Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Spiritual Malnutrition in Modern America

I was surprised to hear that Ann Romney had been Episcopalian and converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon faith) when she met and was dating Mitt.  When I heard that her family was of Welsh background I was particularly curious as while there are some Welsh Anglicans they are fairly rare, the Welsh being mostly evangelicals—Baptists and Wesleyans in particular along with various “free Church” Congregations.  The Anglicans in Wales are usually quite Low Church but high income—the upper crust sort of people.  Working class Welsh—and Mrs. Romney’s grandfather was a miner—are either non-religious or, as I said, evangelicals.  It turns out that Edward Davies, Mrs. Romney’s father, an immigrant, had been raised in the Free Church tradition but was strongly opposed to organized religion.  This may have been due to the heavy and rigidly Calvinist bent of the Welsh Evangelicals which is dour enough to suck all joy and life out of you like one of Harry Potter’s Dementors.  The Davies family rarely went to Church and while Ann identified herself as an Episcopalian, I can’t find any mention of her ever being formally received into or confirmed in the Episcopal Church. 
But it isn’t Ann Romney whom I want to write about today. It is rather the Episcopal Church.  Thinking—until I started to research—that Mrs. Romney had been a cradle Episcopalian I was going to bring up the subject of how the Episcopal Church has been gutted of its membership—dropping 40% of its membership over the last 40 years.  What has caused this loss?
Actually I think the loss is even more dramatic—many of the Episcopalians I know, indeed most, are people who have joined the Church over the last 40 years meaning that the number who have left is even greater than 40%, the converts taking the place of perhaps another 20 or 30%.  An Episcopalian priest friend of mine—who himself is a former Catholic priest—says that about two-thirds of his congregation of 350 members joined the Episcopal Church as adults.  Many of these are, like the priest himself, former Catholics.  They feel more comfortable in the Episcopal Church because they are in second marriages, or they are in gay unions, or they feel emarginated in the Catholic Church because of their support for “liberal” causes.  “Father Joe” said too that there are a number of regular attendees at his parish who still call themselves Catholics but are just more comfortable worshipping in an Episcopal Church because it is more “inclusive” and “welcoming.” 
“Father Joe” said that in addition to converts from Catholicism he has about an equal number of people who have come from other Christian faiths—particularly evangelicals—who are drawn to the Episcopal Church (they say) by the more formal liturgy.  “They like the music—and the language of the Prayer-Book.  These are the ones who are most resistant to liturgical innovations and they love the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’.”  Some of these “pass through the gastro-intestinal tract of the Episcopal Church and into the Roman Catholic Church because they want even more ritual than we can give them, but they tend to become Latin Mass Catholics.  I even know of one or two,” the priest said, “who used the Catholic Church as a changing station for Russian Orthodoxy.  But people on that sort of spiritual journey are generally just restless and not religious.” 
What has caused the exodus from the Episcopal Church?  Liberal Protestantism in general has gone into decline since the heady years of their support for the Civil Rights movement and Anti-War movement of the Vietnam years.  Those were exhilarating times for liberal Protestants in general and Episcopalians in particular.  But the subsequent causes—feminism, abortion rights, gay rights—the Churches have embraced have been much more polarizing.  Yet I think the affinity for the Episcopal (and Presbyterian) Church for liberal agendas doesn’t really answer the question of why their membership has declined.  While a minority of former Episcopalians have either gone into the schismatic Anglican groups such as Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) or moved to more evangelical Churches, the majority have just stopped going to any Church or attend a church of their choice on a sporadic basis or as need for a funeral or wedding occur.  American society is overall far less churched in 2012 than it was in the Ozzie and Harriet years of the Eisenhower administration. 
I think—and I could be wrong—that another reason that Church attendance and membership has dropped in the mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church, is that the churches had become little more than a social event.  The preaching is often bland and sufficiently vague to make sure that no one is offended and the liturgy is often the triumph of form over substance.  I think a focus has been lost on the saving work of Christ and how that saving work intersects not with some future afterlife, but with the demands of faithfulness in the here and now world.  This brings me back to one of my theme songs—the lack of substantial spirituality in contemporary American Christianity.  I have written before on this issue as it relates to Catholicism, but I think the problem is much wider.  Anglicanism has a strong spiritual tradition both with the Caroline Divines and the Oxford movement.  Methodism too in Wesley has a strong spiritual heritage that leads the Christian to look honestly at himself and what much change for fidelity to Christ.  I think the various “Bible Churches” and other pseudo-evangelical groups present a distortion of this spirituality—not a willful distortion just a failure to capture the real thing—in the sort of emotional theatrics of mega-church worship and people find their “faith” satisfied even as a child would rather fill-up on Cotton Candy rather than Broccoli and lean meats.  The meat and potato spiritual diet found in Ignatius Loyola or John of the Cross or John Wesley or Teresa of Avila or Lancelot Andrews or Jeremy Taylor requires a discipline that the musical surge and stage lighting of a Joel Osteen or a Pete Wilson or a Brad Powell or a Pat Robertson supplants so that the believer can “feel the feeling” without having to confront the challenge.   The mainline denominations, Catholicism included, needs to get back to its deep spiritual roots and find the sort of faith that sustain contemporary Christians in a post-Christian world. 

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