Can the Episcopal Church Survive?
By Hans Zeiger
Special to Virtueonline
JUne 1, 2006
The Episcopal Church in America is dying. A recent Gallup poll shows that Episcopals have the lowest weekly church attendance rate of any Christian denomination; only one in three Episcopalians go to church every week. Only the non-religious and Jews register lower religious service attendance than Episcopalians.
Gallup interviewed 11,000 adult Americans between 2002 and 2005 to find that 44 percent of Americans attend church weekly or almost weekly. Episcopals are not only far below the national average, they are far below the average for mainline Protestant denominations.
Episcopal in-house statistics tell the same story. In the Blue Book for the upcoming Episcopal Convention in Columbus, Ohio, the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church reports that total Average Sunday Worship Attendance is 795,765, which is about a third of the 2.2 million members of the Episcopal Church.
According to Thomas C. Reeves, author of The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, nearly half of children who grow up in the Episcopal Church leave the church when they reach an age of decision. The average Episcopalian is much older than the average American, or even than the average churchgoer.
The Episcopal decline is not new, of course. Membership has been falling since 1970. A Gallup poll seventeen years ago showed that only 9 percent of Episcopalians considered their church "excellent," compared to 27 percent of Protestants in general.
Dr. Kirk Hadaway, director of research for the Episcopal Church Center, offers his analysis for the decline. According to the Blue Book, "In addressing the reasons for the loss of members since the 2003 General Convention, Dr. Hadaway said the explanation is complex and that the decline mirrors declines in all mainline churches over the last two years. At most, he said, a third could be attributed to the actions of General Convention. Perhaps of greater consequence is the fact that The Episcopal Church has the lowest birth rate and highest mean age of any mainline denomination, meaning that church growth must come through evangelism to the unchurched. Cultural trends (athletic and entertainment schedules, etc.) also have their effect on the size and vitality of local congregations."
In other words, the Episcopal Church is the most aging, stagnant denomination in American Protestantism today.
The excuse for poor church participation from Rev. Dr. William Sachs of the Episcopal Church Foundation is that the Episcopal Church body tends away from commitment. The church, he said, "is prone to attract people with less sense of being full-blown Episcopalians than simply participants in a particular congregation that happens to be Episcopal."
Sachs also indicated that the deep moral conflicts within the church may be damaging to church attendance. Most importantly, he said, people "want clear religious identity and clear, practical purpose."
Here Sachs contradicts his first point. If the Episcopal Church prides itself in participation without commitment, it cannot have identity or purpose. For all the openness boasted of by the liberal elite in the Episcopal Church, openness itself may be the church's main weakness.
Openness is a theme for several Presiding Bishop nominees, one of whom will likely be selected at the General Convention in Columbus, Ohio to lead the Episcopal Church for the next nine years.
The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Bishop of Atlanta, told Louie Crew of Witness Magazine that "there really is room in the church for all of us, regardless of where we are on particular issues, regardless of where we are on the theological spectrum. If in fact we believe that we have all been died for, then there's a place for everyone of us."
In fact, the church requires exclusivity. Being a Christian requires much more than simply saying that Jesus died on one's behalf. It requires a total change of life and heart, a repentance from sin and a pursuit of holiness. The theological spectrum allowed by Bishop Alexander could include agnostics and violent fundamentalists. Orthodoxy sticks to a creed about which there can be little quibbling. There may be disagreements over some minor things, but orthodoxy does not occupy a vast spectrum. And anyhow, issues do matter. So said the majority of Anglican bishops from around the world who gathered at the last Lambeth Conference in 1998, when they made clear that homosexuality is unbiblical.
Unlike most Anglicans in the world, the Rt. Rev. Edwin F. Gulick, Bishop of Kentucky, holds aversion to standards other than openness. "The way that I see people primarily is as Baptized persons," Bishop Gulick told Crew. By that view, once a person is baptized, his actions and beliefs are irrelevant. Baptism is the permit to homosexual practice and any other practice one might imagine. Lacking any standard beyond baptism to measure righteousness, and lacking a sense of sin to measure guilt, there is no meaning for salvation or sanctification. Bishop Gulick stated his wish to keep his friendships with a conservative bishop in Africa and the homosexual Bishop of New Hampshire. "I have come to believe that you cannot arrange unity and justice hierarchically." To maintain church unity, Bishop Gulick would make temporary changes in the hopes that "justice" for homosexuals might be permanent.
If the church stands for homosexuals, what else does it stand for? According to the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Bishop of Nevada, "As a church we have got to be better self-differentiated. We have to decide what it is we are going to stand for and be clear about it, and then say 'these are the consequences.' Yes, Anglicans don't much like to do that, but we do do it about some things: We have over the years said don't believe in the death penalty. We have said that we don't believe that abortion is a good choice, but that it needs to be available. We stand up over and over again for social justice issues in the government. So we're able to be clear on some things even when there is a variety of opinion across the church."
So the church knows where it stands, at least according to Bishop Schori, on a handful of issues that are all...political. Indeed, not a single certainty listed by Bishop Schori is theological in nature. She lists the death penalty, abortion, and government issues. As for the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ, the truth of Scripture, the existence of hell, the reality of sin-there is less agreement on those things among the liberal elite of the Episcopal Church. And so the church remains without the identity and purpose that Rev. Dr. Sachs says people desire.
To many in the Episcopal ruling class, the course for relevance was set in the Sixties and Seventies. Then purpose and identity seemed so clear, and all channels seemed open for a progressive future. In those years, John Hines was the Presiding Bishop, granting millions of dollars to multicultural agencies and black power groups. Seminary students were slackers and draft dodgers. Thousands attended the Hair Mass at New York's Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, listening to Harvey Cox, eating fast food, taking communion with Jews. Counter-cultural baptismal services were held, the nightclub performing priest Malcolm Boyd called for the end of the established church, and women and gays took the priesthood by the late Seventies. At Dick York's ordination at Berkeley's Episcopal Church, hippies were told after the rock band had finished that "God is Doing His Thing."
But the pipe dreams of the Sixties turned out to be less gleeful than once imagined. The Episcopal Church, instead of attracting members by its laxity of standards, has kept people from coming to church more effectively than any other Christian denomination.
What's especially troubling is the lingering thought among Episcopal radicals that effectiveness and relevance depends upon progressivism. The church, we are told, is not yet progressive enough. In 1995, the Episcopal priest Alexander Seabrook said, "every time that we ordain someone who is not a heterosexual white male we gain hundreds of new members." Widespread though that delusion may be among the Leftist elite of the church, the facts do not bear it out. As the Episcopal Church has become more and more open and permissive, membership has declined rather than grown. After the 2003 General Convention at which a homosexual was approved as a bishop, thousands of priests and laymen left the church.
But the Episcopal Left plows forward in its raw determination to change society. And in its very determination to change society it precludes the desired change. As it pushes harder for change it weakens. The progressive strategy of the ruling class in the Episcopal Church is hardly the spiritual populism of Billy Graham or Rick Warren. It aims for a worldly populism with effects chiefly in the political realm, and because it is little different from the world itself, the Episcopal Church may be summed up in one word: boredom.
And thus the Episcopal Church is dying. It has become a place for politics instead of faith. The young aren't interested in going to an Episcopal Church because it is easier to live faithlessly outside of church. Men aren't interested in going to an Episcopal Church because it is so feminized, and for the same reason, weak, that a Sunday watching football is far more exciting.
"Weigh the benefits," writes Thomas C. Reeves, "Sunday with the family at the beach or in church listening to a sermon on AIDS; working for overtime wages or enduring pious generalities about 'dialoging,' 'inclusion,' and 'sharing and caring'; studying for exams or hearing that the consolations and promises of the Bible are not 'really' or 'literally' true; entering a race to raise funds for disadvantaged children or sitting through pleas for federal health insurance; shopping at the mall or hearing about the wickedness of anti-abortion demonstrators; reading the newspaper or being harangued about racism and sexism."
The 2006 Episcopal General Convention presents a choice between faith and politics, between relevance and boredom, between the life and death of a great old denomination. The Episcopal Church can wither away, the victim of momentary passions on convention floors and watered-down services and a neglected Bible, or the Church can have new leadership and a renewed identity. Let us pray against what G.K. Chesterton, in his Ballad of the White Horse, phrased "a mass book mildewed, line by line."
---Hans Zeiger 22, is a conservative activist, reporter and columnist from Puyallup, Washington. He writes a column that appears in RenewAmerica, the Seattle Sentinel, WorldNetDaily.com, GOPUSA.com, OpinionEditorials.com, and numerous other publications. He is also the author of two books and VOL's writer/reporter for General Convention 2006 in Columbus, Ohio.
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