Guest Opinion: Thoughts on the Quiet Crisis

Published September 27, 2010

Many children of Jewish parents receive daily Hebrew lessons. Do our children need a more rigourous religious education?

As everyone knows by now, the Anglican church at General Synod 2010 passed a resolution on same-sex unions which, while less than ideal for both conservatives and liberals, avoided further fracture and bought more time for reflection. 

At the same time, another storm cloud lurked on the horizon: the financial demographic challenge before us all. Literally and spiritually, the church cannot afford division. In growing response to this looming problem, one diocese moves to close parishes, another steers toward “total ministry,” yet others initiate fund-raising appeals.  Throughout all the tactical responses, we need strategic thinking about the church’s life which is sound both theologically and practically. 

In what way might the coming crisis be an opportunity for the gospel? Administrative changes, while necessary, will not suffice; we need to consider the kind of church that can and should thrive. The very roles of the parish and the diocese will need to be reconsidered and renewed.

1.     Flat is good. Budgetary red lights flash on diocesan dashboards. Parishes creak under apportionment requirements. I can attest that we are seeing fewer parish contributions to theological education. 

We will need to travel light administratively. This downsizing is already happening dramatically at the national church. Northern dioceses too have already faced this, but the stress may spread south. Loss of resources for ministry is inevitable, but it can be mitigated if we think in a helpful way about the relation of parish and diocese. 

Ministries of support will need increasingly to be embedded in parishes:  a priest is expert in children’s ministry, a lay leader has gifts in social advocacy, a parish offers a yearly theological conference, etc. With all the talk about our world being increasingly “flattened” (Friedman) by information technology, we will need to offer shared resources in new ways. Such a shift could help to underline that diocesan structures exist to enable ministries by the people of God at the parish level.

A shift in perspective is required as well. This is difficult, since the parish system by its very nature conduces to tending one’s own garden. We do well to think back to the time when neighbouring churches were planted as daughter or mission congregations.  A greater sense of regional collegiality among clergy, of sharing specific strengths more widely, would help. As long ago as the 1970’s, the pastoral theologian Urban Holmes advocated smaller parishes affiliated as spokes of a wheel. Grand diocesan schemes are doomed; drawing together at local levels needs to be encouraged. 

Our first point deals with adjustments that will help the church carry on. But what can bring longer-term regeneration?

2.     Teach your children well.  Some time ago my son attended several Bar Mitzvahs of school friends. For a number of years, these friends attended Hebrew lessons after school, and learned what it meant to be a Jew. The parents of these students believed that identity was something their children needed to be taught. 

Do our children, in today’s culture, need any less help in learning what it means to be Anglican Christians? Our casualness on this score dates back to a time when we supposed one could imbibe this from the culture in general. It was never really so, and surely is not now. This more rigorous teaching and formation could well be done together in deaneries or regions.

Renewed emphasis on catechetical formation should extend to young adults as well.  The truth is that any institution can only thrive in the long run as it produces new generations of young and dynamic leaders. We are seeing an increase in younger ordinands and theological students, but this trend needs to be encouraged even more. At Wycliffe, we seek such potential leaders in their natural habitats: summer church camp, youth work, and university ministries.   In a time of tight resources, we need to find savvy ways to support such ministries anew. 

Even should we succeed in renewed education of the young, we face a challenging decade. Weathering this will require us to articulate our own Anglican identity,  which leads to our final point.

3.     Deep and wide. We are, first of all Christians, and as such, need encouragement to share our faith in Christ with neighbours and friends. However, one cannot effectively share that faith unless one can give a succinct and compelling account of the value of this branch of Christ’s church. 

In many of our towns, the nearby evangelical or Pentecostal church may have a livelier youth group and a bigger choir. Our claim needs to highlight being a part of the church catholic by which we are joined to something “deep and wide” across the world and centuries. This is also a reason that being part of the global communion is important, since it embodies these bonds and this claim. We need resources to help men and women in the pews to articulate this account of themselves.

If you have been reading my reflection as a formula or a method, burn this memo! Everything depends on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In this light, our flourishing, or not, is secondary to His glory.

The Rev. Canon Dr. George Sumner is Principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.



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