Mainline Decline: What Lessons Are There?

In my last post, I shared an article highlighting the Protestant Episcopal Church’s struggles to pay off budget and retain members.  Although I’m well aware that the internal struggles of the PECUSA are not the same as the various Eastern Christian Churches, I thought that article made sense to share in light of the recent posts on Matthew Heimbach.  Why?  Well, because the Heimbach scandal suggests there is something in Orthodoxy that has allowed him and his friends to latch onto Orthodoxy as supportive of their views.  So, what would happen if the Orthodox responded by knee-jerking in a completely opposite manner?  The PECUSA struggles suggest we’d lose members.  Now, numbers are not everything–quality is more important than mere quantity, as every mission plant pastor/priest knows, but they can be indicative at times and I suspect they might be in the case of the PECUSA.

There are some reasons to treat the drastic reduction cautiously, though.  Michael Hout, Andrew Greely, and Melissa Wilde, in “Birth Dearth: Demographics of Mainline Decline” Christian Century 2005, argued that the falling birth rate has hist the mainline churches as is the main cause.  In addition, Mark Chaves,American Religion, 2011, has argued that every major religious indicator has been trending downward, across the board, except diffuse spirituality (e.g. “spiritual but not religious”).  If Chaves is correct, we’re all in a world of hurt.

So, do these cautions undercut the previously posted article on the PECUSA?  Not entirely, but it should help put it in a larger context and perspective.  Yet, even with that context and perspective, it is clear that some people, and even parishes, are leaving the PECUSA over the discarding of traditional church positions on certain key issues.  I believe this ought to remind us that the response to one extreme (the TradYouth guys) might not be best performed as an extreme turn in another direction.

This brings me to one of the main lessons I think we Eastern Christians, especially we Orthodox, should learn from the PECUSA:  dividing the church too rigidly into the “liberals” and the “conservatives” hurts everyone.  Orthodox Christianity needs to find a way to express her faith such that it can transcend such divisions.  This is not easy, not at all.  I’m not claiming to have the silver bullet here but I would argue that one starting point would be to tackle each issue on its own, struggling against the temptation to reduce those who differ to stock arguments/positions.  For instance, I believe married bishops should be allowed again.  Am I a leftist?  I do not believe our church can perform “gay marriage.”  Am I a rightist?  Our Orthodox Church is too small to handle what is happening in the PECUSA.  We have erred in creating an environment that encouraged TradYouth to believe Orthodoxy supports them.  Yet we cannot err simply in going the route of the PECUSA.  That can’t be the answer either.  We need our own answer–one that seeks to be a transcendent voice.

6 Responses

  1. Evgueni

    ***For instance, I believe married bishops should be allowed again. Am I a leftist? I do not believe our church can perform “gay marriage.” Am I a rightist?***

    Of course not. Married bishops are part of the historical Orthodox tradition (despite the fact that the practice has changed by now), and there is nothing “leftist” about advocating it. On the other hand, “gay marriages” have never existed in the Christianity according to the Fathers of the Church; and moreover, homosexual behavior is explicitly condemned both the Old as the New Testaments as well as the Holy Fathers.

    The dichotomy of “Left” and “Right” is in fact a false dichotomy for an Orthodox Christian. (This distinction originated from the times of the French Revolution, if I remember correctly.) What we need to be is not “Right” or “Left” but TRADITIONALISTS – people who are faithful to the Holy Tradition passed by the Holy Apostles through the Church Fathers and the Holy Men. And all controversial issues should be viewed through the prism of this Tradition.

    The thing is: yes, the Orthodox Church is dying – for the same reasons the Episcopalian Church dying (and all other mainstream churches). The main reason for that is compromise with the social liberal worldview in any extent (whether it is active propaganda of the left-liberal values as in the case of Episcopalians, or simple passive acceptance of the social liberalism, which characterizes most our “Orthodox”) in the long-term perspective leads to the death of the given church. Once it rejects the Holy Tradition and accepts the other spirit, the Holy Spirit eventually leaves the organization and it dies. That’s inevitable. The truth is that in the Left-liberal universe there is no place for Christianity or any other traditional religion, and and alliance with the liberal values is simply a step towards a historical death. There are no ways “in between”, Father, I am really sorry.

  2. steve

    Regarding the Matthew Heimbach case, action was taken, the individual is under now penance, thus his views can in no way be associated with his church, the Antiochian church, or any of the Orthodox churches.

    Marginal extremist, radical groups, and cults of any sort may going to look for a home to hide in if they can, to borrow the hosts status in part. Yes it’s horrifying that this neo-Nazi individual and his cohorts tried to sneak into an Orthodox church, but it looks like they weren’t successful.

    Let’s look at some other cases. Back in the 80s, before Wicca became cool, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans were looked upon with suspicion but they found themselves a home within the Unitarian Universalists, where they now are well established. Granted, the UUs are pretty marginal themselves, but they have some status and are looked upon rather favorably by the secular left. This probably helped the Wiccans get some footholds towards a more general cultural acceptance. Anyway, initially, some UUs were uncomfortable with them, but no one told them to look for another home.

    Let’s look again at the TEC. Here, for decades, lots of heretical and apostate priests and Bishops (think John Spong) wormed their way into the church, and used it as a base to propagate their heresies. No one disciplined them. In Spongs case, forgetting about all the books he wrote, he ordained a lot of priest activists and his diocese became a major base for the movement leading to Gene Robinson and the current division and loss of most of the conservative elements.

    So one can draw another conclusion from some of the mainline troubles. Which is, ignore heresy and apostasy at your own peril. And don’t let yourself become a base for groups that either want to borrow your status for their own ends, or wish to radically overturn your tradition.

    1. William Tighe

      Before Jack Spong there was James Pike and before Pike there was William Montgomery Brown. Brown (1855-1937; Bishop of Arkansas 1899-1912) became a Communist (Party member and apologist) in retirement and insisted that his denial of Christ’s divinity in no way compromised his (secularized) Christian faith. His heresy trial in October 1925, held in Manhattan and reported extensively (and somewhat mockingly) in the New York Times, while it resulted in Brown’s deposition (he went on to found his own Old Catholic diocese), so “traumatized” the bishops that the memory of the event was still sufficient to cause the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church to bring heresy charges against Pike in 1966.

      But what this meant, of course, is that while Brown’s views were stigmatized as heretical, Pike’s were simply “extreme” (“prophetic,” though, for some), and Spong’s have become effectively mainstream Episcopalian (and no doubt will soon be “old hat”).

      1. Photini

        And don’t forget 1996 when the heresy charges against Bishop Righter (for ordaining an openly homosexual man a priest) were dropped. That is when I knew it was time to leave the Episcopal Church.

  3. Jon Nials

    Hmm…. I seriously doubt that Heimbach’s twisted ideology would have found a home in every parish. Our multi-ethnic parish would not have been congenial to such idiocy at all.

    Everyone is seeing this as an institutional failure. And yet, could this simply not have been a pastoral one? I am not one to judge, but it wouldn’t be the first time a priest put his desire to do good above his good sense. Some priests just have better BS detectors than others.

    I am not trying to gloss over the institutional failures because I know they are there, and we rightly need to correct them. However we need to discern what is an institutional failure against what is a pastoral one.

Comments are closed.