On July 14, Ross Douthout wrote a column in the New York Times about “the collapse of liberal Christianity.” In particular, he focused on the Episcopalian Church which he claimed had followed retired Bishop John Shelby Spong in adopting every liberal idea ever promulgated by a liberal theologian. Spong famously denied the existence of miracles in general and the physical Resurrection of Jesus in particular. He denied the existence of a traditional God and the coherence of praying to an imaginary God who cares about what happens in the world. Douthout blames the decline in Episcopalian membership and the decline in liberal Christianity on the acceptance of liberal beliefs. He sees little difference between liberal Christianity and secular liberalism.
There is a lot that is wrong with this picture. First, there is no reason to believe that the leaders of the Episcopal Church are as theologically liberal as Spong. Indeed, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has stated that Spong’s core theological beliefs “represent a level of confusion and misinterpretation that I find astonishing” (although Williams’ own views are more nuanced than those typically understood by parishioners). See here. I can find no evidence that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori shares Spong’s theology. In reading some of her sermons, it is clear to me that she has a quite different conception of Divine caring and human prayer. See here. I am fortified by a post by Matthew L. Skinner (an Associate Professor of the New Testament at the Luther Seminary in St. Paul) on Taryn Mattice’s Facebook page that says, “Ross Douthat is starting to drive me crazy with his consistent sloppiness as a commentator on the American religious scene. It's easy to make fun of Spong, but to strongly associate him with the recent actions of the Episcopal Church USA is... just stupid.”
Douthout’s suggestion that the decline in liberal Christianity is caused by its liberalism is marred by the triumphalist implication that the Pope of his Roman Catholicism has been wise to steer the conservative course. Douthout does not discuss the staggering exodus of Anglo-Catholics from the Catholic Church. According to Putnam and Campbell in American Grace, the decline of Anglo-Catholics in Roman Catholicism is about the same as that experienced in mainline Protestantism. They say that the second largest religious group in the United States is composed of those who have left the Catholic Church. And consider those who are left behind. The overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics reject the authority of the leadership. The majority of Catholics in the pews reject most of the stubbornly conservative teachings of the Pope and the Bishops. They stay in the Church despite these teachings, not because of them. Perhaps it is just me, but I think the crisis of authority within the Catholic Church is far more serious than the turmoil in the Episcopalian Church.
Diana Butler Bass maintains (see here thanks to Taryn for the link) that what is really going on is a loss of faith in all forms of traditional religion. I think the real story is quite complicated. Some leave churches because they are too liberal or too conservative; some leave because there has been change regardless of left/right tilt; some leave because of institutional stodginess, corruption, or beaurocracy. And many stay. The sociology of religion defies simplicity and does not lend itself to the partisan posturing of Roth Douthout.
Most galling to me of all the Douthout claims is the assertion that the Episcopal Church (and liberal Christianity) offers little not afforded by secular liberalism. I wonder if anyone could walk into a Episcopal Church on a Sunday morning and mistake it for a secular gathering. Does Douthout really think that the sacramental life of a church is a meaningless charade? In this connection, consider Rowan Williams in response to Spong again, "I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker."
Does Douthout think that the faith experience and commitments of a congregational community are secular? Yes, there are secular aspects. But Douthout’s glib dismissal in comparing liberal Christianity and secular liberalism is journalistic malpractice.