A couple of months ago, I was with former ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson, driving he and his wife to St. Paul’s, where he was preaching. He turned and said to me, “Do you know where the term Mainline Protestant comes from?”
I’m sure it ruined his story of how he learned the answer, but I was so happy to know that I replied, “Sure. The Main Line.”
The Mainline. To most people, its only definition has to do with a designation of churches—the Mainline Denominations. But to those around Philadelphia, it has a whole other meaning—the strip of towns and suburbs that run along the historic train line from Philadelphia to Lancaster—the Main Line.
As someone who grew up in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, this was my first understanding of the term. My family never had any occasion to pass through the Main Line, so it mostly had abstract meanings to me. It represented money—particularly old money—and sense of tradition and history that you just didn’t find in Lansdale. And it’s true—the Main Line today is home to some of the entire country’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It started as the well-off of Philadelphia sought a respite from the bustle of the city and moved to build houses and towns and a less busy area.
The term Mainline Protestant comes from this strip of towns, and refers to the historic denominations that could be found there—Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, American Baptist. It comes with its own set of connotations. For a long time, these denominations were the leaders in founding colleges and universities, and valuing social involvement, and were respected voices in the national conversation. Today, to some ears, it may mean decline, old-fashioned, loss of vibrancy.
It’s interesting to me, as I start this blog and my own ministry on the Main Line, to think about both of these definitions of ‘mainline.’ Having been in Ardmore for four whole months now, I think that part of our challenge—as an individual church, and as part of a Mainline Denomination—is to decide for ourselves what being Mainline means.
Does it mean valuing tradition and history to the exclusion of all else? Or might it mean loving that history and tradition, and realizing that we are called to continue writing our own history? Does it mean old-fashioned, or does it mean socially involved and aware? Does it mean decline, or does it mean finding new ways to reach out?
I may be a biased source, but in our 250th Anniversary, St. Paul’s has chosen our own definition of what being a historic Mainline church means: loving and treasuring our history, celebrating our present, and seeking where the Spirit is calling us to be the body of Christ today.