Putting the Nationalism in Denominationalism

Colin Hansen makes an arresting admission in his piece about having grown up a Methodist and how he left the communion:

As a former United Methodist, I thank God for these friends and co-laborers in the gospel, even if I no longer share all their theological views. I recognize my spiritual debt. They were my family. They are my family.

I’m in no position to advise these people called Methodists. I forfeited that right when I left. And no one is asking for my advice, anyway. But I want my United Methodist friends to know something important. I did not leave because of your views on sexuality. By the time I left in the early 2000s I didn’t even realize you had been debating sexuality for decades. I left to find the theology of George Whitefield and Howell Harris that converted the Welsh, including my Daniel kin. I left to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal by heart as cancer ravaged his body.

I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.

Imagine if New Calvinists and Gospel Allies followed the same logic. “We do not belong to the PCA or the OPC or the URC, so we have no reason to offer you advice or criticism. By virtue of our not being members in your communion, we are in no place to tell you about Reformed Protestantism.”

Imagine too if those who associate or form alliances with New Calvinism — ahem — also followed what is implicit in Hansen’s understanding of membership. Imagine if a Presbyterian ally of the gospel said, “well, because I am a member of the PCA, even ordained in it, my first duties (PCA First) are to the denomination where I serve. That means, I might have to cut down on participating with non-Presbyterians. I might even reconsider my relationship to non-Presbyterians because we are merely allies, not fellow members of the same body.”

But I also noticed what Hansen did with Methodism. He did with it what he did with Calvinism. “I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.” The same goes for Gospel Allies. The identify less with Calvinist communions to find Calvinism.

And so, the problem of belonging to the church, the ministry of the church, ordination, and membership rears its head again. To parachurch or to church?

But Hansen did seem to acknowledge that not being a member of an institution means he loses standing for being heard by members of a denomination. That point also suggests that someone who is more involved in parachurch endeavors while belonging to a body of Christians also loses some of his or her standing for dialogue and instruction. As if.

After all, if borders between countries matter, if governments of nations matter, why shouldn’t the borders and polities of Christian communions also matter?

Moderate Presbyterians, Irish or American

Seeing the looks on Ben Preston and Craig Lynn’s faces last week while recording a session on J. Gresham Machen, I worried not only that American indelicacy had run up against Irish sensitivities, but also that the Orthodox Presbyterian habit of being opinionated had offended the moderate sense of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland ministers.

As it happens, while waiting for a meeting with staff at Union College (Ireland’s equivalent of Princeton Theological Seminary), I found a copy of the Presbyterian Herald, the Irish equivalent of New Horizons. I read an article about church attendance that I am not sure could have been published in the OPC’s magazine. The author wrote this:

Christian ought to be encouraging of and encouraged by para-church organisations which seek to spread the gospel. Being committed to such enterprises, however, before the local church is idolatry, for God will not share the glory of his church with another (Isaiah 42:8).

Shazam!

Membership of and support for para-church organisations, whether mission agencies, evangelicist bands or cultural/religious institutions must all come after commitment to the local church and never before.

Imagine what American Protestantism would look like if The Gospel Coalition adopted that set of priorities.

Machen Day 2017

One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith? 156-57)

Pascal’s Wager After Vatican II

Father Dwight thinks that the arguments for becoming a Roman Catholic have to do with having more Christianity, not with whether or not you are saved:

So is there salvation outside the Church? Does that mean “There no salvation outside the Catholic Church?” The old guys said, “No Way.” The new guys say, “Well, you know the Church is bigger than the Catholic Church. Christ’s salvation extends to all who are baptized and have faith in Christ.”

Uh-huh. I get it.

“Furthermore, it may extend to all men and women of goodwill who follow the light to the best of their ability. They’re salvation is also through Christ for he is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty even if they don’t know it.”

OK. If you say so.

Well, good for them, but I’m not taking any chances.

I want more Christianity, not mere Christianity, and it is only within the great, graced riches of the Catholic Faith that I can hope for this wounded soul to be healed and for me to make my long journey home.

Why does more Christianity always involve less Christ? Liberal Protestants added western civilization and modern science to Christianity and abandoned the atonement. Neo-Calvinists add the transformation of culture and forget the Canons of Dort. Now in the post-Vatican II Church you get all the statues and rites and holy days without the assurance that you need them for salvation. I don’t know why Father Dwight considers that more. Where else do you go for salvation than to Jesus?

Depends On What You Mean by Religion

That is, if freedom of religion is under attack, don’t you have to define religion? Hunter Baker seems to have an expansive view of faith:

Big Business is a serious problem for religious liberty. Few people adequately understand that Big Business and Big Government go hand in hand. Corporations don’t like localism and various exemptions aimed at respecting rights of faith and conscience. They just want a monolith that they can understand and work with in a turnkey fashion. I have no interest in being the corporate candidate. The business executives of the world need to understand that when they undermine our liberty as people of faith, they are ultimately undermining liberty of all types, including economic liberty. I will fight for the soul of the party on this issue, just as many have bravely fought to keep the party pro-life.​

But what if religion is not everything I do, but certain practices and convictions I share with those in my communion? And here’s where I make a shameless self plug:

The difficulty here—and liberal society is by no means consistent about this—is that religion has shifted, in the American experience, from a corporate identity to a personal quest for meaning. Rather than faith being part of belonging to a religious institution and so including certain doctrinal convictions (belief in one God) and behavioral obligations (refraining from employment on Sunday), the courts’ understanding of religion leans heavily on notions of conscience (even Madison illustrates this). As such, religion is a deeply personal matter and the state should stay out of such private arenas.

Professor Bradley’s attempt to define religion very much follows in this trajectory, and she devotes several paragraphs to questions of conscience. The high stakes of individual conscience are not simply the products of the courts or the academy. Many Christians themselves also regard religion as a deeply personal matter. The revivals of the First Great Awakening during the 1740s promoted the importance of religious experience in ways that made church membership and corporate rites far less important for being truly religious. At the same time, the religious Right for the last three decades or so has taken a page from black, gay, and feminist political activists by arguing that faith is so comprehensive in its claims on the believer that he or she can never leave faith behind when entering the public square.

This notion of faith as deeply personal, rather than corporate or institutional, raises a great problem for liberal society. If faith informs everything I do, then paying taxes or baking a cake or sending my children to a public school may violate my conscience. And if a majority of the citizens have such sensitive consciences, conducting the affairs of government may become impossible. To be sure, the mainstream Progressive narrative of U.S. history includes instances where heroic stands for conscience based on faith—the Civil Rights movement—emerged as valuable contributions to a free society. By the same token, while many times religion coincided with the advancement of certain liberal goals, it has also motivated believers to protest existing norms and so has divided society along religious lines.

To illustrate the difference between religion personally conceived and corporately conceived, consider the membership vows required by my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. After being examined by a local congregation’s officers, a person needs to answer in the affirmative the following five questions:

Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?
Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?
Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?
Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?
Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

For this particular denomination, these are the chief parts of being a Christian. None of these questions pertains directly to business transactions, curricular matters, or medical procedures. Of course, the person who takes these vows might have firm convictions about how she should run her business, what school her children should attend, or what procedures hospitals should provide. Given that these other matters are incidental to requirements for institutional membership, our Orthodox Presbyterian should perhaps be less likely to invoke freedom of conscience if she ends up disagreeing with the decisions of local, state, or federal authorities about them. She might simply regard the friction that comes with a free and diverse society as the cost of doing business.

Part of the problem here may involve the old Burkean point about the value of mediating institutions. Those agencies of civil society that buffer persons from government can potentially pose challenges to the smooth operation of a state, but they also perform any number of services that add up to a society comprised of persons who place few, or at least fewer, demands on governmental agencies. Over the course of the 20th century, as the federal government’s power expanded, many institutions of civil society lost power even as the liberty of individuals increased. That process is no less evident in American religion, though the state’s hand in the loss of religious institutions’ power has not been as noticeable as it has in family life or educational or private associations.

Even so, the value of churches and synagogues in identifying and defining religion—as opposed to leaving it to individual conscience—may clear a path through the current debates that surround religious freedom and governmental protection of faith. If the state protected corporate expressions of religion more than personal ones, negotiating the interests of government and religion would likely be less litigious than it is now. To be sure, many Americans would object to legal or policy patterns that granted to pastors, priests, and rabbis greater authority in resolving matters of conscience. But without some mediating institution to inform and guide religious life, believers may be inclined to see religious liberty narrowly if only because they seemingly lack non-state institutions for resolving cases of conscience.

If the choice were between religious institutions or potentially outraged believers, the state might prefer to negotiate with churches and synagogues instead of with persons with easily offended consciences.

Can We Talk About Prayer Meetings?

Paul Levy and I have, but the differences of our talk may be worth considering.

Like many evangelicals who seem to need to show their piety (despite our Lord’s warning about praying that others can see us at prayer), Levy provides a number of reasons for the week night “gathering” that seem to have less to do with prayer itself than with the fellowship that such meetings might encourage. For instance:

4. There is something that unites us together when we pray together – People ask sometimes what is encouraging you in Christian ministry? For me the big one is to hear someone pray for the first time. I am a Westminster Confession believing, card carrying Presbyterian and yet to hear someone pray for the first time makes me want to dance a jig of delight. As in marriage, those congregations who pray together stay together. You cannot hate your brother while praying with him and for him.

Is the point of prayer to encourage other believers or inspire a dance, or is it to offer up to God our desires “for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (SC 98)? If it is the latter, then Levy is closer to the mark when he writes:

6. Prayer is a means of grace – Hebrews 4:14-16 ”14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Prayer is us speaking with God, but, as we pray, we receive mercy and find grace. It is my experience that at prayer gatherings when the people of God together call on the name of God we are often more conscious of his blessing. As we draw near to him he draws near to us.

But is prayer more effective, more gracious, when people gather for it and it’s done corporately? If people stay home and pray, even at the same time, is the effect the same? With God maybe, but not for those for whom prayer becomes a means of bonding or becoming more personally acquainted. Fellowship is a valuable thing. But doesn’t it happen more over a meal than when either listing prayer requests of extemporaneously praying for them. In fact, sometimes prayer meetings can hurt fellowship when you find that saints (see what I did there?) request prayer for ephemeral matters or lack eloquence when praying publicly (myself included). In other words, prayer meetings can be very uncomfortable because of the performance component inherent in them. But Levy, like so many pietists, only sees the spiritual (up) side.

On the other hand, prayer meetings may be a very good marker of Christian devotion, as they reveal Christians who participate in the life of a congregation and are willing to make that a priority. Instead of being culture warriors, they are church members.

At the same time, if we limit serious church assemblies to the Lord’s Day and the regular administration of the means of grace, Christians may actually have time to serve on school boards or attend public events and show that they are active members of the earthly kingdom where they live while they await and pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory.

I Guess Crossway Will Not Be Publishing the Collected Works of John Murray Soon

From the 1966 OPC report on whether or not to admit Baptists to church membership (from our Mid-West correspondent):

The committee considers, however, that to admit to communicant membership those who “refuse” to present their children for baptism would constitute a weakening of the witness the church bears to the ordinance of infant baptism as one of divine warrant, authority, and obligation. Of greater weight is the fact that infant baptism is the way in which God continues to remind and assure us of that which belongs to the administration of his redemptive, covenantal purpose. The defect of the person not persuaded of this aspect of God’s revealed counsel is not concerned with what is peripheral but with what is basic in the Christian institution. And the person who resolutely refuses to present his or her children for baptism is rejecting the covenant promise and grace which God has certified to his people from Abraham’s day till now. It is this perspective that lends gravity to the offense. It is this estimate of baptism that underlies the statement of our subordinate standards when the Confession says that it is “a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance” (XXVIII, v) and the Directory for Worship that the children of the faithful “are holy in Christ, and as members of his church ought to be baptized” (IV, B, 4). It cannot be denied that the person refusing baptism for his children is delinquent in doctrine. It is the obligation of the session (in the case envisioned in this study) to apprise him of this. It is scarcely compatible with honesty, therefore, for such a person to answer in the affirmative such a question or any other form of question of similar purport as must be asked of those being received into communicant membership, namely, “Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life, to heed its discipline?” (ibid., V, 5, 4).

In support and confirmation of the foregoing position the following additional considerations are offered.

1. God has revealed his great displeasure with those who refuse or neglect the administration of the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:14; Exod. 4:24-26).

2. To refuse the covenant sign to the children of believers is to deny God’s covenant claim upon them, and thus to withhold from him those who are rightfully his. Such denial provokes him to anger (Exod. 4:22-26; Mark 10:13, 14).

3. The riches of God’s grace are most clearly seen in his covenant mercies, and to deny baptism to the children of the church prevents the grace of God from being seen in all its richness and manifestly detracts from its fullness. This cannot help but weaken the sense of gratitude in both parents and children and consequently rob God of the praise and thanksgiving that are due to him.

4. Those professing parents who refuse to present their children for baptism thereby deny their solemn obligation to keep God’s covenant by raising their children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord, and deprive their children as well as themselves of the comfort of God’s covenant promise.

5.Professing parents who refuse to present their children for baptism withhold from the church of Christ the holy seed which God in his goodness has provided for it, and consequently deprive their children of the nurture and discipline which the body of Christ imparts to its members.

In answer to the objection that the scriptural evidence for the ordinance of infant baptism is not of such clarity as to command our obedience, it may be conceded that there is no express command in Scripture to baptize infants. Nevertheless, what by good and necessary inference can be deduced from Scripture is to be received as authoritative (Confession of Faith I, vi) and the scriptural evidence for infant baptism clearly falls within this category. It may be further objected that in order to establish this doctrine such a closely reasoned and complicated process of inference and deduction is demanded that it is not reasonable to require those to conform to this ordinance who are unable to exert such powers of logic. In answer to this objection, it must be affirmed that the doctrine of the covenant of grace is all-pervasive in Scripture and that it takes no great powers of reasoning to find the rightful place of the children of believers within its fold.

That throws an ecclesial wrench into the Gospel allies’ paraecclesial machine.

If You Don't Go to Church, What Do You Do with A Coalition?

The Bar Jester, previously Calvinist now Eastern Orthodox, explains why going to church is not the way to think or even be (hence all that ontological language):

It’s not quite right because “go” and “going” are words wholly inadequate to the reality of membership. It may be that in “going” to a building you enact one aspect of your membership, but membership no more ceases to characterize your condition outside the building than in it. Unless you’re Prosthesis Man, you don’t just pull off an arm or leg and lay it by until it’s time to shovel snow. You are always a member, whether in or out of the building, whether coming or going. Your ontological status is what it is quite apart from what you may or may not want to think about it, just as surely as your ontological status is what it is quite apart from what you think about baptism. Baptism, a thing done to you by divine act, changes you whether you like it or not. Martin Thornton has lucidly laid this out in Christian Proficiency: if you are baptized and yet fail to participate in the membership into which you are baptized (and thereby fail to enact the requirements of baptism), if you are baptized but spend your time cursing and gaming and whoring, all you really are is a hypocrite. You’re simply failing to act in accordance with who you are by dint of an ontological change that took place during the sacrament. Or, as I like to say, the waters of baptism don’t give a damn what your think.

Say what you will about baptism and whether it changes you (not even spiritually or mystically, and what of the whammy that attends the baptized who don’t profess faith?), Jester’s point does raise considerations that lead to the recognition of how far removed endeavors like the Gospel Coalition are from the institution of the church. Could a website and bloggers be partly responsible for the Coalition’s undoing?

Do We Need a Federal Agency to Regulate Religious Identity?

I was reading this piece over the weekend on home schooling and the author struck me with her use of identifications:

From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences.

The author’s point about homeschooling may or may not have merit, but why would she not identify Rushdoony as an Armenian-American, an Orthodox Presbyterian, or a Californian? Why Calvinist? And why is John Holt only an “education theorist”? Which extends to the questions of why journalists labeled the Charlie Hebdo killers Muslim or why President Obama refuses to. Why not call them Arab-French? In other words, how do you decide what someone is? What is their primary identity? If you choose to identify someone by an adjective that your readers find odd or unappealing, haven’t you signaled to readers that they need to beware?

These questions are a further reminder that everyone carries around multiple identities. A reporter or scholar may mention one of the markers that identify someone, but it is only a part of who the person is (and perhaps a caricature). The Christian Right has not helped on this. Thanks to neo-Calvinism’s logic of every square inch, the notion that I am anything less than 100% Christian is a betrayal of Christ’s lordship. But if a reporter talks to me about Muslims in America, does it make more sense to identify me as a scholar of religion in the United States than as an elder in the OPC? And when I go to the ballot box, do I go as a Calvinist, a Phillies fan, or an American citizen? Last I checked, Calvinists in Scotland and the Netherlands can’t vote here in Michigan. Is the reason because the U.S. denies Christ’s lordship or immigration officials are wary of Calvinism? Or is it that temporal criteria like residency and citizenship trump belief and church membership? Think “duh.”

A related question is how does a scholar or journalist judge whether a subject qualifies as Calvinist, Roman Catholic, or Muslim? Who gets to determine religious identity? Is it the subject’s own judgment, as in President Obama’s account of his conversion?

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.

It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

Or do church, parish, Vatican, or imams decide whether the labels that persons self-apply are valid? David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of Obama’s account, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.” I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards would agree. And as clerk of session, I am definitely not going to trust the judgments of a broadcasting network executive about genuine faith. Heck, I wonder if networks can be Christian (remember, no corporate salvation).

And what if churches inflate their numbers? Terry Mattingly, who quoted the president’s conversion account, indicates that Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago did not record President Obama’s membership. (Are the birthers asking for Obama’s certificate of good standing?) I suspect that many churches don’t scrutinize potential members very carefully and don’t keep accurate records of members.

What is the solution? We need a government agency to keep track of religious identity and to issue religious passports. Someone wants to know if I’m a Christian, I flash my government authorized paperwork. It works for voting, health care, banking. Why not church or mosque or synagogue life?

Redefining Declension So Numbers Ascend

When you are having trouble with lack of resolve and dwindling numbers among the communicants (and clergy), you find a different paradigm that allows you to turn defeat into victory. For instance, David Robertson reported on efforts within the Church of Scotland to advance Christianity and extend membership:

Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, is a good spokesman for the Church of Scotland. He is personable, warm and says some interesting things. In that vein, in the next edition of Life and Work he has made what has been termed as a ‘radical New Year’s message’. He wants the church to find 100,000 new members in the next decade. What can we say to that? Fantastic. 10,000 new Christians per year in Scotland would be a tremendous boost to us all. How encouraging for the whole Church if the Church of Scotland was to do that. I long and pray for that and I would rejoice if it came through the Church of Scotland. It won’t be easy. This year Church of Scotland membership fell below 400,00 for the first time and seems to be in free-fall. To reverse the 20,000 members per year deficit and turn it into a surplus of 10,000 would be enough of a miracle to cause even the most cynical secularist to doubt!

The Moderator is fed up with statistics (otherwise known as facts) that highlight decline, so he wants to change that. He asserts that the “truth about the number of people who belong to our faith communities is quite different”. Indeed it is, but not in the way he suggests. However it is worth quoting him more extensively: “The real challenge is to redefine membership in a way that allows us to include women and men, young and old who do not fit the post-Second World War model of membership with which we are so familiar. That pattern does not resonate with the vast majority of those who are 50 and younger and who will never buy into the kind of church that sits so comfortably with me and my way of expressing my Christian faith.

“It might pain me to say it, but it’s time for a radical change and I don’t mean a change of hymns, or a visually-aided sermon or a new time of day for traditional forms of worship. I mean something much more far reaching than that.”

He said: “I want us to explore how people might be able to belong to the Church of Scotland rooted in reality, which can interact with them in the context of an online community, but also be there for them when they need real human contact.”

Rev Chalmers thinks that because 1.7 million Scots in the 2011 census associated themselves with the Church of Scotland its an opportunity to bring them into the membership of the church. That’s why he wants to ‘redefine’ membership so that those who are not currently members can be counted as such. Social media, Facebook and twitter could be used to help this process. He was supported in this by former Moderator, Rev Albert Bogle, who stated, “there are a huge number out there who need to be nurtured and strengthened in their faith.”

It may not have the same ecclesial standing as a moderator of a European national church, but the challenge thrown down by Roman Catholic sociologists to the work of Christian Smith on the religious convictions and practices of U.S. adolescents reveals a similar use of ecclesiastical beer goggles (the statistics, like homely gals, are easier on the eyes after a couple pints) to make the best of a difficult situation:

Our studies show that pre-Vatican II Catholics learned a compliance-oriented approach that emphasized the teaching authority of the clergy, demanded strict adherence to all official church teachings, and often relied on fear and guilt to produce record-high levels of conformity.

Then, as a result of changes in American society and changes in the Catholic church, everything changed. Pre-Vatican II Catholics’ best efforts to pass their compliance-centered understanding of the faith on to their children were often mitigated by the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the implementation of Vatican II, both of which fostered a more personal approach to religion.

The three most recent generations learned a more conscience-centered approach that emphasizes Catholics’ responsibility for their own faith, including their responsibility to inform their own consciences, and to follow them as much as possible, even if this involves disagreement with church teachings. . . .

Members of these younger generations are not just “cafeteria Catholics” who “pick and choose” whatever parts of the faith they like. They continue to embrace core doctrinal teachings such as the divinity of Christ and his real presence in the sacraments; love of neighbor; and concern for the poor. But they are more selective in their religious practices, and are more likely to disagree with teachings that they consider unimportant, optional, coercive or wrong — especially those related to sexual and reproductive issues. . . .

Smith’s team draws a very different set of conclusions. What we call a shift from one approach to another, Smith and his colleagues call a story of “decline and loss.” Where we see adaptation to changing circumstances, they see the erosion of Catholicism. They tend to see departures from the compliance model of the 1940s and ’50s as a downward spiraling of the church. This is especially true in their interpretations of young Catholics’ low rates of Mass attendance.

According to Smith and his colleagues, “compared both to official Catholic norms of faithfulness and to other types of Christian teens in the United States [especially young Mormons and young evangelical Protestants], contemporary U.S. Catholic teens are faring rather badly,” “show up as fairly weak” and reflect “the relative religious laxity of their parents.”

Then there are the Callers who represent a logic all of their own.