Episcopal Weddings & Woes
At the recent royal wedding, the star, perhaps more than the bride herself, was the exuberant preacher. That preacher was Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of Episcopal Church USA. Unlike a stereotypical Church of England laconic prelate, Curry spoke with the evangelistic passion associated with the American historic black church tradition.
The sermon, which stressed love’s power to conquer all, including war, poverty and injustice, understandably won global rave reviews. It was also parodied on Saturday Night Live, a rarity for any Episcopal cleric.
Reclaiming Jesus Rally
Last week, emboldened by his new prestige, Bishop Curry came to Washington, D.C. He led a “Reclaiming Jesus” rally and candlelit march on the White House, opposing Trump-era rhetoric and the Religious Right. Curry insisted the focus was spiritual not political.
“We are not a partisan group, we are not a left-wing group,” Curry told a crowd of perhaps one thousand that initially gathered in National City Church, where LBJ worshipped in the ’60s. “We are not a right-wing group, we are a Jesus Movement. … And we came together. Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, we came together. Republicans, Independents and Democrats, we came together. Liberal and conservative, and whatever is in the middle, we came together because what binds us together is Jesus of Nazareth and his way.”
There probably weren’t many conservatives signing Curry’s “Reclaiming Jesus” manifesto. Those that did mostly included predictable old-time Religious Left activists. Like longtime Sojourners chief Jim Wallis, who also marched with Curry to the White House. Their declaration denounced “America First” as a “theological heresy,” though Christians have historically reserved such charges for direct attacks on God’s identity. Not foreign policy or trade stances.
Seeming to agree with this political view of heresy, columnist E.J. Dionne gushed about Curry and the “Reclaiming Jesus” rally. He said,
Maybe it takes one of the world’s most elitist institutions — a monarchy, for goodness’ sake — to provide a view of Christianity rooted not in conservative cultural warfare (or unrelenting support for Donald Trump) but in an egalitarian love that will “let justice roll down like a mighty stream.”
And a Washington Post story by religion reporter Michelle Boorstein said the 65-year-old priest has become the “repository of hope for progressive Christians who want to reclaim their faith from conservative evangelicals.” It was a fair picture of the Religious Left’s excitement over Curry, at a time when it lacks fresh leadership. Jim Wallis, who was active in the ’60s with Students for a Democratic Society and started Sojourners in 1971, is 70 years old. You also have Walter Brueggemann, a theologian popular with liberal Protestants, who pluckily joined Curry’s march. He’s 84. And Evangelist Tony Campolo, another prominent participant, who is sometimes recalled as a counselor to President Bill Clinton, is 83 years old.
The Religious Left
Without a doubt, the Trump Administration and its religious supporters have energized the Religious Left. But it’s still not likely that liberal religious activism will come close to the political influence of conservative religious activism. Its base is often intense, but remains small. And it is, arguably, linked to a shrinking demographic. While some statistics suggest conservative churches are retaining their population percentage, all surveys show liberal churches continuing a 50-year nosedive.
The Episcopal Church
Curry’s royal wedding sermon was hailed as a new winsome presentation of the Gospel. But his denomination is one of the fastest declining in America. Its membership peaked in the ’60s with 3.4 million. In 2016, it hit 1.7 million. And it continues to lose 30,000-40,000 members each year. Since its 2003 election of an openly homosexual bishop, which ignited a global schism with drastic ramifications for the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church has lost nearly 600,000 members.
The Episcopal Church will continue to roil as its governing General Convention meets July 5-13 in Austin, Texas. There it will consider whether to require all of its dioceses to sanction same sex rites in a revised prayer book. Currently 8 out of 101 diocesan bishops do not. Coercing them to do so will ignite further division. The church’s litigation against congregations and Dioceses that have quit the denomination continues under Bishop Curry’s watch. Rhetoric about “love” notwithstanding.
Curry compellingly told the royal wedding, “When love is the way, there’s plenty good room — plenty good room — for all of God’s children.” There is indeed a lot of room in the largely empty, if often beautiful, Episcopal churches. And even the charisma and zeal of its Presiding Bishop are unlikely to reverse a half century of decline. Not of the Episcopal church and not of liberal religion in America.
No matter how well it’s packaged, an “inclusive” theology that’s permissive on traditional dogma but denounces errant political stances as “heresy” is not a successful blend for vibrant, growing churches. Not in America or anywhere else.