Episcopal Church

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

About five years ago, I traveled to rural Iowa to report on a 156-year-old church surrounded by corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace.

The news angle was that the tiny congregation was working hard to survive despite immense challenges facing it and similar houses of worship.

As part of the same "Rural Redemption" project, I spent a Sunday with a 200-year-old assembly in the farming and coal-mining country of southeastern Ohio.

I thought those churches had long histories!

But Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer recently wrote about an Episcopal congregation in rural Virginia that is marking 400 years — 400 years! — in 2018.

The Post's headline pretty much nails it:

This 400-year-old church is older than almost any institution in America

This won't be a long post because my basic message is simple: This is an interesting, well-reported story, and I'd urge you to read it. 

What did I like about it? I'll quickly mention three things.

But first, let's set the scene with the compelling lede:

BURROWSVILLE, Va. — Long before American independence, before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth Rock, there was Martin’s Brandon Church.

And now, the Rev. Eve Butler-Gee looks at her flock at the same Martin’s Brandon Episcopal Church in amazement. “They’re faithful. Every single one of them is engaged and active,” she said. But then again, it’s no wonder: “They’ve been doing this for 400 years, and they’re not about to stop now.”

The church, one of the oldest in the United States that still operates, celebrates its 400th birthday this year. And for many families in the rural congregation, the pink-colored house of worship near the James River has been part of their family stories for a very large portion of that time.

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Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

Barbara Bush: Last old-school mainline Protestant to serve as America's first lady? (updated)

At least once a month, I pop open a search engine and go fishing on the World Wide Web, looking for a quotation or some other reference that I remember from the distant past. Just because you remember something -- as an aging religion-beat scribe -- doesn't mean that you are going to be able to find a reference online (or in the boxes of notes and clippings that line a wall in your basement).

So let me share what I remember about a First Things article I read just before the birth of the Internet. It focused on the differences, in terms of faith and personal style, between President Bill Clinton and the recently ousted President George H.W. Bush.

The basic idea was that Clinton, as a Bible Belt Baptist, was much more comfortable talking about his faith than the more reserved Bush, a Yankee Episcopalian. At one point there was a footnote to a press-conference transcript from the Bush campaign.

As I recall, Bush was asked what he thought about during the hours in which he floated in shark-infested Pacific Ocean waters after his fighter plane was shot down during World War II.

The transcript indicated that Bush said that he thought about Barbara, this family and God -- then there was a strategic pause before he added -- and "the separation of church and state."

Now there's a man who is a mainline Protestant's mainline Protestant.

I thought about article (if anyone can find it online, I'd love a URL) this morning while reading lots of news and commentary about the death of the 92-year-old Barbara Bush, the Bush family's beloved "Silver Fox" who had become a quirky, candid grandmother figure for millions of Americans. Good luck trying to find insights into the family's faith -- which can be sensed in between the lines, but that's as far as journalists were willing to go.

My main question: Were Barbara and George H.W. Bush the last old-school mainline Protestants -- in terms of low-key style and quiet faith -- to occupy the White House?

I mean, George W. Bush was a United Methodist, but he adopted a more outspoken, evangelical style after the religious rebirth that helped him defeat alcohol.

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Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Old people on the religion beat (my hand is raised) will remember the 1980s, back when the mainline Protestant doctrinal wars over sexuality started breaking into elite headlines -- big time.

Year after year, some kind of mainline fight over gender and sexuality would score high in the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the Top 10 stories. More often than not, the Episcopal Church led the way in the fight for feminism and eventually gay rights.

These national headlines would, of course, inspire news coverage at the regional and local levels. Some Episcopal shepherds went along and some didn't. All of that produced lots of news copy, no matter what Episcopalians ended up doing.

At one point, while at the Rocky Mountain News, I told Colorado's Episcopal leader -- the always quotable former radio pro Bishop William C. Frey -- that a few local religious leaders were asking me why the Episcopal Church kept getting so much media attention.

Frey laughed, with a grimace, and said that was a strange thought, something like "envying another man's root canal."

Eventually, however, the progressive wins in Episcopal sanctuaries stopped being news, at least in mainstream news outlets.

Take, for example, that recent leap into gender-neutral theology in the District of Columbia, an interesting story that drew little or no attention in the mainstream press. Thus, here is the top of the main story from the Episcopal News Service:

The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.
He? She?

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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40-day pilgrimage takes faithful on spiritual journey along 400-mile river. But something's missing ...

40-day pilgrimage takes faithful on spiritual journey along 400-mile river. But something's missing ...

Years ago, during my Associated Press days, I wrote about running feeding the body, mind and spirit of a Texas seminarian.

This was the lede on that 2004 profile:

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — In what he calls his “Mother Teresa Run,” Roger Joslin looks for the divine in the faces of everyone he meets. When “Running With Alms,” the Austin seminarian takes along a few dollars to help those in need.
In Joslin’s view, a spiritual experience — even an encounter with God — is as likely to occur along a wooded trail as in a church, synagogue or mosque.
The 52-year-old master of divinity student at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest relates his experiences in the book “Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.”
Published last year by St. Martin’s Press in New York, the book combines Joslin’s insights from 30 years of running with the spiritual journey that guided him toward the priesthood.
Joslin maintains that through chants, visualization and attention to the most obvious aspects of the present moment — the weather, pain or breathing — the simple run can become the basis for a profound spiritual practice.
“When running, search for the divine in the ordinary,” he writes. “Each run is not a pilgrimage to Chartres, to Mecca, to Jerusalem, but it is a pilgrimage nonetheless. … If the intention is to converse with God, you are a pilgrim. It is the very ordinariness of the run that enables it to become a central part of your spiritual life. When God appears in the midst of the mundane, we are making progress toward him.”

I was reminded of that old story when reading a feature this week — also by AP and also involving the search for God in nature — about a New England river pilgrimage.

The top of the AP report sets the scene:

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CNN on Gorsuch: Is the judge a crypto-Catholic or a safe, normal Episcopalian?

CNN on Gorsuch: Is the judge a crypto-Catholic or a safe, normal Episcopalian?

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch begin today, so get set for some good TV.

A few journalists are still trying to get to the bottom of the form and content of Gorsuch’s religious views. Is he truly an Episcopalian or some kind of crypto-Catholic? Is he conservative or liberal? What are his views on abortion?

The latest effort, from CNN, assembles together what a lot of journalists have written about the nominee’s faith plus a few details the reporter found out on his own. The headline: “What is Neil Gorsuch’s religion? It’s complicated” hints at what's to come. We start here:

WASHINGTON (CNN) Earlier this month, the Trump administration summoned two dozen religious leaders to a private meeting. The mission: to rally support for Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court nominee…
Eventually, the conversation turned to Gorsuch's own religious background.
He was raised Catholic but now worships with his wife and two daughters at St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. Like the city, the congregation is politically liberal. It bars guns from its campus and installed solar panels; it condemns harsh rhetoric about Muslims and welcomes gays and lesbians. And its rector, the Rev. Susan Springer, attended the Women's March in Denver, though not as a form of protest but as a sign of support for "the dignity of every human being."

It goes a lot into his early life as a child in a Catholic family and then:

After college and law school, between stints clerking at the Supreme Court, Gorsuch studied legal philosophy at Oxford University in England, where his dissertation was supervised by John Finnis, a giant in the field and a former member of the Vatican's prestigious International Theological Commission.
Among laypeople, Finnis may be best known for his expositions on natural law, an often-misunderstood area of legal and moral philosophy.

The article then veers into a discussion of natural law. But isn’t Oxford where Gorsuch switched from the Catholic to the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Communion or, in the United States, the Episcopal Church? Writing about Gorsuch a few weeks ago, I included information on this point thanks to a helpful piece in the Daily Mail that connected the dots. 

However the CNN piece -- this is crucial -- suggests the Brits are wrong and that the judge never changed faiths.

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Surprise! New York Times zooms past hyper-obvious religion angle in Gorsuch-and-gay-rights story

Surprise! New York Times zooms past hyper-obvious religion angle in Gorsuch-and-gay-rights story

If the conventional analysis is to be believed, a key reason so many white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump last November 8 was concern over who'd get the ninth seat on the Supreme Court. And, any other seats opening up over the next four (or even eight) years.

For many, if not most, of these voters, the nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Denver would appear to have been cause for celebration. He takes an "originalist" view of the Constitution, just like the late jurist he would replace, Justice Antonin Scalia.

My co-GetReligionista Julia Duin has written about the dearth of coverage of Judge Gorsuch's faith, but, much like a bad meal of gas-station sushi, the problem keeps coming up. And ho better to belch forward another glaring omission than The New York Times, where the top editor breezily admits "we don't get the role of religion in people's lives," and moves on to the next thing?

This time, the "we-don't-get-the-role-of-religion" thing becomes glaringly obvious.

The Times is taking a look at one of the most contentious faith-based issues of the 21st century, that of the definition of marriage and how that definition will fare with Judge Gorsuch on the high court. "Gorsuch Not Easy to Pigeonhole on Gay Rights, Friends Say," reads the headline. From the story:

Democrats and their progressive allies are marching in lock step to oppose Judge Gorsuch, whose record they find deeply troubling, and gay pundits are painting him as a homophobe. But interviews with his friends -- both gay and straight -- and legal experts across the political spectrum suggest that on gay issues, at least, he is not so easy to pigeonhole.

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How aggregating: The Atlantic goes halfway in reporting on Anglican primates meeting

How aggregating: The Atlantic goes halfway in reporting on Anglican primates meeting

I’ve been happy to see more religion pieces in The Atlantic in recent years, as such coverage was not occurring in that publication during my 16 years in Washington, D.C. I’m not sure what led to a change in heart among editors there, but it’s nice to see articles like last week’s piece on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s last-ditch attempt to hold the Anglican Communion together. That’s the good part.

The bad part is the piece is aggregated, in that it’s a patchwork of quotes from three British media outlets along with segments from the archbishop’s press release about a gathering of Anglican primates in January 2016. And there were some gaping holes. The article starts thus:

Justin Welby was named archbishop of Canterbury with high hopes that he was the man who could save the Anglican Communion. Now it appears he may oversee its breakup—a calculated destruction intended, paradoxically, to save it.

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