trending Episcopalians

April 10, 2019

Pete Buttigieg, Erick Erickson, and Trending #Episcopalians

Do Episcopalians have only a superficial understanding of Christianity? Resurgent blogger Erick Erickson suggested as much this week, commenting on Dark Horse Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg’s Meet the Press appearance, in which the South Bend, Indiana mayor expressed frustration at Evangelical support for the President.

Cue the outrage, as progressive twitteratti (many of whom identifying as Atheist on their accounts) expressed indignation at Erickson’s diss of Episcopalians: “Your imaginary sky-daddy is absurd, how dare you question another delusional group’s devotion to the same imaginary sky-daddy?!”

The irony is that Erickson – an Evangelical in the Reformed tradition – was capable of prompting “Episcopalians” to trend on Twitter. This is something that even social media savvy Episcopalians, such as liberal post-Evangelical Rachel Held Evans, have been unable to achieve. It is also important to note that Erickson wasn’t attacking Anglican theology (he’s spoken favorably of the Anglican Church in North America, for example).

In a favorite tweet, Vogue writer Bridget Read shared a photo of icy blonde Betty Draper of “Mad Men” – cigarette in hand and glass of wine on the table – casually exhaling smoke in her fictional 1960s Westchester County kitchen with the caption “when ‘Episcopalians’ is trending”.

Perhaps the image could be improved if the wine was exchanged for a gin-based cocktail. But it works not just because the show’s time period was the apex of Episcopal Church membership, when WASPy housewives regularly delivered husbands and children into the pews, but also for how some Episcopalians perceive themselves today: cool, detached, unfazed by unsightly passions of perhaps more vigorous expressions of the Christian faith.

As annual release of Episcopal Church statistics has charted for decades, the real housewives of suburban Westchester have ceased to pass through the red Episcopal parish doors each Sunday. Perhaps, as one liberal clergyman tweeted, Catholics tired of “monarchy” and Evangelicals rejecting puritanism will always provide a stream of people into the Episcopal denomination (Buttigieg himself was Catholic-educated, eventually finding a home among the spiritually like-minded at South Bend’s Episcopal cathedral, where he and his partner were joined in a same-sex marriage rite). But it also illustrates a problem: Episcopalians have largely ceased evangelizing the unreached, instead content to be a boutique church for a subset of urban, upper class elites. Much of the mission field has been vacated. Besides, data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study reveals how few Catholics and Protestants have changed affiliations.

Erickson’s “superficial understanding” diss has truth in it: contemporary Episcopalians may still hold to outward religious practices, but there has – for some time – been a lack of understanding among the laity about the theology that is supposed to under-gird those practices.

At the beginning of the Lenten season, Episcopal clergy now position themselves along transit stations offering “ashes to go”: a visible mark on the forehead but divorced from either the liturgical context of confession and repentance that Anglo-catholic Episcopalians stewarded, or from the gospel proclamation that evangelical Episcopalians emphasized. A smaller subset offer “glitter ash” – the ashes meant to symbolize impermanence and solemn repentance transformed to communicate an ideological message fit for the current political and cultural moment.

Perhaps just as telling is a glance at the state of the Episcopal Church. This week the Buffalo News reports that, rather than electing a new bishop, the cash-strapped and rapidly shrinking Episcopal Diocese of Western New York will provisionally share a bishop with the neighboring and hemorrhaging Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. As the denomination’s existing members fail to evangelize nor to procreate, this limits the number of new members. The number of marriages taking place in the denomination has collapsed nearly 60 percent in the past 15 years, while baptisms dropped 55 percent (adult baptisms, which can serve as an indicator of evangelistic activity, are down 53 percent).

Does this offer a point of evidence to Erickson’s twitter claim that Episcopalians are failing to impart more than a superficial understanding of faith to their congregants? Maybe. But one thing is for certain, fewer Episcopal children are showing up for spiritual education, regardless of the quality of that education. In Buttigieg’s own Diocese of Northern Indiana (which was considered among the more traditional in the church until 2016) the number of church school pupils dropped 28 percent from 20072017, while Sunday attendance dropped 19 percent during the same time period.

Superficial understanding of Christianity isn’t limited to contemporary Episcopalians. But a church that no longer clings to gracious hope and instead sits self-satisfied with “our people” — whomever that is perceived to be — is unable to understand what motivates others, let alone change culture. Erickson seems to understand this, and Episcopalians would be right to demand something deeper than drive-by ashes.


8 Responses to Pete Buttigieg, Erick Erickson, and Trending #Episcopalians

  1. Lee D. Cary says:

    Mayor Buttigieg is the current political poster boy for the same LGBTQAI+ movement that’s hyper active in the UMC.

    His implied hashtag is, “Vote for me. I’m gay, and special.”

    He targets VP Spence cause he’s intolerant of Spence’s beliefs about same sex marriage.
    “Accept what I accept or I won’t accept you” would be a better tag line.

    As for the Episcopal Church – put a fork in them. They’re done.

  2. Sam Setliff says:

    From the point of view of orthodox Christianity, there are very few Christians remaining in the Episcopal church. A life-long Episcopalian of fifty-seven years, My wife, children and I finally had to leave one of the heretofore orthodox Episcopal churches at the end of last year when they appointed a priestess; almost no one blinked an eye, no one bothered to ask what the Word of God says on the matter. I Timothy and Titus 1 are quite clear, but as you say, Episcopalians can have but a superficial understanding of Scripture.

  3. David says:

    I attended the Episcopal cathedral in South Bend for the first two years of my studies at Notre Dame. At that time it was a lively congregation with notable charismatic influence spilling over from the local People of Praise chapter. The flavour of the liturgy was Anglo-Catholic, which I deeply appreciated. The entire Diocese of Northern Indiana was similarly high church, and the bishop, a New York native with a distinctive mid-Atlantic accent, would regularly appeal to the “branch theory” of the church, whose three branches he held to include Roman, Orthodox and Anglican communions. One of my professors, who would later convert to Roman Catholicism, was an associated priest at the cathedral and certainly the only preacher I’ve heard to cite Anaximander from the pulpit.

    Was it a stable mix? Nearly forty years later it seems that it was not. After two years, I began to wonder whether it was all for show and how much depth there actually was to everything. There is, of course, no perfect church, and I long ago stopped looking for one. But I’ve come to think that where Christians are unclear on the authority for their faith, they are likely to fall back on their own preferences. Trying to build community around something so subjective is almost certainly in vain over the long term. Small wonder, then, that membership in so many protestant denominations has all but collapsed over the past fifty years.

  4. Gregor says:

    “Episcopalians have . . . [become] a boutique church” is pretty apt. “Boutique church” is precisely what Washington, D.C. bishop Marianne Budde said she hoped the Episcopal Church would not become, although that’s what it has become — it seems to open its doors wider and wider to fewer and fewer.

  5. Diane says:

    To Lee Cary: It’s VP Pence, not Spence. And if ever there was a politician who wowed evangelical Christians with their faith-based hetero-sexuality, it’s Donald Trump (like, “vote for me, I’m bigly into ‘derogatory name for women’s parts,’ adultery, 3x married).

    As to superficial Christianity, as a senior citizen, I’ve been in plenty of anti-lgbt churches where one or more of the following were closeted gay folks (often married to someone of the opposite sex) organist, preacher, choir member(s), congregants. You need to stop knocking gay folks, as your churches are full of lgbt people. You especially love their God-given talents and money in the collection plate. You do not worship God in spirit and in truth. For evangelicals, it’s all about spirit and deceit.

    When governor of Indiana, Pence had to roll back his discriminatory measures after pressure came not only from those on the left, but those in his own party on the right. Good for Buttigieg in calling him out on his mean-spirited beliefs.

    • betsy says:

      Many traditionalists are not anti anybody. We are concerned about the church becoming superficial in its theology which has dulled its ability to talk with coherence and confidence about anything including sexuality. All this has had a negative impact on a lot of people, not just the LGBTQIA population. After a lifetime of being a loyal Methodist/United Methodist I no longer know what my standing is with the church because some years back the church made it very plain that all I was good for was a head count, money in the plate, and somebody to support whatever the next person thought up to do. In his response, David very clearly stated what is happening to Mainline Protestant Christianity:

      “But I’ve come to think that where Christians are unclear on the authority for their faith, they are likely to fall back on their own preferences. Trying to build community around something so subjective is almost certainly in vain over the long term. Small wonder, then, that membership in so many protestant denominations has all but collapsed over the past fifty years.”

      As does this statement from the article itself:

      “Erickson’s “superficial understanding” diss has truth in it: contemporary Episcopalians may still hold to outward religious practices, but there has – for some time – been a lack of understanding among the laity about the theology that is supposed to under-gird those practices.
      “…Superficial understanding of Christianity isn’t limited to contemporary Episcopalians. But a church that no longer clings to gracious hope and instead sits self-satisfied with “our people” — whomever that is perceived to be — is unable to understand what motivates others, let alone change culture. Erickson seems to understand this, and Episcopalians would be right to demand something deeper than drive-by ashes. ”

      In its current theologically superficial state, the UMC has a myriad of ways to alienate all sorts of people. And it is being reflected in 50+years of consistent numerical decline and a denominational budget that is being cut by 18%.

  6. Diane says:

    And now we have a screaming religious protester showing up at a Buttigieg event. News outlets are covering it – and the gracious response by Buttigieg.

    Signs of things to come – just how hateful are the right-wing Christian evangelicals/traditionalists going to show themselves to be toward Buttigieg in the next few months? Will they be the ambassadors of a theology that reveals the hatred at the heart of it? Are orthodox Christians going to denounce it or preach loud and clear, “love your neighbor”?

    Buttigieg’s candidacy might be the downfall of America’s religious conservatives if the unhinged among them make themselves a band of thugs at Buttigieg events. Politeness is not their forte. And what crude, homophobic remarks might we expect from Trump? Will Pence and Tony Perkins support Trump or say nothing?

    Conservatives should be very anxious about how they portray the love of Jesus toward Buttigieg in the coming months. Every generation, especially younger folks, will see the the true colors of evangelicals – and it might not be a pretty picture.

  7. Eric Bonetti says:

    The issue with TEC is its lack of integrity when it comes to clergy misconduct. The church is sufficiently hierarchical to come down like a ton of bricks over ownership over a bunch of crappy old buildings in Virginia, but it’s not sufficiently hierarchical for Mayo House to deal with clergy who commit perjury. (Yup, happened to me.)

    Can’t have it both ways, kids.

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