The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God ... the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
By equating religious with political liberalism, Douthat misses or avoids what really ails the body of Christ. Profoundly varying ideas about Imago Dei account for our greatest divisions. In the churches which Douthat doesn't think are on the verge of extinction, there are God, the angels, males, and the rest of creation. Almost all growing or stable churches ban women from the pulpit or ordained ministry. These include most megachurches, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches -- as a matter of fact, pretty much everybody. Look at it this way. There are a little over two billion Christians in the world. About two billion worship according to authorities, doctrines, and creeds that marginalize or silence women when it comes to leadership and ordained ministry.
For reasons known best to them, many, maybe even most, of the women in these denominations seem to be okay with being second-class ecclesiasticitizens. Only in a few isolated corners of Christendom -- the mainline denominations in the increasingly secular industrialized world -- have women insisted on the inerrancy of Holy Scripture insofar as Gen. 1:27b is concerned: "In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
Let's say for purposes of argument that, worldwide, 50 million Christians participate in non-gender oppressive church structures. That's probably optimistic. Even if it's true, then Douthat's liberal Christians comprise less than three percent of the faith. I suppose someone could write an op-ed demanding that churches overseeing the faith lives of the remaining 97% of the world's Christians should (to borrow Douthat's language) change or die. If they were excluding blacks, Latinos, or any ethnic group from leadership and ordained ministry, such a critic would probably get a ready hearing, while pious orations about the true faith coming from those in the oppressor churches would not be especially in vogue.
It does seem to be less of a scandal, compared to other forms of bias and discrimination, that almost every church in the world keeps women down. As it is, most critics of the so-called liberals rarely mention gender. You may think it's because they don't want to call attention to their greatest vulnerability, but they probably don't see it that way. They have scripture and tradition on their side, or so it may appear. Where's the gender equity in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the 12 disciples, or certain Pauline restrictions on the role of women in church?
There are satisfactory answers to all these questions. The narratives and doctrines of orthodox Christianity come from the first five centuries of the first millennium, whereas women's equality (in human eyes as opposed to God's and Christ's) is a modern concept. Fears and misunderstandings about women run deep in human culture. Even the land of the free and home of the brave practiced gender apartheid until 1920, when women got the vote. Oppressive church structures have proved far more resilient.
Christianity's real crisis is whether a wholly Christian sense of a creating, saving, supernatural divinity can transcend the global church's prevailing medievalism. The Episcopal Church took a giant step in that direction in the 1970s, when it began ordaining women as priests. It stands out among other mainline denominations which have taken the same step because it has taken the perilous next step of venturing a modern conception of how gay, lesbian, and transgender people fit into the Imago Dei. Radio talk show hosts will always yuck it up and take cheap shots about gay bishops and priests in drag. But it's exceedingly ironic to spend your Sunday morning in the pew next to women who are banned from the priesthood (not to mention girls who would make great priests when they grow up) and then write articles criticizing The Episcopal Church for its differing application of equality under God.
Again ironically, most of these critics are now on the political right. Laurie Goldstein reported last week that the church's choices about same-sex unions and transgender people meant it was moving further to the left. It's conservatives' shame that affording dignity to individuals in all their God-endowed diversity is now construed as leftist.
This is not to say that Douthat doesn't make some good points. We can make the pursuit of equality for ourselves and the groups of which we're members an end in itself. We justice-obsessed church people can all too easily adopt the language and cynical tactics of the politicians. Even worse, we may be tempted to abandon the language and even essence of orthodoxy.
Many have abandoned the church completely because they can't abide or forgive its legacy of prejudice. Perhaps it's just my own privileged background that enables me to believe we can strip away prejudice while still proclaiming the forgiveness, salvation, and hope obtained for all people by the death and bodily resurrection of the Son of God. As long as Douthat's wondering what will save the church in the 21st century, I'd say it's an inclusive, muscular neoorthodoxy that is less concerned with gender and sexual identity and interfaith alignment, that unapologetically proclaims the unique teaching and saving power of the Incarnation and Resurrection.
And yet what's worse: Soft-pedaling orthodoxy to make the church more attractive to the skeptical, abused, and marginalized, or failing even to admit the unbridgeable contradiction between God's heart for justice and the unjust oppression of women and others still being practiced throughout his global church? Liberal Christianity's critics enjoy comparing attendance numbers and the size of the Sunday collection. And yet I seem to remember our LORD saying something about money and rendering unto Caesar. TEC's struggles are emblematic of a quest for an understanding of the mind of God and his transcendent love for all his people that most of Christ's church in all its prosperity refuses even to contemplate, much less venture. Its authorities and officials, including Benedict XVI, aren't even stuck in the 20th century. They're stuck in the post-Constantinian fourth -- because, frankly, once you let the women back into leadership, God knows what happens next.
My Sunday sermon on these subjects is here. Since people like to say that Anglicans and Episcopalians owe their churches to Henry VIII's divorce, it's important to remember that Jesus's public ministry was ignited by the killing of John the Baptist, which occurred because of Herod Antipas's divorce and marriage to his niece Herodias. That first-century Galilean homewrecker is shown above in Paul Delaroche's conception. Sometimes the church really does seem to be all about sex -- or at least the complexity of human relationship in contrast to the unity to which God calls all his people in Christ.