frgavin on May 17th, 2011
Posted by tmatt

We had an interesting discussion the other day in the comments pages after my post about coverage of the decision by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to approve the ordination of noncelibate gays, lesbians and bisexuals (and potentially cohabitating straights, as well). The discussion focused on the old, old, old Godbeat term “mainline Protestantism.”

A reader commented, with a valid hint of anger:

Will says …

So, does this mean that the Swedenborgian Church in North America is not “mainline”, or, like the Ron Paul campaign, has simply been declared an nonentity?

If the former, then not all members of the NCCC are “mainline”. If so, who is in this exclusive “mainline” club? …

The term “mainline” has always been used, of course, to refer to the historic and once numerically prominent churches that church historians refer to as the “seven sisters” of American Protestantism. The term “mainline” has always been linked to “mainstream,” which is as judgmental as all get out, but for decades or a century or so this word was probably culturally and statistically accurate.

At the same time, the churches listed have long had a strong northern and theologically progressive cast to them, as well. Think Philadelphia “Main Line” and you have the style of this.

Thus, the term “mainline” was a fighting word for the large and powerful churches of Southern Evangelical culture. Northern Baptists were mainline. Southern Baptists were not, no matter what the numbers said.

The question now, of course, is whether the “mainline” has become the “oldline” or even — other than in the halls of Washington, D.C. power — the sideline. Are the Assemblies of God now “mainline”? The Southern Baptists? How about Catholics? Look at the U.S. Supreme Court, which now contains at least three kinds of Catholics, in terms of faith and culture.

So the big question: Is the term officially out of date? I now strive to avoid it, other than in contexts in which I can explain what it once meant.

However, in the wake of the PCUSA decision, the Religion News Service ran a crisp, solid news feature that asked another provocative question: Are the “mainline” battles over sexuality over? In other words, due to decline in some parts of the nation and increases in others — I’m thinking the polity of the United Methodist Church — has the pro-gay theological camp won its last big victory? Here is a key chunk of that:

The momentum of the gay clergy movement, however, may soon grind to a halt.

“There is not another denomination I see on the horizon right now that is on the cusp of this,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan research and consulting firm.

Officially, the PCUSA’s decades-old barrier will fall in July, after Presbyterians in Minnesota voted to effectively revoke a rule that had barred sexually active gays and lesbians from becoming ministers, elders and deacons. …

But even as gay and lesbian Christians celebrated, some acknowledged that steep challenges lie ahead in other denominations, particularly the country’s largest four: the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those four denominations, whose leaders show few signs of accepting gay clergy or relationships, together count nearly 100 million members. By contrast, the four largest denominations that allow gay clergy together count less than 11 million members. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has about 2.1 million members.

And in one of the few “mainline” churches that remains relatively large?

Gay rights activists in the United Methodist Church, for example, have labored in vain for years to remove a rule that calls homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and bars the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, just 32 percent of Methodist ministers want to allow gay clergy. …

Moreover, the UMC, which has about 12 million members worldwide, is growing most rapidly in Africa, where Christians tend to hold conservative views on theology and sexuality, noted Alan Wisdom, vice president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, a Washington-based conservative think tank.

In other words, as in the Anglican world, this story is becoming local, regional, national and global. And when one thinks about the ancient churches and the global churches, the word “mainline” takes on a completely different meaning.

It’s time to make a sincere effort to shelve this label and simply describe the reality on the ground. Name names. Quote the numbers. Detail the changes in doctrine.

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