Another Mainline Implosion

by Mark Tooley

The 2 million member Presbyterian Church (USA) has become the latest mainline Protestant denomination to implode on sexual standards. On May 10, Presbyterians in Minneapolis became the needed 87th local presbytery to vote for deleting the denomination’s expectation for ministers and elders of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

These Presbyterians now join the United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in adopting a liberalized policy of permitting clergy to be sexually active outside heterosexual marriage. Among the larger (and historically liberal) mainline Protestant denominations, only the United Methodist Church, with 7.7 million U.S. members, still officially prohibits clergy sexually active outside traditional marriage. Almost uniquely international in membership, with over 4 million members now in Africa, where Christianity is very conservative and fast growing, United Methodism almost certainly will retain its sexual standard.

But the rest of once preeminent mainline Protestantism in America is collapsing. The PCUSA was already losing about 60,000 members a year, a figure that surely will increase now, as it did for Episcopalians and Lutherans after their divisive votes to liberalize the sex teachings, in 2003 and 2009 respectively. Forty-five years ago, one in every six Americans belonged to the “seven sister” mainline Protestant denominations.  Today, only one in 15 Americans still does. Although secular elites often portray a secularizing America, actual church attendance in America has remained remarkably constant across the last 75 years. But among non-Catholic Christians, attendance has shifted from mainline Protestant to more evangelical churches.

The implosion of U.S. mainline Protestantism almost certainly will continue indefinitely, a trend to which church elites are largely indifferent. Their nearly all white, mostly college-educated, upper-middle-class memberships, buttressed by endowments from earlier generations, help to ensure that even empty churches can stay open. PCUSA members, spread across over 10,000 congregations, continue to give over $2 billion every year.

Although not unexpected, it’s still a sad moment for traditional Presbyterians, who first ratified the “fidelity and chastity” expectation in the 1990s with hopes of staving off sexual liberalization. “This is a lonely day for Presbyterians who believe what the Bible and the Church have consistently taught,” commented my colleague Alan Wisdom, a long time combatant in PCUSA politics. “Now we belong to a denomination that is no longer sure it believes that teaching.”

And it’s a sad day for America. The mainline denominations date to America’s earliest days. They profoundly shaped our national ethos, mostly for the good. Can Catholics and evangelicals fill the void? Hopefully so. But all of us should mourn the decline of yet one more once-great church.

— Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.