The Rise of the Nuns

Sister Cristina Scuccia performs during the Italian State RAI TV show final "The Voice of Italy" in Milan on June 5, 2014. The 25-year-old nun is already a talent show sensation thanks to her habit-clad performances but also has on her side the critics, who say her popularity stems from novelty value.  AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO        (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Sister Cristina Scuccia performs during the Italian State RAI TV show final “The Voice of Italy” in Milan on June 5, 2014. AFP PHOTO / MARCO BERTORELLO (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Joe LaGuardia

Everyone is making a stink out of the rise of the “nones,” people who do not subscribe to any organized faith or denomination.

What about the rise of the “nuns”?

A bad pun with a nun?  Not quite.  The Catholic Church in England and Whales is claiming a 25-year record for women recruitment in holy orders.   Seems that the Catholic Church is growing in a most unusual way.

Here in Rockdale County, I heard that Father Randy was leaving us and departing St. Pius X Catholic Church.  When the news broke, I wondered how long St. Pius might hobble along without a priest.  It is no mystery that the number of priests has waned in recent years, although the number of seminarians preparing for the priesthood has increased and posit a more hopeful future for tomorrow’s Catholic church.

Other thoughts ran through my head:  If the Vatican would only let priests get married, maybe more would become available.

And if the Vatican ever allowed women to be ordained to the priesthood, there might not be any shortage at all.   According to my friend in Decatur, a nun of some 60 years, I am not alone in this assessment.

Little did I know that women have been entering convents and other “contemplative communities” in record numbers across the Pond.  Reasons and theories vary:

Some say its because people realize that the meaning of life can only be found in the womb of the church.

Higher-ups in the Church pat themselves on the back and claim that charismatic priests and bishops are monopolizing and marketing the strengths of cloistered living, including the trendy notion that the priesthood can change the world in ways that can be quantified and qualified.

Others cite frustrations surrounding relationships, sex, and intimacy (or lack thereof).

An article with the BBC quotes novice Theodora Hawksley as saying,  “If our society is obsessed with money, sex and power and the games people play with them, then vows of poverty chastity and obedience represent a profound freedom. That’s what has drawn me to religious life.  It’s not a fleeing from the world – it’s a finding your place in it.”

Nor can we keep God out of the picture.  For all of the ways (and often times, the gimmicks) churches use to grow, gain members, and attract people to full-time ministry, its the Holy Spirit that does the transforming, convincing, and convicting.

We saw this years ago at Trinity Baptist Church when we were affirming our core values of being a place that emphasized inter-generational worship, social justice, and inclusivity.

Back then, we felt we were going against the grain of congregational development and growth, but now we find numerous articles describing how young people are attracted to churches that have similar core values in place, Catholic Churches not withstanding.

Perhaps I’m getting too spiritual here.  Maybe its just something in the water in England.  Perhaps there is just the right group of women who came along at the right time to convince so many other women (many under the age of 30) to enter an alternative life that values celibacy, obedience, and poverty.

We are not sure, but we are certain that trends are finicky things — (Have you heard about the African American lesbian physical fitness trainer in Philadelphia who is finishing her last year of seminary to become a rabbi?  You’ll have to Google that one yourself.)

And, at the end of the day, I’m just a Baptist.  When it comes to all things Catholic, what do I know?  It’s none (or, is it “nun”?) of my business anyway.  (Now that was a bad pun!)

On behalf of Trinity Baptist Church, we want to welcome Father Greg Goolsby to St. Pius X.  May we share ministry together, transform our community for the sake of Christ, and work for the common good of all, attracting people to the light of God rather than our own agendas.  Amen.

Getting back to Christian Basics

bargraphBy Joe LaGuardia

There has been much discussion over a recent study from the Pew Research Center.  It reveals a rise of people of no faith (“the unaffiliated”) and the demise of Christianity in our nation.

The percentage of “unaffiliated” people rose from 16% to over 23% in the last seven years, while the percentage of Christians has steadily decreased.

Some say the decline is a result of the lack of institutional loyalty, while others blame a loss of “traditional values” in the public sector.  Many argue that these trends are regional and the statistics should be taken with a grain of salt: Christianity represents the largest religion in the world, and it is actually growing in continents located in the southern hemisphere of our planet.  Christianity is flourishing, just not the way we westerners are accustomed.

Diagnosticians like Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, see it differently: He contends that Christianity is not dying, but “jettisoning” a type of faith too liberal to be called as such, one that promotes atheism in disguise.

“We do not have more atheists in America; we have more honest atheists in America,” he wrote.

Also, the percentage of evangelical Christians, who tend to be more conservative, are stable if not in decline.  The number of evangelicals only decreased by less than 1%, which seems to support Moore’s assessment.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.  For one, evangelicals have remained steady not because of growth (decline is decline whether it is 1% or 3%), but because evangelicals retain more children than other Christian subcultures.

Second, a growing population of immigrants and minorities, who err on the side of conservatism, helps fill pews otherwise empty in evangelical churches.

Third, more mainline churches now consider themselves “evangelical,” as denominations fracture over liberal and conservative fault lines.

Fourth, studies show that growing churches tend to be evangelical megachurches with founding pastors.  Saying that the decline of mainline churches is due to theological liberalism is actually beside the point because all small churches are declining rapidly, not to mention that the Southern Baptist Convention has experienced decline in the past decade.

No matter who is providing an assessment on the Pew Research results, I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I agree with Moore that Christians who are, in his words, “almost-Christian,” have rarely helped Christ’s cause in our nation.  I just disagree with Moore’s caricature of theology as the reason for decline.

mosaicChristian liberalism did not add to the faith’s decline; rather, it failed to bring out the best of what Christianity had to offer in the last century of our nation’s history.  In the first four centuries of the Christian church, the population of Christians grew from a few hundred people to millions–as many as half the population of the Roman Empire by some estimates.  Christianity grew not because is was more traditional or conservative, but because Christians readily adapted to a culture in need of radical hospitality.

According to Roman pagan philosophers, Christianity’s hospitality was too liberal to take seriously: Churches were egalitarian in outreach and leadership.  They did not enjoy prestige or privilege.  They included people normally marginalized in the ancient world–a liberal value if there ever was one.

Christians in the first century did not refuse to provide pizzas or wedding cakes to people; rather, Christians opened their doors to all people, and it often got them in trouble with the authorities.

The wave of Christian decline shouldn’t cause Christians of different theologies to turn on each other.  A large percentage of Americans view all Christians, no matter the denomination, as hostile, exclusive, prejudiced, and out of touch with the rest of the world.  This is the reason for decline.

We Christians have a choice to make.  We can circle the wagons and blame each other for our faith’s decline or we can take a look at our own failures.  It is time to overcome our differences, and develop a fuller outreach program that is surprisingly inclusive, vibrant, creative, and grace filled in a culture that longs for the type of belonging only churches can provide.