While Browning's obit in the New York Times isn't particularly remarkable, it's a reminder to me of the evolution of organized religion in America -- in particular the decline of the Episcopal Church -- during my lifetime.
If the United States had ever had an "established" church it would have been the Episcopal. In fact, before the Revolution the Church of England was designated the established church in no less than six colonies: Virginia, New York, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. Once known as "the Republican party at prayer," the denomination counted the most presidents (eleven), the most Supreme Court justices (35) and as many as three-quarters of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Not only are there no Episcopalians left on the Supreme Court, but for the first time ever there isn't even one Protestant.)
Membership in the Episcopal Church peaked at about 3.4 million in the mid-1960s, shortly after I was born. The high estimate -- the high estimate -- of today's membership is around three million, or a little less than one percent of Americans.
But what a one percent it is (my emphasis):
Episcopalians tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in America, and are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law and politics, historically in the Republican Party, but more recently, the Democratic Party in large proportions as well. In the 1970s, a Fortune magazine study found one-in-five of the country's largest businesses and one-in-three of its largest banks was run by an Episcopalian. Numbers of the most wealthy and affluent American families as the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, Morgans and Harrimans are Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church also has the highest number of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita (56%) of any other Christian denomination in the United States, as well as the most high-income earners.
The key phrase there is "in the 1970s." (If you'll recall, Jerry Ford, an Episcopalian, was president then. I wonder if any of his kids still are.) But "the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, Morgans and Harrimans" sounds a little dated. I mean, where is the reference to the Buffetts, Gateses, Jobses, Bezozes or either of those two guys who founded Google? Do you think any of them are Episcopalians? I wonder if any have ever even been in an Episcopal church.
What's the moral of the story here? I don't know; like the movie above says, things change. (Great flick, by the way.) Maybe Bishop Browning died while the dying was good. Who knows? In a few more decades there may not be any Episcopalians left at all.
They had a great run, though, didn't they?