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The church and the Kingdom of God

September 20, 2013

ON THIS Ember Friday, it is meet and right (as the Prayer Book says) that we should turn our attention to our beloved church, which is in a bad way. You know it. We know it. The bad ideas floating about the church are legion, and a great deal of ecclesiastical groupthink is executed weekly upon good churchmen and -women, all of it indicative of an intellectual rot surpassed only the fundamentally weak theology and impoverished common sense that underlie the current discourse. What is required in this moment of stultification and decline is a surpassing vision, a clarion call.

As it turns out, Walter Russell Mead has penned exactly such a piece.

On the subject of the Episcopal Church, Mr. Mead knows whereof he speaks: his father is an Episcopal priest, and he himself grew up in the church. An honors graduate of Groton and Yale, Mead is a professor at Bard College, a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a well-regarded scholar, author, and political commentator.

He describes what he has written as a jeremiad, and that it may be. As such, he may appear given to hyperbole and exaggeration. But we find his words prophetic, as befits a true jeremiad, and we recommend a thorough reading of and reflection upon what he has written. To paraphrase a former professor of ours, perhaps he exaggerates, but not by much.


Mr. Mead.

Mr. Mead.

AS THE Episcopal Church—along with the other mainline Protestant denominations—diminishes, we don’t have to look far to see bishops and leaders who are largely failing in their core assignments: to tend to the health and promote the growth of the congregations in their area. Yet even as we have fewer and fewer effective and successful leaders, we have no shortage of political, ‘prophetic’ bishops. When they can, they meet with world leaders and jet off to exotic locales to bring peace and fight for justice. When they can’t do that, they sign statements of concern, issue reports and otherwise tug on the skirts of an indifferent public seeking attention for their political views.

In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions. The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort. I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform. Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes. It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause. The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea. This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter. Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both. A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote, and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics. I’m urging them to shut up. More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.

Let me nail some cyber-theses to the virtual door.

1. Nobody cares what you think while your tiny church is falling apart.

In a diocese not a thousand miles from my home in glamorous Queens, there once was a bishop whose long and public battle with alcoholism rendered him unable to carry out his duties. For years and years this diocese suffered under grievous mismanagement and its rotten condition was an open scandal widely discussed and lamented throughout the national church. Yet in the general shipwreck of his episcopacy, this bishop (or what remained of the diocesan machinery) somehow managed to get ‘prophetic’ statements out on political causes of various kinds. So far as I know, none of these statements ever had any impact on anyone’s thinking anywhere on Planet Earth.

This poor bishop, now thankfully retired, was an extreme case, but why, exactly, would any sane person today pay attention to the political pronouncements of an Episcopal bishop? Episcopalians are a tiny minority of the population and the church long ago lost its social power and cachet. The Episcopal church today is in the worst condition it has been since the aftermath of the Revolution; its clergy has visibly failed to keep the church together or prevent its ongoing decline. I’m afraid that the penchant to make political pronouncements proceeds less from a true prophetic vocation than from a nostalgia for a time when it mattered what Episcopal bishops thought. In any case, there is nothing more ridiculous than a proprietor of a failing concern who officiously lectures everyone else on how to manage their affairs. Please, for the sake of what remains of the dignity of your office, give it a rest.

2. American Episcopal bishops have so spectacularly screwed up their relations with Africa that they are in no position to lecture secular leaders on international politics.

When members of the foundation left lecture the rest of the world, the need for better relations with the oppressed peoples of the developing world is one of their favorite themes.I would be the last person to say they don’t have a point; I’ve spent enough time in the slums of three continents to have some small sense of the need for some basic changes in our world. But the bishops of the American Episcopal church have no lessons to teach. The American Episcopalians are currently engaged in a bitter struggle with their equivalents in African countries like Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda over a variety of theological issues, of which the question of the ordination of openly gay bishops is the most prominent. Now it’s my view that in the long run as the church reflects on the issue of homosexuality, it should and will come to a place closer to that of the American Episcopal mainstream than to that of the Nigerians. But this process of reflection and debate will take more time than the Americans want to give it, and it will take some theological procedures very different from those that are currently fashionable in the American Episcopal church.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that if there is a secret to managing respectful North-South relations in the 21st century, the American Episcopal bishops don’t have it. African church leaders compare their American counterparts to George W. Bush: arrogantly unilateral, deaf to other points of view, seeking to impose a uniquely American agenda on those who do not agree. That’s not entirely fair, but there’s enough truth in it that when it comes to America’s place in the world, the Episcopal church should listen as others speak. Who knows — maybe we’ll learn something.

3. In the contemporary world the job of the clergy isn’t to provide political leadership. It is to help laypeople grow into better, wiser political leaders.

Back when Henry VIII was chopping the heads off his wives, bishops were political as well as religious leaders. They voted in the English House of Lords. Their dioceses were rich, owning substantial land and employing many people. At the same time, when ordinary people were often barely literate, priests and bishops were among the tiny minority who could read Latin as well as English and so had access to the great bulk of the world’s knowledge and could keep up with thought in other countries. Richer, more powerful, and better educated than most of the people in that day, the clergy were a social and political force to reckon with, and bishops particularly spent a lot of time thinking through their political strategies. It mattered what bishops thought about politics, and throughout the kingdom there were people who from interest or conviction would follow their bishop’s lead.

The Episcopal Church was never this important or rich in the United States, but its members were disproportionately wealthy and well connected for much of our history. Episcopal bishops and priests generally ranked pretty high among local and regional elites; Mrs. Astor’s 400 were more likely to be found Sunday morning in Episcopal churches than anywhere else. Episcopal bishops and priests were in touch with those who ran the country and for a couple of generations the “St. Grottlesex” schools of New England, largely Episcopal, trained the establishment and shaped its worldviews. This was true as late as the 1960′s and 1970′s; when Episcopal bishops came out for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, it was a sign that the establishment was moving. The bishops didn’t so much make the change as register a change that was happening around them, but nevertheless their stands were, legitimately, news.

That was a generation ago. These days the establishment is weaker, less religious and less Protestant than it used to be. Fewer members of the establishment care about the church, and the establishment as a whole has less power and prestige in American life. Episcopal parishes are less and less gathering places for local movers and shakers, and Episcopal bishops are less and less members of regional power structures. Fewer and fewer powerful people pay any attention at all to what Episcopal leaders think.

More than this, the laity has less regard for clerical leadership than ever before. As college and post-graduate education has become more common, the educational distance between the clergy and their parishioners has shrunk. We don’t actually need all that much guidance from the clergy anymore. The mainline Protestant clergy in any case has largely abandoned any claim on religious authority. The theological pluralism of the contemporary Episcopal church (and the acute and growing shortage of pledge-paying members) means that most clergy and bishops tolerate virtually any unconventional theological opinion, especially among the laity. Having given up their religious authority, they are in a weak position when it comes to trying to exert political leadership.

None of this means that the church and the clergy don’t have a political role to play — but it does mean that they need to think differently about how to play it. The job of a bishop isn’t to make statements about the minimum wage or the Iraq war. It’s to help the clergy in his or her diocese form communities that produce dynamic, committed and intelligent laypeople who will shape political debates on these and many other matters. A bishop isn’t here to inject Christian values into public policy debates; a bishop is here to inject mature, thoughtful and committed Christians into public life. The Diocese of Long Island shouldn’t be taking stands on the minimum wage; it should be producing people who transform the life of the region at every level of engagement.

If the bishops were already doing this pretty well I would be much more tolerant of their occasional ventures into public debate. But it’s as plain as day that en masse the American bishops are catastrophically failing at that core task — as indeed are their colleagues in the other mainline denominations. In the parlous state of today’s Episcopal church, every dime a diocese spends and every minute of a bishop’s working day needs to be focused on local congregations. The church is melting before their eyes and many bishops seem to be passively watching it happen; at most they hope to manage decline as smoothly as possible.

In this situation, issuing statements on the importance of the Millennium Development Goals or the minimum wage which will change no minds and advance no agenda isn’t just a pointless though cheap and effortless exercise. It’s a way of lying to yourself — of saying that the church is still doing what churches should do, that its problems aren’t that bad and that you as a religious leader are doing what you should do. This isn’t prophetic ministry; it’s denial. And it isn’t good. It’s bad.

4. The Blue Social Model1 isn’t the Kingdom of God.

My final provocative thesis is this: there’s an underlying problem that both leads mainline church leaders like Episcopal bishops to put too much weight on making vapid and useless political statements and that contributes to the inexorable decline of the churches entrusted to their charge.

The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God. I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of the mainline churches today. Historically, this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.

To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry. It is to worship the work of our own hands. What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.

Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage. They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.

I want to be clear here. Liberal mainline Protestantism is not just a ghastly mistake, and a return to literalism and fundamentalism is not the way out of the current impasse. The great historical riches and insights of the mainline denominations are more important than ever today. The liberal, questing spirit that refuses to take ancient truths for granted and that challenges historic orthodoxies in the light of lived experience has a vital and necessary place in the life of the church. It’s important that the mainline churches halt their disintegration and decline and regain the strength to play their role in the American religious system. I am not writing all these terrible things about bishops because I want them to fail. God has work for the mainline church to do, and God’s work in the world will suffer if we fail.

But the Blue Beast cannot save American society and it cannot save the mainline church. Until we come to terms with these truths and start living them we can neither help ourselves nor do much to help anybody else.

1. The “Blue Social Model” is Mead’s term for the post-World War II economic structure built on unionized middle class jobs with generous wages in government or at oligopolistic private sector firms such as the old AT&T, which structure he contends is in decline and has been for 30 years.

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