A friend of mine was having a theological discussion with his cleaning lady one day (people do that sort of thing in the South), and the subject of the End of Time came up. They agreed that the signs are all in place, and that it must be coming soon, if the Bible is to be believed.

“You know, Mr. Ferrell,” she said, “I believe that. I really do. But if you think about it too much, it will drive you crazy.”

Some of us feel that way about religion in general, but I see where the Chronicles readership survey says you all want more on the subject, and I aim to please. So here goes.

My friend Tim lives in Chicago. Now in his 40’s, he recently felt the stirrings of a long-dormant religious impulse. Raised in a Scotch-Irish household of stern Presbyterian persuasion, he naturally sought out the nearest franchise of that denomination. When its minister suggested that perhaps a refresher course would be in order after a 25-year absence, Tim enrolled in a program for prospective new members.

After several meetings, Tim grew increasingly restive and finally asked the question that was on his mind: “What about sin?” he said. “You haven’t mentioned sin.” The minister hemmed and hawed, Tim reports, and replied, in effect, that modern churchmen don’t believe in that any more.

Now, when it comes to sin, Tim is like the man who was asked if he believed in infant baptism: He not only believes in it, he’s seen it with his own eyes. So he decided that the church of his childhood was no longer for him, and he was recently confirmed as an Episcopalian. He says Episcopalians will let you believe in anything you want to. Even sin.

Probably the best face that can be put on what’s happening to the American Episcopal Church is to say that it’s retracing its steps to the 18th-century Church of England from which it emerged. After Elizabeth I declined to put windows into men’s souls, Anglicans could believe pretty much what they chose, so long as they maintained a decent regard for appearances. And once the Church of England got out of the religion business, it found all sorts of other interesting things to do. The American church seems to be doing the same.

Unlike its Established mother church, for instance, the American church doesn’t have its bishops sitting in the House of Lords, but it does its best to share in the task of government, if only by passing embarrassing resolutions on all sorts of matters beyond its competence.

I Have In My Hand (for example) a pamphlet called Policy for Action II: The Social Policies of the Episcopal Church. Among the dozens of items, touching every aspect of foreign and domestic policy, probably the only ones that wouldn’t make it through a conference of the Nonaligned Nations are calls for the USSR to allow greater emigration and to get out of Afghanistan. Since anti-Semitism seems to be increasingly a left-wing phenomenon these days—Daniel Ortega’s record, for example, is none too good—maybe we can give the Episcopal Church a few points for coming down against that, too. But if Ortega could find anything else to disagree with, it’s because Episcopalians have him outflanked on the left. (If he’s following Fidel’s lead in the matter of civil rights for homosexuals, for instance, he risks the disapproval of the American Episcopal Church.)

Now, when it comes to shameless capitulation to the Zeitgeist, we have a way to go to catch up with some other denominations (which shall remain nameless—I’m not knocking your religion), but we’re moving up fast on the outside, proceeding to buy the whole mess of left-wing pottage served up by The Nation, and calling it “prophetic.”

But, then, state churches have always been notoriously worldly. And let’s not be too hard on the 18th-century Church of England. Without its shortcomings, would we have had the Wesleys and, later, the Oxford Movement—or Trollope, for that matter? Any church that nurtured Samuel Johnson can’t have been all bad.

Maybe in 200 years people will find something equally good to say about the 20th-century American Episcopal Church. But I doubt it. Acting like a state church only works if you are a state church. Post-disestablishment, you’re just another voluntary organization, and the idea is widespread that members of a church ought to have some beliefs in common. Abandon orthodoxy—whatever your orthodoxy may be—and your disaffected members will defect to the competition, more or less quietly.

It’s no accident that as the Episcopal Church has become more obviously concerned with the Third World than with the next world, its downward spiral in orthodoxy has been tracked by a decline in membership. (Much the same could be said—and often has been—of the other liberal Protestant churches. But you can tell me about your church some other time.) The most visible ex-Episcopalians are found in the distressingly numerous breakaway Anglican bodies, but I know others who have turned to Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention, and tennis.

So why does my family hang on and grumble? Well, I can’t speak for my wife and daughters, but in my case the reason is a mixture of two parts nostalgia, one part heterodoxy, and a dash of perversity.

There is, in the first place, the splendor of the ruined Anglican liturgy, sacked and burned by indigenous barbarians in our own time. The destruction has not been complete—at least it isn’t yet—and if I choose my time and place carefully, I can still find a sort of Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of the liturgy that I and a dozen or so generations of Anglo- Irish ancestors once found as natural and as necessary as air. One crime for which I could cheerfully send the Standing Liturgical Commission to share Cranmer’s fate at the stake (which would at least give them something in common) is their severing of a link with past and future that once meant a great deal to me.

A second reason why I don’t jump ship, frankly, is that joining some other communion would make an implicit creedal statement that I’m not ready to make. So would staying home on Sundays. Remaining where I was planted makes very little statement at all, and that suits me just fine. I’m not proud of this vegetable aspect of my affiliation. Quite the contrary. I just report it because I suspect a similar inertia is more widespread than is suspected by the clergy and clericized layfolk who run the Episcopal Church. Or maybe they do know about it. Maybe they’re counting on it.

Anyway, and finally, I stay an Episcopalian because even if we are seeing the death throes of historic Anglicanism, those writhings afford the opportunity for a sort of grisly humor that I hate myself in the morning for enjoying. (Who was it that observed that even Dark Ages have their compensations?)

In what other nominally Christian church, for example, could you find a leader calling on his brethren to “realistically see how polygamy can be accommodated”? The Bishop of West Buganda did just that at a recent consultation on “indigenization” held near Kampala. The accommodation of alternative life-styles is becoming something of an Anglican specialty, and one would think a church midwifed by Henry VIII shouldn’t have much trouble with that one. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile, indigenization continues apace here at home. A few years ago the Bishop of New York broke new ground by ordaining an out-of-the-closet homosexual to the priesthood—a lesbian, as it happens, which added to the sensation, since women priests were a novelty at the time. (Bishop Moore always has been a show-off.) Since when, other bishops have more or less knowingly ordained both male and female homosexuals, and for the time being it seems to be up to individual diocesans—a sort of ecclesiastical local option.

Now, I yielded to no one in my admiration for states’ rights, a principle that often makes for sensible politics (as I keep saying about abortion law). But it does duck the question of right and wrong. Governments duck that question all the time, and often should, but it’s an awkward habit for churches to get into. Realizing this, perhaps, our new Presiding Bishop has said that homosexuals should have “access to the ordination process,” which may or may not meant—nobody seems to know—that they should be ordained.

Of course, in the nature of things, there have always been homosexual priests, but they haven’t gone around forming caucuses and demanding to be heard—and heard, and heard. Will the Love That Won’t Shut Up now come to figure as prominently in the politics of the Episcopal Church as in those of the Democratic Party? How could I leave a church where that question remains unresolved?