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Current Page: Opinion | Thursday, May 01, 2008
Decline

Decline

Papal trips, presidential campaigns, polygamist-raids, and other events that warrant billboard-sized headlines are easy enough to sight, but they block out the vision of smaller-appearing events that, taken together, add up to portentous or promising trends. The portentous were most apparent last week, as headlines like these on Friday, April 25, drew notice: "In Financial Crisis, Seminary Stops Admitting Students" in the Chicago Tribune; "Ministering Angels" (I'll elaborate) in the Wall Street Journal; "Ranks of Southern Baptists Are Still Growing Thinner" and "Gay Bishop Plans His Civil Union Rite" in the New York Times.

The story in that fourth item dealt with the strains on the self-sundering Episcopal Church, which is distracted from mission during debates over homosexuality. The "Seminary" story on our list tells how Seabury-Western Seminary, once an anchor in Midwest Episcopalianism, is not admitting any new students and is serving notice to tenured faculty that they will be jobless in fall, thanks to money woes in the (probably) over-seminaried Episcopal Church. One of the other two stories is subtler, one bolder and more clearly outlined.

The subtle one is by Richard S. Lischer, a splendid writer and professor at Duke Divinity School. Every cleric should clip it and post it, since it gives a touching, even moving, portrait of parish clergy, whose "job is never done." From Lischer's account one can see why considerable numbers of men and women are ready for seminary and parish vocations, despite over-work and low pay. The problem: As megachurches and mobility hit and hurt smaller parishes, there are fewer posts which can afford a pastor of their own.

The Southern Baptist piece gives statistics, highlighting the fact that for the third straight year the number of baptisms in this largest Protestant body kept declining, while total membership dropped 40,000 in one year. Being conservative and mega-minded does not serve as a figurative wall against exiting members. Parents having fewer children each year, long a factor in "mainline" Protestant decline, also accounts for Baptist losses.

Leftover stories about the recent papal visit indicate signs of Catholic life, but insider trend-watchers discount much of the attention to celebrity coverage, and offer their own versions of the obituaries for the late Pope John Paul II after European visits: "He filled the streets. He did not fill the pews." Let's watch mass attendance for a year in America.

Most important is to observe cultural shifts: "Seekers" stay isolated in "spirituality;" the impulse to make commitments wanes, and sacrifices for life in community appeal less than in earlier cultural turns; denominations lose some of their attractive hold, while suggesed replacements for them—networks of independent and often competitive congregations-on-their-own, mega or mini—do not play quite the role that parishes in denominations did. The future of loyalty and participation is uncertain.

Within one or two generations the pews emptied in former Catholic bastions like Quebec and Ireland. The case of each nation and region differs from all others; the clerical abuse crisis hits harder at some places than others. Yet the Irelands and Quebecs serve as reminders to church and culture not to take church participation for granted anywhere.

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Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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