It doesn't help matters that the mainline churches were pioneers in ordaining women to the clergy, to the point that 25% of all Episcopal priests these days are female, as are 29% of all Presbyterian pastors, according to the two churches. A causal connection between a critical mass of female clergy and a mass exodus from the churches, especially among men, would be difficult to establish, but is it entirely a coincidence? Sociologist Rodney Stark ("The Rise of Christianity") and historian Philip Jenkins ("The Next Christendom") contend that the more demands, ethical and doctrinal, that a faith places upon its adherents, the deeper the adherents' commitment to that faith. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which preach biblical morality, have no trouble saying that Jesus is Lord, and they generally eschew women's ordination. The churches are growing robustly, both in the United States and around the world.
Despite the fact that median Sunday attendance at Episcopal churches is 80 worshipers, the Episcopal Church, as a whole, is financially equipped to carry on for some time, thanks to its inventory of vintage real estate and huge endowments left over from the days (no more!) when it was the Republican Party at prayer. Furthermore, it has offset some of its demographic losses by attracting disaffected liberal Catholics and gays and lesbians. The less endowed Presbyterian Church USA is in deeper trouble. Just before its general assembly in Birmingham, it announced that it would eliminate 75 jobs to meet a $9.15-million budget cut at its headquarters, the third such round of job cuts in four years.
The Episcopalians have smells, bells, needlework cushions and colorfully garbed, Catholic-looking bishops as draws, but who, under the present circumstances, wants to become a Presbyterian?
Still, it must be galling to Episcopal liberals that many of the parishes and dioceses (including that of San Joaquin, Calif.) that want to pull out of the Episcopal Church USA are growing instead of shrinking, have live people in the pews who pay for the upkeep of their churches and don't have to rely on dead rich people. The 21-year-old Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas, for example, is one of the largest Episcopal churches in the country. Its 2,200 worshipers on any given Sunday are about equal to the number of active Episcopalians in Jefferts Schori's entire Nevada diocese.
It's no surprise that Christ Church, like the other dissident parishes, preaches a very conservative theology. Its break from the national church came after Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, proposed a two-tier membership in which the Episcopal Church USA and other churches that decline to adhere to traditional biblical standards would have "associate" status in the communion. The dissidents hope to retain full communication with Canterbury by establishing oversight by non-U.S. Anglican bishops.
As for the rest of the Episcopalians, the phrase "deck chairs on the Titanic" comes to mind. A number of liberal Episcopal websites are devoted these days to dissing Peter Akinola, outspoken primate of the Anglican diocese of Nigeria, who, like the vast majority of the world's 77 million Anglicans reported by the Anglican Communion, believes that "homosexual practice" is "incompatible with Scripture" (those words are from the communion's 1998 resolution at the Lambeth conference of bishops). Akinola might have the numbers on his side, but he is now the Voldemort -- no, make that the Karl Rove -- of the U.S. Episcopal world. Other liberals fume over a feeble last-minute resolution in Columbus calling for "restraint" in consecrating bishops whose lifestyle might offend "the wider church" -- a resolution immediately ignored when a second openly cohabitating gay man was nominated for bishop of Newark.
So this is the liberal Christianity that was supposed to be the Christianity of the future: disarray, schism, rapidly falling numbers of adherents, a collapse of Christology and national meetings that rival those of the Modern Language Assn. for their potential for cheap laughs. And they keep telling the Catholic Church that it had better get with the liberal program -- ordain women, bless gay unions and so forth -- or die. Sure.