On the loss of church membership
And as he goes out of the Temple one of his disciples says to him, “Teacher, look: such stones and such buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? By no means shall there be a stone left upon a stone that will not be thrown down.”
. . .
And they come to a place whose name is Gesthemane, and he says to the disciples, “Sit down here while I pray.” . . . “Abba, for you all things are possible; take this cup away from me.”
Between these two scenes from Mark’s Gospel (DBH translation), we find Mark’s terrifying “little apocalypse.” Scenes of upheaval, strife, and collapse.
I attend a church, though I’ll admit not with perfect regularity. It’s a Catholic church in a small town. The philosopher who has been most influential in my own life, Ivan Illich, was himself a Catholic priest who renounced his priestly functions after being called onto the carpet by the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 17 June 1968. His criticism of the church centered on his critique of institutionalization.
Institutions, he said, encounter two developmental watersheds. One watershed is where they begin to advance and amplify the purposes which they are designed to serve; and the second watershed is when they begin a process of “corruption,” of an institution being more for itself than the purpose it ostensibly serves. This is not a chronological process, but one wherein service and corruption can and often do exist side by side. He himself renounced his sacramental functions so that he could speak freely and not as a representative of the church — of which he remained a faithful member, and his renunciation was an act of obedience to a Magisterium he both recognized and criticized.
I myself sit with that tension pretty much all the time. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the most shocking and eloquent account of it.
Studies and polls show that churches, all churches, are bleeding membership, particularly in the industrial metropoli, and there’s a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth about it among some Christians. I’m sure this is especially alarming to professional clergy, who’ve been bound to contributing members for their survival on the monetary grid. It has alarmed many of the lay faithful, too, who see the church — in its current material form — as the primary means for the evangelization which the Gospels demand. Last year was the first time a majority of Americans claimed no membership in a church, and the trend is growing steeper in its descent.
These broad trends and the accompanying alarm fail to take into account many phenomena and many categories. There’s a tendency to choose one phenomena as the principle causative agent for broad trends; and I’m sure some will say — with a grain of truth — that the co-optation of Christianity by nationalists, con-artists, and cultish leaders has put people off of Christianity, because — for many — the most prominent public face of “Christianity” is of people caught up in crazes and bigotry. I suggest that the more potent factor is late modern culture with its full-throated embrace of disenchanted, disembodied materialism. In whichever case, and even in the case of many more liberal “ecumenical” confessions, the “appeal” of Christianity has now been submerged and diluted within an idea of faith that has more to do with its instrumental value for control and therapy than with the apocalyptic, messianic movement that came to life in an empty tomb.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falling to the ground dies, it remains alone; but if it die, it bears plenteous fruit.”
Will the church have to take up it’s cross?
Maybe just open it’s doors. There’s no church in town here where I can enter whenever I wish. Where a street person might take shelter. Where a prostitute might escape a violent john or pimp. Where a broken criminal might come in an hour of solitary reflective shame.
As Illich said, this has all been institutionalized, depersonalized, managed, turned over to the experts.
Two weeks ago, when I went to Mass, our priest was required by the Bishop to read a false representation of a ballot initiative to preserve abortion rights in my state. I’m not weighing in either way on the initiative, though I don’t think criminalization of abortion is its solution. I’m saying the Bishop knowingly lied when he said that this initiative, if passed, would grant the right to abortion up to the day of birth, and that it somehow would allow transgender “women” access to women’s spaces. I oppose opening women-exclusive spaces to natal men; but again, that isn’t the point. My Bishop lied. There’s nothing about this in the text of the initiative.
When will our churches quit playing at power? That’s not the way of the cross. The politics of Jesus is answering the call of the beggar on the church steps — the very one we’d transfer into a warehouse, out of sight, while we enter the chapel in clothes that beggar can never afford.
Does the church need its hour at Gethsemane — now, while we are in this apocalypse of upheaval, strife, and collapse— where it asks and answers its own question? I’m asking as a Christian, who will take my last breath as a Christian. And I’m not worried about a trend. God doesn’t need my help.