Last fall, members of the diocese of Toronto gathered for synod. Of the many important things presented, the issue that actually stood out most to me was that of the Anglican Church of Canada’s statistical decline of 40% since 2001. This sort of rapid and large decline has, of course, not gone unnoticed by anyone within the Anglican church. Since I returned to the Anglican church (from agnosticism) 14 years ago, this reality has been a topic of ever-present consideration for me as a student, then priest and theologian. While my own home parish, Trinity Anglican, in Cambridge, Ont., was thriving, I quickly discovered that this was not the case for most congregations around the diocese of Huron, and eventually, within the Anglican Church of Canada.
I can recall hearing many statistics and suggested social and cultural reasons for decline, as well as suggestions—generally drawn from other places like England or the United States—about how dioceses and parishes could prevent or reverse that decline. And while I found several responses interesting, as a relative newcomer, I also wondered why various Anglican groups believed that their “late to the game” replication of forms of worship, of music, of alternative forms or places of gathering, etc., would attract people. These things were already being done by other churches with more diverse demographics, particularly that of young adults, with a greater critical mass of people and more operational resources per worshipping community.
I also worried that, in the midst of a culture that had grown up accustomed to endless choice of churches from which to shop, catering to that inclination would not only fail to attract simply because we were bringing weaker resources to a church-saturated market, so to speak, but that we were throwing away a niche gift that God had permitted us to develop. To be sure, I was worried and continue to worry about the decline of Anglicanism in the West for very practical reasons: salary, pension and vocational future. But my greater worry is actually our submission and habituation to secular benchmarks of value, worth and purpose that prevent us from humbly receiving grace that requires the obedient posture of penitence at this particular point in time and history.
These were the questions that I took with me to seminary and ultimately, that gave shape to my doctoral work. I found a repetitive pattern in God’s condemnation of Israel’s division, and his promise of gathering and restoring them, and of this repeated scenario occurring in the New Testament where Jesus prays to make his disciples one—one body, his body—and their straying from ways of life that sustained that unity, and of this pattern occurring yet again with the church’s divisions East and West, and finally the Western church in the 16th century. And I wanted to know: did we Anglicans heed the warnings of those into whose lives and circumstances we enter in Scripture? So the question I asked was this: as the Church of England had to grapple with the consequences of the Western church’s division—a contradiction to Jesus’s own prayer for concrete unity in life and witness—how could it go about discerning the truth in faithful witness?
What I discovered was that there was most certainly a strong drive for unity, called comprehension in the 17th century. But why unity? Why not simply scour for the truth of Scripture as individuals or congregations? Each of the mainline Church of England theologians whom I looked at, following Erasmus and Hooker, had a fairly straightforward underlying premise: an individual’s ability to discern the truth is obscured or obliterated by the reality of the effects of sin. And the more one “goes off on one’s own direction,” particularly with logical or emotional zeal, the more likely it is he or she will be deceived in pursuing the truth. The only way to mitigate (while not entirely removing) the effects of sin while trying to live faithfully in accordance with Scripture was to submit one’s actions to the discernment of the church (in this case, of England). A proliferation of division could—for these theologians—only lead to habituation to one’s own sinful inclinations.
The decline of the church in general, across North America, I would attribute to the Western church’s division. What spiritual or moral truth could a divided, warring, often violent and contradictory confusion of beliefs that was once one body signify, except the inevitable human-constructed tower of power, control and capacity to manipulate and mislead? If this seems a harsh judgment, please read more of the prophets and recognize our own figure in God’s condemnation. Scripture is not a history book of past facts, but a living Word of judgment, mercy and reconciliation come to us in the Person of Jesus Christ.
What then are we to do, as Anglicans? First of all, perhaps strangely, I am happy for our decline. For too long, both Catholic and Protestant churches were filled with nominalist Christians for whom church has been a mere social club to exercise power, influence and money, rather than a school by which one is saved—that is, reshaped and reformed by God. I am happy for the decline because I see this as God’s own pruning: pruning not so as to exclude, but in chastening, in pressing into the humility of confession, of prayer, of thanks, to open those who are called and willing to persevere in leadership, in worship and in service, within the particular temporal fragment of the body of Christ they are in.
What should be done? What did God do? He remained unto death, put to death upon the cross, took the very peculiar and particular life he took on, assumed, was sent to live out, and remained to witness just there. He did not leave for the newest or different or presumed true group of worshippers. He remained with broken, often erroneous, poor, hungry, sad, rebellious, depressed, sick, abused, confused, and tormented people—those whom he’d been given simply because of time and place. And so then should we. Though we shrink, the questions that arise from our shrinking are more pragmatic: should we continue with full-time priests, should we do house churches, should we rent facilities rather than have huge overhead, should we increase or decrease the size of dioceses, etc. But these questions are irrelevant if we do not first commit to remain where we are, despite the heartbreak of decline.
We are in good company here. See Jeremiah 29, or Job, or well, Jesus in the garden and on the cross. In our particular circumstances then, we will have to ask what it looks like to remain in a kind of exile, where we have sold ourselves into a kind of slavery to the nations that do not yet know God. Let us live among them, have and raise children, go about our work, ask if perhaps we should move our congregation of 20 into someone’s house so that we don’t have to worry about bills and can, instead, focus on learning the Scriptures more deeply; so that we can “go to the Greeks” and challenge and share and speak, as presumed fools, of the wisdom of God for which each person—since created by him—is actually deeply longing.