A Hope of Collapsing Churches
The Present Malaise & Future Hope of the Mainline Churches
by David Mills
From a distance, the castle’s towers rise high above the countryside, its flags snapping in the wind. Its walls stand massive and secure, and the life inside continues much as it always has. And yet its foundation is cracking and sinking, the walls are beginning here and there to crumble, its flags are tattered, the roofs are full of holes, and many of the windows are broken.
Such, certainly, are the mainline churches. Such also is Rome, seen as a whole; that is, as including Hans Küng and Rosemary Radford Ruether as well as Pope John Paul II. Such will be Orthodoxy as well, when those churches have more fully been infected by modernity and the cultural ghetto that has so far protected them has finally turned into a suburb.
I will describe here only the mainline churches, because their decay is already so advanced and so easy to trace. Barring divine intervention on a scale not seen since the parting of the Red Sea, they will predictably and inevitably collapse, but in this inevitability lies the greatest hope for orthodox Christianity in the mainline churches.
This is (broadly speaking) a sociological judgment. A sociological rather than theological analysis of the churches will help us see our situation more clearly, and correctly discern the signs of the times. In particular, it should help us avoid the thoughtless identification of “the Church,” which shall not fail, with a particular institution or church, which certainly can, and in many cases seem very much to want to. This identification has kept many well-meaning Christians from responding effectively to apostasy by letting them convince themselves that they do not need to do anything but wait.1
Much of what follows is, in human terms, pessimistic. By hope I mean Christian rather than worldly hope, which is the desire that things will get better, or at least not get worse, with a minimum of fuss and bother and as little pain as possible. Christian hope is hope in Christ, who died a horrifying death on the Cross before he ascended into heaven. Hope, like heaven, is found only through the Cross, and may well mean that we are led where we would rather not go, along paths that seem to us to lead in the wrong direction.
I do not mean to deny God’s power to revive a church. The revival among Anglicans in East Africa, the papacy of John Paul II, and Orthodoxy’s new interest in evangelism all seem to be signs of a new work of the Holy Spirit among his people. But the process of decay and collapse I will describe is itself the result first of disregard for and then (inevitably) rebellion against the Lord of the Church, and I have no reason to think these will change in a way that leads to revival in the churches as they are now. Revival, I think, is much more likely to redistribute the members of the churches so that fellowship or communion and doctrinal unity are more clearly related than they are at this moment.
What does a sociological analysis tell us about the present and future of the mainline churches? Institutions or groups are held together by shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions about the nature of things. People act the way they do because they have a set of ideas—unconsciously held but relatively coherent—that makes sense of everything around them, that tells them this is good and that is bad, that they ought to do this and not do that, that this is true and that false.
When most Americans assumed that marriages were to be lifelong, people worked harder at keeping them going because people (“good respectable people,” anyway) just didn’t get divorced. It was not done. As an old lady said to me, half-seriously, “Oh I never would have divorced my husband. But there were times I might have killed him.”
Then some people challenged the assumption by saying that to be “fulfilled” or “self-actualized” or “happy” was more important than to remain married. Suddenly it wasn’t obvious to almost everyone that marriage was better than divorce. The assumption gone, the divorce rate shot up. Eventually “good respectable people” were as likely to be divorced as anyone else.
In fact, the assumption was reversed. Now when people get divorced others just shrug and say, “That’s just how it is, these things happen,” and the few people who insist on the old ways are thought naive or self-righteous or to be “imposing their values.”
When the Foundation Crumbles
I describe this set of beliefs and assumptions as a “foundation” because institutions are built upon and receive their shape and security from it and are badly hurt by any shift or change. Institutions are like buildings and their shared beliefs and assumptions like the foundation and the structural beams hidden in the walls.
The foundation can begin cracking and the beams may begin rusting and even buckle a little long before anyone can from the outside see any change in the building. But once they start to disintegrate the building is doomed. The collapse may take a very long time even to be noticed, because it starts at the foundations, out of sight of the casual observer or the thoughtless member, but the building will collapse.
When churches lose the shared beliefs and assumptions that have held them together, they begin to decay. If God does not intervene, when institutions cease to share basic beliefs, they begin to disintegrate—meaning they lose that which integrates them, holds them together—and eventually collapse.
This image of a collapsing building is a bit misleading, because a building is much more rigid than an institution, and lacks an institution’s capacity for transformation. Institutions try very hard to keep themselves alive—for one thing, their members don’t want to lose their jobs—and try desperately to recreate a unity they have lost and to keep their outward form even when their substance, their inner reality, has changed radically. Institutions are like buildings in one sense, but in another they are like a river that changes its course when the old bed has been blocked.
Sometimes institutions change their externals to maintain the substance, or even change to regain a substance partly lost. The building may receive a new facade but its foundation remain unchanged. Such would be the explanation (whether true or not I will not here judge) for the radical liturgical changes of the Anglican Reformation, or the introduction of vernacular liturgies in the Roman Church after the Second Vatican Council.
The danger of mere conservatism is to assume that any change in externals inevitably changes the substance. The danger of carelessness—the original fault of the mainline churches, I think—or of liberalism is to assume that a change in the externals does not affect the substance. Discerning what is actually happening as an institution changes is more difficult than most conservatives or liberals realize, though I think the wise man will always err on the side of conservation even in externals.
Though the image has its limitations, I think it can be said generally that institutions without shared beliefs collapse rather than transform themselves because transformation is more difficult than it seems. They collapse for a number of reasons.
On the one hand, too many people refuse to accept the new ways, and too many others want to change the externals to conform to the new ways. People with a commitment to truth—traditional belief in the first case, “openness to new truths” in the second—will not help change the institution to help what they think a lie.
On the other, a new set of beliefs will eventually change the externals to express its assumptions and logic, very often more radically than its first supporters intended. The growing movement to accept homosexuality seems to follow logically from the new assumptions accepted by the movements to tolerate easy remarriage after divorce and to ordain women, not least that direct biblical injunctions contrary to enlightened modern behavior can be reinterpreted or dismissed as an expression of a premodern culture.
Many people who accept the ordination of women or multiple remarriage are horrified by homosexuality, but they helped change the basic beliefs and thereby let loose a force that will do what it wills. One does wonder sometimes if these people have pondered the myth of Pandora’s box, or understood the lesson of modern ecology that delicately balanced systems are easily destroyed by the smallest changes.
Different Visions of Reality
What does this sociological insight mean for the present and future of the mainline churches? At least in the West, these churches are defined by the collapse of their former shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions. Nothing dogmatic or doctrinal, no shared view of things, holds them together.
Compare the “prophetic” skepticism of a Bishop Spong or a Mary Daly, the more tactful and cloudy liberalism of their fellow travelers, the timid and incomplete orthodoxy of the self-proclaimed “moderates,” and the historic orthodoxy of traditional believers. Their visions of reality are fundamentally different; the first two and the last irreconcilable, the third neither hot nor cold and of little final use to anyone.2
They do not simply disagree on what the Bible says on this or that question, such as whether the Eucharist is an expression of the community’s shared life or a real participation in the Divine life, or whether women should be ordained as signs of equality in God or not ordained because God has called only men to headship. They disagree on the more basic question of what the world is like and how it is to be understood.
This is why the divisions are so destructive and why they cannot be healed by “dialogue,” no matter how lengthy and sincere. And also why people still divided on such basic questions as the nature of the Eucharist often find themselves brothers in the faith, if still separated brethren, when they have no fellowship at all with many in their own churches.
The Five Responses
Faced with the loss of their shared beliefs, institutions respond in at least five ways: by denial, centralization, homogenization, frantic activity, and cleansing. Each is urged on the institution’s members by its officials and ideologists (those who think up plausible reasons for doing what they were going to do anyway) with great solemnity and the assurance, which they actually seem to believe, that there is in fact no problem whatsoever.
Though institutions seem to make the responses in more or less the order I’ve listed them, the responses also overlap, and an institution trying to cleanse itself of dissenters (the fifth response) is probably also still denying the problem exists at all (the first response). I will use illustrations from my own church, but Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and others could easily find examples of their own.
First, at least in the initial stages, and in those terminally unwilling to face reality, collapsing institutions simply deny the problem. They pretend that nothing has in fact changed, and that the institution remains unified. They do this usually by finding an increasingly vague and unexceptionable source of unity, yet one giving apparent continuity with their past. At the same time, they describe and promote fundamental changes (sometimes knowingly but oftentimes not) by using terms and ideas from their tradition to disguise the nature and extent of the change.
Church leaders in the Episcopal Church increasingly invoke slogans like “unity in diversity and diversity in unity” and appeal to the fact that we are all Episcopalians as the real source and meaning of unity. Even when officials admit the divisions, they declare that they can only be resolved together, calling for dialogue and praising “the process of listening,” and treating even appeals to established biblical teaching as wrongly foreclosing the questions at hand.
At the same time, those threatening division are attacked with such labels as “Donatist” and such slogans as “schism is worse than heresy.” (Which ignores the fact that heresy is a worse schism than schism. Heresy is schism in the Truth, not just in the institution, and the Truth is more foundational than the current institutional arrangements. Truth is eternal and institutions temporal.)
At the same time, Episcopal leaders have described and promoted fundamental changes by using terms and structures from the Anglican and particularly the patristic heritage to disguise the nature and extent of the changes. Or, if that is unfair to some of them, they have been insufficiently rigorous in their use of the tradition.
An obvious example is titling a prayer book fundamentally different from the historic Book of Common Prayer the Book of Common Prayer, as if there were no question of its basic continuity. Within the new book itself, the new Eucharistic rites are said to be “more patristic” than those in the older book, which means mainly that certain structures have been adapted from a few ancient sources—mainly Hippolytus—without also adapting the patristic theology.
Agnostic priests still celebrate the Eucharist and unitarian bishops still dress up in medieval vestments. Even the ordination of women is defended as a belated recognition of Pauline egalitarianism, and an “extension” or “expansion” of tradition.
Second, institutions that have lost their shared beliefs and thus have begun to collapse begin to centralize. The institution begins crumbling around the edges, because the more eccentric or “extreme” first notice the divisions in belief and first leave or threaten to leave. It then seems natural to bring everyone else closer to the center where they might be safe from such people and such temptations.
At the same time, the collapse also reveals the limits of institutional power and the fact that when people begin to rebel, or even simply lose interest, the institution’s leaders cannot control them as easily as they used to. They naturally respond by trying to gain more power and control over them, keeping them on a shorter leash just in case they decide to wander off.
In the Episcopal Church, the slogan that “the bishop is the center of unity” has become popular for this reason. Even bishops who have destroyed the unity of their diocese by teaching heresy or ordaining practicing homosexuals try to quiet dissenters by sternly reminding them that the bishop is the center of unity in the diocese.
They invoke the authority of the Church Fathers, a few of whom said something of the sort, to give their desire to centralize the diocese the appearance of traditional catholic Christianity. (Otherwise they ignore the Fathers completely, which makes it difficult to take them as seriously as they wish to be taken.) Their opportunistic use of the Fathers does not seem to bother them, or their followers.
The same desire to centralize explains the increasing involvement of bishops in the calling of new rectors, and the imposition of a process designed to weed out the eccentric and difficult. In the ordination process, a bishop will often demand that a man opposed to the ordination of women prove he can serve in a diocese with ordained women, but will make no similar demands on the most openly radical feminist. Alternatively, he may simply declare the man “too narrow” because he holds to a traditional reading of the Bible, while not finding the most exacting feminist too narrow at all. The first will be called “rigid,” the second “prophetic.”3
This raises the question that, if collapsing institutions tend to centralize, why do they not seem so eager to pull the feminist extremes closer to the center? A simple reason is that many men are afraid of women—especially men who parade their support of “women” and their sensitivity to “women’s issues.” (The first meaning feminists and the second feminist demands). Another reason is that feminism is a more thorough version of the mild liberalism of the average Episcopal leader and historic Christianity is not, and therefore even radical feminism is closer to the center than it appears to be.
Third, collapsing institutions begin to homogenize themselves, in the hope that by eliminating eccentricity and difference they will eliminate division. In particular, they encourage and promote “company men,” men whose identity is derived not from theological conviction, principles being such dangerous things to have, but from the institution and its current needs and desires: men, bishops will say with great concern, who won’t “polarize” the diocese and who will help “keep the diocese together.”
At the same time, they make the penalties for eccentricity very clear, often speaking (they think) pastorally. They will often tell a priest, for his own good of course, that while he (the bishop) knows the priest to be an outstanding pastor, most parishes cannot accept his conservative views—which is often simply untrue.
In the Episcopal Church, I’ve been told by a priest who served on a search committee, the consultants sent by the national church headquarters to help dioceses elect new bishops declare that all of the final candidates must be someone anyone in the diocese could vote for. (Though from the evidence, it seems that the consultants’ idea of someone everyone could vote for is to the left of someone everyone could actually vote for.)
This automatically excludes men of principle, biblical or liberal, for principle always offends someone and thus threatens to create division. But homogenization does not mean trying to make everyone a “moderate” or “centrist,” trying to bring everyone to the midpoint between the most conservative and most liberal people in the diocese or church. It is not a matter of saying to one side, accept the ordination of women, and to the other, stop ordaining homosexuals.
It is a more subtle process that tends to create not moderates or centrists but mild and timid liberals. It tends to create liberals for at least two reasons.
The first is that in churches as elsewhere the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and liberals inevitably fight longer and harder and yell louder than orthodox believers, who have better things to do, like care for their families and evangelize the lost. Even a conservative bishop will tend to give loud and insistent liberals as much as he can to quiet them.
The second is that other institutional imperatives determine what sort of homogeneity can be created. The more ordained women a diocese has, for example, the more pressure they and their allies will exert to make acceptance of their ministry mandatory, not least because so many of them find it so hard to find jobs. There are few if any such conservative imperatives in most dioceses, and thus the process of homogenization will almost always create at least a mild liberalism in practice, which usually becomes a mild liberalism in belief.
Fourth, in response to a loss of shared belief, collapsing institutions begin an increasingly frantic invention of programs, projects, “vision statements,” “decades of evangelism,” and the like to try to create some sort of unity. At this point, leaders will usually be happy if everyone simply keeps moving and stops fighting, even if they are moving in different directions and no longer talking to each other.
In dysfunctional families, one parent (usually the mother) tries to jolly everyone else along with lots of family activities to keep up the appearance of happiness, and in the hope that keeping everyone moving will keep them from fighting. It happens as well in dysfunctional churches, which is to say, in old and large and wealthy churches that have lost their first love.
“Mission” has become an important word in the Episcopal Church, I think for this reason. It is especially useful because it gives an apparent continuity with the institution’s past and makes anyone who continues fighting over issues look bad.
The word is usually vaguely defined, without any doctrinal or biblical distinctives that would offend some Episcopalians. It is often invoked with an appeal to stop arguing among ourselves and launch ourselves into “mission,” because the world’s needs are so urgent and so great and those who fight about “issues” are hurting people who need the Church’s help.
Expelling the Divisive
And finally, when all else fails, collapsing institutions try to expel the most obviously “divisive” members in the hope that their leaving might restore the lost unity. This solution to the loss of shared belief is not nearly as extreme or unlikely a reaction as it may seem.
In the Episcopal Church, more and more people, from bishops on down (or up, depending on your point of view), are talking darkly of their inability any longer to tolerate opposition to the ordination of women. “Justice can no longer be denied” and “Collegiality is less important than justice,” they cry, adding that 20 years is enough time for reactionaries to come to their senses or to get out (leaving them the buildings and endowments).
At our General Convention last summer, some of the speakers in the House of Deputies and some of the bishops spoke with visible anger against even the statement that the traditional position—the Episcopal Church’s position for 90 percent of its history—was a legitimate one. They felt, it seemed clear from their language, that opponents of the innovation of women in orders were morally deformed and literally intolerable.
In many dioceses, devotees of alternative religions are now accepted, when those who hold to the biblical understanding of sex and headship are at best tolerated. In these places, one may gain acceptance and advancement by praying to “our Mother in Heaven,” but be abused for politely and regretfully declining to have a woman celebrate at the altar of one’s church.
Many leaders are, for the moment, hesitant to apply this last solution, though many have also said that they are losing patience with those who continue to resist “the ministry of women.” (It is, by the way, revealing that our liberals believe that ministry means ordination.)
How, one asks, do people so ardently “inclusive,” so happy with the widest doctrinal pluralism, so easily find their tolerance has a limit? It is because they reflect not only the institution’s natural drive to recreate unity and the new set of beliefs’ natural drive to change the externals to conform with it, but also the demands of ordained women for jobs and the innovators’ characteristic rage at those who refuse their changes, who decline to “get with the [that is, their] program.” These factors together make many of the normally tolerant much less so.
The Problem with Cleansing
The problem with expelling dissenters, from the institution’s point of view, is that it creates a church characterized by a mild form of liberalism in belief, and liberalism, even when shared by everyone, does not create true unity. To put it another way, it is not a unity by which an institution can live very long.
Liberalism by itself cannot reach the degree of clarity, coherence, and shared commitment necessary for unity, because it is either parasitic or open-ended. In the first case it fails because without orthodoxy it no longer has anything to live on and react against, in the second because its adherents give decidedly different meanings to its slogans (like “freedom” and “liberation” and “equality”) which they didn’t have to notice when they were busy together overthrowing orthodoxy.
Even now some Episcopal liberals are upset by the claims of their former allies—with whom they still share their fundamental theological commitments—to extend the argument that male headship was a cultural expression now outdated and oppressive, to the assertion that rejection of homosexuality is equally cultural and outdated and oppressive. Even members of the hard left are upset by the call of some not only to extend marriage to homosexuals but to accept promiscuity as a valid expression of one’s sexual being.4
An Inability to Deny or Recreate Unity
Cleansing the institution of its dissenters will not recreate the unity it has lost and save it from the consequences of losing its shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions. None of the solutions will work, because none can recreate the unity of belief and assumption the institution has lost.
Take, for example, the process of homogenization, of creating “non-polarizing” and “inclusive” company men, which seems as if it should work well. The creation of company men cannot create unity because unity requires shared beliefs, and company men do not stand for anything outside the company and its interests.
They can offer little that will rally their people to common action—or even to giving generously and attending church weekly—because they have no deeply held principles, no clear and compelling gospel. They have no such principles, no such gospel, because these may divide them from the institution they serve.5
Further, life presents constant and unavoidable demands for definite decisions, and if leaders do not make them or try to avoid them—by appealing for dialogue, for example—the parish or diocese or church will just keep crumbling. I remember an interim rector in a former parish, an old-fashioned liberal of no definite beliefs, who could only respond to the proposal that the diocese approve homosexual marriages by saying, “That’s going too far.” He found himself rejected both by the conservative parish he was serving and his friends in the liberal establishment of the diocese, because he could not offer either a biblical word of judgment or a biblical word of liberation to suffering people.
And finally, many principled men in the diocese, both conservative and liberal, will not be homogenized. They will stand for their principles, and worse from the institution’s point of view, stand for those principles where they are. Some will continue to reject the new beliefs, others to demand the diocese adopt even more. And as we are seeing with the advance of the homosexualist cause, even some company men are proving to have their limits while others are finding “justice” a more urgent need than helping to maintain peace in the company.
The other ways institutions try to recreate a lost unity will also fail, and fail just as badly.
The Future of Mainline Churches
If I am right about this, it is, at first glance, grievous news for the mainline churches. But not, I think, at second glance.
Barring a revival for which the signs do not seem propitious, the mainline churches will continue to decay until, the foundation of shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions that holds them together gone completely, they collapse. The divisions they now suffer are too broad and too deep to allow an institution to remain together, when finally inertia and habit and friendship lose their strength, as they inevitably will.
I will speak here only of my own church, though the other mainline churches have also lost their unifying visions. Institutional Anglicanism as we know it is over. A human institution cannot survive forever without shared beliefs and assumptions, and we have lost ours beyond all human recovery. I do not myself know of any historical example of an institution as alienated from its founding principles as ours, that has recovered them, or even recovered by the adoption of new ones. The one possible exception is the papacy.6
That the Episcopal Church remains more or less whole is an accident of history, like the ash log in the fireplace that holds its shape even though it is completely burned up. Only the slightest touch is needed to make it collapse into dust. The Episcopal Church’s apparent unity is, I think, the result of its age and wealth and status, and the power of its outward expressions—gothic buildings with good organs, and socially assured bishops in full regalia, and its likeness to things English—to attract and hold its followers, and to attract fundamentalists and Roman Catholics looking for its combination of traditional religious expression and doctrinal and moral latitude.
Yet not only has the fat lady sung, but the cleaners have left and the security guards have turned out the lights and locked the doors, and the wrecking ball waits outside for tomorrow’s demolition work. But even so, a few men and women in purple shirts and a few ecclesiastical bureaucrats still huddle together in the now dark stalls, chatting excitedly of all the great operas they are going to stage.
A Grand & Glorious Castle
The Anglican Church has been a grand and glorious gothic castle, with turrets and battlements rising up impressive and beautiful, but for years stones have been falling out of the walls, slates have been sliding off the roofs and shattering on the courtyard below, the roofs have leaked and here and there collapsed, windows have been smashed, and underneath, unnoticed for years, the foundation has begun to crumble and buckle.
Some men we don’t really trust have been seen going down to the basement with pickaxes and dynamite, often on official business and with the approval of the castle’s authorities. Some rooms, even some of the chapels, smell of brimstone, and peculiar men go around whispering that the Lord of the castle is not to be listened to, and many people follow them.
Now, finally, after years of anxiously watching the walls for lost stones, crawling through the foundations looking for cracks, we know that the castle is going to collapse. It has been a wonderful castle, in fact the best of all castles, but we and our fathers have not been good stewards of what we received. It has been easier to admire the architectural ideal than to repair the castle, and to honor its builders with occasional ceremonies than to drive out the men who are destroying their work.
Some who looked very closely saw the beginnings of the collapse years ago, others do not see it even now. “The castle has always had a few structural problems,” they say, and trot off to their rooms unconcerned, often hopping lightly over a crushed body or gaping crack.
A few, influenced perhaps by some postmodernist architect, say that the castle actually looks better this way, and that what we really need to do is to destroy more of it and build it again of glass and steel. Others will grab their things and run away to the hills, or to another castle that seems to them safer, without waiting to help their friends and family.
The castle will continue to collapse. It cannot be saved by any feat of human engineering. Its foundations have buckled too much to be repaired, though with great effort and expense the castle might be held up for decades. As it collapses, many will be crushed by the rubble or fall to their deaths. This is what happens inevitably when people are unfaithful to the gospel, because sin destroys.
Signs of Collapse
It is a matter of judgment as to when the castle must be abandoned, because collapsing buildings may stand long after they’ve become unusable. It is not an easy or clear judgment to make, and people will disagree. Some will leave the moment one slate slips from the roof, others will stay—it may be rightly—even when no stone is left standing upon another, when they have to pitch their tent among the rubble so they can tend the wounded and homeless.
But I think some defining moment will come when anyone who sees clearly will see that the castle has collapsed, when all but the most hardened or compromised company men will admit that there is no use in pretending that the castle remains sound. Then those who remain faithful to the Lord of the castle and its builders may be able to begin to rebuild using the sound stones, or they may have to load what stones they can onto wagons and leave the castle for a new home. One cannot predict which of these will be required.
I think it likely, however, that the faithful will often be thrown out by its temporal lords before it collapses completely. Many of them would rather rule a pile of broken stones and smashed slate than live in the castle as servants of its Lord. They will not want the Lord’s servants around, working for its restoration. And many, as I said, will convince themselves that they actually prefer the rubble, that it has advantages and virtues the castle did not have, that they have progressed beyond primitive ideas of order and beauty and see truths in ruin their forefathers did not see.
Not a Depressing Fact
This analysis seems to me a fact, and a fact no one who cares about the gospel and the renewal of the Episcopal Church—and by extension the other mainline churches—can ignore. This is the way the world works, and will work in our case unless God intervenes dramatically. But it is not a sad or depressing fact, or rather it is a sad fact that hides a great promise and blessing. Such, as I said, is the nature of Christian hope.
It means that there is an answer to the prayer, “How long, O Lord, how long?” To this prayer, God answers, “Ask the sociologists.” It means that deliverance (of a sort) is at hand, that the travails and trials of this phase in our time on earth will draw to a close, whether or not we want them to.
God will have other things for us to do, and other ways for us to suffer, but the suffering will, I think, be more clearly related to the advancement of his Kingdom. We will be able to take up with less distraction the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil, move outwards to others without having to worry that our home is being remade while our back is turned, and invite the wanderer inside without fear that some members of the family will hurt them.
The hope is in the new possibilities the collapse brings for rebuilding the castle. When the castle collapses, a turret here and an outbuilding there will remain standing. Many sound stones will be mixed in the rubble. If people will work at it, the remaining buildings and the sound stones can be used to build the castle again. The new castle will never be the same, and much that is irreplaceable will have been lost, for sin mars and destroys and on this earth its effects can never be entirely erased.
But it will be a sounder castle, a better and more secure fortress. And not only will it be a better defense from the assaults of the world, it will be a better home from which to rally out against the world. Freed from worrying about collapse, its people will begin to expand the castle, add new wings and walls and turrets, perhaps even decorate the facade. And someday, if they choose and are willing to work hard enough, and if the times and circumstances allow, the castle may be as grand and glorious as its predecessor.
They will now be able to invite people inside, with the assurance that they will not be killed by falling stones, and people outside will be much more willing to come in, because the castle will be more secure and inviting. And because those funny men who smelt slightly of brimstone will not be walking around freely.
If this is true, what are we to do who recognize the signs of collapse, yet do not believe we have the Lord of the castle’s permission to leave? What we do as inhabitants of a castle about to collapse is: watch out for falling slates and stones, refuse to help those who are undermining the foundations, and stay out of the rooms that smell of brimstone. And continue doing the good we can within the castle, which now includes helping others avoid the falling slates and stones and the rooms that smell of brimstone.
At the same time, we should begin working outside the castle, away from its affairs, where good may be done without impediment. We should venture out once or twice a week to work in the fields or tend the orchards or fish in the river, preferably with people from other castles whom we find are more like us than many of the people we live with.
An Oddly Hopeful Situation
That is why I believe this sociological analysis of the mainline churches is hopeful, because it shows us the way forward and predicts not only an end to our current travails but a revival of our mission to the world.
It does not promise a return to the pleasures and comforts of the old ways, but no such promise is ever given in this world. The only promise we are given is that our Lord will be with us always, even to the ends of the earth—even to the ends of historical institutions, which are temporal and shall pass away.
It promises more suffering than most of us would like, but not more than we are all called to accept, and far, far less than our Lord accepted on our behalf. It does not promise that when the castle collapses we will be able to keep our buildings or our endowments or all those externals we’ve rightly grown to love, but only that we shall keep our own souls.
It suggests that our most important duty at the present moment is to remain faithful where we have been placed, but be willing to leave our castle if we must, while preparing to rebuild when it finally collapses, as it surely will.
1. Many Christians dislike the idea of analyzing the Church sociologically, because they feel that such analysis reduces the Church to a merely human institution and denies God’s power over the Church. The Church is a Divine creation, but each particular Church is made up of people and people in groups act in certain identifiable and predictable ways. One goes to a sociologist to understand the Church for the same reason one goes to a doctor to understand the body. To ask the doctor for help is not to deny that God might heal you, but to realize he usually heals through the doctor’s skill.
2. I don’t know quite how to categorize the “moderates,” some of whom are obviously believers, except to say that their unwillingness to explicitly reject liberalism—at least in its more culturally acceptable forms, like the ordination of women—and to follow the implications of their beliefs to their logical ends puts them outside the complete and exact faith of New Testament Christianity.
3. Students who want to come to Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, where I serve, have often been sent to more liberal seminaries, because the bishop thought they needed to be “broadened.” We have yet to receive a liberal student whose bishop wanted him to be similarly broadened.
4. A few years ago the bishop of Newark suspended a homosexual priest he had ordained to great fanfare, when that priest said that people should have lots of sex with lots of different people. As I and others wrote at the time, the priest (who later died of AIDS) was only consistently applying his bishop’s own principles. The bishop’s horror was theologically illegitimate and laughable.
5. For an explanation of why liberalism can neither hold a church together nor help it act effectively, see my “The Healing Dogma” in the Spring 1995 issue of Mission & Ministry, the quarterly magazine (which I edit) published by Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (311 Eleventh Street, Ambridge, PA 15003).
6. About which, an Anglican would have some objections to make. One reader of an earlier draft of this paper suggested the Southern Baptists as an example of an institution that has recovered from liberalism. I don’t know much about them, but I think it true to say that their divisions, while great to them, were not fundamental, did not reach the level of basic belief and unexamined assumption. A liberal Southern Baptist is still a conservative Christian.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“A Hope of Collapsing Churches” first appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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