A homily delivered Jan. 5, 2020 by the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, the Very Rev. M Ansley Tucker. Listen to the sermon here.
It is not often that I stray off the readings of the day in preparing a homily. Today will be an exception. I want to draw your attention to the excellent January edition of the Anglican Journal. The headline on the front page reads “Gone by 2040?” Almost the entire issue grasps the nettle of declining church membership and attendance, and wonders what might be the future of our “beloved Church.”
The statistics are not encouraging. According to our national parish rolls, membership in the Anglican Church of Canada declined by 50 per cent in the 40-year period between 1961 and 2001. And it declined by another 44 per cent in the 16 years after that (from 2001 to 2017). We now make up just 1 per cent of the Canadian population. For the record, the United Church of Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, and the Presbyterian Church of Canada are faring similarly.
At first blush this paints a rather bleak picture. Here at the Cathedral we are deeply engaged in a visioning process, “Greater Works than These,” that will set our course for the years 2025-2075. One might be tempted to ask. Well, what’s the point? Having a clear and compelling vision is precisely the point. The church cannot keep going on going on without a sense of purpose and intentionality. That is what “Greater Works than These” is all about.
Let me back up and offer a few observations. First of all, statistics are just numbers; they are not a force of nature! No matter what the predictive trajectory of this “decline” may be, unless I’m dead by 2040, I can guarantee you that there will be at least one Anglican standing! As, I suspect, can many of you. The better question is what will our Anglican Church look like?
Secondly, in this vein, it is imperative to note that our records don’t necessarily measure the right things. In the Anglican Church, for example, we seem to be obsessed with how many people receive communion each Sunday (to the extent that the inability to count communicants accurately has been used as an argument against using an actual loaf of bread – as Jesus himself did! – at the eucharist.) We have to ask if we have been measuring the things that matter. Let’s say a parish of 30 souls ensures that no child in their small town goes to school without breakfast. And let’s say a big cathedral (just like us!) counted 1,800 people at its Christmas services. Do you want to be the one who suggests that church attendance at Christmas is a more important measure of faithfulness or viability than giving kids a step up on their on their capacity to learn and contribute meaningfully to the world? What do you think matters to God? That’s what we should be measuring.
The truth is that there is much to celebrate in our pared-down church. My friend Michael Thompson, the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, says this: “A church with smaller confirmation classes and [a] larger heart for the poor, the mourners, the meek and those starving for righteousness isn’t a church that’s worse for the wear. And from where I stand, a church that actively trains clergy and parishioners about sexual misconduct is better than one that sweeps abuse under the carpet. A church that seeks reconciliation with the peoples it tried to culturally annihilate is better than the one that scooped up children and took them to faraway places, sometimes never to return…. Thank God we are this new church!” And I can think of lots of other reasons that the church we are is better and potentially more faithful than the church we were. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that we have been deposed from our place of privilege.
Thirdly, regardless of what is happening all around us, as a cathedral church, we are in a very privileged position indeed. As the psalmist says, “A thousand shall fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you.” If there is one church building left standing in the Diocese of British Columbia, it will be this cathedral.
Understand that this is not a privilege we earned by dint of our stellar discipleship or faithful creativity. We fell into this inheritance, because we just happen to be the cathedral church of our diocese. And for this reason alone, it is incumbent upon us to assume a posture of humility in the company of our sister churches, and to ensure that we never squander an inheritance which we did not earn.
Let’s go back to our visioning process – Greater Works than These. What will be required of us if we are to steward our inheritance well?
There are a few take-aways from the January edition of the Journal. To begin, we need to change the conversation. Let’s stop talking about managing decline, and start talking about rediscovering hope, says Archbishop Mark McDonald. Let’s stop talking as if the purpose of the church is to fill our pews, says Archbishop Linda Nicholls. Our future does not lie in a return to the glory days (and besides, as I think we’ve already noted, they weren’t necessarily all that glorious).
Next, we need to ask what characterizes the sense of purpose of those communities who are bucking the trend and actually growing. Because some are. And there are two recurrent themes.
First, the parishes that are vibrant, thriving, and growing are intently focused on the person, teachings and work of Jesus. Both as individuals and as parishes they have in common that they really want to work at this “Christianity thing,” at putting their faith into practice. That is why they gather. That is why it is important for the church to exist. So they create and take advantage of opportunities to learn more about their faith. They are intentional about shaping their lives in accordance with Christ’s teaching and example. They want to deepen their spirituality and sharpen their moral fibre. They want to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. After all, they reason, if Jesus isn’t at the centre, we may as well be the Kiwanis.
And secondly, the parishes that are thriving – in spirit as well as numbers – are those that are deeply engaged in some kind of hands-on service. They have figured out that the purpose of the church is not to sustain itself, but – as Jesus learned at his mother’s knee – to mend the world. People want to make a difference, and they choose to be part of a community that wishes to do the same. This is why in our visioning process, Greater Works than These, we have been asked to look around us, beyond our doors, and to look the best we can into the future, and to ask how God is asking us to serve. Vibrant Christian communities understand that God has a mission in the world, and he went and got himself a Church to help fulfil it.
One of the parishes featured in the Anglican Journal as a “green shoot” is the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto. On the ropes in the late 1970s, the Redeemer is now a growing and thriving Christian community, with a flourishing ministry to those who are street-involved, and a record for social justice. It is a parish that clearly “gets” the importance of service.
But it isn’t a matter of service alone. That service is deeply rooted in a commitment to Jesus Christ. Many years ago, when this ministry was just beginning (the parish secretary handed out microwaved baloney sandwiches), there was a handwritten sign posted inside the kitchen servery window that read: “Remember, you are the face of Christ to our guests, and they are the face of Christ to you.”
Likewise, this is the work that Christ Church Cathedral has undertaken in Greater Works than These – the articulation of a clear and compelling vision, rooted in our Christian faith. There’s lots to be done, which means there’s a need for any church that is willing to do the work. We just need to figure out what and how.
M. Ansley Tucker