The religious landscape in America is changing. This isn’t a revelation (pun intended), nor is it particularly novel; it’s always been changing.
The media and think tank buzz about the nation’s growing secularization is so abundant these days that it’s impossible to ignore. It takes no great deal of detective work to find evidence that church attendance is on the decline, while those who profess alternative spiritual practices or “no religion” are an ever-growing share of the population. It’s not a purely Christian phenomenon, though. A nation that has enshrined religious pluralism in its Constitution, while remaining the most popular destination country for immigrants, has no option but to grow increasingly religiously diverse. There’s no other direction it can go. Not all of the decline in Christianity is a direct byproduct of the growth of the “no religion” contingent; a greater share of immigrants claim religions other the Christianity today than they did a half- or even a quarter-century ago, while many cultural Christians remain spiritually loyal to the faith even if they never attend church. But many of those immigrants also become less religious over time; the children of immigrants tend to manifest lower religious participation than their parents. And the gap between “spiritual but not religious” and “no religion” is less of a leap than a lateral step.
Religious participation has morphed continuously over the life of this reasonably young country, with a greater share of Christians (always the dominant religion) opting for one of the two descriptors that concluded the previous paragraph: no church or simply no religion. That said, certain religious orders have absorbed the lion’s share of this secularization. We know this because of what’s missing from these churches: bums in the pews. Since the earliest days of this blog, I’ve covered the visible decline of certain Protestant denominations that, for most of the first two centuries since the nation’s founding, were the bedrock of religious life. As recently as the 1960s, the Episcopal Church USA (TECUSA), the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), United Methodist Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), American Baptist Church, United Church of Christ, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) collectively comprised a disproportionate share of civic and business leadership. Most Protestant Americans either directly affiliated with one of these “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism”, or, at the very least, the churches played a tangential role in their lives: they had attended a wedding, a funeral, or a baptism; their favorite social clubs met in the church’s congregational room; the volunteered with charities directly under the auspices of these churches; they knew at least a few of the hymns or the liturgy by heart. These seven denominations and a handful of others comprise the bulk of Mainline Protestantism in the US—so prominent that virtually every President belonged to one of the seven until John F. Kennedy controversially ushered in Roman Catholicism to the Oval Office.
But not one of these seven large denominations is growing in ranks. In fact, all of them have shrunk over the last 60 years, many of them precipitously. TECUSA, the church of choice for more American presidents than any other, has shrunk by nearly 50% since its peak in 1960. PCUSA’s decline is even more severe. And a smaller, lower-profile denomination like the Disciples of Christ (headquartered in my home city) is facing most of the same struggles, with an inevitable result that many churches have closed their doors altogether, sometimes without a replacement tenant, resulting in a dolorous blight in a mighty, often beautiful building. In a large metro with a fashionable, fast-growing downtown, these venerable old limestone chapels can either find a new church tenant (generally more theologically orthodox and often dominated by recent immigrant populations), or it can get converted into some other use—often housing, but sometimes an idiosyncratic restaurant or even offices.
Regardless of the widespread future of American religious life, it is clear that certain denominations got a significant head start on the secularization trend. And these Mainline Protestant churches are clinging to life by whatever means possible. I’ve covered some of their strategies in the past: subleasing their buildings to an immigrant congregation, moving from their original physical building to a leased space in a strip mall, or subdividing portions of their property to sell off to a private developer of affordable housing. But the remote town of Valdez, Alaska offers something I have never seen before:
With Epiphany Church, two of these Mainline Protestant denominations have fused their ministry under one roof.
How do I know it’s a hybrid church and not two separate services? Easy—they only list one Sunday meeting time. And the Epiphany Church website confirms this: founded in 1900 as an Episcopal congregation, the old church building hosted a variety of other denominations while remaining Episcopal at its core. Given the far-flung location of Valdez—the next major settlement (Tonsina, AK, population 75) is over 80 miles away—it should come as no surprise that not every denomination could justify financing the construction of its own building. More interestingly, over the years Epiphany Episcopal hosted Methodist, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran congregations, thereby covering six of the aforementioned “seven sisters” of Mainline Protestantism. The devastating Good Friday Earthquake in 1964 forced Epiphany Episcopal to relocate to a new townsite on more stable bedrock a few miles away, thereby prompting the construction of the existing building, along with every other building in Valdez.
And in 1978, Epiphany Church of Valdez forged a permanent agreement with a congregation from the Lutheran Church of America, a predecessor to the ELCA. Thirteen years later, the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska and the Alaska Synod of the ELCA signed a covenant that officially and fully merged the spiritual practices; from that point onward Epiphany Church was both fully Lutheran and fully Episcopalian. It is the Mainline Protestant Church in Valdez, which means it’s the only outlet for at least 100 miles. Probably 200 miles.
As far as Epiphany Church is concerned, the year 1978 constituted the real breakthrough for these two faiths; it signified a merger long before the two churches, “far in advance of the recent agreements between the two national churches”, according to the website. Both ECUSA and ELCA have long belonged to the two highest profile ecumenical partnerships, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, both of which (and especially the former) have enjoyed significant commitment from Mainline Protestant denominations since the organizations arose in prominence in the middle of the twentieth century. However, the series of agreements directly identifying a theological allegiance between the two denominations did not begin until 1982, with full communion only taking place in 1999. Only with this declaration of communion did the two churches officially acknowledge a commitment to sharing clergy, sacrements, and an overall mission in ministry. Epiphany Church in Valdez got a twenty-year head start.
While Epiphany is but a tiny example that I only came across by coincidence, it’s hard not to wonder if it may reflect the push-pull forces acting upon American Christendom, in which doctrinal differences cause people both to leave certain churches (like these precipitously declining ones mentioned here) and even to officially split from the parent church. ECUSA confronted a high-profile schism in the early 2000s, primarily over the blessing of same-sex unions and consecration of openly partnered gay clergy, resulting in the formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009. And the ELCA itself only came into being in 1988 through the merger of three more theologically liberal denominations: the Lutheran Church of America, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the American Lutheran Church. The Missouri and Wisconsin Synods broke away from the parent Lutheran Church over theological differences, more than 130 years before the ELCA’s formation.
I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that Epiphany Church in Valdez may function as a bit of a microcosm for their parent denominations. As both the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church continue to suffer congregational declines at the national level, they may end up taking their full communion to a greater extreme in the future—a fusion of two centuries-old religious orders with origins from different parts of Europe, joining together to stave off extinction. It’s possible that such a radical measure is impossible because denominational charters forbid it, and it would inevitably result in the leadership of one denomination ceding power to the other (something human nature makes us persistently reluctant to do). But if it can happen at the level of a small congregation like Epiphany Church driven to these lengths because of sparse population served, why shouldn’t it happen at a broader level when the population again becomes too sparse? I’d wager we should keep our eyes on Epiphany Church in the future, not just for what it does but whether it foreshadows the acts of other Episcopal/Lutheran settlements in remote outposts. And “keeping an eye” might be a nice excuse to visit Valdez. And of course all those cute bunnies. And see a glacier while we’re at it. Maybe the glacier’s majesty will offer a whole different sort of epiphany (cue the rimshot).