Church should remain safe but not boring

By on March 1, 1999

INTERNATIONALLY, Canada is largely viewed as a boring country – safe but boring. Such a view is also held about the church here by others in the Anglican Communion.

Last year gave observers a chance to take a wide view of the Anglican Church. General Synod in Montreal, the Lambeth Conference and the World Council of Churches in Harare revealed much about church life in Canada and where it stands in relation to other parts of the Anglican Communion and to other denominations around the world.

And while we have no room to be complacent, the church in Canada is not doing too badly from that perspective. But is it boring?

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Within the communion, both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. are still torn by divisions over traditional and modern liturgies and the ordination of women.

In England, a question of whether one group of parishioners could have votive (prayer) candles in their church ended up in a church court where the judge said no, on the grounds it didn’t fit the mould of the parish, which wasn’t that high church.

Worse was the story out of the U.S., where the suffragan bishop of Washington, Jane Dixon, made a parish visit to find the organ silenced, the choir excused and almost no congregation. The parish opposes the ordination of women and what they call a “forced visitation” by a woman bishop. Following the service, the rector and a server went about the church sprinkling holy water around in a cleansing ceremony.

In the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, the whole notion of what it means to be Anglican might be thought an open question. They seem to doubt the concept of the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist (as the Prayer Book affirms Anglicans believe); ordination may be a call to a job, but nothing special happens to the people ordained; and their problem with the ordination of women turns on whether and how much leadership women can have in the church.

None of these stories has a home in Canada. That doesn’t mean there aren’t battles royal over liturgy or that everyone agrees with the ordination of women. But as Canadian bishops discovered at Lambeth, people here seem more willing to hear what the other side is saying. Typical Canadian tolerance, perhaps. The real question is whether one side is bothering to speak to the other.

If there is a glaring weakness in the Canadian church, it is the lack of a vital engagement between opposing views.

As Gordon Baker notes in an opinion column in this issue, the concept of collegiality in the House of Bishops has had a numbing effect on debate at that level and beyond. It reflects the tendency here for people to talk primarily with others of like minds. If all an individual gathers for friends are people who think alike, personal growth will be stunted.

Take Essentials and the Challenge to Tradition books; they were products of their respective parties. But unlike secular politics which brings differences to a head on the hustings or in Parliament, people of differing views in the church don’t tend to meet and discuss their ideas together.

That doesn’t mean there has to be raging conflict. Debate isn’t sniping from the sidelines. Debate is people who think differently getting together to talk about an issue, accepting that each side holds its views with some integrity and because it believes it will further the cause of the church in the world. It is lack of this dialogue that threatens the Canadian church. Common understanding was that the Primate’s Theological Commission was to further such dialogue by drawing together some of the top minds from a wide perspective to discuss topical issues. So far, there is little evidence of the fruit of this discussion.

Instead, what we get in Canada is groups catering to their supporters: charismatics, evangelicals, Prayer Book supporters, liberals. And while we have avoided the worst situations of other churches in the world, we will either degenerate to their state or dissolve into mediocrity if we don’t begin constructive dialogue.

In other words, we’re borderline boring.

In a world intensely interested in spirituality but which currently finds few solutions in the church, neither mediocrity nor in-house bickering will attract seekers. Respectful debate at least demonstrates that the church is alive and wrestling with the issues confronting society.

We’re safe, and that’s good. We can’t afford to be boring.

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