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Killing a Church

The long and tragic decline of the Episcopal faith.

By 8.3.10

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Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity
by William Murchison
(Encounter Books, 288 pages, $25.95)

Virginia's Supreme Court recently ruled against conservative former Episcopal Church congregations trying to keep their property as members of a new theologically orthodox Anglican denomination. Hundreds of local churches across America are agonizing over whether to remain in the old and increasingly heterodox Episcopal Church or depart, potentially losing venerable church properties.

Former Dallas Morning News editor and current syndicated columnist William Murchison remains in the old denomination. He published his book about the Episcopal Church just in time for the denomination's implosively historic 2009 General Convention, which officially sanctioned gay clergy and same-sex unions. Himself a long-time active Episcopalian in the theologically orthodox Diocese of Dallas, and partial to the church's Anglo-Catholic wing, Murchison sagely traces the church's fall from America's most culturally elite church to an increasingly marginal, though still highly entertaining religious sideshow.

The Episcopal Church's current crisis technically began with its 2003 election of openly homosexual Bishop Gene Robinson, igniting growing tensions with the nearly 80 million member Anglican Communion, especially its increasingly dominant and conservative African members. But Murchison traces the church's wrong turn to the 1960s, when Episcopal elites increasingly chose for cultural conformity rather than cultural transformation. Like other Mainline Protestant elites, Episcopalians began to shed "exclusivist" claims about Christianity in favor of pluralism, where every ideology has a voice except for orthodoxy.

Not surprisingly, the rejection of orthodoxy in favor of cultural and political fads, whatever the spiritual consequences, has been disastrous for Episcopalians and all Mainline Protestant denominations, all of which have been losing members since the 1960s, between 25 and 40 percent. Former Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans either gave up on organized religion, or they joined evangelical or Catholic churches, or they, more permanently, died (!), leaving few if any descendants, as Mainline Protestants, especially Episcopalians, have notoriously low birth rates. The current Episcopal Presiding Bishop even celebrated this demographic collapse, claiming that Episcopalians were protecting the planet by abstaining from children.

Sixty years ago, Murchison recounts, the first president of the National Council of Churches was an Episcopal bishop whose robust goal was: "a Christian America in a Christian world." Somewhat presciently though, Jewish theologian Will Herberg noted of 1950s spirituality, despite the crowded churches, that it all seemed a "secularized Puritanism, a Puritanism without transcendence, without sense of sin or judgment." Middle class religious complacency gave rise to impatient 1960s radicalism, when socially aroused church elites, following through on the political dreams of early 20th century Social Gospel theorists, began to rebel against church traditions in favor of political revolution.

Notorious, and highly charismatic, California Episcopal Bishop James Pike, who graced the cover of Time magazine, embodied this new restlessness. At the church's 1964 General Convention, he bewailed "outdated, incomprehensible, and nonessential doctrinal statements, traditions, and codes," having seemingly forgotten his own consecration vows to steadfastly resist all "strange and erroneous doctrine." Pike urged a "theological revolution" to make the Gospel "relevant," which entailed junking "myths" of past centuries, like the Virgin Birth and the Trinity, which were "unintelligible." Eventually Pike pushed so hard that heresy charges were formally pressed. But ultimately, the Episcopal Church nervously shrank from ousting Pike for his apostasies. Pike's unprosecuted rebellion foreshadowed expanded chaos for the church, as it succumbed to the surrounding secular culture's demand for personal autonomy, accompanied by moral fragmentation.

Although Pike and his supporters strove for a "relevant" church, their influence helped spiral the Episcopal Church from 3.5 million in the 1960s to barely 2 million today, across 4 decades when the U.S. population increased by 50 percent. The embodiment of this decline was Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, whose best selling books deriding the Virgin Mary as a possible prostitute and speculating about St. Paul's sexual preference got him on Phil Donahue. But the years of his progressive leadership, which included the ordination of actively homosexual clergy in defiance of church policy, saw a 40 percent decline of his diocese's membership. "Why Christianity Must Change or Die," was the title of one Spong book. But the form of doctrine-less Episcopalianism attracted only white, upper middle class, highly educated suburban liberals, and not very many of them. In recent years, respective Episcopal clergy have professed to be a Druid, a Muslim and a Buddhist. The first two ultimately left the ministry, and the third was denied election as bishop. But who's to say their bi-faith choices were necessarily wrong?

Unlike other Mainline denominations, some with larger memberships, the Episcopal Church's antics, and decline, gets more media play. Many of America's founders were Episcopalian, after all, and the church, having reached America's shores at Jamestown in 1607, is America's oldest. It has served as America's religious finishing school, often offering refined worship and beautiful buildings even on the frontier, when Methodists and Baptists prayed in more rustic fashion. The Vanderbilts, Astors and Roosevelts were Episcopalian and, by one account in the 1950s, three-quarters of social weddings in the New York Times were Episcopalian. Once derided as the church of Wall Street, and the Republican Party at prayer, Episcopalians since the 1960s have quickly compensated for lost time, pivoting left, and professing to be the voice of the voiceless, even as most members are still wealthy or upper middle class suburban whites.

Murchison argues that Old Money helped define, and unravel, the Episcopal Church. Growth and dynamism require entrepreneurship and risk. But who wants that when you have endowments and beautiful buildings? Provocateurs like Pike and Spong could push far, but there was far too little push back. Why risk the conflict? Meanwhile, comfortable Episcopal elites, ever with a sense of noblesse oblige, embraced the Civil Rights Movement, denouncing segregation in 1955 as "contrary to the mind of Christ." Ten Episcopal bishops joined Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The Episcopal Church then and now has few black members. But commendable civil rights activism sated a thirst for social change among Episcopalians that led directly into the feminist movement, including the 1970s ordination of women, and ultimately homosexual causes in the 1980s to the present. No longer mostly confined to saving souls, church elites saw themselves as liberating American society from "privilege." 

Meanwhile, the church accepted divorced clergy in the early 1970s and easily accommodated the 1973 legalization of abortion. Christian traditions about the priesthood, marriage, and human life were crumbling, as the Episcopal Church struggled to stay apace with secular America, while distancing itself from much of Christianity. Fresh from the Civil Rights movement, the church professed to be social justice minded. But it was silent, if not actively complicit, in the break-down of family structure, with the disastrous impact upon children, especially among the poor, including inner city blacks, for whom fathers married to mothers was becoming an oddity.

In attempting to elevate the poor and racial minorities, the Episcopal Church, like other social organs of liberalism, unintentionally but actively contributed to their further social impoverishment. Likewise, in its 40 year pursuit of "diversity" and pluralism, Episcopalianism is now succumbing to uniformity. The last General Convention insisted that all Episcopalians shall oppose Defense of Marriage laws, seemingly without regard to personal conscience.

Murchison laments this long and tragic decline of a once great church body. He offers no specific solutions for recovery except reliance on the Holy Spirit and historic Christianity's mystical doctrines, which no Episcopal prelate can ever truly override. About 100,000 mostly former Episcopalians have formed the new Anglican Church in North America, which, while not yet recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is recognized by most global Anglican archbishops. And at last year's Episcopal General Convention, at least two dozen bishops responded to the votes for gay clergy and same-sex unions by affirming their own continued fidelity to the historic faith and the global Anglican Communion. 

So in parts of what used to the great Episcopal Church in America, there are embers of renewal, even while most of the old temple collapses, with most of its attending priests apparently not even noticing. Murchison, whose own conservative diocese is so far remaining in the Episcopal Church, tells the story well, with some sadness, but also hope. Anglicans both inside and outside the Episcopal Church will appreciate his account.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.