In the aftermath of the Episcopal Church (USetc)’s General Convention, there’s been a flurry of breast-beating, moaning, finger-pointing, boasting, and other edifying demonstrations of ecclesiastical vitality (or not) in the various social media sites. So far, my favourite has been George Conger’s riposte to the Wall Street Journal’s slimy mendacity about General Convention, since Conger is by no means carrying water for the ECUS& establishment. But no sooner had most readers agreed that you get what Rupert Murdoch pays for when you read a financial red-top, than Ross Douthat stirred things up again by musing that (with specific attention to the Episcopal Church (US&) ) ‘liberal Christianity’ might not be able to survive; and then my grad-school classmate Diana Butler Bass parried that without liberal Christianity, the whole enterprise might not survive. Add in all the various supporters and detractors, and one can sympathise with Rachel Held Evans’s plea that people remember that not everyone has to belong to a partisan ‘side’.
As an observer, it seems that several points are being bandied about as though they all lined up tidily to separate sheep from goats. It ain’t necessarily so.
First, let’s please stop treating attendance statistics as simple indicators. They’re not by any means irrelevant, not a bit, but if I had a savings account, I’d bet a sizable portion of it that you could shift those attendance figures considerably just by making clergy into better preachers. Regardless of whether they’re preaching the true gospel, a false gospel, justice and equality, holiness and traditional sanctity, one can almost certainly improve attendance by recruiting and training better preachers. So if all you want to do is boost your attendance statistics, there’s a (non-partisan) way to increase attendance. Of course, that also suggests that attendance per se isn’t a very revealing test — but tackling the preaching deficit might enable you to game the system and claim something about your parish, or your side, or whatever.
Second, the rush toward cheerleading for one side and finger-wagging at the other side underscores a different problem (again, for any ‘side’). Rather than upholding deliberation, humility, respect for difference, and determination to seek truth and to support desperately needy, injured, oppressed people, a very great many people opt to stand on sidelines waving pom-poms for one side and taunting the other side.
Third, contra Ross Douthat, liberals have been doing theology over the past decades. But pro Douthat, that theological reflection has tended to allow itself to drift increasingly from points of orientation by which Christian faith can readily be distinguished from cultural humanism. So on one hand, it boots not to say ‘You haven’t done your homework!’ nor to respond ‘Oh yes we have!’ Douthat reasonably asserts that ‘liberals’ tend to relax their allegiance to the discrimen (‘a configuration of criteria…’) by which one recognises sound Christian teaching; and responses to Douthat say “Captivity to tradition is the problem!’ — but that’s not an argument against Douthat’s concern that ‘liberals’ don’t hew close to the Christian doctrinal tradition, it’s an affirmation of it.
Fourth, neither ‘we have to update doctrine’ nor ‘we mustn’t change anything’ bears a demonstrable causal relation to attendance numbers. You can sell people bottled tap water, my friends; you could fill a church with fiery social activists, or you could fill a church with entrenched doctrinaires, but neither proves anything about what the gospel is or should be — any more than the popularity of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted shows that it’s a better film than Moonrise Kingdom. You can’t prove church teaching with attendance numbers, can’t, can’t, can’t. (I will offer a tip: the New Testament, if one still regards that as relevant, offers several lists of characteristics by which to identify the presence and effects of the Spirit. ‘Big attendance numbers’ doesn’t appear on any of those lists.)
Fifth, as a Christian theologian, I believe that the soundness of theological teaching does indeed manifest itself over the long run. That doesn’t imply that the churches should teach only what has been handed down from long ago; the church has changed its mind, and the church has erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith. There is no way to guarantee that you’re not off-base. On the other and, if you adhere to what millennia of the saints have taught and believed, you’re a least somewhat less likely to be found in error than if you decide that you’re going to think it all up on your own, taking as fundamental a set of political and philosophical ideas developed over the last couple hundred years. The Enlightenment wasn’t A Bad Thing, but neither was it the dawning of the messianic era. If there’s something you want to identify with Jesus, or Christianity, then your argument is stronger if you can actually give numerous reasons for making that identification; and the more such reasons that you can provide, the stronger the theological argument. And if you want to repudiate a great deal of what is plausibly associated with Jesus and Christianity, it’s not unreasonable for people to question the extent to which your enterprise is still ‘Christian’.
I won’t set myself up as a prophet who speaks God’s mind and adjudicates conflicts among ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ relative to the vitality of churches. On strictly secular grounds, though, I can assure people who laud shallow theology and deprecate reasonable criticism that they’re selling sackcloth as silk, and that’s not a recipe for long-term viability. It’s not a family trade you want to hand down to your children. Cheerleading and finger-wagging help you sort out who’s on your side and who’s not, they make for great pep rallies, but they don’t obviate the need to do something wisely and well.