Monday, August 22, 2005

Brand Loyalty - Round 1

Salty Vicar, about two weeks back, had a post about the decline of mainline churches. Now it's important to remember in talking about this decline that it's largely the decline and fall of the United Methodist Church. ECUSA in particular has been more stagnant than declining. I don't want to get into the statistics, but the argument can be made that, as it stands, the Episcopal Church is going to get some fraction of the upper middle class at a certain age, and its fortunes depend entirely on how many people are in the class and age group at any given time. I suppose Anglican production values are important in packing the pews at Christmas; I have to doubt that they ever did much to keep the extremely nominal in the pews during the rest of the year.

I'm wary of talking too much about how the other people look at church. Partly that's because of my own history: I've been closely coupled to church since high school-- even when I was in college-- and being thus religious, I've kept a close eye on my own church participation. By the same token, anecdotes about others are troublesome, especially when talking about people whose expression of how they view religion is manifestly unexamined.

I think the movement between mainline churches has always been pretty free. It comes with the territory. Certainly my father's sort-of-Methodist family has had no problem sliding over to Presbyterian churches when the local Methodists where unsympathetic-- or simply when the latter was more vigorous. And I think the possibility of movement between the (less-classy) baptist-polity churches and the mainline was always there too. But I think that, in general, the mainline churches tended to take their congregations for granted.

It's particularly obvious when you look at the Anglican "broad" tradition and its baptodisterian analogues. Social action preaching always had to rely on its members being something of a captive audience; priests and ministers assumed that they were in a position to lecture their charges on issues that weren't directly religious. I don't think this was a strategy so much as the natural expression of confidence in the righteousness of their teaching. But it was easily turned not only into self-righteousness, but into a conflict of interest. Clerics used the prestige of establishment churches to attack establishment values. The endpoint of this in ECUSA was Spong's reliance on his episcopal throne to sell books and papers attacking almost anything anyone had ever taught in the church, and finally attacking the creeds which are still said every Sunday morning. The same thing happened at the universities in the '60s. In the latter case, Harvard was thus reduced from the center of American establishment values to a mere stamp on the ticket to a place in the boardroom or the law office. Likewise, Episcopalians were reduced to mistrusting their church-- regardless of which side of any conflict they were on-- because their clerics ceased to have any loyalty to any precepts of their church.

It's no longer good enough to see the white-and-blue sign with the church arms. You have to find out what the rector is teaching; the sign doesn't tell you anymore. You cannot even be assured that the liturgy will reflect Anglican virtues of any era, because all too often "Anglican" means "the liturgical style against which we rebel". One might find RC Novus Ordo-style chaos, or some sort of liturgical theater which I find unbearable in its self-consciousness. There was, of course, some degree of churchmanship variation, though the trend for the entire previous decade was towards a fairly high and increasingly Catholic style of liturgy. But to be blunt: the average visitor walking into a mainline church understands that he has a pretty good chance of being subjected to the ministry of someone he considers fatally wrongheaded, if not an outright heretic.

The ministry of women in the church has enjoyed the parallel evolution of society to recognize the more general ministry of women in the world. The orthodoxy of the world is that women can do whatever they set their minds to do. (It also doesn't hurt that the theological arguments against the priesthood of women tend to be lame.) In this, the church establishment acts exactly as such, taking positive steps to supress the dissenters on this issue. On homosexuality, the situation is entirely different. All the turmoil over sexuality which can be swept under the rug when it comes to women must necessarily be revealed in an issue which is, after all, about precisely sexuality. The liberal side is trying to do what they did in the '60s with other issues, except that this time it isn't working, because they spent the last thirty years demonishing the edifice of authority which they are now trying to inhabit. The result-- open revolt-- should be unsurprising. Mainline churches are all caught between the desire to be the default brands of protestant Christianity, and the actuality of being the party organs of liberal factions.

What's remarkable isn't the resulting lack of growth. It's the stubborn resistance-- so far-- of ECUSA in a situation where numbers should have been dropping steadily for decades. Instead, the ECUSA of the fifteen years has maintained its numbers. Perhaps there is a sign here that there is a commitment to the Episcopal Church that runs deeper than mere choice of an acceptable church.

No comments: