Jul 17, 2012

The fictitious history of the Episcopal Church

Conservative critiques of the Episcopal Church seem to have come up with a fictitious history of the church. It makes sense -- or enough sense -- on the level of critique, except that it's also always historical, and it's about how Episcopalians used to be but now have changed. And on that level it's very strange nonsense.

Ross Douthat, doing this:
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.
Russel Mead says the church's extreme irrelevance comes from the fact that it followed "the theological path of least resistance as it makes the transition from a church that once spoke to a nation to a sect in communion only with itself."

Philip Jenkins makes the same argument, essentially correlating the decline in church attendance to a change in the Episcopal Church's relationship to American culture. The church began, the implication goes, to just accommodate culture at some point, and then there wasn't any real difference between being in church or not, so what was the point? Thus the decline. Jenkins says what especially worries him, as an Episcopalian, is that the church leaders won't reverse this trend, but instead will be more accommodationist, adapting even more to "secular" "liberal" culture, instead of staking out an oppositional position that would legitimize the church's continued existence.

Except the Episcopal Church's "golden age" was actually more like the "gilded age."

The church's high-water mark came when it was most staunchly on the side of the status quo. Not when it was prophetically standing against the culture, but when it was, in large part, a club for powerful people and an endorser of proper opinion

The Episcopal Church was at it's height in 1966. According to the Historical Statistics of the United States, which is put out by the US Chamber of Commerce, in 1966 the Episcopal Church had 3.6 million members in the US. More than ever before; more than ever since.

The church's reputation at that moment was as the church of the J.P. Morgans and Vanderbilts and Roosevelts and Astors, who dominated America and the Episcopal Church from the 1900s to the 1920s, and made the Episcopal Church into a quasi-national church. In the '50s, according to one report, about three-quarters of New York Times wedding announcements were for weddings in Episcopal churches. It was the church of Wall Street. Church as country club. The "Republican Party at Prayer." One prominent member in the late '60s was Gerald Ford, then the House minority leader. Another was George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Texas. John Lindsay, the leading liberal Republican from New York, was Episcopalian. As was William Randolph Hearst, as was William Davis Taylor, then the publisher of the Boston Globe, and as were one third of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, Potter Stewart and Byron White. When Dwight D. Eisenhower died in '69, he laid it repose at the Washington National Cathedral.

This was not a counter cultural church. This was not a church offering an alternative to the dominant status quo.

And yet it was really, really popular. So if something changed between the height of the 1960s and the bottom dropping out of attendance today, it wasn't that Episcopalians suddenly started "accommodating" to popular opinion and polite society.

In fact, the decline that conservative critiques are pointing to began about a decade before the changes they'll specifically point to as causes. The Episcopal Church began to make the changes that upset conservatives in the mid 1970s: changing the prayer book in '76, declaring homosexuals to be "children of God" deserving of equal rights in '76, ordaining women in '77, ordaining an open homosexual in '77, and so on.

By that time, though, the church was already in decline, having lost about 800,000 members between '66 and '75.

It's perfectly legitimate to critique the changes in theology in the Episcopal Church over the last four decades. It's legitimate, too, to point out how the power, prestige and numbers of the church have more or less evaporated in recent years. Successfully correlating the two things, though, and claiming, even, that there's a causal relationship between the two things, is going to take more work.

But imagining a fictitious history where the Episcopal Church stood against the trends of its day, taking stands for orthodoxy and the Bible against the elite of the era is just nonsense. The Episcopal Church never occupied the culture space of, say, today's Jehovah's Witnesses. There are definitely some things that have changed with this church and with American culture since the 1960s, but this story about this sudden cultural accommodation to fashionable liberalism is fantasy.