This article also appears in the October 2019 issue of the Diocesan Post.
Ten years from now who will be sitting in your pew? That’s just one of the questions we need to ask as we evolve and grow as a community. A decade ago, as I began paying attention to the Anglican church, I saw a startling Globe and Mail headline: “Anglican Church Facing Threat of Extinction.”
Despite the gloomy forecast, there is much to love in the Anglican Church of Canada: maintaining traditions with pride, looking for middle and integral ways through delicate and difficult issues, and aiming for excellence in worship. Yet we continue to operate our corner of the Christian faith in close resemblance to our Church of England mentor, with its residual 500-year-old history and cultural immersion in state power, hierarchical decision-making, and divisions between lay and ordained members. Does this approach work in an increasingly secular society, in post-colonial times, as we reconcile with Aboriginal communities and others on “Turtle Island?”
I want to raise some important questions on our very foundation as a church and encourage you to discuss them as well. At Christ Church Cathedral this fall, our congregation has been meeting in small groups to envision what we can accomplish in the future. It seems to me that an essential part of a church community is to create and sustain communities of disciples.
What resources and supports are needed to encourage and nurture discipleship? What cultural changes may help us to look at and support the people of God wherever they are – at home, at work, at play, and at church?
A first step may be to deconstruct, decolonize and reconstruct some fundamental elements of church operations. Should we divest ourselves of hierarchical structures and if so, how? What do we mean and how do we act in response to claims of belonging to the ministry of all the baptized? Are the roles of clergy and lay people complementary? Is the traditional, one-priest, one parish the only or the best model? If so, for whom? We need to examine alternative models and perhaps shape the structure to each community’s organizational needs. What roles do the ordained occupy in our communities and is their education suitable? Perhaps people seeking ordination would be willing to be worker-priests.The result could be greater engagement by the laity in the faith community’s operations. A sustained and practical theological understanding of what lay engagement, leadership, discipleship and formation may be needed as well. How do we live out our Christian lives between Sunday services? What are the challenges and joys for working folk, parents and grandparents, youth and children at school, and how can the church support them? A teacher commented to me, “I teach Sunday school 45 minutes a week and they haul me up to the front of the church to pray for me. I teach in a school 45 hours a week and the church has never prayed for me.”
Communication: Who are we talking to?
In a time of social media and the creation of communities with less emphasis on physical presence, is the church missing an important opportunity to communicate with the people for who it exists? Christianity has come to us in part because of the wisdom of authors and church leaders in using the latest communication techniques of their era. Gospel writers used various literary techniques to convey messages in both oral and written traditions. Paul took letters and scripts to churches, using the most recent Roman-built roads and ships to bring and send his messages. A few centuries later, Martin Luther used the Gutenberg printing press to distribute his perspectives. More recently churches have used radio and television to communicate their points of view.
Today, we toy nervously with social media, tending to find it mysterious, yet it engages people in ways that were impossible a few years ago. Perhaps a dedicated Facebook page for the diocese might offer a forum for us to politely but fiercely debate and work toward necessary cultural change in our church.
Finally, I wonder about our confidence as a church community, perhaps eroded by worrying about buildings, finances, declining membership. Change is upon us and we need not drift into oblivion but have the confidence and courage to ask and act. Tinkering is not enough; we need to look at fundamental structures and processes that help us to live congruently, inclusively and with an honest understanding of the business of the church. Change involves risk and risk requires confidence, so that 10 years from now, we will continue to thrive and support each Christian to live a Christ-life in all its fullness.
Malcolm Read is the animator of community life at Christ Church Cathedral.
Suggested reading: Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, edited by Steve Heinrichs; Blogs of Andrew Stevens-Rennie, Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.