A church which lives to itself will die by itself’

Published April 19, 2013

Paul Feheley is managing editor of the Anglican Journal.

Above the west door of the Chapel of the Holy Trinity Church, Staunton Harold, in North West Leicestershire is a tablet with this inscription:

“In the year 1653 when all things sacred were throughout the nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley, Baronet founded this church; whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times and hoped them in the most calamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”

Holy Trinity is one of the few churches erected during the time of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. In this period of English history the monarchy was abolished and many churches destroyed. Sir Robert Shirley did more than just hope against a powerful, divisive and destructive leadership. He did “the best things in the worst times.” Founding Holy Trinity was a courageous act of defiance and witness by a young man who later died at age 27, after being imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Some 410 years later, Michael Ramsey, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke to a worldwide gathering of Anglicans in Toronto in 1963. His message to this Anglican Congress was straightforward and clear: “A church which lives to itself will die by itself.”

This year, in about three months, the Anglican Church of Church will gather in our nation’s capital for General Synod and in joint assembly with delegates from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Will these voices from the past be heard in Ottawa? What they ask is crucial—Is the church living too much to itself? Are Canadian Anglicans prepared to do “the best things in the worst times”? Those voices are telling the church today of a deep need to be relevant and will not allow the synod to bypass, ignore or escape from asking the questions: if we were not here, would anybody notice? If we were not here, would anybody care?

The response to those questions will depend on the relevance of the resolutions General Synod members will consider. Too much introspection, too much inward-focus risks neglecting the ministry of the whole people of God. The church has been guilty of this in the past when General Synod embraced finely worded motions that in fact accomplished nothing and settled to be far less than the church can and should be. This summer’s General Synod must make decisions that are measurable and accountable, not only to the church but to society as well.

For example, during the synod when Anglican and Lutheran churches are meeting in joint assembly, the agenda calls for a Saturday morning gathering on Parliament Hill. The presence of Anglican and Lutheran Christians that morning in front of the Parliament Buildings creates an opportunity to say and demonstrate something truly meaningful that goes beyond living to ourselves. How will the two denominations use this opportunity?

General Synods—let alone joint assemblies—are expensive, but the costs will be worth it if each person leaves with a renewed sense of mission and ministry. Will the people of the Anglican Church of Canada—lay clergy and bishops meeting as General Synod—be able to leave Ottawa sharing with the church and society a clear sense of purpose and direction? Will they hear the historic voices and say, yes the church is not living too much to itself; and yes, we did “the best things in the worst times.” Will they be able to say, ” I am proud of my church and proud to be an Anglican”?


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