jQuery Slider

You are here

"Church in Frenzy - A Long Tradition" - by Dave Shiflett

"Church in Frenzy - A Long Tradition"

by Dave Shiflett
The Examiner

A wise old European gent once told me he had "no problem with God. It's his ground crew you have to watch out for." Wariness of religious organizations and factions has a long history and in our day it has taken on renewed vigor since some holy fellows took up the devotional act of hijacking airplanes.

In America, however, the stories tend to concern turmoil and disintegration within historic denominations. And while the headlines often suggest this is something new, the slide into chaos, incoherence and perhaps oblivion seen in some denominations - especially in the Protestant mainline - has been long and not without its amusements.

While reporting for a new book, I enjoyed looking back at the long slide of that train wreck known as the Episcopal Church, which is by now a mere postage stamp of a religion, claiming allegiance, by one estimate, of a walloping 0.78 percent of the American public. Despite its micro-membership, the Episcopal Church is often in the headlines.

The most recent glut of stories has concerned the aftermath of the ordination of Eugene Robinson, a homosexual, as bishop in New Hampshire. A group of traditionalist Episcopalians has responded to this act of gay ordination by establishing a network of dissenting churches. By my estimation, this seemed an odd place to draw the line. After all, this church has put up with much worse.

The Episcopal Church has made a warm home to priests and bishops who publicly proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth never rose from the dead and indeed may be blowing around in the atmosphere in the form of ancient dust, no different than a deceased house cat. Although many people in the world share this belief, they are not bishops in a Christian denomination. More to the point, the Resurrection is the church's central selling point. When you give that away, you should definitely be prepared to lose market share, which is exactly what has happened.

Looking back further, I found what one priest called a "church in frenzy."

William V. Rauscher, rector of the Church of the Incarnation in New York, offered a rollicking commentary on his denomination's slog toward oblivion. By the early 1960s, Rauscher believed, the church was "dangerously near what pilots call 'the point of no return.' " Telltale signs were all around. A clergyman in Falkenstein, East Germany, had become so distraught by "the existence of insurmountable differences in the field of religion and the shaping of the Christian way of life" that he "ignited himself from the altar candles and burst into a human inferno before 300 horrified parishioners."

Some clergymen were already conducting gay weddings "in which the phrase 'so long as you both shall love' provides the proper escape clause." Abortion had gained substantial support - four years before the Supreme Court gave its nod.

Divorce and remarriage, formerly forbidden by church teaching, were also shaking the old foundations. "People who are sincere," the good reverend wrote, "are not encouraged by the church when they read that Rex Harrison, who has married six times and divorced five times (a wife died) and married for the seventh time, received the blessing of the church at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York City ... Nor is it helpful to local churches when they deal with such aftereffects as the seventh marriage of Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Warner by an Episcopal rector in Middleburg, Va."

Even proper weddings had taken on a Las Vegas air. Brides were requesting songs such as "Indian Love Call" or "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" he complained, and ceremonies "can contain anything from a reading of Gibran to a poem by Timothy Leary." Jimmy Durante "was buried from the Roman Catholic church while the organist played 'Inka Dinka Doo' and 'Give My Regards to Broadway.' "Easter services had been trivialized; in an Ash Wednesday ceremony in a Maryland church, "the ashes applied to the foreheads of about a hundred men and women consisted of human blood, olive oil, tax forms and a draft card. A slight variation from the usual burning of blessed palms of the previous Lent."

Elsewhere, the reverend noted, "pietistic pastors" were authenticating bleeding statues and blessing tortillas. "In March 1977, following the death of a Canadian priest named Cyrille Labreque, mourners noticed the image of Christ on the sole of his shoe.

Soon some 50 thousand people had flocked to see the image on the leather sole when the toe was pointed downward." What's next, he wondered? "Will someone see his face in an ice cube floating in a vodka tonic?"

Looking ahead, we can expect a great deal more church upheaval. It may come of some comfort to besieged believers to remember that, as the good book indicates, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

--Dave Shiflett is author of "Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity."

Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Trinity School for Ministry
Go To Top