It is also a shrinking one. There is one thing about the church of “yesteryear”—it was considerably fuller than the one now, and spent less of its time angsting over its identity. Ironically, the first article in the magazine dealt with a conference organized to help repair crumbling unity and recover a common identity, saying, “What is an Anglican? This is a big question…Our church is changing, and so is its identity…” The church or college of yesteryear, whatever its flaws, did not feel the need to hold conferences to try to answer questions of fundamental identity. It knew what it was about, and got on with its job, aided by its widowed Principal, its bachelor Dean of Students, and its single men being trained for priesthood.
The piece quoted above celebrating the change from the old form in yesteryear to the present bright form as an inclusive theological community struck me as all the more poignant in view of another piece I read the same day—namely, a piece written by Ross Douthat in the New York Times Sunday Review, entitled Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved? In this piece, Mr. Douthat quotes the statistics that the Anglican/ Episcopal Church church attendance figures dropped 23% in the past decade, and that no American Episcopal diocese saw churchgoing increase. To quote Mr. Douthat: “Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction.”
The transition and changes from yesteryear to today were doubtless undertaken to help the church become more “relevant” (that wonderful ‘60’s buzzword, now wonderfully dated, like the hoola-hoop). It was expected that making the church more “inclusive” (our ‘90’s buzzword), would enable it to more effectively reach the unchurched population with the Gospel, so that untold multitudes would again darken the church door. Our liberal inclusivism has not worked, as the depressing statistics reveal. Douthat again: “Instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.” It is almost as if the perceived solution for the raging fire consuming the church is to pour on more liberal gasoline.
This should offer a cautionary tale for us Orthodox. We are not immune to the same forces which currently afflict the liberal Protestant churches and threaten them with extinction in the decades or century to come. Unfaithfulness to the Holy Tradition brings its own price. Liberal Christians may rejoice in the changes and tell themselves that this is all for the better (the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in a 2006 interview rejoiced in the low numbers of Episcopalians, saying that Episcopalians valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves), but the prospect eventual self-extinction is not a cause for celebration, but for self-examination and penitence. Ultimately, the slow extinction of a church reflects the judgment of God upon a community which has lost its way. The word which Christ offered to the first-century church of Ephesus He offers to us as well: “Remember from where you have fallen, and repent, and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev. 2:5). When we Orthodox are tempted to become “relevant” or “inclusive” or whatever will become the buzzword of the next decade, and abandon our Holy Tradition, we must remember this word of Christ. We must remember “yesteryear” from where we have fallen, and do the deeds we did at first. Otherwise we too may experience a disastrous decline. We do not possess any immunity from God’s judgment. Our North American lampstand can also be removed from its place.