Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Washington’s first female and ninth Episcopal Bishop, smiles during her consecration service at the Washington National Cathedral Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.
Every preacher knows that one sign of a good sermon is the quality of the conversation it stimulates the following week. Based on that criterion alone, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat preached a fine sermon recently with his editorial, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Both provocative and insightful, Douthat’s words stimulated a veritable firestorm of response in the religious blogosphere, including some of the finest writing about the Episcopal Church I’ve read in a long time.
Douthat’s premise is simple: in our efforts to adapt to the prevalent values of our culture, we in the Episcopal Church have spent the last several decades moving away from our identity “as a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.”
In so doing, he asserts, we have strayed far from our core spiritual roots and indeed have forgotten what it means to be a people of faith. But our efforts for culture relevance have not slowed our decline as a church, Douthat argues. For anyone paying attention, the trends are alarming. Our leaders have been slow to acknowledge this fact, he contends, and he concludes with a plea for liberal Christianity to “rediscover a religious reason for its own existence.”
A few of his assertions sting, and in response, Episcopal luminaries have weighed in with clarity and conviction. Well worth the time to read are posts by Diana Butler Bass, Jon Meacham, Winnie Varghese and Gay Jennings. All of them make me proud to be an Episcopalian, and grateful to belong to a church:
And yet Douthat’s question haunts me: can our church be saved? No matter how wonderful the Episcopal Church at its best can be and how many individual congregations are doing well, the harsh truth remains: we are a church whose vital signs hover somewhere, in Douthat’s words, between decline and collapse. The decline began in the 1960s and has accelerated precipitously in the last decade. Since 2003, we’ve lost 23 percent of our church attendance.
Why? Because we allow women to hold positions of authority, celebrate the full inclusion of gays and lesbians, have an expansive understanding of God, and value insights of other faiths? I don’t think so.
I’ve lived with the reality of decline all 25 years of my ordained life. I’ve heard all the reasons why those who disagree with recent positions we’ve taken cite for our demise, and I simply don’t see it. And even if it were true, it wasn’t as if we decided to make these changes on our own. Hard as it is for some to believe, we felt led by God to change, much the same way that others before us felt led by God to change their views on slavery or the subjugation of women, and more recently, on the prohibition of divorce, all of which have biblical justification.
I’ve also listened to our own excuses and rationalizations. “At least we’re not like those other Christians,” we tell ourselves with no small amount of prejudice. And we are quick to point to forces beyond our control. “If only kids weren’t so busy these days,” we lament. “Those Sunday morning soccer games are killing us.”
True enough. But as in our personal lives when we’re faced with challenging situations, what matters isn’t how well we explain the forces beyond our control, but rather how we choose to address the things that we have the power to change.
And that’s what’s happening in the Episcopal Church right now. Many of us are quietly at work rebuilding the spiritual and congregational foundations of the church we love. We are rediscovering the religious reasons for our existence.
In the Diocese of Washington we’re devoting time and resources to developing our spiritual lives. We’re encouraging people to participate in small group study, contemplative prayer, and spiritual retreats, and so far, they are responding. We talk freely now about how the power of God changes our lives, about the healing presence of Jesus and the movement of the Holy Spirit. We’re strengthening existing congregations and planning for new ones in immigrant communities and among university students and young adults. We’re engaged in the public arena not simply because we want to relevant, but because at our baptisms we promised, “to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being.”
I feel the same spiritual stirring across the country. Never have I heard as many Episcopalians enthusiastically profess their faith in Jesus as I did at our recently concluded General Convention in Indianapolis. Bishop Michael Curry from North Carolina brought us all to our feet with a sermon entitled, “We Need Some Crazy Christians.”
Preach it, brother.
We’re also investing tremendous resources in our congregations as the foundation of Christian life. Contrary to the conservative critique, it isn’t what we’ve changed that is weakening our congregations, but rather what we’ve been unwilling to change. For all our liberal theology and progressive politics, we’ve remained rather stodgy in worship, wedded to unwieldy structures, and resistant to growth. When I ask young people what keeps them from attending church, the answer, predictably, is that it’s boring. And they’re right! But we’re committed to changing that, both in the Diocese of Washington and across the country, so that all our congregations will be vital centers of Christian worship, learning, community, and service.
And why do all this? Why does it matter for the Episcopal Churchto claim its place in the spiritual landscape of our nation?
I believe that the Episcopal Church has something vitally important to offer to our time, that we have particular gifts and unique perspectives on the gospel of Jesus Christ that this culture hungers for and desperately needs. That, in the boldest of affirmations, we have something God needs for God’s mission of renewing the face of the earth. And so on our watch, we are called to change; to turn the trends of decline, atrophy and lethargy around; to assume our place as God’s collaborators in mission; and to help transform this culture by allowing ourselves to be transformed.
The word from General Convention is that that’s exactly what we intend to do, because we have decided to follow Jesus and there’s no turning back.
Our answer to Ross Douthat’s question—Can liberal Christianity be saved—is a resounding yes.
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde is rector of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.