How does one know he is living at the end of an era? Usually one cannot know for certain until it is over - and looks back. In today's religious environment, all the inquiring mind need do is look around.
Consider the pickles in which the American Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations find themselves....
Catholics confront what clearly is a decisive moment over homosexuality in the priesthood - some put the number of homosexuals at 50 percent. During the summer, Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, acknowledged "an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men."
Mere mortals and the laity are not supposed to call it a "homosexual problem." Yet most incidents have to do with (male) shepherds in the priesthood messing with boys in the flock. Accurate but shunned words and phrases to describe such incidents are "pederasty," "pedophilia," "priestly predation" and "male rape." The current preferred, or politically correct, term is "sexual abuse."
Earlier this year, word spread at light speed - from Boston - about the extent of the problem. There have been trials and mea culpas, ululating conventions of bishops and head-knocking sessions with the Vatican; the formation of groups signifying for vulnerable victims, and counter groups defending priests.
Today the news is of lay Catholic anger and disillusionment. Catholics are said to be sitting on their wallets, pushing for more lay power within the church, demanding full disclosure of diocesan expenditures relating to priestly predation, and blaming - excoriating - bishops for retreat and dilution regarding the homosexual problem. A new Gallup poll finds two-thirds of Catholics who attend Mass regularly saying, on the homosexual problem, the bishops have done "a bad job."
A page-one Sunday New York Times article finds bishops "confronting the most organized and widespread challenge to their power from the laity in the church's modern history." The same article quotes University of Virginia Jesuit historian Gerald Fogarty as terming the new lay movement "the largest we have seen in the history of the American church."
For mainline Protestants, the issue has similar aspects, but is broadly different.
Yes, key mainline denominations have their continuing issues over ordaining and/or marrying homosexuals - verily inviting upon themselves certain aspects of that principal problem affecting the Catholic Church. And, yes, they have "modernized" liturgies to remove much of the mystery and soaring linguistic grace. And they have neutered - emasculated - their hymnals.
But for mainline Protestant denominations, the greater problem on the part of too many clergy is an abiding ideological leftism they feel they must vocalize via proclamation and pulpit. A recent piece by a Leesburg, Va., minister, the Rev. John Ohmer, may be a hopeful sign of change.
The Rev. Mr. Ohmer correctly notes that "politics and religion have never been separated," and that throughout history politics has had "a place in the pulpit and in the pew." He goes on to cite the danger of putting "political agendas at the center of our (pastoral) life together. To hear some people talk, you'd think that the promise to strive for justice and peace was the only one we made. And parish priests seem to be the worst perpetuators of this mindset." He writes that "fundamentally, our role is to raise people's eyes to the holy - to be a custodian of the sacred; to lift life up an octave."
For several generations, mainline denominations have had considerable difficulty maintaining their numbers - indeed, their percentages of communicants to overall population have drastically declined. One logically might think they would see the too-often emptying pews and ask why, and conclude one reason just might be the steady stream of ideology many parishioners resent, dislike and cannot abide.
The ideology of many clergy may so overwhelm them that they cannot relent, cannot help themselves; for them, political ideology may trump religious passion or calling. Fashionable clerical causes have ranged from support for Leninist guerrilla movements to needle exchanges for druggies, from inviting the professional homeless to shack up in the narthex to (now, as in the case of the incoming archbishop of Canterbury) insisting that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be immoral, illegal and violative of trendy precepts of "just war" - a position Catholic bishops may be moving to embrace.
A major mission of any church, any denomination, is to build the flock. If the religious left, among others, despises the religious right, then the principal reason for such mainline clerical angst is not that those rightist pews are political as nearly all historically have been, but that communicants are flocking to those churches and leaving the mainline ones. In other words, communicants who want politics from the pulpit prefer politics of a more moderate or conservative variety than offered from many mainline pulpits.
For both Catholics and mainline Protestants, a crucial item that demands confronting by church authorities is denial. Catholic bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the Vatican must confront the homosexual problem that is desolating the faithful. Mainline Protestant leaders must confront the problem of ideologization - must ask themselves: "If the leftism predominating in the church is pushing parishioners out (or not inviting them in), then should we not relinquish pronouncing (left or right) in Caesar's realm and confine ourselves to God's?"
In each case, Catholic and Protestant, failure to grow beyond denial of these problems may prove suicidal for both. Each, looking around, could see - should see - itself standing at the end of an era. Each certainly stands at a crossroad in its history - at a decisive moment that could lead either up toward salvation, or down.
Pieces such as the Rev. Mr. Ohmer's suggest certain Protestants, at least, may be seeing the light, may be extracting themselves from the pickle they are in, may be seeking to lift life an octave up - may be comprehending the importance of returning the church to primary ministrations of forgiveness, solace and comfort in the Lord.
Catholic leaders still must move from "bad" to good - in deed as well as word - in dealing with the problem that is so devastating their commendable church.