Church needs clearer vision, but it’s not on death row

Published September 1, 1999

NOTICING THAT something isn?t working or is worn out doesn’t require a great deal of ingenuity, only a degree of attentiveness. Genius is figuring out how to fix a problem. It?s the ability to see the way forward.

It?s no surprise, then, that lots of people can see problems with the institutional church these days.

Anglicans in Canada, the U.S. and England are involved in a degree of introspection. Both the Americans and English conducted major surveys recently to find out what the faithful, and perhaps the unfaithful, are looking for in the church. Canada has no official surveys under way. But that hasn’t stopped self-appointed observers from diagnosing the church?s problems.

Last year, Rev. George Eves of New Brunswick self-published a book on the decline of the church and sent it to all General Synod delegates. This year, Toronto?s Rev. Marney Patterson has published a similar book, Suicide: the Decline and Fall of the Anglican Church of Canada? Both are full of doom and gloom and call for a return to the good old days of the 1950s and early ?60s. But society has never succeeded by going backwards. Put in terms of the arts, it?s pastiche at best ? unoriginal copycatting.

Worse, such proposals fail to see the crucial role the era they are praising had in causing the present deplored situation. If one believes liberalism beginning in the late ?60s is the root of all evils, it will hardly help to return to the values of the preceding period, since it was rebellion against the evils people saw in the ?50s that gave birth to that liberalism.

Worst of all, in the case of these church critics, is that they seem to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today.

Some people say it doesn?t matter if these authors get a few details wrong because they see the big picture: the church is in trouble.

Well, yes it is, at least to a degree. It?s what might be the problem that?s at the heart of this question. Increasingly, the strident voices in the church are extreme liberals who feel capable of changing Scripture and doctrine if necessary so that it suits their prejudices. At the other end are the Pattersons of the church who are reading Scripture in ways it has never been read in the Anglican Church.

Numbers have fallen from the peak attendance in the late 1960s, but the decline is a slow drip at the moment. In most respects, the church has achieved a measure of stability: in numbers of members, income, the number of ordained clergy, and other such simple measures. Still, there are far too many churches in many urban and rural parts of the country. In cities, some huge churches are almost empty while booming new developments lack any churches. In the country, many clergy spend time racing around multi-point parishes developed in the days of horse and buggy when people could easily drive to one or two central locations, as they do for their groceries and recreation.

The problem is less what happened in the past but what will happen in the future.

In terms of where and how to do ministry, the church needs to amass as much demographic information as possible about the shape of the country 20 years from now and plan appropriately.

Mr. Patterson is right when he says clergy need better teaching. Some dioceses, such as New Westminster and Toronto, are setting new goals and standards for selection of clergy. Some are also developing extensive post-ordination training programs. These resources can be adapted and shared.

Mr. Patterson also rightly observes youth are often neglected. This is so obvious it?s a truism. Some dioceses require a youth delegate from every parish or deanery (as the Arctic did this year) to attend synod as full members. At other synods, sadly, young people are rarely seen. Young people need to assume leadership in the church not only so that the church continues but also, more importantly, so they can address their spiritual needs and those of their children.

The Diocese of Ontario has a superb youth leadership program at its summer camp. There, thorough training allows young people to move from being campers to gradually learning more about leadership over several years. The program includes Bible study and other activities and there is even a spiritual director for staff, as well as a chaplain for campers. No apology is made for being Christian. Here, young people are learning skills that will equip them for leadership in the church, workplace and community.

The church can also sell some of its earthly treasures, including many too-large buildings that have become millstones, and invest the money in new projects.

Churches are in a unique position to provide food for the spiritually hungry of society. Yet there are almost no spiritual centres sponsored by the church. Given the wealth of theological and spiritual resources, the Anglican Church could train leaders and set up several such centres around the country, governed by a common leadership but with roots in the local community.

With lots of public access and a low-key approach to the denominational aspect of such a venture, the church could provide a much-needed public service ? not to mention doing some evangelism in the best sense of the word.

Instead of trying to raise millions to repair old church bell towers and decrepit, under-used buildings, imagine what would happen if a couple of million dollars were invested to provide income for dynamic youth leadership or to develop accessible spiritual resources.

People might come back to church. Then someone would have to publish a Good News book.


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