Living as footnotes to the story

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"Our buildings might decay beyond our capacity to repair them, our plans to redevelop the hall might fall through, the church mice might finally overthrow us, subjecting us to their dominion. These are realities we must deal with, but they do not overwhlem us because we know we don't have to make the story come out right." Photo: Matthew Townsend
Part of the January 2020 column series “20-40 vision: 20- to 40-somethings in the Anglican Church of Canada offer their thoughts on the future,” featuring Canon Martha Tatarnic, the Rev. Cole Hartin, the Rev. Orvin Lao, the Rev. Alison Hari-Singh, Shilo Clark, Canon Jeffrey Metcalfe and the Rev. Leigh Silcox.
Canon Jeffrey Metcalfe, canon theologian, diocese of Quebec and interim priest, St. Michael’s, Sillery, Que. Photo: Matthew Townsend

“To live in the church in North America is to assume that our critique of the church is the most important, that our problems are the most significant problems in the universal church.”—Mary Jo Leddy

We need to begin with a perspective check. As Canadian theologian Mary Jo Leddy argues, as Christians living in North American, we inhabit an imperial imagination. Simply put, the imperial imagination is a way of seeing the world that begins with the assumption that “it’s all about us.” Whether you want to describe “us” as the story’s heroes or villains, we can assume that we are the most important and most interesting characters in the story, that our action or inaction is driving the plot, and that whether the story turns out right or not will also depend on us.

The imperial imagination is a problem because it runs against the grain of one of the most basic claims made by our faith: the story does not belong to us. We are neither its authors nor its principal characters. We are not responsible for ensuring that the story comes out right. Indeed, we make the audacious claim that the Great Storyteller has already revealed to us the story’s arc in the life of Israel and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our role then, rather than authorship, is attribution. We are to live our lives as footnotes to that story.

With that qualification in place, let’s turn to the catastrophic statistical projections that concern us. By 2040, two of the church communities I have served as a priest will have completely collapsed because they are already falling into the sea due to the effects of climate change. By 2040, shifting rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and extreme weather events are expected to lead to global food and water shortages, limiting the necessities of life for a significant amount of the planet’s population, and the majority of the world’s Anglicans. By 2040, nearly 50% of our fellow creatures will be extinct. Oh, right, I was supposed to be writing about the Anglican Church of Canada’s survival in 2040, wasn’t I?

In terms of statistically motivated survival stories, the Anglican Church of Canada’s is neither the most interesting, nor the most important. Whether and how we tell the story of our church’s institutional decline, the level of importance we give to it in our discourse can also be a product of the imperial imagination.

Over the last year, I have been blessed to share worship and fellowship with a group of about 20 or so Christians in a Quebec City parish. We often meet in a small, beautiful and decaying neo-Gothic church building in an area of the city whose gentrification has long since prevented most of us from living nearby. Our church hall is currently propped up by giant cinder blocks. Hot water has long ceased to flow through our bathroom faucets. We no longer use the word “church mice” as a metaphor.

As a church community, we know our institutional existence is fragile. Our buildings might decay beyond our capacity to repair them, our plans to redevelop the hall might fall through, the church mice might finally overthrow us, subjecting us to their dominion. These are realities we must deal with, but they do not overwhelm us, because we know we don’t have to make the story come out right. This frees us to focus our energy on becoming more faithful footnotes in the time and in the place that the Great Storyteller has given us—to care as much about our rivers as our rolls.

Only God knows the contributions these footnotes might make. As John Henry Newman writes about St. Benedict’s ministry:

He found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way, not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time or by any rare specific or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often, till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration, rather than a visitation, correction, or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent [women and] men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing, and building; and other silent [women and] men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes, and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and re-copied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that “contended, or cried out,” or drew attention to what was going on; but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city. Roads and bridges connected it with other abbeys and cities, which had similarly grown up; and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative [women and] men had brought together and made to live again.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Some of us worship in a building and congregation is 105 years old, made of wood. It also has mice. According to scholar Alan Jacobs, “only about one in ten English people took Easter Communion with the national church in 1801.” What changed things in terms of church attendance and participation in subsequent centuries, although perhaps not our own? Was it The Black Rubric or the Ornamentation Rubric? I somehow think not, but rather that what your (Henry Newman’s) description of St. Benedict depicts.

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