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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dude, What?

We really aren't sure what to do with the occasional commenter who feels that this is the right forum to air his or her idiosyncrasies, rather than to join us in airing ours.

On one hand, we enjoy the way a thread of comments can veer off and develop a life of its own; on the other hand, we are reluctant to give a voice to people who are so hostile to religion in general, or our religion in particular, that their hostility colors every comment. You guys should just get your own blogs. You know it's free, right?

So, as we've done before, we're going to take some time to respond to one of last night's comments; but we're also suggesting in our ever-so-subtle way that the commenter needs to up his game a little or risk being deleted.

Regarding Fr. Moats and his nonexistent Navy SEAL career, an anonymous commenter suggested that he had told the lie so that nobody would think he was gay. (Which, so far as we know, he's not.) We suggested that this was unlikely, and that the guy had probably just lied for the reasons that he and Shipley suggested: his own ego, and a chance to impress his members. We also mentioned that there is an element of self-selection in many professional choices, so that one gets fewer gay cowboys and more gay hairdressers, and that in our experience the clergy seem to fall somewhere near the middle. Our anonymous correspondent then took the question in a different direction, away from sex and toward race:
To what extent is this a class issue? Or a difference based on levels of education? Self-selection and diversity are two contradictory impulses. After years of preaching "diversity" yet remaining virtually all white/middle class, this is probably the only incontrovertible miracle that Mainline Protestantism has managed to show anybody.
Okay. That's fair, if a little harsh. The fact is that American churches -- all of them, not just mainline and not just Protestant -- have struggled with race and class since well before the Civil War. The results of this struggle have rarely made anybody look good. And yes, it was transparently self-serving that, when their urban congregations began to deteriorate because of postwar suburbanization and white flight, the mainliners suddenly developed a passion for ethnic diversity. In the case of the ELCA, it set unrealistic goals for transforming its membership roster, and then failed to achieve those goals, or anything like them. Hardly a miracle, but certainly embarrassing.

But mainline Protestantism is not remotely alone in this. Do you think that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy aren't largely shaped by the ethnic heritage of their members? Do you think that the African Methodist Episcopal Church isn't? This is all basic sociology-of-religion. The difference is that, whether out of naivete, self-interest, or genuine passion for sharing their faith -- and generally a little of each -- it is the mainline Protestant denominations which have made the most noise about pushing beyond their traditional constituencies, and are therefore most conspicuous when they fail.
If you've got a lower percentage of non-whites than the Southern Baptist Convention, you're either hypocrites or you're too self-obsessed to deserve to be treated seriously.
Buzzzz -- sorry, wrong answer. Despite its roots in the pro-slavery movement, the SBC has been a startling success in the move toward and ethnically diverse Protestantism. Since 1970, it has gone, by its own measurements, from all-white to 20% minority. Here's an article on it. This is genuinely impressive.

But does this mean that everybody else is hypocritical? Not at all. The truth is that, at least in the ELCA, our most ethnically diverse regions -- chiefly big cities -- have had considerable success in achieving diversity as well. It hasn't been enough to offset the massive demographic shift that emptied out our existing urban parishes years ago, but it is still pretty good. Our self-delusion was imagining that we could do this in, say, North Dakota.

So what makes the SBC different? The SBC is far more aggressive about evangelism, not to mention skillful, than most other churches. But it also has a very strong presence in the southern states, which are already thick with black Baptists. The SBC's growth has involved some church-planting, but it has also involved the absorption of existing independent congregations. Of these, one leader observes that
... many of the church's black congregations are aligned both with the SBC and with traditionally black denominations, and that they joined the SBC only for the resources and health benefits it offers pastors [and because] being involved with the SBC requires a minimum amount of money and time and effort.
That's the sort of thing that a congregational polity permits, at least up to a point. Most of the rest of us discourage or prohibit it. So the SBC has grown more diverse because, among other things, it is southern and because it is Baptist. In any case, that hasn't prevented it from succumbing to mainline decline -- its numbers are flat and receding, about where [the rest of] the mainline was thirty years ago.

Our commenter goes on:

Odd how nobody notices that barely a generation after women were allowed to become mainline pastors, they're already on their way to over 50%; why hasn't this happened yet in medical or pharmacy or engineering schools? Is there something intrinsically "feminine" about ministry? And why the resistance from Black/Hispanic churches to women's ordination, but much less vitriol leveled at them compared to white evangelicals who don't allow female pastors for the same reasons?

And this is where he really misses the mark, and kind of ticks us off.

First, "barely a generation"? It has been 41 years since the LCA and ALC ordained women, nearly as long for the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA. That's two full generations by anybody's count, three by some counts.

Second, "on their way to 50%"? Sure, in the sense that New York is "on the way" to Los Angeles. Per the ELCA,
In 2009, 19.9% of clergy on the ELCA roster are women, while 31.2% of the active roster are women. In seminaries, the numbers of women and men preparing for ministry are about equal.
As we recall, seminaries were about equal twenty years ago, too. It appears that a fair number of women train for the ordained ministry and then either fail to enter it or enter and leave. If anything, this suggests that there is something that is intrinsically "masculine" about it. Could be congregational sexism, but it could just as easily be the low pay and no hope of advancement. In an age when women make up close to 60% of all undergraduate degrees, and walk away with most of the honors, men are just learning to live with closer horizons. (Yeah, we know: Boo-hoo, poor us.)

As for the comparison with science and engineering, Wikipedia says that in 2001, 37% of the doctorates in those fields went to women, with the proportion on the increase. In a sense, and despite the enormous amount of hand-wringing that goes on about women in science, it is arguable that women have a slightly easier time there than in the ordained ministry of the churches which ordain them. Or anyway about the same.

Third, what vitriol? Seriously? What are you talking about? If you mean us personally, you're just wrong. This blog has plenty of vitriol to share, but we reserve the great bulk of it for preachers who lie, cheat or steal, with a little left over for Newt Gingrich and Antonin Scalia. And the ELW psalter. And Urban VIII.

If you mean among mainline Protestants in general, you're still wrong. Sure, those of us whose churches ordain women disagree with those who don't, and within a particular family the disagreements can get pretty heated -- ELCA vs. LCMS, PCUSA vs. PCA, ABC vs. SBC, and CofE versus the Ordinariate of OL of Walsingham. But in every one of those cases, including the last, the ordination of women is one among many points of division, and in no case (although the Presbyterians come close) is it the first or the critical, church-dividing point.

Moreover, if there is any real poison poured out on that particular subject, it generally comes from the other side of the fence. The churches that don't ordain women (or out-of-closet gay people) routinely declare that the rest of us are "unorthodox," a complex, tricky and deeply offensive word in theological circles. That's vitriol. When the ELCA began its full communion relationships with some other churches, the LCMS took out a full-page add in USA Today accusing us of abandoning the confessions. That's vitriol, too.

And specifically, white evangelicals who don't ordain women? If by "evangelicals" you mean what we do -- Lutherans -- then see above. If by "evangelicals" you mean what the press usually does, the neo-Prot churches that identify themselves as "independent" or "community," nobody really expects them to ordain women, and nobody (in our experience) cares much when they don't. If anything, we're always a bit surprised when they sometimes do -- even when the one of their female pastors then robs a parishioner's house at Christmas.

So do you see what makes a comment like this so frustrating for us? It starts out with an interesting observation, but then starts in with the meanness, misperceptions and bogus "facts." Somewhere along the line, it ceases to be a useful contribution to the blog, and becomes just the sort of thing our original post had been about, a dissemination of falsehood.


Anonymous said...

It's the pretentiousness that's most ridiculous about Mainline Protestantism, the Mrs. Jellyby quality of its social and political pronouncements, combined with its obliviousness to its own immobility; you've basically got NPR at prayer for its politics.
We know the fundiegelicals are mean and envious and pitiful and ignorant-but they're supposed to be. They're the ones living as triple wides in double wides with the six kids from four dads and missing teeth and preaching that Jesus was around with the dinosaurs.
If you end up just as captive as the catholics or the orthodox but preach twice as hard, you're running twice as fast and staying in the same place. Worse, you (supposedly)represent a more enlightened and reasonable slice of the demographic pie, one with fewer status anxieties and no problems with ethnic prejudice.
Frankly if this is your best work, it's probably for the best that you're withering away on the vine.
And you still haven't even so much as mentioned why Mainline churches don't call out Black and Hispanic churches for not ordaining women/the openly gay. This looks suspiciously like paternalism-or an attempt not to stress out a "constituency" of the "progressive coalition."

Father Anonymous said...

Look, I'll grant you the pretentiopusness, so long as you'll grant that virtually nobody who takes an affirmative position on anything can escape a degree of pretentiousness. Richard Dawkins? Poseur.

As for not calling out black and Hispanic churches, you missed the entire point. Again. Which is that churches almost never "call each other out." Almost. Within a particular confessional family, it certainly happens from time to time, almost always from the conservative side. But Roman Catholics don't "call out" Lutherans on the ordination of women, or vice versa.

Obviously, I mean at the official ecumenical level. Individual opinions are different. But even the fairly modest taunting that goes on at a blog like this is exceptional, and is one of the reasons I keep it (sort of) anonymously. Officially, we just leave each other alone, except in the most guarded ways.

So while there may be - okay is -- plenty of paternalism floating around in the big mostly-white mostly-liberal churches, that has nothing to do with the particular subject you raise. We don't pick on them because we don't pick on anybody.

And captive to what, exactly? You never spell it out, and I can't figure out what exactly you mean. You seem to be disappointed with every church in the world for not being ... what, exactly? Less like a church and more the the Ethical Culture Society? That is, models of liberal probity with no real traditions or religious convictions to get in the way? Because we're not. We're churches.

Anonymous said...

To ethnicity and class and education level.
You want it both ways; you want to be a big tent but you want to mobilize people both inside and outside around a set of policies that are often, and by your own "activist" membership, described as "prophetic" (not held by the majority of society). Unless of course, you agree with the majority-in which case the minority in society is "being left behind by progressive forces".
The fundiegelicals do the same thing with abortion ("I don't care how many people are for it, it's wrong and should be illegal") and gun control ("Most of us have owned guns for years and we don't commit mass murder; this is all those elites on the Left coast."). Both side in religion are so obviously, and pitifully, self-serving.

Father Anonymous said...

You really have a superficial understanding of what churches do.

Sure, there are a few political activists in every church, and I'll even grant you that they tend to gain some power near the top of any given organizational structure. But -- and it's a huge but -- churches don't exist to "mobilize people around a set of policies." That's what political parties do.

Churches exist to worship God, and show God's love to the world. Our biggest disagreements, historically, have to do with what that means -- either the "God" part or the "worship" part. But political (or economic, or any other material) concerns only flow out of that primary reason to exist.

So you say -- over and over, incidentally, until it becomes really boring -- that mainline Protestantism is just like "fundiegelicalism." Well, yes. It pretty much is, and it is also pretty much like Romanism or Orthodoxism. We are all doing the same sort of thing, for more or less the same reasons. Our differences are far smaller than our similarities -- and most of us know that. Sorry if it catches you off guard.