The Shrinking of American Religions

Every human trend (as those of us who’ve seen a few will affirm) looks fixed, untouchable, set in ready-mixed concrete. Until, to be sure, something else happens and the betting begins anew.

The leadership of the Episcopal Church has the notion that objectors to the present leadership style better get used to an eternity of choose-your-own-truth theology. Don’t bet the 401(k) on it: accounts of the church’s recent General Convention notwithstanding.

Things at the General Convention, from a certain perspective, certainly didn’t look good. My fellow deputies — I admit to serving as an elected member of this naughty assemblage — endorsed pretty much the same menu that hooked Episcopal appetites during the wild and woolly ’60s. We’re a church whose worship and formularies presuppose the ancient Christian truths; except the way we have come lately to express these truths often makes it seem our principal interests are “social justice,” cultural diversity and the liberalization of sexual norms.

We slammed “colonialism,” patted the Palestinians on the head, urged new government programs to create jobs, called for a carbon-unfriendly energy policy and instructed priests desirous of doing so to confer the church’s blessing upon same-sex unions. I mean, are we the churchy version of The New York Times editorial page or what? Can’t you see millions of Americans beating our doors down to hear us address the worst of modern anxieties — family disintegration, the loss of meaning in life, the burgeoning of government supervision and control over daily existence?

Actually, that’s not what the church itself, at a slightly less exalted level, was saying. A report by the Standing Commission on the Mission and Evangelism of the Episcopal Church noted bleakly: “The statistics grow more alarming with each year. … In 1965, we confirmed 128,000 people. In 2001, we confirmed only 34,000. Our total Sunday average attendance has plunged in the last five years: from 765,326 to 657,831 in 2010. If we wonder about the cause of the decline, we have to pay attention to the degree to which our membership has drifted further and further from the mainstream of

America. Increasingly, we serve as a niche church for a shrinking segment of the American population.”

The church of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, J. P. Morgan and Franklin Roosevelt — a “niche church”? Sounds that way. Not that our secularizing culture, which rarely admits religious ideas to serious discussion, cares much. The mistake of Christian bodies like the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and even the Roman Catholics has been to woo the culture by pretending that truth at bottom is just personal opinion; that religious viewpoint admits prejudice more often than heavenly light.

The 21st century is in various (if hardly all) ways the least religious of modern centuries. A great church — mine — more interested in the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations than in the ancient, heavenly concerns of sin and salvation is still a church. How much longer it’s likely to continue so is the big question.

Yet trends, I have tried to say, have a way of evaporating just when they look most solid. The wacko-ization of America’s “progressive” churches, with their political obsession and their tendency to read the scriptural record in a way that supports their obsessions, may be in this category.

As the keepers of the current flame — baby boomers relying on the insights and activities of their youth — fade from view, younger tenders of a new/old flame — the strong, scriptural faith of older centuries — take their places. In my own vital diocese of the Episcopal Church — Dallas — this happens with greater and greater frequency. The new priests and laity coming on now don’t have to be assured the faith is worth fighting for and preserving intact. They know that to be the case. It’s why they became priests.

Only the Lord, proverbially speaking, knows what comes next. A prudent bet, nonetheless, might take into account his known tendency to keep his earthly shop open on the terms he himself — without advice, without patronizing backtalk — declares vital and true.

William Murchison, author of “Mortal Follies: Episcopalians the Crisis of Mainline Christianity,” writes from Dallas. To find out more about William Murchison, and to see features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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