For those of us looking for some relief to the current malaise afflicting the Anglican Church, January’s issue of the Anglican Journal was not encouraging!
The litany of new symptoms ran all the way from financial woes at the national level, through a Council of General Synod meeting that ran aground on the Windsor Report to a suspension of ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic church. None of these, of course, by themselves are life threatening but added to the ongoing troubles of our church, they are not what the patient wants to hear.
In every case the reason given was, yes, you guessed it, the blessing of same-sex unions. It continues to puzzle me that this “issue” alone has weakened our collective health in such a serious way. My greater fear is that we may be putting these signs of our fever all in the wrong basket, giving credit where credit is not due.
I have this haunting feeling that there is something else, this dark shadow hiding in our ecclesiastical closet that needs to be named and exorcised. A hint of what it may be shows up in an obscure statistic on church attitudes recorded by pollsters Angus Reid (1994) when it asked people of different Canadian denominations to respond to the statement “My religious faith is very important to me in my day-to-day life.” While 60 per cent of conservative Protestants and 40 per cent of Roman Catholics responded in the affirmative, only 29 per cent of Anglicans could say the same.
Could it be that herein lies the malignancy that dares not say its name? With more than 70 per cent of Anglicans experiencing this disconnect between their declared faith and their personal lives, how can we expect any signs of remission let alone a cure?
Sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Starke report in a study of American churches “in as much as churches softpedal traditional doctrine and expect less from their members, they cease to prosper.” Many of us have been all too willing observers if not participants in such a dangerous process. We have seen the softpedalling of doctrines such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, of teachings around repentance and grace to say nothing of the Second Coming and the hope that that provides. How often do we hear of the responsibilities of the spiritual life around prayer and the study of Scripture? As well, we have witnessed a serious devaluing of preaching, reducing it to a few minutes of rehash of the prescribed texts without any thoughtful application to the pain and confusion of our personal lives.
People looking for faith these days are not content with words, rituals and traditions alone. There needs to be this “connect,” an experience that draws one into a greater mystery, a mystery that they cannot control but will, in fact, take control of them. As well, it is a mystery that has this unforgettable face, the face of Christ.
Theologian Jacques Ellul puts his finger on what many feel is the long-term weakness of the church: a failure to live in any distinctive way to the ways of life on offer in the wider culture. “In order that Christianity today may have a point of contact with the world, it is less important to have theories about political and economic questions than it is to create a new style of life. Revelation can only become a reality in daily life through the creation of this new lifestyle; this is the missing link.” Unless this disconnect between liturgy and life is challenged, not only the health but the very life of our church is in danger.
I believe that much of the burden for this essential work falls on our leaders, leaders who are prepared to raise the bar of their devotional life, their preaching and their spiritual care for others and who can demonstrate that by doing so, life is changed, enriched and blessed by God.
Perhaps we need a longer Lent this year, a Lent of serious repentance, immersion in the message and relevance of Holy Writ and a willingness to be caught up short by a God who says, “These people worship me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” William Hockin is the retired bishop of Fredericton.