Douglas W. Johnson is executive director of the Institute for Church Development in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
This article appeared in the Christian Century October 10, 1979, p. 966. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Within such denominations as the United Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, there exist important and influential groups going counter to denominational leadership.
The dream of uniting the U.S. Protestant religious community has hit a snag. Splintering rather than unity appears to be the theme of the 70s and may be this decade’s legacy for the ‘80s. The fragility of denominational unity is evident as some bodies are unable to overcome internal divisiveness. The cracks in the church’s foundations resulted from pressures that built to the breaking point because of neglect, and the effects of social activism in the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
The Presbyterian Church in the United States was one of the first casualties. In 1973 this largely southern denomination suffered an exodus of slightly more than 40,000 members in more than 260 churches. The new denomination — the Presbyterian Church in America — continues to add congregations and members.
The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod was next. Disrupted by factions for some years, it split in 1974; a new denomination, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, was formed in 1976.
Likewise a faction in the Episcopal Church that had difficulty in relating to women clerics and changes in liturgy has broken off to form the Anglican Catholic Church. Other dissidents, despite their unhappiness over prayer-book reforms and women’s ordination, have stayed. Two other major denominations are having internal troubles. The United Methodist Church and the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. have for several years suffered internal challenges to procedures and programs of their national boards.
Dissenters in these last three denominations are aligned under banners that emphasize evangelical principles and the upholding of traditional religious practices. They define themselves by identifying what they oppose almost as often as they proclaim their platforms in positive terms.
The roots of dissent are in the foundations of Protestant theology and polity. The current situation owes much to the strong concentration on social action by national boards and agencies of denominations in the late ‘60s. The period from 1968 through 1971 was one of internal turmoil and increasingly open criticism. The black-power-inspired James Forman episode of 1969 and the protests against the war in Indochina were major divisive forces in some denominations. Other disruptions were generated by a morality related to liberalized sexual practices and abortion. Each of these became issues around which the dissenters could rally.
The unity movement, a vocally accepted way of life in the 1950s, reached its high point in the early 1960s, at a time when society had a sense of working together. Suburbs burgeoned; churches grew; the economy came alive. It was a religiously homogeneous time, a period when commentators like Will Herberg could describe American religion as being constituted by three easily identifiable faiths: Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.
During the late 1950s enthusiasm was high for an organization devoted to unity among denominations. An Episcopal bishop, James Pike, and a United Presbyterian executive, Eugene Carson Blake, drew up a proposal for a body that would work to achieve unity within a decade. The Blake-Pike proposal caught the imagination of many denominational leaders. The visible and continuing result of that call to union is the Consultation on Church Union.
The Second Vatican Council of the early ‘60s had a significant impact on Protestants. Roman Catholic priests and parishes worked hard at discovering and cooperating with the Protestant and Jewish groups in their communities. Catholics sometimes seemed more ecumenically minded than their Protestant counterparts.
The promise of a future is always subject to being broken. In the case of Protestant communions, the optimism of unity discussions in the early ‘60s was overshadowed by civil rights activities in the mid-‘60s. Ministers marched in the streets protesting injustices in housing, inadequacy of education, and then the immorality of the Vietnam war.
Immediate opposition to such social action on the part of clergy and church leaders was expressed by many congregations. A flurry of excitement was generated during the late ‘60s when word spread that church members were withholding money to protest social involvement. While income did decrease, little firm evidence exists to confirm withholding as a major or long-term tactic of church members.
By the late ‘60s some national agencies in several denominations were controlled by social activists. Through personal action and public pronouncements, these agency people led the church into the forefront of the fight against social injustice. Internal opposition took form quickly, beginning as theological discussions on the nature of the church. Disagreement focused on the desirability of church involvement in protests against injustice, and debates centered on the degree to which the church ought to allow its leaders to take time for protests and nonchurch meetings. One argument was that such activities cut into the minister’s time for serving the church members.
Some clergy, especially younger ones, began to view their role as that of crusaders. Laity, except for a small minority, understood the task of clergy to be providing counsel and stability in a world of uncertainty and change. A difference of opinion based on strong convictions created a clergy-laity gap. In the intervening years, these differences have been examined but not discussed in depth, and the conflict has not yet been resolved.
In the ‘70s, battles ceased to be theological and became psychological. By the mid-’70s the dissenters were promoting a psychology of growth and winning. Their arguments were bolstered by the declining church-membership statistics for their denominations as compared with the growth figures of more evangelical groups. Dean Kelley’s 1972 book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing contributed to the debate by providing other data for the dissenters. In addition, the mood of society by the mid-‘70s, with the emphasis on personal fulfillment, swelled the ranks of the dissenters.
The dissenters stress the individual’s religious life, not one’s involvement in social action. This emphasis, having a long history within Protestantism, asserts that personal piety is the key to the Christian life and that social action is an individual issue that should not necessarily involve the full resources of the church.
In contrast, denominational leaders often advocate full understanding of and involvement in the struggles of people seeking equality and justice. They call for societal as well as individual piety, applauding social action and protest. At times such support is viewed by them as a necessary stance. Leaders sometimes fail to keep lines of communication open with dissenters and appear to demean opposing points of view. The impression is sometimes given that there is only one side to an issue. This attitude tends to broaden the gap and to increase the potential for conflict.
The dissenters entered the ‘70s as a silent majority. Having little recourse to the normal channels of denominational power and expression, they felt left out and unheard. They began to promote their point of view through private newsletters and conferences of “interested persons.” By 1972, most denominations had ad hoc organizations whose communiqués emphasized the “forgotten” side of religion, especially evangelism and missions. Criticism of bureaucrats who seemed to be swayed by every protest group that surfaced was one of their tactics.
During the past few years the dissenters have become increasingly effective. The nostalgic mood of the nation has helped them to identify values “lost” by the church during its social-action involvement — personal religion, conversion of non-believers, and Christlike charisma.
Around these “lost” values, the dissenters have built rationales and organizations. Within such denominations as the United Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church there exist important and influential groups going counter to denominational leadership. They regularly attack national church activities and continue to build their coffers and secure recruits and staff.
Given the history of the past two decades, the future appears likely to be one of fractures. The optimism of the early ‘60s is a faded dream. The current interest in smallness, the emphasis on self-fulfillment, and the desire by grass-roots people to control organizations to which they belong are forces that will further the splintering. A sense of the importance of the individual has been instrumental in creating this new mood.
The fracture of denominations may be constructive over the long term. The vitality of Protestantism does not reside in the maintenance of large denominations. After all, religious commitment involves personal understanding, interpretation and heritage. It is as these are combined with common understanding and symbols that creeds and organizations are built.
An argument often heard is that when denominations grow large, they cannot help people feel that they are significant in their religious life. The message is diluted. They therefore need to be dissolved or broken up.
The Protestant community at the conclusion of the ‘70s is broken into more pieces than existed at the beginning of the decade. But perhaps these fractured communions can discover a new life and purpose in the world of the ‘80s.