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The Withering Of The Episcopal Church

May 20, 2015 Frontpage No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

I recently came across an article on the Huffington Post website entitled “The Withering of a Church Between Pastors” by Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. Osler describes how “my Episcopal church is fading before my eyes. Several months ago (because I usually arrive later for services), I would find myself wedged into the last few seats in the back of the church. Then a few months ago, I began to find plenty of seats, even for a latecomer. Now, there is row after row of empty pews as I walk in. The service is short, in large part because the offering is taken and communion distributed in record time. My church is emptying out.”
Osler’s church is “in the interim between the unexpected departure of our rector and the hiring of a new one.” But Osler is not optimistic that his parish will be revived once the new pastor arrives. He sees its problems as symptomatic of the Episcopal Church as a whole: “In a pew several ahead of me and on the other side of the aisle, a child drops a small green ball. She turns to watch from her father’s arms as it rolls, unimpeded by feet and bags, slowly toward the back of the church. She reaches out but is helpless. Soon, it is out of sight and gone, and in her eyes I see a familiar sad resignation.”
Osler’s pessimism seems well-founded. A 2013 article in The Christian Post by Thom S. Rainer listed the membership of what he called the “top 15” Protestant denominations in the country. The Episcopal Church came in 12th, with just 2 million members, behind — just to cite a few examples — the Southern Baptist Convention with over 16 million members, the United Methodist Church with nearly 8 million, the Evangelical Lutheran Church with nearly 5 million. There are approximately 70 million Roman Catholics in the country.
It would be difficult to overstate the nature of the decline in the Episcopal Church in comparison to what it once was. An article in The American Spectator in early February painted a picture of the denomination’s role in what the author, Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, called the “WASP ascendancy.” He points to the “Georgetown Set,” the diplomats, elected leaders, and media heads who shaped policy in the United States during the middle years of the 20th century, all Episcopalians or Presbyterians: “Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles (with his spy master brother Allen), Averell Harriman, George Kennan,” along with Washington Post owners, Phil and Katharine Graham. (Tooley notes that Katharine’s father was Jewish, but that she was “inducted into WASPdom,” by virtue of her “wealth, education, and charm.” There was a reason for the old wisecrack about the Episcopal Church being the “American establishment at prayer.”
A similar decline is taking place in the Church of England, united through the ties of history and theology to the Episcopal Church in the United States. On February 13 of this year, The Church Times of the United Kingdom reported on an address given to the General Synod of the Church of England by John Spence of the Archbishops’ Council in which he pointed to a decline that was leading to a total membership of only 200,000 to 300,00 by the year 2057. That’s less than the number of nightly viewers of MSNBC.
There may be a temptation to gloat over these figures, considering the extent to which prominent Episcopalians have taken the lead in criticizing the Catholic Church for its “judgmental” attitudes, and lack of “relevance” for modern audiences. But that would be unwise. Only 12 percent of Catholics in France, 17 percent in Spain, and about 25 percent in the United States attend Mass weekly. We could be heading in the same direction as the Episcopalians.
Permit me to offer my observations about why the Episcopal churches have hollowed out. They are not the result of a scientific survey, but my hunch is that they will ring true with many Episcopalians with traditional views. My observations are based on experiences I had while attending talent shows with a friend at an Episcopal church (now closed) just outside of New Haven, Conn. My friend had relatives who performed in the shows.
I wasn’t looking to be critical when I attended the performances, yet I could not fail to notice the phenomena, year after year: young members of the congregation going out of their way to make clear their involvement in same-sex relationships, women priests romantically involved with “significant others,” and a narrative between acts by masters of ceremonies filled with references to all the liberal causes of the day, everything from global warming to unjust tax policies to George Bush’s “lies” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to the need to work as a Christian community against “homophobia.”
What I found especially revealing was a comedy act at one of the talent shows, led by a woman priest and several teenagers, centering on jokes about how “wafers, wafers, wafers” (bags of communion wafers) were always turning up around the parish. They actually had a plastic bag of the wafers that they were tossing around the stage or hiding under the furniture. I am not exaggerating. Most of the audience thought it was great fun.
But that’s not all. There was a sizable minority of older parishioners, men and women in L.L. Bean plaids and corduroys who could have been from the cast of an old Katharine Hepburn movie about life in a New England village in the 1940s. You could tell they were uncomfortable with what they were seeing, but they kept a stiff upper lip, smiled politely and said nothing — at least in public. My impression was that they were not going to leave the church where they had spent their whole lives as parishioners, but I also thought to myself that they would not be likely to join this congregation if they were young couples just starting out in life.
My point is that a church is not likely to remain vital if it becomes nothing more than a place where liberal Democrats gather on Sundays to reinforce their politically correct views on the issues of the day. A person can get that experience from a local chapter of the ACLU or the National Organization for Women. Catholics know what it is like to have liberal priests — even left-wing activist priests. But they are still priests. They still can say Mass and consecrate the Host. (We don’t call them “wafers, wafers, wafers.”) They have the power to absolve our sins. There is a supernatural element to our liturgical life that rises above the political views of the clergy.
In contrast, it strikes me that the Episcopal Church has gotten to the point where the essence of what it offers is little more than a consensus on social justice and “enlightened” views on matters such as the environment and global conflict; that it has become the ecclesiastical wing of the Democratic Party. And that won’t work. The decline in membership makes that clear.

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