Oden and Optimism about the Mainline

A significant part of Thomas Oden's autobiography is taken up with his account of his life in the mainline United Methodist Church and how this was affected by his repudiation of his early liberalism and his discovery of a creedal orthodoxy rooted in the patristic authors.  He seems on the whole positive about the future but I suspect such optimism is not well-placed.

First, the kind of theological enterprise for which Oden stands (and with which I have considerably sympathy) is likely to become a more and more elitist phenomenon.   It is not simply that Oden discovered the riches of premodern theology and found there; Oden was formed in a world where extensive reading and sustained concentration were part of the intellectual culture which formed him.  This generation, bred on tweets, Wikipedia and multi-tasking might well be less equipped for developing a robust orthodoxy than that of Oden.

Second, power is never simply a function either of numbers or of arguments.  Minority groups with bad arguments (e.g., the Nazis and the Bolsheviks) have proved time and again that organization, ideological conviction, and, once in power, careful control of bureaucracies, are far more important.  The same applies in the church.  The disastrous policy of William Still and his followers in the Church of Scotland -- just preach the gospel, ignore the committees, and sooner or later the liberal churches will all die on the vine -- proves that.

Third, for denominations truly to be turned around, they need good educational institutions for training their ministers.  A few years ago I spoke at a gathering of ministers from a denomination where the orthodox were in a definite minority.  When asked how they shoudl think about a strategy to take the denomination back to its confessional roots, I asked if they had one, just one, denominational seminary to which they could safely send their ministerial candidates.  They did not.  Game, set and match to the opposition, then, I am afraid.

Finally, the change in the wider world makes orthodoxy far more politically controversial today in the West than in previous generations.  It is one thing to be willing to look like a benighted fool for believing in the resurrection.  It is quite another to face public scorn and even possible legal sanctions for refusing to adopt the current wisdom on the politics of sexual identity.  The pressure to conform on this point is great and will not likely ease in the foreseeable future.  This is also the point which is finally driving the orthodox out from the mainlines.  Lacking control of the bureacracy (point 2 above) and any source of consistent theological strength (point 3), they face impossible odds as their insititutions negotiate with the wider world.