In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, titled “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?,” Ross Douthat makes the observation that last week, as the Episcopal Church was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. “They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase,” he writes. Douthat goes on to make the case that such grim statistics spell doom for “liberal Christianity” in its present incarnation, if progressive, mainline churches do not find ways to reinvent themselves.
And, it is hard to argue with him. When the Presiding Bishop for the Episcopal Church rationalizes her church’s declining numbers with loopy non-sequiturs like this one- “that her communion’s members value the ‘stewardship of the earth’ too highly to reproduce themselves” (was she joking?!) – it is easy to see why the Episcopal Church is expiring.
Douthat is commendably quick to point out some of the weaknesses that beset conservative Christianity in this country, too, with the implication that the problem of church decline and cultural irrelevance is not just a “liberal” one. But he stops short of connecting the dots in tracing this wider trend and how it could more hopefully in-form the church, as evidenced by the title of his article. “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” is the wrong question, really. Because I suspect that my and younger generations are largely not thinking in terms of such labels. Most of us have come to view “conservative” and “liberal” as just code words for a host of implicit political beliefs that have functioned as add-ons to the Gospel– jaded remnants of religiously framed culture wars. If we’re leaving church in droves or finding church irrelevant, it is because these labels have failed us. We’ve seen through them and they have come up short.
Douthat is right to link a high view of Scripture and Christ with hope for the rebirth of the church. But perhaps where we can move now, in surveying a war-torn landscape riddled by our churches’ political wars, is into a new territory of thinking beyond old identifiers like denomination or political affiliation. Which is not to say that the Gospel is apolitical- only that former politically identifying marks, such as “conservative” and “liberal” need to fall by the wayside. To borrow a biblical allusion, they are like chaff that the wind blows away. There is no new life here. If “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity was once “redeemable,” it does not redeem lives. Only Christ does.
Maybe the question to ask, then, is not whether liberal Christianity can be saved, but rather, whether we in twenty-first century America can let God’s Living Word in its baffling, difficult, uncomfortable and perplexing breadth and depth and ongoing power, stand on its own, apart from our hang-ups, biases, prejudices, and allegiances.