Is Political Activism Responsible for the Decline of the Episcopal Church?

Is Political Activism Responsible for the Decline of the Episcopal Church?
Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP
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The headline on a Washington Post story two years ago read, “If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left.” As a former Episcopalian, I have witnessed this decline personally, but the numbers by themselves are staggering.

According to the Episcopal News Service, the church had fallen to 1.7 million members (down from 3.4 million in 1992) and Sunday attendance was down 13 percent from 2013 to 2018. Similarly, there were 175 fewer parishes and missions during that period.

Of course, this decline was not a feature just of Episcopalian churches. An ABC/Washington Post poll released in May of last year found that only 36 percent of Americans identified as Protestant, down from 50 percent in 2003.

With this kind of performance, one would think the effected churches would be in a great hurry to acknowledge and fix those things that have led to this decline. One would be wrong. As stated by the Rev. Michael Barlowe, the very man responsible for the release of the parochial report data cited above, “It doesn’t mean we’re doing something wrong.”

Rev. Barlowe’s opinion notwithstanding, many think the Episcopal Church is doing lots of things wrong, and not just in the last few years, either. Indeed, if this church were a publicly traded corporation, the Board would have directed the firing of the whole of the leadership, from the Presiding Bishop to most of the rectors, years ago.

So what explains this state of affairs? Perhaps it’s something akin to Tom Wolfe’s criticism of contemporary art in his book "The Painted Word," wherein he argued that leading artists were not making art for the public, but for art critics. The Episcopal Church, and indeed most of the mainline Protestant denominations, have traded the wants and needs of their parishioners for alignment with the social and political views of what passes in this country for the intelligentsia.

The evidence of their social and political activism, if not their theological tergiversation, can be plainly seen in both the sermons and the official and informal positions of the Episcopal Church.

By votes in their General Convention, the reports and activities of Episcopal committees, and/or the opinions of Episcopal priests and seminarians, the church has now glommed onto such political and social movements as climate change, transgender bathroom use, same-sex marriage in the parishes, the academic doctrine of “intersectionalism,”and the divestiture movement against Israel, commonly called BDS. If they were next to criticize Jesus for his failure to acknowledge his “male privilege,” would anyone be surprised? Furthermore, is there anything more feckless than the many sermons given by Episcopal rectors to their aging parishioners in the language of political correctness?

Who knows what kind of personal deficiencies among the Episcopal leadership are responsible for all of this, but surely it includes hubris, blended with that kind of intellectual shallowness that expresses itself as nonchalance.

One could make rational arguments, whatever their depth, for most or all of the causes listed above just by resort to history and rhetoric. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether the Episcopal interest in or adoption of these movements is the driving force behind the abandonment of the church by its parishioners. The view from here is that it is.

Patrick Maines is a recently departed member of the Episcopal Church, and the former president of The Media Institute, one of the country’s leading First Amendment think tanks.

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