Our collective handwringing

The handwringing over the state of the Euro-tribal churches on this side of the Atlantic seems to have gone-up several octaves in recent days. A bishop, just returning from a set of house of Bishops meetings could only exclaim in response to a question about how the meetings had gone: “Its dark, very dark indeed”. His statement seems to express anxieties of the moment over the state of these churches across North America.

One has to provide a caveat here, however, an important rider that affects the picture. We are actually talking about a small ((and getting smaller) portion of what we call the church in North America. It’s the Euro-tribal congregations not all the other hyphenated communions. Right now this handwringing is about one part of what’s happening across North America. Of course, it is important. After all, it used to be THE church. It wasn’t that long ago that the Euro-tribal churches were present in the media, they had in the their membership the Who’s Who and almost the entire middle-class. It had place and importance around what used to be known as the ‘centre’. Its leaders where considered central figures in culture. The Niebuhrs where known as the public theologians of America. Their voice and advice considered a critical part of the social narrative. In Canada newspapers ritually front-paged articles at Easter or Christmas about these central rituals of the culture. For a long list of reasons, all of this has gone.

It seems, however, that the handwringing has picked up steam. Some of this recent angst has come from new polling and data gathered on the state of religion and levels of belonging. We’re suckers for data. It gives ‘experts’ things to talk about, write books about and gives church leaders more ammunition for pointing out that, yes, the sky really is falling in. A new Pew Trust poll came our recently (https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/) The headlines on the Trust’s web site read: “In the U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace (October 17, 2019). Behind the headline was a picture of a golden sunset and, beside it, a requisite graph showing the huge drop in “identity”. It didn’t take long for commentary on this latest data to start piling up. In the Sunday NY Times, columnist Nicholas Kristoff followed with an article, “Less and Less a Christian Nation” in which he addressed the anxieties shaping the Euro-tribal churches: “Perhaps for the first time since the United States was established, a majority of young adults here do not identify as Christian” (Sunday Review, October 27the, page 9). He goes on to describe the predictable responses of the left and the right as well as laying the blame at the feet of one element of this Protestant tribe.

In a similar fashion, across the Atlantic, the UK on-line daily UNHERD (https://unherd.com) had its own analysis under Ed West’s editorial “Are Americans becoming less Christian?” )https://unherd.com/thepost/are-americans-becoming-less-christian/). As a Canadian one gradually gets used to being ignored or lumped in with our cousins to the south but, on this one, we’re no different – and that statement will generate its own reaction from Canadians). West points out that an old assumption that has died is that of American exceptionalism in the overall secularization theories of the West. His supporting evidence for the loss of Christian identity is, once again, the Pew data report of the staggering drops in those reporting religious identification.

Then, there is the Irish-American author Timothy Egan’s recent book, A Pilgrimage to Eternity (https://www.amazon.ca/Pilgrimage-Eternity-Canterbury) that just hit the market. Its primary thematic is about following the old Via Francigena pilgrimage road from Canterbury to Rome. The book is framed by the story of a once-Catholic follower finding on the Via the mystery of faith that lies more powerfully before him than the agnosticism which he shares with his generation (he quotes Stephen Colbert: agnosticism is atheism without balls). But what is also present throughout the book like the choral lament in Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral that has to be repeated again and again is this now almost conclusive repetition that the tide of Christian faith in the West is now so far out across its beaches that it may never come in again.

I’m sure many other illustrations of this lament and handwringing could be provided. It is as if the Euro-tribal churches have created their own liturgy of lament used to acknowledge how awful it all is. What I’m waiting for is the bandwagon. All the gurus and commentators who will quote Pew to prove their point of how lost, corrupt, misguided these churches have become. With it will come yet another round of “what to do to fix the churches” (innovation, adaptive change, community studies, more church planting, new on-line seminary courses and on and on it goes). I have great empathy for many church leaders I know who, one more time, feel all the guilt, blame and failure that comes at them. “Why can’t I stop this decline?” they’ll ask. “How could we get it so wrong?” “What miserable failures we are!” So, what keeps happening is this Protestant flagellation, a myopic guilt atonement, an obsessive preoccupation with dissecting the “church” to to name what’s wrong and, then, find the technology to fix it one more time.

The discussions and analyses are, for the most part, the continuation of an obsessive ecclesiocentrism shaped by the clergy industry with its anxieties over identity that fails to see what else is happening beyond the belly button. I wonder, has anyone else noticed that this drop in “religious” identification is part of a much, much broader loss of trust in and identification with practically every institution that, until very recently, formed the unshakable basis of Western life? Whether its political systems, democratic processes, educational, economic or social systems, the trust in their capacities to address and challenge our moment in time are through the floor. If, as Leonard Cohen wrote so profoundly, the light gets in through the cracks, then we see hints of this in Greta Thunberg’s recent address to the United Nations. Has anyone produced graphs and data on the numbers of ‘dones’ and ‘gones’ relative to taken-for-granted notions of ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘liberal’, conservative’ or ‘progressive’? What about membership in the major political parties?

Sure, the Euro-tribal churches are in trouble. Sure, it can be seen as really ‘”dark”. Sure, they’ve caused a lot of this themselves. But take a deep breath church people and church gurus, stop the handwringing for just a moment and look around. Step outside your ecclesiocentric flagellating myopia to see a bigger picture here. There is something way bigger and broader going on that just the churches. An unraveling is happening where more and more people simply can’t locate their sense of identity within the systems and institutions that have been taken for granted as the basis on which we live together (see John Waters brilliant engagement with this from within an Irish sensibility in Beyond Consolation: or how we became too clever for God and our own good (NY: Continuum Books, 2010). Might something else be happening beyond the handwringing about the easy target of the Euro-tribal churches? Might it be the case that these churches are, themselves, one example of a far more profound coming apart across Western societies that make this ecclesiocentric handwringing pathetic? Could it be that these churches are being disrupted not to gaze on themselves but to ask: What’s the Spirit doing here? What is the Spirit preventing and fermenting beyond our ecclesiocentric anxieties? I’m willing to bet the answers wont have much to do with handwringing over affiliation.