The American Church’s Existential Crisis That Isn’t

The end of the American Church is imminent. At least two states have willfully attempted to stop the Church from meeting together, provoking the Supreme Court’s rebuke,[1] and there remains open hostility to the sanctity of life and marriage by so-called progressives.[2] Both major political parties are jointly liable for the Church’s decline, at least in part, as each boasts caricatures of American Christianity at the highest levels. Even interior circumstances suggest a bleak outlook. A Protestant might note the trend of declining church attendance[3] or the recent apostasies by former evangelical celebrities.[4] An American Roman Catholic might be seriously concerned by recent questionable Papal decisions and critical responses from conservative clergy.[5] In the via media between the two—the Anglican Communion—one might easily despair at the continuous fractures from female “ordination” and “consecration” and erosion of church doctrine on the sacrament of marriage. Finally, at least one American member of the Eastern Orthodox Church has argued for creating a new monasticism to withstand the impending dark ages.[6]

That the end is nigh would be a reasonable conclusion from the chaos within and adversity without. But this would be wrong.

Where is the Christian that trusts that Our Lord meant what he said as his last words on this Earth: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world”?[7] Indeed His Church will endure to the end of the age and be guided in all Truth until then by the Holy Ghost.[8] If Christ’s promise is not enough to encourage the believer, a review of the history of His Church will calm the anxious soul. Take, for example, the Church’s humble beginnings, the Great Schism, and the Reformation.

Humble Beginnings

Christianity was quite literally born fragile. The Incarnation itself depended on the faithful obedience of a young girl at the Annunciation. Thereafter, not only was Our Lord born in the humblest of circumstances, but immediately the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents ordered by King Herod I.[9] At the crucifixion, the most pivotal moment in history, all but one Apostle abandoned Him.[10]

The Church immediately endured centuries of official persecution, where her existence could not have felt more at risk.[11] Yet even then, the Apostolic ministry and blood of the martyrs catalyzed the Church’s expansion throughout the known world and preserved it through the fall of Rome.[12] Both Roman and barbarian Christians in the West eventually ushered in what would be known as Christendom.[13] The Church survived her infancy.

Great Schism

After a millennium, during which the Church grew dramatically in influence and temporal power, the great Patriarchs of the East and West mutually and tragically excommunicated each other.[14] This was not a mere ecumenical disagreement, but was long in the making and “took the form of violence and conquest.”[15] Again, the Christian may have cause to weep for the cleaving Church, but the Church endured.

Reformation

In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, exacerbated by the excesses of the Renaissance Papacy[16] and clerical failures generally,[17] well-intended efforts began to reform the Church in practice and doctrine that led to a series of schisms that we now call the Protestant Reformation.[18]

Protestants view the Reformation not just as a welcome relief from the abuses of the medieval period, but a return to the true Gospel and first century ecclesiastical polity. One must note that the broader Western Church, including Rome, did actually experience reform during this period. However, not everyone at the time had such an optimistic view of the then-revolutionary positions. Large-scale inter-ecclesiastical war in Europe followed these schisms—a calamity difficult to imagine today. Certainly, this would be cause to question the sustainability of such intellectual diversity and open conflict within Christendom, but again, the Church lived on.

Thus, the Christian should not be so hasty to decry the end of all things. It has not been an easy road to be sure, but the Church is nowhere near any of the existential crises that our Christian forebears endured, least of all not in the West and particularly the United States. To suggest that the Western Church is persecuted or otherwise under attack[19] dishonors the official and brutal persecutions sustained by the Church throughout history and today in other parts of the world. Externally, the Western Church is not officially persecuted and nearly universally enjoys freedom to worship. Internally, the Church is moving in large part toward reconciliation, rather than away from it. In 1966, the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople lifted the mutual excommunication that had been in effect for over 1000 years. Anglicans and others in communion with Rome were invited to observe the Second Vatican Council, which led to a joint commission for dialogue that continues today.[20] The mid-Twentieth Century also saw major revivals where hundreds of thousands answered Christ’s call to follow Him.[21] Since then, church attendance has ebbed and flowed, but the Church remains.

This is not to say that it is all easy going and there is nothing for us to do. Far from it. In 1977, the Episcopal Church in the United States separated itself from the Church Catholic by “ordaining” females to the priesthood. It has only widened the gulf since then by consecrating bishops unabashedly practicing homosexuality and performing the rite of Holy Matrimony for same-sex couples.[22] Indeed, many Protestant denominations continue to split over these issues. Even the Roman church continues be pressured to capitulate to “progressive” ideologies.[23] The American Christian must defend orthodoxy to be sure, but he must also realize that the Western Church is healthy and the world is not on the brink of destruction. Remembering our history helps provide context to our current problems and encouragement to the anxious parishioner. We must trust Our Lord’s promise to be with us.

Let us continue to pray for the persecuted church and those whom the Gospel has not yet reached. Let us continue to go to Mass, Divine Liturgy, or worship service and daily walk the path of righteousness. Let us continue to fight for the restoration of the wayward portions of the Church and not despair. Above all else, let us live up to our calling to be Christ’s Body, to be salt and light to the world, to give hope to the hopeless, and to make disciples of all nations.

Notes:

  1. Roman Catholic Diocese v. Cuomo, 208 L. Ed. 2d 206 (2020), 2020 U.S. LEXIS 5708; Harvest Rock Church, Inc. v. Newsom, No. 20A94, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 5709 (Dec. 3, 2020).
  2. “U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Chairman Responds to President and Vice President’s Statement on Anniversary of Roe v. Wade,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, https://www.usccb.org/news/2021/us-bishops-pro-life-chairman-responds-president-and-vice-presidents-statement-anniversary; Marvin Olasky, “The Case for Donald Trump,” World Magazine (Sep. 24, 2020), https://world.wng.org/2020/09/the_case_for_donald_trump.
  3. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center (Oct. 17, 2019), https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/; “One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19,” Barna: State of the Church (Jul. 8, 2020), https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/.
  4. Kevin Deyoung, Greg Gibert, Collin Hansen & Justin Taylor, “On Caution and Keeping: Friends Reflect on Joshua Harris’s Deconversion,” The Gospel Coalition (Aug. 1, 2019), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/reflections-josh-harris-deconversion/; Michael Foust, “Hillsong’s Marty Sampson: ‘I’m Genuinely Losing My Faith’,” Christian Headlines (Aug. 13, 2019) https://www.christianheadlines.com/contributors/michael-foust/hillsong-s-marty-sampson-i-m-genuinely-losing-my-faith.html; Kevin DeYoung, “Two Thoughts on the Rob Bell Brouhaha,” The Gospel Coalition (Feb. 28, 2011) https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/bell-brouhaha/.
  5. Zach Budryk, “Conservative Catholics Accuse Pope Francis of Heresy,” The Hill (Mar. 1, 2019), https://thehill.com/policy/international/441558-catholic-conservatives-say-pope-francis-is-a-heretic-causing-one-of-the
  6. Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).
  7. Matthew 28:18-20
  8. Francis Joseph Hall, Dogmatic Theology: Authority, Ecclesiastical and Biblical 65 n.1 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908) (“The command to teach which was given by our Lord to the Church was coupled with promises which show its permanency.”).
  9. Luke 2:7-8.
  10. John 19:25-27.
  11. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers (Cincinnati: Franciscan Medial, 2014) 19 (introducing the martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch in around AD 110 and noting that Christianity was a capital crime in Rome for essentially three centuries.).
  12. Warren H. Carroll, The Founding of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom Press, 1985) 513.
  13. Warren H. Carroll, The Building of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom Press, 1987) 135 (e.g., St. Clotilda).
  14. Carroll, The Building of Christendom, 482 (The excommunication was in reality more local than global at the time since Pope Leo IX had died earlier in the year, a successor had yet to be appointed, and the Constantinople Patriarch’s excommunication was directed only at the Papal legates themselves. Nonetheless, as Carroll writes, the chasm only widened further after this action).
  15. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983) 105.
  16. Warren H. Carroll, The Glory of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom Press, 1993) 588.
  17. Carroll, The Glory of Christendom, 638, 654.
  18. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology 879 (1994); Warren H. Carroll, The Glory of Christendom (Front Royal: Christendom Press, 1993) 713 (“The fire Luther kindled, the sword he wielded, would indeed destroy the many diseased members of the Body of Christ, but at a terrible price that Christendom has been paying ever since.”).
  19. Mary Eberstadt, “Regular Christians are no Longer Welcome in American Culture,” Time (Jun. 29, 2016) https://time.com/4385755/faith-in-america/.
  20. “Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue,” https://iarccum.org/ (last visited Dec. 30 2020).
  21. Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Billy Graham Reached Millions Through His Crusades,” USA Today (Feb. 21, 2018, 8:40 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/02/21/billy-graham-crusades-how-evangelists-reached-millions/858165001/.
  22. Sarah Zylstra, “Episcopal Church Suspended from Anglican Communion over Same-Sex Marriage,” Christianity Today (Jan 14, 2016), https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/january/episcopal-church-suspended-anglican-communion-gay-marriage.html; “LGBTQ in the Church,” The Episcopal Church https://episcopalchurch.org/lgbtq/history (last visited Jan. 1, 2020).
  23. The term “progressive” is inapt to describe the amoral agenda advanced by those that use it as their banner. See, Paul McHugh & Gerard Bradley, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence,” First Things 308 (2020) at 29. For an example of Vatican backpedaling, see, Elisabetta Povoledo, “Vatican Clarifies Pope Francis’s Comments on Same-Sex Unions,” The New York Times (Nov. 2, 2020) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/02/world/europe/pope-gay-civil-unions.html.

 



Adam J. Crane

Adam Crane is an attorney on active duty with the Marine Corps and currently stationed at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. He received his J.D. from American University, Washington College of Law in 2014, and B.A. in Political Science from Biola University in 2010. In 2016, he received the sacrament of confirmation by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Scarlett in St. Matthew’s Church, a parish of the Anglican Catholic Church in Newport Beach, California. Adam and his wife are parishioners at The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia.


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