Often snarky social media posts contrast Mainline Protestantism with Christianity. Real Christians who might inadvertently attend a Mainline congregation are advised to find a real church, etc.
The Bush funeral events at two prominent Mainline sanctuaries evince Christianity still exists in Mainline Protestantism. National Cathedral, which is Episcopal, hosted the state funeral, and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Bush’s congregation, hosted the family rite. There the Oak Ridge Boys sang Amazing Grace. Both services movingly showcased vibrant orthodoxy through preaching, eulogy, prayer, liturgy and hymnody.
Of course, the services were organized by the Bush family and reflected Bush’s own preferences. St. Martin’s is theologically conservative and is the largest Episcopal parish in America, with 9,000 members. National Cathedral is much more liberal, with a much smaller congregation,
Bush, as a wealthy Ivy League educated New Englander devoted to public service, was the consummate Mainline Protestant. His lifetime covered the tragic trajectory of what had been America’s most influential religious force. By the time of his birth in 1924, theological liberalism/modernism had seized nearly all Mainline seminaries. By his death, Mainline Protestantism was in its seventh decade of continuous decline.
But heterodoxy in the Mainline never extinguished orthodoxy. And arguably the Mainline was far more heterodox 50 years ago than today, when modernism was at its peak. Surveys in the 1960s showed pluralities and sometimes majorities of Mainline clergy rejecting Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Today Mainline clergy are likelier to affirm those central doctrines while touting heterodox views on marriage and sexuality.
The National Cathedral service included the Apostles Creed, which affirms Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection. Mainline liberals for decades crossed their fingers when reciting, since their strict rationalism rejected literal supernatural events as the Creed affirms. But postmodern liberals are largely okay with supernaturalism.
Even when strictly modernist liberalism reigned supreme for much of the last century, open heterodoxy in the local church was rare. Very liberal clergy preferred to avoid controversy and usually disguised their views with orthodox language. And liturgical congregations continued with their orthodox sounding liturgies. The hymnals remained orthodox and sometimes were the strongest Gospel voice in local churches where sermons were at best very opaque.
For decades many orthodox laity have stayed in denominations largely governed by theological liberals because the worship typically seemed orthodox. The battles over sexuality in the Mainline partly ended that truce because the Apostles Creed’s true meaning could be fudged but the definition of marriage could not.
The Creed’s appearance at Bush’s funeral has excited national conversation. Four former presidents recited the Creed while the current one did not. There’s debate over what it means to recite or not to recite. Much if not most of Evangelicalism, especially if nondenominational, doesn’t recite the Creed, even though Evangelicalism affirms the Creed’s orthodox theology. Consequently, many if not most American church goers, even if devout, may not know the Creed.
Bush’s rites, by utilizing the Creed with traditional hymnody and liturgy, have vividly recalled what is best about Mainline Protestantism. It represents a centuries long tradition of stately beauty and reverence in Protestant worship, which contemporary nondenominationalism often minimizes or avoids.
Mainline Protestantism never, as snarks suggest, fully stopped being Christian. But it has often forgotten what it means to be Christian, hence its confusion and implosion.
What if the ordered beauty of Mainline tradition once again could align with firmly orthodox theology and ethics, along with evangelistic passion? The results for American Christianity and wider culture might be remarkable. Bush’s funeral rites demonstrated that synthesis. Perhaps more than a few will be inspired to replicate.