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BY DR. JAMES H. COOPER | Can liberal Christianity be saved?
So asked New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a recent opinion piece, written on the heels of the Episcopal Church’s decision to allow same-sex marriage blessings. He went on to pin the decline in Episcopal Church attendance since the 1960s to a period of liberal flourishing and influence in the church. Traditionally, the downward membership trend is ascribed to the growing dominance of secular culture and the reluctance among Episcopalians to actively court new members into the church.
In Douthat’s version, the verdict would appear to be that the Christian left, with its wishy-washy interpretation of church teaching, became flexible on theology, thereby diluting the faith and pandering to secular causes. So it’s no wonder the church is losing members and relevancy. I have no doubt that most people would consider Trinity Wall Street a liberal Christian parish, and so I read Douthat’s piece with great interest.
In contrast to Douthat’s prognosis, more people are attending Trinity’s Sunday service now than in previous years. I would hold that the experience of faith and the level of engagement of those in attendance are also moving in the right direction. Many — residents and workers in the Downtown neighborhood — see Trinity as liberal due to our support of Occupy Wall Street. Some of our neighbors thought that Trinity pandered too much to the activists, while others thought we ought to have supported them more by allowing them to use our property for an open encampment. We disagree with the latter.
We support O.W.S.’s goal of addressing economic and social injustices and advocating for real change — this is what our ministries and grant-making addresses. Our hospitality to the activists includes use of our community and meeting rooms, facilities, feeding programs and pastoral care — which continues to this day, even as the protesters demonstrate right outside our church doors.
There was a part of me that read Douthat’s column and simply thought, wow, that is a very bleak and pessimistic portrait of life in the church, and one that seems to disregard the possibility that membership numbers may not be the driving force around church life and policy-making.
I don’t have much use for the word “liberal” or its opposite. Inside the church, such categorizations create divisions between people and limit expectations. Better is a parish that understands together that people will be different, that we are better together in diversity than apart in homogeneity. Better is the parish holding that glorious tension together, asking people to learn from one another over time. We are working to build that church together, day by day, in Lower Manhattan.
How can Trinity be a vital and relevant force for good in Downtown, New York City and the world? This is the question those involved in parish life wake up every day asking. The answer usually involves how well we are welcoming all who come and issuing the invitation to those who have not come. The answer depends on our commitment to diversity in all forms.
Importantly, we do not welcome people with a dogmatic test or based on where they fall on the political spectrum. We do not need to know where you are from, who your parents are or what you earn — or whether and which gender you intend to wed.
Some make an assumption about Trinity that, since it is located on Wall Street, our congregants must be made up of rich bankers. That is like saying a seaside church only welcomes fishermen.
Trinity’s congregation is actually one of the city’s most diverse, and as such it is a tremendous asset to Lower Manhattan. Some parishioners are wealthy, while others live out of shopping bags, and most are somewhere in between. We are people of all races, employed and unemployed, conservative and liberal.
I have seen how this commitment to diversity creates a community of faith that welcomes everyone, adapts to change and creates opportunities to meet the needs of the world outside its doors. It’s happening in churches across the country, too: There is a craving to embark in substantial ways upon both faith and works in the company of people who are different from you.
Churches and institutions that accept the challenge of true diversity as a core value come to learn that diversity leads to radical inclusion. This will ultimately lead to meaningful reforms that truly serve society.
The Episcopal Church is, over time, taking the steps and ratifying policy decisions necessary to include and welcome every person. This is not pandering to political causes, as Douthat suggests, but rather responding to a call for a more open and just church. This approach unequivocally contrasts with its historical reputation as the “church of the elite” — a spiritually unchallenging extension of the country club.
What should Downtown residents know about Trinity Church? Simple: you are invited. We welcome everyone. A visit one Sunday morning might be more convincing than my words.
Reverend Cooper has served as rector of Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church, at 89 Broadway, since 2004.