Signs of Hope … in the form of a sparrow

Published January 1, 2007

In November, we asked Anglican Journal readers what signs of hope they saw in the church, in this time of shrinking membership and declining revenues. Paul MacLean reflects on the question below and other readers share their thoughts elsewhere on these pages.Paul MacLean

There is a famous story recorded in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History that marks the spread of the Christian faith into northern England. In 627 the missionary Paulinus met in council with the powerful King Edwin and his wise men to argue the merits of the new religion. Responding favourably to Paulinus’ promotion of the Gospel, one of Edwin’s chiefs compares human life to the swift flight of a sparrow through a banquet hall in wintertime while the storms rage outside. “After a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he has emerged.” If the new faith can illumine our ignorance of what goes before and what is to follow, then, the chief argues, it deserves to be followed.

(Perhaps on poetic grounds, I prefer to trace my Christian and Anglican origins to that story rather than the matrimonial events associated with another king, Henry VIII.)

The conversion of the Northumbrian king was due to a hope that the pagan religion could not offer. One can imagine Edwin gloomily contemplating the dark abyss that lay ahead, with the refrain of Anglo Saxon poets his only spiritual guide – “lif is laen”‘ (life is fleeting). What hope could there be at a time of decline and the end of life? The Christian faith answered the questions, “Does my life have purpose?” and “Is there meaning to my life after death?” It gave a hope for the future that could be felt in this present life. It is significant that the questions were asked out of despair, and that hope was given at a time of spiritual crisis.

There’s a second element to this story that I find resonates with our situation today. This is the sparrow that flies through the open window of that great, drafty hall. I like the fact that it was a common dusty sparrow that was the sign of hope, and that this little fellow fluttered his way in and out of a great building, a building that was not enough to provide a bulwark against death and anxiety. So, I think that hope is going to be found in the mundane, sparrow-like issues of this world and will often have something to do with buildings.

First, real hope does not emerge from avoidance. A sign of hope is when leaders are prepared to accept the present situation of decline and engage in some serious analysis of why this is so. At present, blaming is the substitute for analysis. Many of the reasons for decline we probably cannot do much about, just as that northern king knew he couldn’t avoid the inevitable end of his life. However, he found a spiritual hope that gave his life and his death meaning, and so too I believe that churches experiencing decline can find new spiritual purpose if they begin by being realistic about who and where they are. Avoidance, blaming, a nostalgic desire to return to happier times or just plain stubbornness (all of which we have in abundance) are blockages to facing reality. When congregations do face reality, they gain in spiritual maturity and take ownership for their life.

Second, decline is a threat to existence that raises spiritual questions about our purpose as congregations. Is our sole purpose to keep going? Is our existence for the benefit of our members? A few years ago I worked with the Canadian Armed Forces to revitalize the Christian communities of the 44 base chapels, which had in many cases fallen into a desperate state. At the outset of this project the Chaplain General gave his vision in which he said the fundamental reason for revitalizing these chapels was to bring spiritual value to the life of the base of which they were a part. Is that the motivation we have for wanting our congregations revitalized, renewed or transformed? This is the type of inspiring vision that sees far past mere survival and is the source of real hope.

Third, many congregations have inherited great, drafty, historic halls that are themselves a constant reminder of grander days. A sign of hope is when these congregations take difficult building decisions based upon their vision for ministry. These can be major renovations, decisions to amalgamate, sell or build anew. It can even be a decision not to rebuild a ruined structure. Through such decisions congregations are investing in a hopeful future.

These are not the times of great soaring eagles. The little, feisty sparrow brings a sense of proportion to our identity and ministry, and she’s a good symbol around which to weave our present stories of hope.

Paul MacLean is executive director of Potentials, a Canadian Ecumenical Centre for the Development of Ministry and Congregations,

What a gift!

It is a normal Friday night. Most young people would be heading out to the movies or malls with friends in search of the newest trends or catching the latest flick. Not young Anglicans!

They are instead asking their parents to drive them to the cathedral downtown, picking up a few friends along the way.

Imagine a Friday night in the cathedral with young people sharing their gifts with the community, giving what they can unto a greater glory – the glory of God. There is a youth band providing our worship music, youth who are serving, who are reading, who are acting as greeters and sidespeople. The prayers of the people, written entirely by youth, presented with PowerPoint. We have youth who are licensed for that one occasion to aid with communion, and we even have youth giving a reflection upon the readings of the day.

Never have I been so fortunate as to experience a liturgy led entirely by youth. The spirit in their ministries and in their hearts was evident to anyone who was there. The light of Christ shone so vibrantly that there are people wondering when the next one is happening. God was present in ways I never could have asked or imagined, and has inspired these youth to make a difference in the lives of others.

There was the joy that I thought only came once a year with the Resurrected Christ. A true celebration of youthful joy and service.

What a gift!

Angela Bokenfohr

Alive and well

Regarding the future of the church, I wish to respond from a position of 73 years as a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, 47 of which I have served in Holy Orders. During these years I have watched our church move forward with spirit-led reason and enthusiasm.

In matters such as Prayer Book revision, ordination of women, ecumenism and concern for a place within the church for homosexuals, I believe our church has been a leader, not only within the Anglican Communion, but also for the wider church. Positions formed at General Synod and upheld by the House of Bishops have been inspirational and devotional as our church meets the needs of our generation head-on. I also believe that my assessment of our church is also shared by a strong, but silent majority (particularly among the clergy), and we need to know who we are and how we can best uphold the future of our church as it confronts the various schismatic groups, which are well organized and bellow with abandonment. The future will likely witness disputes over church properties and trust funds, but the Anglicans needed to carry on the work of an excellent and long-serving church are alive and well and will be as busy in the future as they have been in the past.

Rev. Canon C. David Lethbridge
Combermere, Ont.

Adding new members

Fort Macleod, Alta., is a town of 2,900 people, most of whom are retired seniors, yet the local Anglican church is adding new members every six months. Fortunately they are families with school-age children.

The rector is a young fellow with four children, two girls and two boys. His wife is a charming person who attracts the married and single women of her age. Also the two PKs (“preacher’s kids”) in the elementary school have been “evangelizing” the church.

The music at Christ Church is invigorating when the five-piece band plays and sings Robin Mark compositions. There is also a Tone Chime group to entertain the congregation. I believe that the freedom of the young children to roam the sanctuary and hall every Sunday plus the contemporary music is boosting the membership roster at the church.

William Pender
78 year old Anglican-Lutheran nomad

Fort Macleod, Alta.

Longing for sacred realm

The line-up of excited ticket-holders, mostly in their 20s, is already halfway around the block though the church doors are not due to open for another 45 minutes. It is a cold coastal evening but the crowd exudes a communal spirit of alert humour. The line grows longer. Finally the doors open and we file into the church. Every seat is taken. Where on Sunday mornings a few dozen worshippers gather in the front pews, now all pews are packed tight and standing room at the back is two deep. A murmur of happy anticipation fills the church building.

I am happy and I am grieved.

This is not a worship service but a concert. The building has been rented for the evening to an organization which sponsors outstanding musicians from other cultures. Tonight it’s a group from Tuva.

Tuva? The small group of instrumentalist and singers in ethnic costume are from this autonomous Russian Republic on the Siberian border. They are throat singers. A shamanic vocal tradition from prehistory, their sound is foreign to Western ears, sometimes eerie.

The rapt listeners frequently show their appreciation. Many seem to be in a slightly altered state, not caused by the ingestion of substances but by the far-away-yet-near world of the spirits.

All human beings experience longing for the sacred realm. When they cannot connect with this in the religion of their own culture, they will seek it elsewhere.

Words in a strange language from an ancient culture, music difficult yet accessible, ceremonial costume; Anglican worship offers all this and much more every Sunday without line-ups or tickets.

Have we blown it?

Hannah Main-van der Kamp

Call to justice

I see signs of vibrant life, of a renewed commitment to the Gospel’s call to justice, in the commitment of Anglicans in my diocese to take action on behalf of “the least of these” in our midst by taking part in advocacy efforts with government. Examples include Anglicans getting up at the crack of dawn to drive two hours to Toronto for a diocesan outreach conference, and more than 160 Anglicans from rural areas, small towns and cities across our diocese taking the time to meet their elected representatives to discuss homelessness, the shortage of affordable housing and possible solutions. For most this was the first time they had ever taken part in political advocacy. Today most are still involved in this long-term effort. It is a sign of hope that ecumenical partners and secular advocacy groups increasingly see our church as a voice for justice.

I see resurrection in my Toronto parish (Church of the Redeemer), which 35 years ago had dwindled to 40 people, none of them young, and has since blossomed to 745 members, including 100 children and youth.

Murray MacAdam

Future in church’s decline

Paradoxically, I see the future of the church in its decline.

Two years ago, I wrote to the Anglican Journal that it was difficult to recognize the Anglican church in which I had grown up in the church of today. When I found myself unable to marry in my parish last year without taking a course in Christian basics, I decided to join my fiancee at her church where I am, as I was in the Anglican church, an active member.

So much for a lifetime of Anglican membership, which ended not with a bang over questions of faith or worship but the whimper of parochial supererogation.

My point is this: I have joined a significant Anglican diaspora. Though we no longer attend churches of the denomination that nurtured us, there is much about us that remains Anglican, and we enrich the communities where we find ourselves with what we learned and experienced in our former denomination.

This is why I am hopeful: Not that the church as we know it will necessarily grow and prosper, but that many of those who are leaving are blessing the broader church.

The church continues, though not as we expect.

Peter Mitham

First aid: adaptation

Five organizational subsystems are required for (church) survival: production, boundary spanning, maintenance, adaptation and management. (Organization Theory and Design, by Richard L. Daft; West Publishing Company.) I single out adaptation as the church subsystem requiring immediate first aid. Given the speed of change in today’s society, what is the adaptive cycle of the Anglican church? Secondly, and even more important, is the church hierarchy prepared to change?

The surest route to survival is to make our church indispensable to the work of God.

We need to convert from a top down organization into one that is bottom up – starting with the parishioner as the primary worker. Next in line would be the priest facilitating the parishioner’s work, and lastly the bishop facilitating the priest’s work. Currently, parishioner participation and community ownership will continue to decline as the older generation, conditioned to accept top down leadership, disappears. Younger generations are not so conditioned. Also communication, consistency and fairness in the form of policies, procedures and job descriptions need to be enhanced and shared by all levels.

We are called to serve with equal importance across all levels of the church and we need a substantial modernization in church structure to support us in functioning effectively as a team in God’s work.

William Nicoll
Didsbury, Alta.

Faith in the communion

I find signs of hope for the church in: Africa, South-East Asia, Latin America and in groups such as Essentials and the Prayer Book Society, who are not striving relentlessly to wall off the churches of Canada and the United States from our brothers in the Anglican Communion and indeed the entire holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Jack Patterson
Grand Bay-Westfield, N.B.

Animals and the environment

For 40 years, I have participated in every aspect of church life from Bible studies to bazaars to community outreach, but I have not been able to engage in the issues that are the most important to me and are increasingly important to others. These are the environment and animal welfare.

I have never advocated neglecting the welfare of people, but I have hoped that the environment and animal welfare could be added to the Anglican agenda. I see hope in two organizations: the diocese of New Westminster’s environmental unit and Britain’s Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals.

The church has a lot of competition for members – other religions going mainstream, the rise of Christian support and information via the Internet, liturgical music and Christian books only a click of the mouse away ? who needs church?

More environmentalists and animal lovers, including myself, would say we do, if the issues that are important to us (and dare I say, to God? since it is His creation) became important to the church. An influx of new people who share those concerns would also counter the problem of declining membership in the Anglican church. This is my hope too.

Janice Kenefick
Surrey, B.C.

Let’s be Christians first

Statistics Canada reports that 80 per cent of Canadians believe in some form of creator. If any of that 80 per cent of us wants some form of relationship with our creator, that represents a massive national spiritual need. Jesus came to teach us about our creator. We need to put these two facts together.

This is the great commission, our reason for being a church and our hope for the future. The question is how?

We can all ask in our communities, workplaces and wherever two or three are gathered together; “Why am I alive on this planet? What am I supposed to be doing?” None of this is irrelevant, boring or judgmental, as organized churches seem to be.

Let us be Christians first, Anglicans second and paid for it? Not at all!

Norm Kendall
Eden, Man.


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