Stay? Go? Four Mainline Camps, Pt. I

One of the first decisions David and Jean Leu Stanley faced when they got married 48 years ago was where to go to church.

Their options were pretty clear. There was the Methodist church in which he grew up or, across the street, the Presbyterian church in which she grew up. His church got the nod and, today, they remain active in Wesley United Methodist in Muscatine, Iowa.

But much has changed since 1948. That was before some bishops began protesting church teachings on marriage, before seminaries started importing pagan rites and before the Stanleys found themselves, year after year, opposing social causes led by people who received money out of their own church's offering plates.

"Obviously, it would really hurt to leave our church," said David Stanley, who, like his wife, has been active at the local, regional and national levels of United Methodist life. "We keep thinking that if it's God's will for us to leave, then he'll make that absolutely clear. We keep asking: `Is this the sign? Is it time to go?'"

Jean Leu Stanley interjected: "But we keep getting mixed signals. We keep seeing good things happening, as well as bad."

On one level, this is old news. Since the 1960s, America's old-line Protestant denominations have lost about a third of their members. These churches, known as the "seven sisters," are the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.

Nevertheless, many clergy and laity continue to embrace the creeds and traditions of these historic churches, stressed historian Thomas Reeves, in his new book, "The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity." They will not find it easy to shop for a new church.

"Millions of mainline Christians have spent all or much of their lives worshipping in the same congregation, and in many cases their ancestors also belonged," he said. "Their faith is intimately linked with a specific denomination and a particular building. ... To be cast from it could be personally devastating."

Meanwhile, it's agonizing to stay, said David Stanley. People on both sides are hurting. The truth is, he said, "United Methodists are now ... two churches within the shell of one denomination, separated by a chasm of conscience."

To outsiders, these civil wars do appear to be clashes between two groups. The "orthodox," as defined by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, believe their faith is rooted in eternal, transcendent truths. The "progressives" argue that truth evolves, shaped by personal experience and changes in society. Both sides include people who will compromise to maintain unity. Yet each compromise leads them further from historic orthodoxy.

Future events are now being shaped by another reality: that the strategic roles played by bishops and other regional leaders make it easier for some to stay, while others are pressured to leave. Conceding that progressives control most of the national high ground, such as seminaries and bureaucracies, the result is a pattern of four camps in liberal denominations. In a few orthodox regions, progressives live in camps that mirror these four.

  1. Camp I: Orthodox people, in an orthodox parish, in a region with orthodox leaders.
  2. Camp II: Orthodox people, in an orthodox parish, in a region led by progressives who continue to be charitable and fair.
  3. Camp III: Orthodox people, in an orthodox parish, in a progressive region.
  4. Camp IV: Orthodox people, in a progressive or apathetic parish in a progressive region.

People in these camps worship in different churches, even if the brand name on their local church sign is the same. The more progressive the national church establishment, the more likely orthodox people are to flee from the third and fourth camps. The more who flee, the greater the pain of those who remain.