Mainline Marital Melange

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We know the stereotype, do we not?  Eyes like marbles, jaw clinched tight as a bear trap; icy baritone voice; accusatory finger slashing the air.  Yea, brothers and sisters, hear the word of the Lord, Who condemns . . .

For some wacko reason, popular culture (you know what I mean—talk shows, movies, plain old bar and workplace chit-chat) portrays the ministers of God as prigs and bluenoses forever trying to snuff out honest desire while making others, idealistic young people in particular, as unhappy and guilt-ridden as they themselves.  Nobody would say such dreary folk don’t ply their trade in this church and that one.  A more truthful, as well as useful, thing to say is that the stereotype has things backward and inside out, most of all when the topic is America’s Mainline churches.

Condemnation, the wrath of God, patterns of personal holiness—for mainliners, meaning Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and the like, such stuff has the penetrating odor of mothballs and cedar chests.  Sweet tolerance and gentle affirmation are the hallmarks of today’s mainliners.

If modern stereotypes overstate and distort the old pedagogical style of the churches, there indeed existed standards that churchmen thought worthy of holding up for emulation.  A few of these standards might be considered, let us say, less essential than others.  My late mother used to recount with a smile the strictures she faced as a small-town Methodist girl in the 1920’s: no movies on Sunday, no card-playing, certainly no unbecoming language.  And caution about boys.

No movies?  The notion needs time for absorption.  Yet the mainliners understood well enough the value of other prescriptions and proscriptions, not least those pertaining to the human-relationship questions that underlie what we call the holy estate of matrimony.  The delicate and sensible regulation of that volatile topic, sex, was—is—at the heart of the matter.  The mainliners understood what to say.  They had received their knowledge from Scripture and the tradition of the Christian community, as lived out over many centuries.

It would be going too far to suggest that 1960’s relativism and chaos pinned the mainliners’ ears back, collectively.  You can still get good doses of authoritative teaching in Mainline churches.  It’s a matter of hunting for it.  By and large, genial tolerance is the notion that holds sway.

Booze, cards, dancing, joyriding, unchaperoned dating—not many if any yearn for clerical fixation on such topics.  The wonder of the age perhaps is clerical and congregational apathy regarding norms that churches once protected with jealousy.  For instance, whereas you might get divorced, you weren’t supposed to.  If you did, you wiped your muddy shoes on an “honourable estate” (as the Book of Common Prayer expressed it) “instituted of God, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church . . . ”

Nor were you supposed to suggest or imagine there were viable alternatives to Christian marriage, such as cohabitation, an unholy estate known to many Christians as “shacking up.”  And no premarital sexual couplings: no sleepovers with your date.  Nor were young married couples to decide on their own authority that deliberate nonprocreation was fine for folks who didn’t care to subordinate their own desires to those of mere children.  What emphatically the mainstream churches, like the larger society, would have disallowed was the idea that people of the same sex would make an acceptable, perhaps even a commendable, married couple.

You didn’t fool around with family, in other words.  Family, according to God’s holy ordinance, was society’s foundational unit—the littlest of little platoons, yet the strongest and most crucial.  There were ways to do family, and there were ways not to do it.  The former led not only to the spread and perpetuation of the human race, according to God’s transparent design, but also—spats and tears and disillusionments notwithstanding—to the couple’s joy and lifetime fulfillment.  The second, alternative way, characterized by obedience to impulse, whim, and short-term preoccupation, led to disintegration.  We live, to an extent once deemed unthinkable, in the day and era of the second way.  That religious assent fortifies willingness to live in the second way is the shock and grief of our times.

Here are a few random items for digestion.

In 2003 the Episcopal Church consecrated as bishop a practicing homosexual who had left his wife and daughters to live with a male lover.

The chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals told National Public Radio last December that, whereas he once opposed same-sex marriage, he now thought it was time to “give the biblical view a different slant.”

In July 2008 the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly voted to ask that presbyteries drop the constitutional requirement that clergy observe “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness . . . ”

Sixty-nine percent of white Mainline Protestants (according to the Pew Research Center) say abortion “should be legal in all/most cases.”

The United Methodist Church, in 2004, came out for therapeutic cloning using spare embryonic stem cells from in vitro fertilization.  Around the same time, the Episcopal Church endorsed the use of embryos not created specifically for destruction.  The Presbyterians said stem cells could be used to help those suffering grave illnesses.

A Presbyterian researcher found that divorced ministers who work as denominational leaders are about half as numerous as married ministers.

A poll by the Barna Group reported that 34 percent of Protestant Christians have been divorced.  George Barna, who directed the study, observed: “There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage.”

And so on . . .

It is fair to note that not all movement along the religious mainstream is from “right” to “left”—from family morality of the old-fashioned sort to what Barna describes as “a new moral code in America.”  United Methodists, for instance, at their General Conference in 2008 voted—albeit by a mere 84 votes out of 918 cast—to stipulate the monogamous and heterosexual character of Christian marriage.  As many as 100,000 theologically conservative Episcopalians have officially seceded in recent years from an American church far gone, they contend, in commitment to nonbiblical norms, or anyway in apathy toward the growing cultural acceptance of those norms.

Well, so what?  Does anything we see here fail to resemble the ongoing splits in American life at virtually every level, and in virtually every institution?  The answer plainly is no.  But here’s the “what” that follows the “so.”  Religion alone, by appeals to an Authority Who easily outranks the poor, jumped-up authorities of the secular world, underwrites the norms that make social life possible.  I know from experience what follows from that assertion.  To their feet rise nonbelievers and even a few mild (but gently tolerant) believers, saying, Phooey and baloney!  Being good without God is a breeze; just look at us!

I am looking.  Care to know what I see?  I see a variety of human egos swirling about, fighting over claims that arise not from transcendent authority but from individual calculations, often as not incomplete, hastily considered, hardly ever debated, owing as much to musings on immediate opportunity as to considerations of long-term advantage.  And devilishly difficult to hang on a moral framework.  Such a framework doesn’t just magically appear.  Inspiration and revelation, over the centuries, give it form, beauty, and permanence.  The extended reasonings of a Christian body turn out in practice to have general and lasting applicability.  If, for instance, no-fault divorce wasn’t a really cool idea in the tenth century, it’s likely not much of an idea now.

The atomistic morality of the late 20th century, and for now at least the 21st century, is no guide to anything, save to the inner mental workings of the individual actor.  He’s the one in charge.  Or so he maintains.  As Barna puts it, “The consistent deterioration of the Bible as the source of moral truth has led to a nation where [sic] people have become independent judges of right and wrong, basing their choices on feelings and circumstances.”  He adds, a little darkly, “It is not likely that America will return to a more traditional moral code until the nation experiences significant pain from its moral choices.”

Or until the mainliners figure out why it was they formerly understood so well the protective as well as worshipful aspects of marriage—the “for better, for worse” and the “forsaking all others” parts; the mutual plighting of “troth,” meaning fidelity; the vow of lifelong commitment, each partner to the other one.

Certain discerning Anglicans of my acquaintance put the same-sex “marriage” uproar in perspective.  We wouldn’t have gotten to this, they note, discerningly, had we not given up on the notion of true marriage and true family life as lived “in accordance with God’s holy ordinance.”  In other words, if their church had taken with greater seriousness the entirely countercultural teaching of one heterosexual marriage for life; had the church held that teaching high, secure against cultural pollution, then marriage doctrine would never have become subject to individual ratification.  Marriage outside the Christian norm—same-sex unions are the obvious example—would have been a contradiction in terms, a nonstarter, a cultural unicorn, sparkling only in the radiance of rhetoric.

Instead, Mainline clerics chose to sit still while the culture preached to them.  Too often, instead of pushing back, they found themselves nodding in agreement with this or that cultural point.  Take the famed English bishop John A.T. Robinson, whose best-selling tract, Honest to God, found a large and appreciative audience in the United States.  “[T]here can for the Christian,” Robinson wrote, “be no ‘packaged’ moral judgments—for persons are more important than ‘standards.’”  Even Christian standards?  That was Robinson’s point, as it was the point of liberated clerics and theologians throughout the West: It was the duty, as well as the privilege, of modern people to work out for themselves the questions whose answers used to come from religious muckety-mucks claiming to speak in the Lord’s name.  We were done with the old nonsense.  We understood better.  The Church might counsel and console.  She certainly wasn’t going to throw her weight around.  This complicates things for those Christians who decide a little theological weight in the scales might be just what we need as the idea of normative family life fades from recollection.  Conditioned to affirming rather than challenging do-it-yourself theology, too many Mainline ministers of the Gospel find themselves out of their depth, and sinking.

Accordingly, the Mainline churches—not fully understanding their job description, which is basically to connect members with the God who created them—fare less and less well in the 21st century.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans—all have declined sharply in membership over these past few wonderful decades of liberation.  The Episcopal Church, my own shop, has fewer adherents than the Mormons—not least because, whatever it is Mormons believe, they really believe it.  The Episcopalians—especially the baby-boom bishops, priests, and theologians who run the national show—don’t merely move the theological goalposts; they depict goalposts in general as unmodern, what with their rigor and fixity.  Just kick, they admonish—it’s fine with the Lord.

That’s not all of us, I hasten to add.  Not by any means.  It’s enough certainly to remind Christian mainliners of every description that the standards of modern culture make considerably less sense than the culture’s high priests let on.  If the old family norms were so stupid and backward, why was their heyday better for marital longevity, better for the care and rearing of children, than the normless present has proved?  Riddle us that one.  And while we await the answer, dare I suggest we might actually want to pray?

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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