A church for all

We have all heard the joke–that Episcopalians are Presbyterians whose investments have done quite well. Behind the joke is a troubling issue–is our church really the church for all? Rob Dreher of the Dallas Morning News observes in his Beliefnet column that the class divisions within denominations is also affecting Catholic and Orthodox churches, and he asks why:

I’m generalizing, of course, but where I’m from, the religion of the working class and the poor is Pentecostalism — and I use the term broadly to mean charismatic, non-denominational Christianity in the Protestant tradition. It’s not that only the poor and working classes are drawn to Pentecostalism, but rather that if you are poor or in the working class, and you go to church, chances are the church you go to is Pentecostal, or at least Evangelical.

I was thinking about how unlikely it would be that Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism or other forms of the Christian faith that attract the middle-class intellectuals I know would appeal to the Ricky Sinclairs of the world. This is a complicated topic, and I don’t have any conclusions to offer, so I’m just going to throw out my own thoughts, and invite yours. There is a spiritual depth and intellectual complexity to these forms of Christianity that appeals to middle-class intellectuals who have grown weary with the emotionalism and trendiness of much popular religion. On the other hand, I’ve thought for years as a Catholic, and still think as an Orthodox, how hard it would be for a working man who was broken and who needed Jesus to walk in off the street and find him at one of our churches. Oh, Jesus is there, make no mistake — but he’s a lot harder to find than at one of the charismatic churches.

Along those lines, Catholicism and Orthodoxy both have been the traditional religion of tens of millions of the world’s poor, and still are. The question that I thought about yesterday, then, is probably primarily one concerning North American middle-class white people. And yet, the charismatic and Evangelical churches are having tremendous success in Latin America, winning converts from historic Catholicism. . . .

Why? I ask as a sociological question, not a theological question. What is it about our time that makes the heavy old forms of Christianity — Orthodoxy and Catholicism — so apparently ill-suited to compete with the amorphous Pentecostalism that’s sweeping the poor? Is it the case that the very complexity and depth that appeals to middle-class North American intellectuals makes the faith relatively inaccessible to the masses? Is it the case that we live now in a demotic age, in which any institution that depends on hierarchies and traditional authority will struggle for the hearts of the common man? . . .

Is it the case that the more demotic forms of Protestant Christianity preach a gospel that, however twisted in some of its manifestations (e.g., the prosperity gospel), nevertheless holds out to suffering people the hope that their lives can change for the better — whereas the older, more traditional forms of Christianity are more accepting of suffering as part of the human condition, to a degree that tips over into fatalism?

I do wonder if the poor (excluding the immigrant poor from Latin America) have any entry point into Catholicism or Orthodoxy. And why that is. And how it should change within the tradition, because it’s impossible to imagine a Christian church that has no room for the poor and working classes. And: why does it seem that the Christians who sound most concerned about the welfare of the poor and working classes are those least likely to share their instinct toward traditional sexual morality? It’s undoubtedly true that many of the traditional churches have ministries to help meet the material needs of the poor. But how many of the poor are becoming Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Orthodox, etc., because of them? Are these churches places where the poor could see themselves becoming a part of the congregation, or are the poor more likely to see them as vendors of charity, but only that? And if the latter, who’s to blame, and why?

Read the entire essay here.

It seems to me that the hard question that Dreher asks about Catholism and Orthodoxy and the working class and the poor is equally applicable to the Episcopal church. Anglicanism, of course, is attracting the poor across the world. Are we doing enough to reach out beyond the middle class here in the Episcopal Church?

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