Prompted by recent Presbyterian and Episcopal denomination meetings that once again made news because of resolutions on the churches’ treatments of gay marriage (and efforts to divest from Israel), Ross Douthat asks an important question in the Sunday Times: “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?”
What he means is that many mainline denominations—the stalwarts of Protestantism—and in particular the U.S. Episcopal Church have lost their moorings. They have become “flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.”
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that per haps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
It’s hard to argue with that. But maybe this is a case of damned if they do and damned if they don’t. (For some, that phrase might cut a bit too close.) By that I mean that if the Episcopal Church stayed tied to hundreds of years of dogma, congregational rolls would continue to shrink as elderly members died. But the progressive path hasn’t attracted younger members because much of the emergent generation (and not just this guy) is generally tired with the institutional church—progressive or traditional.