Among the Intellectualoids

Not Much Thanksgiving for Episcopalians

Under their new presiding bishop, America's neo-Shakers are doing their best to disappear from the face of the earth.

By 11.21.06

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Supposedly, it was Anglicans in Virginia who celebrated the First Thanksgiving rather than Puritan Congregationalists in Massachusetts.

Steadfast Virginians believe that the first celebratory autumn feast was held at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, where 38 men just arrived from England knelt on the banks of the James River. They declared: "Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God."

They probably did not eat as well as the Pilgrims at the Plymouth feast two years later. Instead of turkey, the new Virginians may have only had only bacon and peas, washed down by cinnamon water.

These English Anglicans had demographic goals somewhat similar to the Calvinist Pilgrims, though. They were going to settle and populate a whole continent, creating a nation and spreading the Christian faith.

In the mythology of the Religious Left, of course, these earliest of Americans were not only defrauders of the original tribes, they were also despoilers of the environment. Like good "fundamentalists," these hearty Protestants took the Bible too literally about being fruitful and multiplying. They also took too seriously the ostensible divine mandate placing the earth under man's dominion.

The spiritual descendants of those early English/Virginia Anglican pioneers are now correcting the divine record. New Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori recently told the New York Times that her fellow Episcopalians are proudly not procreating so as to spare the environment.

The Presiding Bishop was asked how many Episcopalians there are in the U.S. "About 2.2 million," Schiori responded. "It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children."

"Aren't Episcopalians interested in replenishing their ranks by having children," the New York Times asked.

"No," Schori replied. "It's probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion."

True to Schori's boast, the Episcopalians have done magnificently in reducing their numbers and, purportedly, sparing the earth the ravages of an enlarged Episcopalian presence. Forty years ago, the Episcopal Church was over 50 percent larger than today, even while the U.S. population was 40 percent smaller.

Had the Episcopalians maintained the same ravenous membership pace of Roman Catholics, or Mormons, or Southern Baptists, over the last 40 years, there would now be somewhere between six and 8 million Episcopalians in the U.S., rather than the current 2 million.

Undoubtedly, the 2003 election of the Episcopal Church's first openly homosexual bishop has accelerated that denomination's decline, with increasing numbers of conservative church members giving up and walking out. Perhaps those Episcopalians who become Catholic or Baptist will soon thereafter become more procreative.

But the remnant Episcopalians under the pastorship of Presiding Bishop Schori no doubt will hold fast to their noble environmental stewardship and maintain a steady, and eco-friendly, downward membership spiral. A good model for the Episcopalians might be the Shakers, the early American sect that foreswore all procreation. Like Episcopalians, the Shakers lived in tasteful and tidy villages, ate plain food, wore all natural fibers, and had nice furniture. The Shakers also had a female leader, "Mother" Ann Lee. Like Bishop Schori, Mother Lee took a dim view of heterosexual couples marrying and having children.

Unlike the Episcopalians, the Shakers worshipped by shouting, dancing, and shaking in fits of ecstasy for hours. In stark contrast, Episcopalians sit quietly or sleep through 50-minute worship services occasionally interrupted by soft organ music. Also unlike the Episcopalians, the Shakers made converts to their faith and inducted orphans into their communities.

But eventually, the Shakers aversion to procreation caught up with them and they were dying out by the end of the 19th century. Today, most Shaker villages are museums or private homes, just as many venerable old Episcopal churches have become restaurants or condominiums for yuppies. A few eccentric Shakers still survive, making baskets and furniture, and keeping the old ways alive. Some day in future decades, if Bishop Schori is completely successful, the Episcopal Church similarly will have reduced to a dozen or so well-heeled adherents. They too will be objects of pleasant curiosity, attracting tourists to their tidy, ivy-covered tudor homes and well-stocked wine closets.

Like the Episcopalians, the Shakers were great conservationists. They depopulated and left behind only their tracks, along with quaint relics. Both Shakers and Episcopalians must find distasteful the more fecund religious movements around the world, whose members continue to marry, birth multiple children, and take up space.

There are now nearly 80 million Anglicans around the world, for example, and their numbers are increasing exponentially, especially in Africa. Forty years ago, for example, the number of Anglicans in Nigeria was somewhat smaller than the number of Episcopalians in the U.S. Today, there are 20 million Nigerian Anglicans, all of them no doubt polluting and contributing mightily to global warming. Bishop Schori must be aghast.

But the growing Anglican communion, like nearly all growing religious groups, view people as gifts from God, not as parasites on an exploited planet earth. And like the hearty Anglicans and Puritans who celebrated America's first Thanksgivings almost four centuries ago, they see the world as still an unexplored adventure, waiting to be unwrapped, enjoyed, and meriting thanks to a God in whose image all people were made.

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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.