Reflections on the prospect - reality? - of a third great awakening

Posted: Dec 07, 2006 9:43 PM
Reflections on the prospect - reality? - of a third great awakening

This is huge. The nation may be in the midst of a third Great Awakening.

The Washington Post gave its Dec. 4 Page One lead-story position to a deepening split in the Episcopal Church. Two Fairfax parishes with 3,000 members between them — Truro Church and The Falls Church — will vote next week whether to remain in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Other Virginia churches have held similar votes — or soon will.

At issue is the deepest sort of human emotion and inquiry (what is my faith, my church?), the disposition of $25 million in church property (who owns it, diocese or parishioners?), and considerable history. Both churches date from the 1700s; George Washington, for Heaven’s sake, was an early Falls Church vestryman. Three other northern Virginia churches have departed the 111-diocese ECUSA and the 193-parish Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest.

What is happening in Virginia, arguably the U.S. episcopate’s ground zero, is a reflection of widening chasms in Protestantism nationwide. With parishioners turning off or departing the pews for sleep, golf, or Sunday-morning TV, U.S. Episcopal membership long has been stagnant at about 2.2 million — if not actually in decline. Rising numbers of Episcopal churches, weary of hierarchical arrogance and inflexibility, are affiliating with other federations or dissolving and starting anew. An entire California diocese — San Joaquin — soon may be the first to pull up its tent stakes and move on.

In turn, this developing schism in American Episcopalianism reflects what is happening in mainstream Protestant denominations across the landscape. As with Episcopalians, so with Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.: All have their anger and fractious controversies about scripture, doctrine, liturgy, hymnals and ordination. Congregationalists et al have resolved their disputes in gadarene plunges over the edge.

Those looking superficially at these fights — and they are fights — too often see them in political terms (the religious left, the Christian right). Political sentiment is a concomitant part of it, but hardly the whole part. These days dominant issues among Episcopalians are scripture and whether practicing homosexuals should be elevated to the bishopric. With their 2.2-million denomination getting knuckle-rappings from its parent 77-million Worldwide Anglican Communion, many Episcopalians quizzical about their church justifiably wonder whether they are leaving it or it is leaving them.

The Episcopal conflagration in Virginia (and elsewhere) hotted up with (a) the election of a practicing homosexual as bishop of New Hampshire, and — by a supposedly chastened national hierarchy — (b) the subsequent election of a presiding (national) bishop (perhaps incidentally a pilot and an expert in northeast Pacific octopus and squid) who supports homosexual ordination.

Little wonder at the staggering numbers of new-church communicants. Protestant mainline churches clearly are a large part of the sending end of the (receiving-end) megachurch evangelical phenomenon. And the new evangelism, symbolized by more elemental faith generally and megachurches specifically, suggests a third Great Awakening is at hand.

The first occurred over a quarter-century — beginning about 1730 — in New England, the Middle Colonies, and the South. Heavily anti-Anglican (Church of England), it splintered Protestant denominations and democratized American religious practice. New churches were formed, and new colleges — Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers, Dartmouth. The Great Awakening reached one of its highest peaks in, yes, Virginia.

The second began in the late 1700s and projected well into the 1800s. Largely an orthodox reaction against supercilious (and secularizing) Protestant hierarchs, it, too, splintered many churches and led to the establishment of new ones in the westward expansion. It was zealous, simplifying, evangelistic, abolitionist, and helped produce what historian Allen Guelzo terms America’s “redeemer president”: Abraham Lincoln.

In their “Great Republic,” Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn and five others write:

“The Second Great Awakening . . . did not simply intensify the religious feeling of existing church members; more important, it mobilized unprecedented numbers of hitherto unchurched people into religious communion. But popularizing religion as never before . . . this great revival marked the beginning of the republicanizing and nationalizing of American religion. Thousands upon thousands of ordinary people found in evangelical religion new sources of order and community.”

That may confirm how big — how huge — the Protestant schisms to which we now are witness may be, with the Episcopal schism perhaps the most consequential. Do the Episcopal hierarchs and their counterparts in other denominations know not what they do? Their actions may well have precipitated a third Great Awakening that will reshape the nation’s Protestant landscape.