Mr. Kristof and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today. The Pasty Little Putz has decided to parade his ignorance about the Episcopal Church this morning. He has what I’m sure he considers an important question: “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?” He states that the more progressive the Episcopal Church becomes, the more it shrinks. He’s profoundly full of crap on pretty much all levels. In “The Boy Who Wanted to Fly” MoDo says that Rory Staunton always aimed for the stars. Before a strep infection, discovered too late, cut his life short, the 12-year-old from Queens soared. Mr. Bruni looks at “Our Newly Lush Life” and says that in New York and other cities, there’s a verdure that defies the dark times. Here’s The Putz:
In 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.
As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.
Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.
This decline is the latest chapter in a story dating to the 1960s. The trends unleashed in that era — not only the sexual revolution, but also consumerism and materialism, multiculturalism and relativism — threw all of American Christianity into crisis, and ushered in decades of debate over how to keep the nation’s churches relevant and vital.
Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.
But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world.
Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
Well, Putzy, at least the Episcopal Church isn’t going bankrupt from paying rape victims. And if anyone wants real facts on the growth and/or decline in the Episcopal Church here’s the real information. (.pdf file) Next up we have MoDo:
Rory Staunton was always looking up.
As soon as he could walk, he wanted to fly. The exuberant freckle-faced redhead from Sunnyside, Queens, yearned to be up in the romantic night sky where, as the French pilot and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, the stars are laughing.
His parents told him he’d have to wait until he was 16 to take flying lessons. But it’s hard to tell a determined 5-foot-9, 169-pound 12-year-old what to do.
He dreamed of being the next Captain Sullenberger, practicing on a flight simulator on his computer and studying global routes. He read and reread Sully’s memoir, thrilled to learn that the flier’s hair had once been red. He found a Long Island aviation school that would teach 12-year-olds.
On his 12th birthday, his parents shuddered and let Rory fly with an instructor.
How could you resist that sweet Irish face? Sure, Rory drove his parents nuts, sneaking downstairs late at night to gorge on episodes of “Family Guy,” and pretending to do his homework when he was really devouring political stories in The Times.
“He wasn’t the kid who looked at porn online, he looked at CNN online,” said his uncle, Niall O’Dowd, my friend who publishes several Irish publications in New York.
Rory protected underdogs against schoolyard bullies. He revered Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, he led a campaign to curb the thoughtless use of the word “retarded.”
“The last conversation I had with him, he got right in the face of my brother, Fergus, the government minister in Ireland with the mining portfolio, about fracking,” Niall recalled. “And he wrote the Swedish ambassador to North Korea asking for an explanation about why North Korea fed their big army while their people were dying of hunger.”
Rory was so roaring with life, it was impossible to believe how quickly life drained out of him. On Wednesday, March 28, he fell while playing in the school gym and scraped his elbow, opening a cut. As Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, the most aggressive superbug bacteria often lurk in gyms and on artificial turf.
The following Sunday, Rory died of septic shock from a strep infection, his parents curled around his body in the hospital bed.
Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton are Irish immigrants who embodied the American dream. Ciaran owns O’Neill’s bar on Third Avenue, where Rory made his first visit at 3 days old, and the Molly Blooms pub in Queens.
Every parent’s nightmare unfolded at warp speed, as the Web site Everyday Health reported and as Jim Dwyer heartbreakingly revealed in Thursday’s Times. Rory might have been saved by a swift dose of antibiotics but instead perished in a perfect storm of false assumptions, overlooked data and overburdened doctors.
Despite the cut, severe leg pain, blotchy skin and other clues pointing to sepsis, Rory’s pediatrician surmised that the vomiting, 102-degree fever, 140 pulse and 36 breaths a minute spelled a stomach bug and sent him to the NYU Langone Medical Center emergency room. Doctors there discharged Rory with an antinausea drug, even though his vital signs were alarming. The lab tests that were ordered came back three hours later showing abnormal production of white blood cells, a sign that infection could be raging, but that red flag was ignored.
“Nobody said anything that night,” his mother told Dwyer. “None of you followed up the next day on that kid, and he’s at home, dying on the couch?”
By Friday, Rory’s body was covered with blue streaks, and a touch made him scream. When Ciaran reached the pediatrician, she advised going back to the E.R. Rory was put in intensive care, where doctors valiantly tried to save his life, even suggesting amputating his nose and toes. But he was turning purple and black.
“For anyone that has carried their son’s or daughter’s coffin, it’s unnatural,” Ciaran told Sean O’Rourke on Friday on RTE, the Irish radio network. “A child who loses a parent becomes an orphan. If a man and wife lose each other, they become widow or widower. It’s so unnatural, there isn’t even a word for families who lose a child.”
Rory’s idol, Sully Sullenberger, was touched and left a message on the child’s tribute page. The hero of the Hudson is now an advocate for applying “lessons learned in blood” in aviation safety to patient safety.
“If something good comes from Rory’s death, it will be that we realize we have a broken system,” he told me. “Patient care is so fragmented. For the most part, medical professionals aren’t taught these human skills that some deride as ‘soft skills.’ So there’s insufficient sharing of information and ineffective communication.
“Some in the medical field look upon these deaths as an unavoidable consequence of giving care. But they’re inexcusable and unthinkable.”
Rory is up there now, with the laughing stars. But even before he got to heaven, he knew, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, that “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
And last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
Whenever you doubt that the future can improve upon the past or that government can play a pivotal role in that, consider and revel in the extraordinary greening of New York.
This city looks nothing — nothing — like it did just a decade and a half ago. It’s a place of newly gorgeous waterfront promenades, of trees, tall grasses and blooming flowers on patches of land and peninsulas of concrete and even stretches of rail tracks that were blighted or blank before. It’s a lush retort to the pessimism of this era, verdant proof that growth remains possible, at least with the requisite will and the right strategies.
The transformation of New York has happened incrementally enough — one year the High Line, another year Brooklyn Bridge Park — that it often escapes full, proper appreciation. But it’s a remarkable, hopeful stride.
It’s also emblematic of a coast-to-coast pattern of intensified dedication to urban parkland. While so much of American life right now is attended by the specter of decline, many cities are blossoming, with New York providing crucial inspiration.
“It represents a great example because it’s our largest urban area in America,” said Ken Salazar, the United States secretary of the interior, on the phone Friday, suggesting that if the Big Apple can carve out green amid its gray, any city can. Salazar plans to visit New York on Tuesday to address an international conference, already under way, called “Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities.”
The location of the conference in New York pays deliberate tribute to the progress this city has made, much of it under the Bloomberg administration, which followed through on plans it inherited, expanding some of them, and hatched many of its own.
While Mayor Bloomberg has suffered frustrations and failures aplenty in his bids, say, to improve public education and relieve congestion in Midtown Manhattan, he has had the greenest of thumbs. One of the principal legacies of his long mayoralty will be a city that, in certain charmed spots on certain charmed days, can feel as relaxed and breezy and kissed by nature as one of those ecologically vain enclaves of the Pacific Northwest. To the bustle of traffic, he has added the rustle of more trees, byways for bicycles, perches with exquisite views.
“Parks were on the front burner for this mayor and for Patti Harris, the deputy mayor, and I think that’s unique in this city’s history,” said Adrian Benepe, who will soon step down after 10 years as Bloomberg’s parks commissioner.
“Great things happened under Mayor La Guardia, largely because of the Works Progress Administration and Robert Moses’s skill in using those funds, but I think, uniquely, this mayor has not just liked parks but understood their value in so many different ways,” Benepe said, adding that Bloomberg embraced “the belief that a city could and should be beautiful and well designed.”
I’D dismiss those sentiments as pure sycophancy or self-congratulation but for several factors. One, Benepe readily volunteers that some of what Bloomberg gets credit for was set in motion by previous mayors or championed in particular by George Pataki, a fervent parks booster, back when he was governor.
Two, Benepe’s praise for Bloomberg is echoed by that of many people outside of city government. Three, it’s consistent with my own grateful observations. I’ve lived in this city on and off for 25 years, and I’ve never felt as called to the outdoors or as rewarded by my time there as I do now.
An astonishing fraction of Manhattan’s waterfront, both on the Hudson and East Rivers, is now punctuated with landscaped piers, dotted with benches and traced by bike and foot paths. And Brooklyn Bridge Park, for those who haven’t seen it, is a revelation, with its panorama of downtown Manhattan, the New York Harbor and Lady Liberty.
“It is remarkable — remarkable — that the city made this investment,” said Michael Van Valkenburgh, a landscape architect whose firm designed the park, which cost more than $350 million. The city contributed nearly two-thirds of that. “There’s a profound amount of interest and activity right now in making and remaking urban parks. I think it’s because we are reinvested in the idea of living in cities.”
Just as encouraging and instructive is the way New York has come up with the necessary money for new and existing parks. The High Line, built mostly with public funds, is maintained primarily with private ones. The plan for Brooklyn Bridge Park is for its operation and upkeep to be paid for by assessments on the real estate developed around it.
Riverside Park South — that stunning braid of waterfront plazas, paths and piers off the West 60s in Manhattan — was what the developers of new residential properties nearby owed the city in return for permission to build. That arrangement long predated Bloomberg’s mayoralty, but under his administration a similar arrangement will give rise to waterfront parkland in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
Bloomberg’s record when it comes to parks isn’t unblemished. Holly M. Leicht, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, said that the creation of new parks has not always been matched by sufficient care for old ones. “There’s certainly a disparity in conditions,” she said.
But the city has, to its credit, lavished money on parks in all boroughs, not just Manhattan and Brooklyn. One of its most ambitious projects is the conversion of Fresh Kills Landfill, on Staten Island, into Freshkills Park, which will be almost three times the size of Central Park.
The New York story is a national one. In the center of Oklahoma City, a revitalized park complex, Myriad Botanical Gardens, recently took root. In downtown Houston, there’s Discovery Green. Dallas is building a park on a deck over a downtown freeway, and Los Angeles is looking at how to gussy and green up an old concrete river bed.
“We’re living in an era of re-urbanization,” said Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, which is sponsoring the conference in New York. And the increased population density means that “we need green space,” she said.
Amazingly, we’re getting it: because citizens have demanded as much; because governments have made it a priority; because public and private partnerships have been cultivated. New York is the bright flower of all that.