in terms of our accepting people as we are created by God to be and not asking people to change to conform to some uniform standard of human expression."

So we can forget about presenting people with a transforming encounter with the living God; Christianity is about "a spiritual basis of life" that is focused strictly upon acceptance. Never mind that churches which elevate this teaching are those experiencing the most rapid declines.

Budde has been touted in the local media as a church growth expert, as her congregation initially grew from an attendance of 100 to about 275 in her first years there. But only in a diocese like Minnesota, losing a quarter of its members in the past decade, would Budde's own congregation -- where growth has stalled since 2003 -- be identified as especially vibrant, and Budde seen as some kind of miracle worker.

Perhaps most attractive on Budde's résumé was a devotion to liberal political causes. In an interview with the public radio show Interfaith Voices, Budde cited "progressive Catholics" as an early influence in her life, referring to those who opposed "the Reagan wars" in Central America, and the Catholic Worker Movement. Identified by the fawning interviewer as having "a strong social justice agenda," Budde said she would make her views -- and the progressive social justice views of the Episcopal Church -- known.

Washington's new bishop seems the ideal candidate for leadership within the Episcopal Church: motivating enough to require more of her parishioners than simply showing up at Sunday worship, but inoffensive enough to not challenge any of liberal Protestantism's shibboleths, such as universalist salvation or complete affirmation of alternative sexualities and liberal political advocacy.

In Budde, Washington Episcopalians see an official who acknowledges with candor the failings of the church in evangelism and hospitality, but who does not make theological demands that would compromise the Episcopal Church's new gospel of indiscriminate inclusion and ultimately steer the church back onto a path of renewal.

Speaking to the Examiner, Budde asserted: "The Episcopal Church is a jewel of Christianity." With a moneyed history that built ornate houses of worship, the "jewel" language seems apt, even if American Christianity seems to find less and less of value in what the Episcopal Church offers.

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About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.