Heretics and scapegoats

April 09, 1996|By Charles Howard Lippy

HERESY. THE WORD brings images of people burning at the stake, of finding and punishing witches, of threats to truth with a capital "T" and of salvation itself.

Most of us consign heresy to a past when Inquisitors supposedly came in the night and dragged off suspected infidels. So it seems unusual, almost bizarre, that one of the nation's oldline denominations, the Episcopal Church, is in the throes of a heresy trial.

On the surface, the issue seems clear: retired Bishop Walter Righter is charged with heresy because he ordained a non-celibate male homosexual as a deacon in 1990.

Heresy's not the issue

But I don't believe that heresy is the real issue. I also doubt that differing views over ordination of non-celibate homosexuals is the core of the problem.

The real issue is the decline of the Episcopal Church as a major player on the American religious scene. Starting with the Puritans, religious leaders have trumpeted the decline of religion in American life.

One way to measure decline today is with statistics. Since 1976, the Episcopal Church has lost about 14 percent of its membership, dropping from nearly 3 million to around 2.5 million. Other old-line denominations face the same reality.

Denominations are market-driven, using business measurements to mark success or failure. So church leaders worried about the loss need something on which to pin the blame. If we could identify and get rid of the culprit, they muse, we could return to the glory days of yore.

But these numbers don't tell the whole story. Opinion polls consistently show that Americans remain the most religious people on the earth. They take their religion seriously.

They're still church members in roughly the same proportion as they have been for decades. But more of them are in churches without denominational ties or where the structure pretty much leaves individual congregations alone.

Studies also show that more and more Americans don't care about denominational labels. When they join a church, they pick one that makes them feel good.

There's not been much traditional religious commitment here. But we may have overestimated how deep denominational commitment was before. When folks spent their lives in the places they were born, they were likely to remain members of the church where they were brought up.

What are the implications of all this for a church caught in a heresy trial? I submit that the heresy business represents a cry of desperation from those who can't or don't want to see that organized religion in the United States is undergoing a tremendous reconfiguration. Denominations and church bureaucracies just aren't that important to most people any more.

A change in church culture

All the old-line denominations -- Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists -- are in the same boat. The nation's religious culture has changed, and the denominations are having difficulty understanding, let alone adjusting. So rather than face up to the current reality, despondent church leaders want to point a finger at someone or something.

Bishop Righter is a convenient symbol, but one that disguises the fundamental issue: the end of denominationalism as the basic framework of American Protestantism.

Because the basic issue isn't what the accusers claim, the heresy trial won't resolve anything. If the bishop is judged a genuine heretic, his accusers can bask in self-righteousness. If not, they will become symbolic martyrs for Truth.

Regardless, thousands will be alienated even more from the church. Some will leave, causing numbers to plummet even more. When that happens, another group of accusers will look for a new scapegoat.

It would be better for befuddled Episcopalians to invest their energy in developing ministries that recognize the changes that are making denominations relics of the past.

If Episcopalians do that, they won't have to worry about heresy. They will be too busy affirming Truth in its many manifestations.

Charles Howard Lippy is the Leroy Martin Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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