Life’s sweet smell found outside the institutions

Published October 1, 2001

SOME months ago at a family get-together an old friend asked me “Is it true what I hear about the death of the Anglican Church?” I was tempted to reply something benign like “Well, that is a little exaggerated!” But it is a question that won’t go away.

There is much in the contemporary church that carries with it the whiff of death. Hundreds of lawsuits and the threat of bankruptcy over residential schools are little cause for celebration. The smell of formaldehyde accompanies any statistics describing the growth of mainline churches. Young people show little attraction to musty churches and their 19th century hymns. Recent debates over liturgy have produced little spiritual growth.

But some of us are also aware of that sweeter smell of life popping up in new and strange places. These are often found well outside institutional walls. Sometimes traditional, sometimes renewal, there is a wonderful freedom about these initiatives that defies the old order of denominational discipline.

I think of Alpha. Originally an Anglican program in Britain, Alpha is spreading across the world through all denominations as a remarkable program for renewal and evangelism. I think of Cursillo, a product of the Roman Catholic Church in Spain, now a lay program of renewal for several of our churches.

I think of places like Taize in France, and Iona in Scotland, centers of modern pilgrimage, thoroughly ecumenical, drawing people in their thousands. I also think of Sunday evening healing services in some of our churches that attract people from all traditions; of a Lenten series of noon day addresses held in downtown Fredericton, bringing together people from six denominations. We need to ask what is happening here, why the dying, but more important, why the new life?

In a recent article, Bruce Marshall suggests that these signs of death and new life are in fact all in the plan and providence of God. He suggests that just as God withdrew blessing from Israel before the exile, so has God now removed His blessing from denominationalism – that ideology that maintains separation between Christians. According to Marshall, God seems no longer interested in preserving our “happy divisions” and that is why efforts, be they ever so pious, to preserve the rotting foundations of separated churches are coming to naught.

Could it be that the reason why some things are dying around our churches, while other ministries that draw believers across denominational boundaries are growing and alive, has everything to do with where God’s blessing happens to be?

None of us can foresee the kind of church that God is raising up out of the ashes of denominationalism. But the signs of His blessing do indicate that that church will be faithful to Scripture, inclusive of our best traditions, and will demonstrate a freedom in the Spirit that will meet the needs of this post-modern culture.

Anglicans need to be where the blessing is. Yes, let’s keep our identity and our traditions, but let’s keep them low enough in the pastures of faith that anyone searching for spiritual truth may say of us “Anglican eh? You look more like Christians to me!” William Hockin is bishop of Fredericton.


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