Watching the slide

There has been much discussion about the revival of religion, especially in Europe. It has been noticed that where there is growth it is with demoniations that are conservative, or theologically orthodox, in their thinking.

An article in the New York Times questions this assumption and argues for liberal Christianity. He writes that the leaders of the Episcopal Church (Anglican/Church of England) have “spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States”.

He goes on to write that “today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes”. Of course, if Benedict ever did this there would be no end to the demands by the reforms, until almost nothing of value was left. Undoubtedly the first thing the “liberal pundits and theologians” would abolish it the Latin Mass which has rightly been restored to a par with the vernacular Mass.

He goes on to mention that “instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase”. However, it may to too simple to equate modern reforms with declining attendence.

He makes the point that “This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis”. Of course, not just the United States but “the West”, broadly defined. Indeed, it is these “values” of individualism and greed that societies are reaping now with the financial crisis and societal breakdown that Pope Benedict rightly attacks.

He writes that “if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves”.

He goes on to write, with a note of caution that “Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor. But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction”.

He concludes arging that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world”. While the American Conservative commenting on the same article writes that “The various conservative Christianities may not be fully reconcilable, but they all point to a source of authority, or sources of authority, beyond individual experience and subjectivity. That gives them their force, and their staying power”.

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3 Responses to “Watching the slide”

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