Illustration: Sam Wilson
We’ve all heard stories like it. The young girl is sitting in the office, her eight-year-old body shaking with shame. At terrible cost to herself, she finally admits what she has done. Between sobs it comes out. Almost a whisper.
“It’s my fault. I was selfish. I watched TV. I should have done the dishes.”
“What was your fault?”
“If I’d washed the dishes, my parents wouldn’t be getting divorced.”
The full horror is out now. Not only did she skip her chores, but in doing so she caused her parents to divorce. “My mom said she was so tired, and my dad said he couldn’t take it anymore, they were washing the dishes, and that’s when they yelled at each other. And if I’d done the dishes, it wouldn’t have happened. I’ll wash the dishes every night. Maybe they’ll get back together.” And she is serious.
Unbelievably painful as it is, her irrational conviction of being responsible for her parents’ divorce serves a very important purpose. Even though her parents may have experienced years of mutual hurt, and are unable to ask forgiveness or offer it, and even though there may have been financial and social pressures beyond her understanding, as long as she lives with the illusion that washing the dishes might have prevented the divorce, she can retain a sense of hope and confidence that she has the ability to make things better.
The church finds itself in a situation where all the certainties are falling apart. In a great many places our society no longer provides social support, the church is treated like one more marginal form of entertainment for the few who like that sort of thing, and churchgoing is no longer a social norm. It can feel like being divorced from our society. In the face of this calamity, reinforced by the public media, the church can feel pretty helpless.
Like the child, the church responds to the crisis with self-blame. We declare that the precipitous decline of church-going is our fault. Because, if it is our fault, then we can do something about it. And that gives the church hope.
So we search desperately for a solution that we can implement. We need to be more friendly. We need to be more modern. We need to be less modern. We need guitars. We need an organ. We need a different style of leader. We need to be more radical. We need to be more conservative. We need to re-organize. We need to work twice as hard. Then it will get better and people will flock back.
But that’s the church’s version of hoping that more dishwashing will bring your parents back together. You can almost hear the body of the church sobbing in desperation and shame. It is very understandable. It’s the way we keep up our hope until we have the strength to move on.
In time, the eight-year-old girl grows up and recognizes, with relief, that she played no part in her parents’ decision to separate. And when she can finally lay aside that guilt, she can finally be herself and enter into a healthy and fulfilling relationship of her own.
The time has come for the church to do the same thing. The historical processes by which church-going has become unpopular are on a scale that has nothing to do with the activities in the local congregation. The truth is that people haven’t gone away mad or hurt or disappointed or bored. The truth is society has moved on to other interests on the weekend. It’s not our fault after all! What a relief to be able to give up that false sense of responsibility!
Then, like the young woman entering adulthood who has found a more mature way to be strong, the church can begin to ask the right questions. The question is not how to get more people into church. The questions of a more centred church are, “What is God doing? How is God and Christ experienced in a secular society? If society is going to be permanently secular, what relationship does God want us to have with such a society?”
Wrestling with such issues means leaving aside the easy answers of self-blame, and starting to rely on a more mature sense of the presence of God and Christ within this secular movement of history. Rather than wringing our hands in despair at secularism, this might well turn out to be the most exciting century the church has ever experienced in which we enter a new and deeper awareness of how God is present in God’s world. Ω
Canon Harold Munn is rector of The Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, B.C.