The fact is, churches have been adapting to culture from day one. We've translated the message and tried to find points of contact. Sometimes that has positive results -- sometimes not so much. There are often unintended consequences. The growing openness to gay marriage and ordination is seen as an adaptation to culture and a cause of decline. But was not the evangelical embrace of slavery in the south a cultural adaptation? Or, we could point to the intertwining of patriotism and religion. Is it not a cultural adaptation, one that blunts our ability to speak prophetically?
Well, there's been much conversation going on lately between left and right. Martin Marty picks up on the conversation and gives it some context. Take a look and a read, and offer your thoughts.
Episcopal Church Adapting to Culture
-- Martin E. Marty
Miracles do happen. They are happening recently in the media world on the church front. Critics are responding to recent attacks on the Episcopal Church. Inspired by reports of the obvious, that that church body has experienced very significant losses of membership and church attendance in recent years, critics in national newspapers and elsewhere beyond the confines of that denomination have gone public with accounts of what’s wrong with that body. Notable examples were Ross Douthat’s “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” in the New York Times and “What Ails Episcopalians?” by Jay Akasie in theWall Street Journal. Most such headlined questions on charges by writers who know the answers, are ignored. Episcopalians, like members of all Christian bodies of which we have heard (since the time of the letters of the Apostle Paul) have been too busy fighting each other to pay attention to snipers from a distance. Or Episcopalians simply yawned, changed the subject, and kept doing what they were doing.
The frequent and notable recent responses to attacks do not deny documentations of “decline,” but, with their nerves touched, they find the ideologies behind the attacks and the assumptions of the attackers too weighty to ignore. The attacks all come down to the charge that in recent decades Episcopalians have adapted too strongly to “secular liberalism.” We can only signal and touch on a few examples. Thus Bishop Stacy F. Sauls in a letter to the Times turned the attack on its head. The Chief Operating Officer of the Church agrees, Yes, “the church has been captive to the dominant culture, which has rewarded it . . . for a long, long time.” And now the Church is liberating itself by trying “to be a follower of Jesus.” It is now “standing by those the culture marginalizes,” and thus is counter-cultural at last. The Bishop makes brief references to Jesus and to Paul’s writing in Galatians 3:28 to support his claim.
Sarah Morice-Brubaker charges online that Douthat poses false alternatives for the Church: “Either Unpromising” archaism or becoming “a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance.” Like other respondents to attacks, she invokes Jesus and the central Christian narrative in an attempt to show how the Church which the critic dismisses is, on some ground, closer to the Gospel than are the critics, who are bound to other elements in the culture. Diana Butler Bass, an upfront prolific writer on mainline Christian trends sees ‘mean-spirited or partisan” criticism. She finds Douthat and company stuck back in 1974 with a notable book by Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing, which was astute about life forties years ago. She asks, has he looked lately at decline in Catholicism, Missouri Synod Lutheranism, the Southern Baptist Convention—and, she could have added, non-growth or decline of denominations wanted to be counter-churches to the conservatives? Face it, says Bass: today “liberal churches are not the only ones declining.” She’d prefer to see analysts facing up to that rather than attacking the groups they don’t like. For her the question is not “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” but “Can Liberal Christians Save Christianity?”
In a future Sightings, I’ll take specific note of attempts to provide an interpretive framework by two significant historians, Jill K. Gill and David Hollinger. No more than anyone else do they have answers to all the demographic, theological and churchly issues posed here, but their cautions should make the public take second looks at “decline”and adaptations to “secular liberalism.” So we have a debate? That’s miraculous!
Ross Douthat, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” New York Times, July 14, 2012 .
Jay Akasie, “What Ails the Episcopalians,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012.
Sarah Morice-Brubaker, “For Douthat, Church Either Uncompromising or a Secular Den of Promiscuity and Irrelevance,” Religion Dispatches Magazine, July 16, 2012.
Bishop Stacy F. Sauls, “Episcopal Church Is Radically Faithful to Its Tradition,” Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found atwww.memarty.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.