Step one, some priests say, is making space for people’s anger
SPLINTERED TRUST: Rebuilding the church’s public image
First of a two-part series
When she was 15 years old, Danica Meredith wanted to be a priest.
But it was the early 1980s, ordaining women was new at the time and Meredith says she had a “mondo awkward” conversation with her parish priest in which he tried to delicately talk her out of joining the clergy. “Finally the dude [told] me that I couldn’t and I really lost my pyjamas in the way that a 15-year-old hothead can do. And if you’ve ever wondered, those old wooden chairs in a church, they can splinter.”
That moment of disillusionment and anger ended Meredith’s association with the church for a decade and a half. And her story is not unusual. Some leaders in the Anglican Church of Canada say Christianity in the West has a serious public relations problem. Whether, like Meredith, they are “de-churched,” having either walked away or stormed off from their previous experiences with the faith, or “un-churched,” with no familiarity with church life, many people have developed a negative view of Christian institutions. Some have had personal run-ins with the church; others have seen Christians in the public eye associated with causes they disagree with, or news headlines about sexual abuse and colonialism. But whatever the cause, those leaders say, if the church wants to reverse its image, it won’t be enough to consider only what the people still in the pews want their church to be.
Canon Martha Tatarnic, rector at St. George’s Anglican Church in Saint Catharines, Ont. and a writer on faith issues, says her children’s school friends make for a good example.
“It’s not just that [they] don’t know about the church; [they] have a pretty vehement impression of the church—that it’s a place of bigotry, racism, misogyny and homophobia,” she says.
Canon Judy Paulsen, director of the Institute of Evangelism at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, sees the same trend.
“There’s so much negative stuff in the press about the extreme right wing. There’s stuff about the residential schools, sexual abuse by clergy, the church aligned with colonialist powers,” she adds.
In a 2017 Angus Reid poll, researchers found that of Canadians surveyed, only 25 per cent said they thought the word “religion” had a positive meaning. Even fewer said the same about “evangelism,” at eight per cent.
The hard truth, Tatarnic says, is that perceptions have fallen so low that it’s unlikely many people will be willing to come into a church and see for themselves.
“I’m not sure that is a reasonable goal at the moment. As far as my kids are concerned, what they would like to see is a different message communicated,” she says. “But I don’t think that it can be with the expectation that they’re going to file their peer group back into our church to sit in our pews.”
Before there’s any hope of bringing many people back to church, Tatarnic believes, it may take years or even decades of careful and caring communication. Christians will need to demonstrate God’s love by example—modeling the beliefs that no one is alone in the world and that people ought to live for more than themselves—to rehabilitate the institution’s public image before they can hope to soften or reverse the antipathy that has built up.
“We have some trust-building to do before people ever start to take the next step, which is to become curious,” says Paulsen.
The Rev. Graham Singh, church planter at St. Jax Church in Montreal, is working on ways to do just that. St. Jax services are aimed both at people who have left the church and those who have never been in the first place. In Quebec, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s made being “aggressively dechurched” a way of life for much of the population, Singh says.
St. Jax uses an informal style, light on liturgy, which makes few demands on attendees’ pre-existing familiarity with church life, instead offering opportunities to learn and question. The model is based on the church planting tradition established by London, England’s Holy Trinity Brompton, of which Singh himself (as well as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby) was once a member. It means starting afresh in an existing parish building and working with the existing congregants to invite in people with less of a relationship with the church, or people who have stopped going. Using that model, Singh came to St. James the Apostle in 2015, and, together with parishioners and lay leaders, closed it, revamped it and reopened it the following year as St. Jax. Church plants of this type have been the source of some unexpected growth, he says—especially because they make space for the expression of something many Anglican churches don’t: anger at the church. At clergy. At God.
Singh notes that throughout Scripture, especially the Psalms, wrestling with God is modelled over and over as a healthy and necessary part of religious life. This, he argues, is not effectively communicated in the established patterns of the Anglican church.
Yes, there are places in traditional liturgy where anger, grief and doubt are acknowledged, but part of the challenge facing the modern church, he says, is “the testing of that liturgy with people who are unchurched or dechurched.
“Are they in fact responding to it?” he asks. “And of course the answer is abundantly, no, they’re not.”
When resentment against the institution builds up, he says, the church has to make room for people to express it, or they will simply leave. Part of being a Protestant church, he says, is adapting the presentation of the gospel into a form that speaks to the wider culture.
“Now is the time, for heaven’s sake, to adapt again,” he says. “The opposite reaction is we say, ‘Oh, this terrible culture, it doesn’t seem to respond to what we’re doing. Let’s double down,’ when it’s absolutely clear that it’s not working.” When somebody says the Anglican church will die numerically by a certain date, he says, the right response is to adapt, not say the researchers are wrong.
In the fall of 2019, Anglican Church of Canada statistician Canon Neil Elliot released a report projecting that if current trends continued, there would be no members left in the church by 2040.
One of the tools St. Jax uses to acknowledge and engage with people’s negative feelings about church is the Alpha program—a franchised catechesis curriculum that teaches adults the basics of the Christian faith. He describes the first session of the course as a place to air grievances and criticism in a way that isn’t possible during a Sunday morning liturgy.
The first session in the Alpha program’s course is titled “Christianity: boring, irrelevant, untrue?” Singh says the title often resonates with people who are bringing their own anger or pain to the conversation. A typical response he hears is, “Okay, that’s your intro? Good, because I’ll go on: Not only is it boring, irrelevant and untrue, it’s abusive,’” he says.
“If you try to do that in a Sunday service and say, ‘Look, I’m going to give you a place to be angry, and then when you’re done being angry, it will now be the time to stand up and sit down when I tell you,’ it lacks integrity.”
Paulsen agrees with Singh’s ideas on making space for anger and criticism.
“If you look at Jesus’s ministry, who was he most critical of? The religious people. He called out the hypocrisy and the fundamentalism,” she says. “So, in following the example of Jesus, [the church] must be self-critical.”
For Meredith, it was a moment of validating that criticism that interested her in going to church again. When her now-husband said he wanted to get married in a church, she told him, “Find me a priest I don’t hate.”
As it happened, she was visiting a yoga class at St. James the Apostle when she found one. A member of the class asked her whether she went to church, to which Meredith answered, “Not anymore. I don’t like most priests.” The woman laughed and said, “I don’t like all of them either. They’re humans. We don’t like all of our neighbours.”
Then the woman introduced herself as the parish priest, says Meredith. “And I went bright red. But I felt that she’d just seen me. It wasn’t said with malice or spite. It was said with such love.”
Drawn in by the priest’s genuine attitude, Meredith went on to join the church, become a member of the corporation and help lead the church through its 2016 refounding as St. Jax. And in that process, she has worked to see St. Jax built into a place that is welcoming for people who aren’t always comfortable in traditional church spaces: families with rambunctious children, people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter—and sometimes people like the finance professional she met at a conference and invited to a circus event in St. Jax’s building. He was so nervous about entering a church that he refused to come in until she offered to walk through the doors with him personally.
“I think the first step is getting people across the threshold and seeing they’re not going to burn up,” she says.