Sunday, January 31, 2010

the history and decline of "Christianity Lite"

From Mary Eberstadt in First Things...

Eberstadt opens with a reference to "Benedict XVI’s landmark announcement in October 2009 offering members of the Anglican Communion a fast track into the Catholic Church". She notes that this "may not seem to amount to much"-- in terms of numbers, "mere drops in the Vatican’s bucket".

But in the longer run—say, over the coming decades—Rome’s move looks consequential in another way. It is the latest and most dramatic example of how orthodoxy, rather than dissent, seems once again to have taken the driver’s seat of Christianity.

...the progressives left behind [among the Anglicans] may well find the exodus of their adversaries a Pyrrhic victory. How will they possibly make peace with the real majority of Anglicans today—the churches in Africa, whose leaders have repeatedly denounced the Communion’s abandonment of traditional teachings?...

Even so, it is the still longer run of Christian history whose outlines may now be most interesting and unexpected of all....not only the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion but indeed the end of something even larger: the phenomenon of Christianity Lite itself...

If it is Christianity Lite, rather than Christianity proper, that is fatally flawed and ultimately unable to sustain itself, then a rewriting of much of contemporary thought, religious and secular, appears in order....

What is at the height of this divorce?

Ask any contemporary Mainline Protestant what most distinguishes his or her version of Christianity from that of Roman Catholicism, and you will likely get some version of this response: Catholics are still hung up on sex, and we’re not. They prohibit things like divorce and birth control and abortion and homosexuality, and we don’t. Moreover, this rendition of the facts would be essentially correct....

How did sex, of all subjects, come to occupy such a prominent place in the division of Christendom? In a sense, the potential was always there. From the first believers on up, the stern stuff of the Christian moral code has been cause for commentary—to say nothing of complaint. “Not all men can receive this saying,” the disciples are told when Jesus puts divorce off limits....

Yet to say that the sexual revolution made Christianity Lite inevitable, as many people would, is to miss an important historical point. It was the Anglicans who first started picking apart the tapestry of Christian sexual morality—hundreds of years ago, long before the sexual revolution, and over one particular thread: divorce. In fact, in a fascinating development now visible in retrospect, the Anglican departure over divorce appears as the template for all subsequent exercises in Christianity Lite.

For about two centuries, and despite its having been midwifed into existence by the divorcing Henry VIII, the Church of England held fast to the same principle of the indissolubility of marriage on which the rest of Christian tradition insisted....Even so, this early dedication to principle would turn out not to hold...

This same pattern of dissent over sexuality, followed by decline in both numbers and practice, also appears clearly in the other churches dedicated to Christianity Lite, those of the Protestant mainline in addition to the Episcopal Church....

This leads to a third pattern arising from the experiment of Christianity Lite: the ongoing and inarguable institutional decline of the churches that have tried it....Across the board, funding is down, numbers are down, numbers of the young are especially down, and missionaries—one particularly good measure of the vibrancy of belief—are diminishing apace. Even the kind of social work for which Christian churches have been renowned is also down: Mainline volunteerism, according to the new Barna numbers, has dropped a shocking 21 percent since 1998...

Since Dean Kelley’s work in the 1970s, culminating in the book Why Strict Churches Are Strong, observers have tried to make sense of that phenomenon....[including] “simple demographics” [fewer babies]...People who cannot be expected to obey in difficult matters cannot be expected to obey in easier ones either. In the 1950s, almost half the population of the Church of England attended services on Sunday. By 2000, that figure was around 7 percent, and that includes Charismatic and Pentecostal affiliates....what might be called the hidden power of the Christian moral code: its by now undeniable resonance with at least some human beings....

3 Comments:

At February 1, 2010 at 8:43 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Of course, both sides of the divide, the progressives and the conservatives, believe they are following their consciences and following Christ. And while conservatives are leaving the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches, there are plenty of people from conservative churches who are going into the liberal churches because they find they can no longer believe certain conservative doctrines. But it is true that membership in the Episcopal Church is trending downwards (I think about 10-15% in the last decade). However, it is important to realize that membership is trending downwards in churches in general in this country, including evangelical churches; the Southern Baptists, the largest evangelical group, have flat membership numbers. (See Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, HarperOne, 2008.) In fact, the only religious category with notable growth in recent years is "unaffiliated" (see the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey ).

 
At February 1, 2010 at 5:17 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

On what each "side" thinks they're doing, absolutely. Of course, conscience can be a faulty guide, so both should be cautious.

Although mainlines are diminishing, non-mainline Christians are increasing or staying the same (depending on which measures one looks at). In any case, the contrast is obvious.

My thought (and hope) is that any stagnant/declining numbers in the non-mainlines is a function of fewer cultural/cafeteria Christians-- Christianity Lite'ers within conservatism.

 
At February 1, 2010 at 6:04 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

Your last comment is interesting. Christine Wicker says that the numbers in evangelical churches are very overstated because the fraction of the membership that is really committed to the statements of beliefs of evangelical churches is only a fraction of the membership. She doesn't use your terminology (cultural/cafeteria Christians) but I believe she's speaking of the same sort of Christian. (She gives a list of 9 core beliefs, such as the reality of Satan, or that the Bible is inerrant, and only a fraction of evangelical church members agree to all of them.) She also points to research (by the Barna Group, if I recall) that show lower belief/participation rates by young people, which presages membership drops in evangelical churches.

By the way, Wicker has an interesting discussion about the life-cycle of large evangelical churches: They are typically located in areas with a large amount of new suburban/exurban development, and they attract membership among the large numbers of young families in these areas. This is important, because young adults have the energy and interest to volunteer. But their participation or membership rates drop off as they mature and their children leave home. This causes problems for the churches, which have trouble maintaining the level of membership and participation. One particular concern: many people now seem to seek churches with more involvement in social work in the community. So leading evangelical churches are now adapting by beginning initiatives involving charitable work or service in the community.

One more comment—in mainline churches, such as the Episcopal Church, one still finds a range of theological positions among members. This ranges from fairly orthodox (reality of the resurrection; divinity of Christ), to extremely liberal (denial of the supernatural). Some Episcopalians point to parishes where congregations have found missions that cut across the political divide, where parishioners of different levels of belief work together. What's interesting is that often, theological positions do not correlate with political positions—sometimes, theological conservatives (who believe in the divinity of Christ and the reality of the resurrection) are quite liberal on issues such as gay rights or "peace and justice" issues. Some Episcopal parishes are thriving; in Louisville, the most liberal parish is the second largest: St. Matthews. But the largest parish is the most conservative: St. Francis in the Fields. I don't know if these are growing, however.

 

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