A recent Religion News Service article on infamous Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong celebrates him as an aging maverick whose provocative sexual and theological stances supposedly are no longer controversial. At age 82, the former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is writing his 24th book. In the 1980s and 1990s his works infamously speculated that the Virgin Mary was impregnated by a Roman soldier, that St. Paul was a self-hating homosexual, and that Jesus’ unresurrected body was torn asunder by wild dogs.
A former Southern segregationist, Spong celebrated his spiritual maturity away from racism into more enlightened religion, which also rejected Christian orthodoxy. He later joined the then publicity savvy Jesus Seminar, whose liberal scholars once made headlines by voting with marbles over which Gospel stories were not true.
Spong always claimed to speak for a new generation who could not believe in traditional beliefs and who craved a new interpretation of Christianity. His new interpretation never flew. Unmentioned in the RNS report, Spong’s diocese lost 43 percent of its membership during his 21 years as bishop. Since he retired in 2000, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark has lost another 25 percent. In 1978, the diocese had over 64,000. Last year it was down to just over 27,000, about a 60 percent loss.
There are evidently no regrets from Spong. RNS reports:
Through it all, Spong never retreated an inch. By the time he retired in 2000, his own diocese had 35 openly gay and lesbian clergy, and he also helped promote a new generation of church leaders who can carry his progressive torch: 11 clerics from his tenure are now bishops, more than from any other diocese, he says.
Since Spong became a bishop, the Episcopal Church nationally, whose elites often aligned with Spong, has lost 25 percent of its membership. Although Americans remain about as church-going as ever, the 50 year exodus from and demographic implosion of liberal oldline Protestant denominations continues unabated. Fifty years ago, one of every 6 Americans belonged to the largest “Seven Sister” Mainline denominations. Today, it’s less than one of every 16 and falling.
Hardline liberal church activists like Spong, of whatever age, seem largely indifferent. For them, their liberationist ideology is more important than the institutional or spiritual health of their denominations. And for them, every cause du jour is supposedly just like fighting segregation 50 years ago. Never mind that universal Christian teaching never countenanced racism and was in fact the basis for opposing it. Yet today, the mostly white, North American church liberationists remain at war with, and are increasingly besieged by, growing global Christianity and its historic teachings.
Another recent RNS article pondered what no longer Mainline Protestants should be called. Its tongue-in-cheek cited options are “Old Line,” “Liberal Church,” “Grandma’s Church,” “Christians-Formerly-Known-As-Mainline,” and “New Coke.” In the article, liberal Episcopal writer Diane Butler Bass, who insists these denominations retain “vitality,” warned against calling former Mainliners “sidelined” and “deadlined” as “tired slurs.” Perhaps, but the slurs are mostly accurate.
Next year a new book from Catholic thinker Jody Bottum comes called An Anxious Age, which laments the disappearance of Mainline Protestant institutions and ethos. Its promotional brochure notes:
From its Puritan beginning, the nation has always been shaped by its essential Protestantism, Bottum notes. But the most significant fact about modern American Protestantism — the most significant and underappreciated fact about all of contemporary America — is the collapse of the Mainline Protestant churches over the last fifty years. Where those churches once defined the liberal consensus of the nation, they have nearly disappeared from public life, and in their place have risen strange new beings: social and political feelings elevated to supernatural entities that repopulate the depleted metaphysical realm.
As Bottum has written earlier, Mainline Protestantism created the civil culture and language that guided American political and cultural discourse, colonial and republican, across most of four centuries. As not just Mainline Protestant institutions but also memories of them recede, what cohesive spiritual forces will guide American thought and action? The answer is unclear. In his 1990 book, The Catholic Moment, former Lutheran turned Catholic thinker Richard Neuhaus wondered if Catholicism could not replace the cultural void left by collapsing Mainline Protestantism. But nearly a quarter century later, his hope seems unfulfilled.
As New York Times columnist and religion pundit Ross Douthat has commented, “America is as religious as ever but less institutionally religious.” Religious individualism has accelerated. And in the absence of once great Protestant denominations, publishing houses, universities and missions agencies, religious Americans have resorted to a plethora of autonomous congregations that inter-pollinate with parachurch groups and independent evangelical schools, further undergirded by the growing trend of home schooling, and educated by bestselling books from independent evangelical authors.
The explosion of evangelical entrepreneurship was hardly the goal of Bishop John Shelby Spong and his kindred spirits, who presumed that oldline Protestant denominational dominance in America was permanent. They are largely unaware or contemptuous of the independent-minded religious ethos that has supplanted their receding universe. That Bishop Spong’s turgid revisionism is now largely inconsequential is good news. That America no longer has great mediating religious institutions that bind us together is not so good.