What we’re really up against

We’ve had lots of advice during and since General Convention about what’s wrong with the Episcopal Church, why it’s dying, and all. There’s the Stand Firm in Faith folks (I won’t link to them, I don’t want to be responsible for any heart attacks or strokes). There’s Ross Douthat in yesterday’s NY Times who is certain that the decline of the mainline is due to liberal theology divorced from the gospel.

There’s also been plenty of pushback from good Episcopalians who are confident and excited about the future of our Church. I am too, but the reality is that we are up against some significant cultural trends that require us to rethink almost everything (and we are doing it). Diana Butler Bass’s essay is typical of the lot (and it doubles as a plug for her most recent book).

Some of the response to Douthat has focused on larger trends that challenge all denominations, not just the Episcopal Church, or even mainline Protestantism. As Martin Marty points out, all denominations are in decline, including the conservative stalwarts like the Southern Baptist Convention (five consecutive years of decline in membership and numbers of baptisms).

One problem often cited as a reason for decline is litigation over property. Yes, it’s unseemly, but at least we’re not suing dissident groups for trademark infringement (like the Seventh Day Adventists).

Meanwhile, Gallup reports that confidence in religion and religious institutions is at an all-time low (but then so are all other institutions in American life).

But it’s not just a matter of confidence in institutions. People are searching for spiritual meaning in their lives in all sorts of ways and places. Here’s one example. Tracy Clark-Flory writes about yoga class as ersatz church:

I’ve always wanted to have a church to go to. I’ve fantasized about what my dream version of this would look like: a weekly gathering where passages are read from great literature, where experts give workshops on their area of expertise — whether it’s psychology, philosophy or art. (Which sounds a whole lot like … college.) Yoga doesn’t exactly satisfy all of those demands, but it comes close. My teachers read a range of inspirational (see, I even cringe at that word!) quotes and poetry, from Rumi to Philip Booth. I take from it what I want and what I believe. It’s open-source spirituality.

Open-source spirituality. The Book of Common Prayer simply can’t compete.

Viv Groskop, writing about her experience in the Church of England, tends to agree with Clark-Flory:

I would not describe myself as a religious person but I do have some sort of faith. I grew up singing in the choir in the church where I got married (sorry, blessed). Over the years, though, any belief I once had has dwindled away to next to nothing because there is no way to express it casually or on a part-time basis. You’re not that welcome at church services unless you want to become a regular member of the congregation…

Further,

I would like to see the Church of England be more inclusive not only towards women priests but towards people like me – people who rarely attend church, often question their faith, but who are, essentially, supportive of the church.

The last sentence echoes Clark-Flory: “A whole generation is heading to the nearest yoga class.”

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