We've seen it in the Roman Catholic Church here in Massachusetts and Lord knows, Pope Benedict has said it often and plainly enough (taking the Benedict out of Benediction, leaving a tiny thing). Top down, the RC prelates are buying into the concept of a smaller, more obedient, purer church.
Now, the fallout may come from the bottom levels over some of the same issues, same-sex marriage, respect for gays and other big and little c Christian attitudes and behaviors. This summer, the mainstream Protestant denomination the United Church of Christ voted overwhelmingly to do as the UUs and other liberal churches had, support marriage equality for homosexuals.
At the time, the ministers and congregations who cherry-pick which Bible verses they'll live by will take their bells and ring them on the way home. Well, a couple in UCC Southern Conference (North Carolina and Eastern Virginia) will do just that.
The Suffolk, Mount Carmel and Liberty Spring Christian Churches congregations have voted to leave on bad terms. Ironically, the July 4th vote at the UCC national meeting was not binding on any individual church. Each UCC congregation is autonomous. It seems some congregants don't want to associate with those who would associate with gays.
At the Suffolk church, it wasn't even close. The 181 to 50 vote far exceeded the necessary two-thirds vote (154) needed. This church has been a UCC member for 44 years.
On the flip-off side was Suffolk member for over 25 years, Jim Mann. About the SSM endorsement, he said, "I was kind of shocked. I don't feel it was biblical."
(The article did not report whether he would have been comfortable with such biblical traditions as polygamy, summary stoning of adulterers, and slavery.)
On the other side, the previous Suffolk preacher for 23 years, Rev. Dr. Robert Marr, noted that "The local church can go on doing what it's always done, and has no obligation to follow any directives of the UCC. That's what I would have liked to have seen it do."
Now questions arise how the UCC will fare. If it loses its most conservative congregations, will it attract new churches and new parishioners? We suspect that if the withdrawing churches have the you're-going-to-be-so-sorry-we-left attitude, they will be quite disappointed.
In contrast, Pope Benedict has made it plain that he wants his clerics and congregants to follow his rules and orders or go elsewhere (and later to hell). He wants that more wee Kirk of pure souls.
If the pattern we see in Massachusetts spreads here and holds true elsewhere, we could well see self-isolation. The anti-gay and anti-SSM folk, both political and religious, could self-select. Self-righteousness would remain high among them, but membership would dwindle and be increasingly centered in the older generations. They get stragglers, not a parade, following them.
That's not going to occur this week or this year, but I hope sociologists and historians are paying attention. This would be a microcosm of our religious and politics struggles.