VIEWSrnEpiscopal Folliesrnby Philip JenkinsrnWe have heard many debates recently about the underminingrnof moral and cultural traditions in contemporaryrnAmerica, a trend sometimes epitomized by the phrasern”political correctness.” Conservatives often issue dark warningsrnabout the ills that befall a society that cuts itself off from itsrnroots, though few go so far as to predict total destruction,rnwhich is what might well overtake some institutions in whichrnthe process of decay has advanced most rapidly. I am specificallyrnreferring to those churches which used to represent thernmoderate mainstream of American religion and which sincernthe 1960’s have generally been in the vanguard of every majorrnradical and liberal movement of social reform, from civil rightsrnand feminism to gay rights, pacifism, and ecology. Activismrnand even militancy may have been justified, but the variousrncauses have so overwhelmed the fundamental religious missionrnof the churches that all the traditional denominations have declinedrnprecipitously, to an extent that is stunning to an outsider.rnThis has been true of all the various “mainstream” Protestantrngroups, including Methodists, American Baptists, and thernUnited Church of Christ, but most illustrative of this trend isrnthe Episcopal Church, which enjoys a political and cultural influencernfar beyond its official numbers. For example, thoughrnits membership has never amounted to more than one or twornpercent of the American population, the denomination usuallyrnclaims the allegiance of up to a fifth of all United States senators,rna figure equivalent to the number of Roman Catholics inrnthe Senate. For this reason alone, what happens to the Epis-rnPhilip Jenkins is a professor of religious studies and history atrnPennsylvania State University and author of Using Murder:rnThe Social Construction of Serial Homicide (1994).rncopal Church is significant for how it affects the leadership ofrnthis nation; but it also epitomizes far wider trends.rnAnd what has happened to the Episcopal Church has beenrnlittle short of a catastrophe. Between 1966 and 1989, the baptizedrnmembership of the church fell from 3.6 million to 2.4 million,rna rate that, if extrapolated, means the literal extinction ofrnthe denomination before the year 2020. Nor is this rate unusualrnwhen placed alongside the fate of other “mainstream”rngroups, which are fast becoming anything but that.rnIt is possible to find nonpolitical reasons for this decline, forrnexample in demographic changes, and it is true that churchrnmembership has fluctuated greatly throughout American history.rnOn the other hand, the decline has not affected somernother denominations, usually fundamentalist, and the membershiprnof the (Pentecostal) Assemblies of God has in a veryrnfew years raced ahead of that of the Episcopalians. The EpiscopalrnChurch has hastened its demise by a series of violent conflictsrnover political and moral issues, most of which revolvernaround such familiar themes as the definition of authority, thernimportance of tradition, and the nature of sexuality. In thern1970’s, the church lost many conservatives through far-reachingrnrevisions of its prayer-book; the new 1979 version abandonedrnmuch of the linguistic power of its 1928 predecessor.rnStill more divisive was the question of women’s ordination tornthe Episcopal priesthood, in flat contradiction of scriptural injunctionrnand two millennia of consistent tradition. Women’srnordination to the priesthood began in 1976, and in 1989 BarbararnHarris was ordained suffragan bishop of Massachusetts. Inrnthe I970’s, the church provided funds to various politically militantrngroups under the guise of “empowering minorities” andrnfailed to curb or even reprimand the floridly heretical specula-rn18/CHRONICLESrnrnrn