A USA Today opinion piece by Oliver Thomas I read after I found the AP story got me thinking more deeply about religious trends. “Where have all the Protestants gone?” suggests that mainline churches have not been as marginalized as some would have us believe. According to Thomas,
The conventional wisdom has been that the more conservative Catholic and Evangelical churches simply won over the hearts and minds of the American people. And, if there is a culture war, these more liberal Protestant groups surely must have lost.Thomas sees the success of mainline churches as having inadvertently encouraged the growth of a spiritual-but-not-religious demographic. On the positive side, however, the churches’ embrace of gay rights and environmental concerns appeals to the young and unchurched. While not predicting a bright future for Episcopal, Lutheran, and other churches, he doesn’t rule out such a development.
But not so fast. Just look at what these mainline Protestants have championed: racial justice, equality for women, food stamps, rights for the disabled, reproductive choice and so forth. American law and society have embraced nearly every one of their issues down the line. We have largely become the inclusive, pluralistic society that these more liberal Protestant Christians envisioned.
Thomas is right to point out the societal transformations in which religious communities played an important role. That very success unleashes other forces that tend to undermine those communities, however. This can be seen most easily in the political sphere, where trends play out at an accelerated rate.
Barack Obama was catapulted into office by a widespread and intense desire for change—a desire for more liberal national policies by some and a desire for an alternative to the secrecy, deception, and insensitivity of the Bush administration by others. A year after he took office, however, President Obama has few legislative or diplomatic successes to his credit, though there is hope that, over time, he will indeed score significant achievements. But, for now, his approval rating is below 50%, and the Tea Party movement, which deplores every political development of the last hundred years, threatens to become a force to be reckoned with. This is an example of its being much easier to energize Americans with a throw-the-bums-out message than it is with a stay-the-course theme.
What has happened in The Episcopal Church has much in common with the current political scene. It is a lot easier to incite passion for a return to “the faith once delivered to the saints”—Anglicans Online recently suggested that this phrase usually means “the church one experienced in childhood”—than it is to maintain passion for an ongoing, long-term program of reform. The cry for “orthodoxy” in The Episcopal Church—now increasingly a cry from outside the church—comes from a reactionary movement that clings to a romantic view of the past because its adherents cannot abide either the inevitability or the uncertainty inherent in their view of the future.
The reactionary movement itself advocating a return to “orthodoxy” views things differently, of course, as can be seen clearly in a recent address by Archbishop Robert Duncan reported by David Virtue. (Don’t miss Mark Harris’s devastating critique of this confused speech.) According to Duncan,
This could be the Anglican Century in North America accountable to Scripture, Tradition, the Holy Spirit and the transformation of society. There has never been a movement so well positioned at the beginning of an era multiplying congregations fueled by the Holy Spirit. It is the Anglican moment and if we are faithful we should prove to be an Anglican century.The deposed Bishop of Pittsburgh is fond of suggesting that he is the new Martin Luther, and he sometimes gets carried away with his rhetoric. Luther, of course, was a reformer, not a religious Luddite, and the future tends to be unkind to reactionary movements. I doubt the twenty-first century will, in any way, be the Anglican century, but I am certain it will not be the Duncanite century. Does anyone truly believe that, in, say, 50 years, homosexuals will not be fully accepted in American society, with the same rights long enjoyed by white, Protestant, males? Or that mainline churches will not fully approve of their inclusion?
Admittedly, we cannot view history as displaying the monotonic progress of humanity. Both the Middle Ages and contemporary Republicans illustrate that society sometimes moves backwards. That movement, however, is always and inevitably reversed. Barring nuclear war, collisions with comets, eruptions of super volcanoes, and environmental catastrophe, I am comfortable in predicting a happier future for The Episcopal Church than for the Anglican Church in North America. Even The Episcopal Church is probably too conservative for our century to be the Episcopal Church century, but, with effort and the Holy Spirit, it will, I hope, remain a force for good in our society.