Dog Fur and the Decline of Progressive Protestantism

Dog Fur and the Decline of Progressive Protestantism February 18, 2022

The Religious News Service reported this week that Trinity Episcopal Church in Southport, Connecticut is no longer able to meet the spiritual needs of the people living in its community.  So, the parish is launching the Trinity Spiritual Center in an effort to address the needs of those who are spiritual but not religious.

Noting that “3 in 10 Americans claim no religious affiliation” and “a similar number say religion has little influence in their life”, the leadership of the parish has launched the center “under the umbrella of the church” but will treat it more “like a community service”.  Featuring programs on Buddhist meditation and knitting with dog fur, the leadership of the new center hopes to offer a place where, as one member of the vestry puts it, the church can give up perfecting what it has been doing for years and give people a place to “empty out and let the Spirit move through us so that we can impact the world in a positive way.”

Kendall Crolius – a longtime member of the parish, former senior warden, and author of the book on knitting with dog fur – celebrates the distinctive appeal of the center:

“What could be better than being with a group of seekers and having what you’re hearing be a catalyst for conversation,” she said. “That’s what makes it so valuable. You could download or watch TED Talks but it’s not the same. There’s a difference between consuming content and experiencing content in community.”

Gone is any notion that the purpose or mission of the church is to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Mt 28:18-20)  Completely missing is the conviction that the church is the body of Christ and that its worship is at the heart of its spiritual life. (1 Co 12:12-27)  Absent is the sense that the church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of [Christ’s] own” dedicated to announcing “the praises of [the one] who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)   As the vestry member quoted in the article notes, evidently, there is no point in improving or perfecting the worn-out message and methods the church had inherited.  It is time to strike out in a new direction.

One wonders if Paul, Peter and others should have urged us to abandon “the foolishness of the cross” and that boring, old “stumbling stone” a long time ago.  The problem, of course, is that the language that the New Testament uses captures exactly what the church is called to do.  Preach the good news of Christ crucified.

In any generation fewer people may respond to that message in one part of the world or another.  Other messages may hold sway and attract a larger number of adherents.  Other parts of the world may respond more positively to the Gospel.  That has been true across the centuries.

But “market share” is not and never has been the metric by which the church measures faithfulness and leading people into an endlessly malleable notions of what counts as spiritual progress has never been the church’s mission.  The church is not the purveyor of community services.  It is not the advocate of “The New American Spirituality” that Elizabeth Lesser identified some years ago – characterized by an eclectic, customized personal journey in which the individual is “their own best authority”.[1]  And it is not the distributor of “ideas worth spreading”, unless by that one means the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The former is, indeed, what a Ted Talk is all about.  The latter is the church.  Bishops, clergy, and lay leaders should know this.  When that calling is no longer palatable to them, they should acknowledge that – for them – Christ is not the cornerstone, but a stumbling block and then find a place more in keeping with their goals.

That Trinity can’t bring itself to do that would not be particularly interesting, if it did not suggest a truth about American-Protestant-Liberalism-become-Progressivism that has become increasingly clear: it lacks the capacity to say “no” to anything to its left.[2]  It lacks even the broadest of principles to describe what is constitutive of Christianity and, for that reason, it is incapable of naming even the most obvious indications that their ministry is no longer Christian in any meaningful sense.  Like knitting with dog fur.

 

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

 

 

[1] Elizabeth Lesser, The New American Spirituality, A Seeker’s Guide (New York: Random House, 1999): 52.

 

[2] Just as American-Protestant-Fundamentalism lacks the capacity to say no to anything to its right.  But that is a different article.

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