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14 March 2012

(Ir)relevance from Changing Forms

Sunday was a tough day at our church. Our priest was forced out. With him went his wife and ministerial partner, an incredible asset to our congregation. This is not the first time that I've been a part of a church that has ousted its minister. In fact, this is at least the third. When I was quite young, my family's LCMS congregation kicked out our long-time pastor. I was too young to comprehend the intricacies of it. All I knew was that I was losing a profound figure in my life.

This has got me thinking about the difference between those old Weberian categories of charismatic authority and bureaucratic authority and the death of the Mainline. Any sect, if it is to survive the first generation, must transition from the reliance on a singular charismatic authority figure to an institutionalized bureaucratic infrastructure. When it does this, it begins to sacrifice some of the vibrancy that made is so appealing to begin with. This is the denominationalization of religion, and it looks something like this:

Church (schism) sect denomination decline (merger) dissolution

Many in our congregation, especially in the South being so influenced by the Baptist tradition specifically and Evangelicalism largely, latched on to our priest as a charismatic figure. With his removal, many will leave the church. But ours is a denomination built on bureaucratic authority and not individual charisma so the religion will persist even as the congregation founders.

However, I suspect that this kind of "charismatic creep" is increasingly widespread. As the influence of Evangelical Protestantism grows, particularly the trans/nondenominational variety, more and more Mainline Protestant congregations are probably suffering as clergy enter and exit in ways that they wouldn't have in the past. We can compare this to Catholicism. The Catholic Church is having its own problems finding enough native-born priest to pastor parishes, but typically, we don't see parishioners jumping ship when a new priest takes over the helm or is reassigned to a new parish. Catholics are far more loyal to the institution than to the individual. So, the Episcopal Church along with the other Mainline traditions find themselves being torn between two opposing models of authority.

I adapted the title to this post from a selection in the farewell letter from our priest in which he wrote, "This is not to say that [Episcopalianism] is irrelevant, but its relevance comes from its living, changing forms and ideas, and its willingness to be adaptable." If fear that while this adaptability may make it relevant, it also makes it dangerously susceptible to decline.

UPDATE: Looks like I'm not the only one thinking about this. David Briggs, a journalist who covers social science research on religion and whom we are very lucky to have as a subfield, has a new piece out titled "Killing the Clergy Softly: Congregational Conflict, Job Loss and Depression." Timely stuff all around.

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