A thank you (and rebuttal) to Ross Douthat

The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Leesburg, Va., respectfully and deftly takes issue with key assertions made in Ross Douthat’s New York Times column, Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?. He also agrees with Douthat on certain points:

Especially when compared to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal that has already been roundly dismissed as a pure-and-simple hatchet job, Douthat’s NYT article raises good, valid questions.

For example, he is right on target when he writes:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity [recover] a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”

Today, by contrast, 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.

There’s good news, however.

First, from my participation in movements within the Episcopal Church (The Gathering of Leaders, The Bible Challenge, and The Restoration Project, to name three) I can say that Mr. Douthat’s observations have not gone unnoticed. Indeed there is, through these efforts and others, a movement afoot in the Episcopal Church to recover ancient, grounding practices and rootedness not in any political agenda of the left or right but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And anecdotally speaking – I wish I had the numbers – in those churches where these practices are taking place, attendance is up.

Second, having just returned from the Episcopal Church’s General Convention (where I was an issues writer for the Center Aisle, my dioceses’ daily opinion journal) I can say that many Generation X and Millennial generation Christians share the frustration Douthat names here – that many leaders in the Episcopal Church are indistinguishable from leaders in progressive (or conservative) social movements. And they are ready to set aside political squabbling and posturing in favor of focusing on what unifies us. Younger generation clergy, joined by kindred spirits in the Baby Boomer generation, are in fact interested in recovering what we should “offer uncompromisingly to the world” – the unconditional and transformative love of God made known in Jesus Christ – not so much because it will change Christianity, but because it will change our hearts and souls, and the world.

So thanks to Mr. Douthat for raising those points.

However, I would like to take a minute here to challenge three assumptions that Mr. Douthat makes.

The first assumption is that official stances taken at the General Convention – and granted, they are very liberal – are representative of the vast majority of Episcopal churches and Episcopalians nationwide. That is a much like saying the official platform of the Democratic or Republican party is representative of the average rank and file Democrat or Republican. Is that so? An equally strong case can be made that those who get elected to, and end up approving such positions or platforms are not the most representative of the rank and file, but simply the most organized, motivated, and outspoken. In other words, it’s not fair to judge a typical Episcopal Church by its elected leadership’s official positions.

The second assumption Mr. Douthat makes is that the decline in numbers in the Episcopal Church is due to the liberal positions taken by the most visible aspect of the Episcopal Church. Absent “exit interviews” with those who are no longer Episcopalians, or interviews with those not attending at all, how does one know that is the reason numbers are declining? There is a “cause and effect” argument that is assumed here, but never made. Could there not be other reasons for the decline? As a retired bishop of this church recently pointed out to me, the Episcopal Church peaked in the 1950’s when people were (generally speaking) joining an institution, not becoming disciples of a person. Those people are now leaving, or dying. As the Episcopal Church and other denominations enter a post-Christendom age rooted less in institution-joining and more in disciple-becoming, numbers – numbers based on institution-joiners – will decline. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the official stances of the Christendom-era churches.

Which brings me to the third assumption: that declining numbers are something about which we should be alarmed. As I wrote for the Center Aisle, the underlying assumption behind many much angst in church circles seems to be that declining membership in the Episcopal Church is an indicator of a machinery somehow broken, that we now must fix. But that is a mechanistic, not organic (or Scriptural) point of view. What if declining membership was a pruning process, the natural and healthy dying-off of the now-fruitless branches of the 1950’s era institution-joining Episcopalians? If we believed God is the one behind this pruning process, our energies would shift from trying to “fix” something ourselves to trusting that God is doing what needs done to cause new growth.

In other words, when individual Christians are – and Christianity itself is – rooted in the True Vine, it must change, and does grow.

The Rev. John Ohmer blogs at unapologetictheology.blogspot.com.

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