In his Presidential address to the Organization of American Historians and a subsequent interview in the Christian Century (see here), David Hollinger argued that ecumenical Protestants (as opposed to evangelical Protestants) made significant cultural gains at the expense of losing membership: “The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.”
Hollinger argues that ecumenical Protestants might not have suffered losses as substantial had they not tried to blur denominational lines, leaving people in the pews to think their theological views were not being taken seriously. According to Hollinger, the fear of then united Catholicism led Protestant leaders to try for a united Protestantism, and this backfired.
But he suggests that ecumenical Protestants should not be caught up in the media focus on numbers in assessing success: “The victors are slow to claim victory because they too often assume that numbers of church members are what counts most. If they had a more capacious understanding of the ways in which religion can function in society, they might be able to feel more pride in what happened. The great Anglican archbishop William Temple used to say that any church aware of its deepest missions would be willing to cease to exist if it advanced its ultimate goals.”
I think Hollinger makes an important point in pointing to an unappreciated factor in the numbers decline in mainline Protestant denominations, but there are, of course, many other factors including the fact that the birthrates of mainline Protestants are less than those of evangelicals. Moreover, I think he is correct to suggest that it is better for religious institutions to stand for truth than to curry favor. Important as the cultural achievements which he credits to ecumenical Protestants may be, even if the religious mission of ecumenical Protestants were confined to social justice, I am sure Hollinger would agree that there is a long way to go.
Finally, it is ironic that the membership issues are not confined to ecumenical Protestants. The decline in Anglo Catholics is indistinguishable from a percentage perspective from mainline Protestants. Ecumenical Protestants are now experiencing a decline. Our country, which was founded as an English Protestant country, is now a minority Protestant multicultural nation. The longing for spirituality is increasing, while the belief in religious organizations under siege. Thus it is time to read Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. Nonetheless, millions of Americans continue to fill the pews even ecumenical Protestant churches. They continue to be influential institutions in the religious lives of their members and the cultural and political life of our nation – and (to borrow a line from Stanley Fish), it’s a good thing too.