Sarah Sentilles writes this in her book A Church of Her Own:
Many ministers worry so much about the people they will upset if they change the language of the liturgy to inclusive language that they forget about the people who are upset because they don't use inclusive language. So harassed are they by the people who call to complain that the Holy Spirit was called a "She" or the Lord's Prayer called God "Creator" instead of "Father" that they don't have time or energy to think about the people who visit their churches and decide never to come back because they heard God called a man again and again and again. Refusing to use inclusive language, refusing to be creative about the metaphors we use to talk about God, sells our congregations short. And it sells God short. (p. 137)She makes a very interesting point here. Isn't it possible that clergy members who are so afraid of introducing progressive ideas to their worship services lest they offend certain members of the congregation are not taking into account the people they might attract to their church through those same actions--those whom Spong labels "the church alumni society"?
The above quote, of course, is referring specifically to the use of inclusive language, which is separate from the issue of clergy introducing modern biblical scholarship into their sermons (which was discussed previously in this blog.) Yet both the use of inclusive language and the use of modern scholarship represent essentially twin threats to the established orthodoxy, and are resisted vehemently by religious conservatives. There are, I am sure, pressures on clergy from all directions, not just from the congregational members who might be offended.
Lest anyone think that clergy never get intimidated by conservative pressures, Sarah Stiles documents the case of a female assistant pastor in the UCC (a supposedly liberal denomination) who had to deal with various problems on the job, including sexism directed at her. At one point, twelve members of the congregation circulated a petition demanding a meeting with her, in which a litany of complaints were presented. One of the complaints
had to do with a sermon Eve preached a year and a half earlier in which she had questioned the historicity of the birth narrative of Jesus, something that has been questioned for decades by historians and biblical scholars who have argued that both Mary's virginity and the notion that her pregnancy resulted from divine intervention (the Holy Spirit) are literary devices, not historical facts. A mortal woman becoming pregnant by supernatural forces signaled that the child who resulted from that pregnancy would possess special powers, such as the ability to perform miracles. Rather than a literal fact, the virginity of Mary is a rhetorical device intended to demonstrate the significance of Jesus. "I was basically taking away their happy second-grade Christian theology," Eve said. (p. 112-113)So it seems clear that clergy run up against serious pressures from congregations if they dare to threaten anyone's second-grade Christian theology. Yet, when balancing that against the number of people they may turn away from church by not offering something a little more advanced, who usually wins out?