The recent statistics report for the Anglican Church of Canada begs unavoidable questions: What factors account for the ongoing decline of the Anglican Church of Canada? And where is God in all of this?
While 20th century theological shifts in ideas may provide some explanation, we cannot overestimate the effect of sociological developments and the growth of scientific knowledge. One such development is the rise of global migration. In the earlier part of the 20th century, immigrants to Canada hailed, by and large, from countries where Christianity was well established. But this was followed by significant arrivals of people from various countries where other religious traditions flourish. The upshot is that Anglicans are now living side-by-side with Muslims and Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists.
As these neighbours have established themselves, they have built their own mosques, temples and other sites of religious devotion. Many of us have wondered how the compelling integrity of their faith practices makes sense in light of the church’s claim that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Moreover, our experiences of religious diversity have fueled the secularism that defines our age which, according to Charles Taylor, is not necessarily antagonistic to faith but rather regards faith as optional and peripheral. This accounts in part for why interfaith marriages are now more common and accepted, and for why some of us have been less diligent to pass on the church’s faith to our children.
Another development—a major crisis—is the exposed record of abuse in the church. It is not only Roman Catholic clergy and officials who are guilty of a staggering number of child sexual abuse cases. Sexual abuse has also plagued the Anglican Church of Canada, especially in the Indian residential schools that it administered. Despite the church’s best efforts to apologize and provide redress, Anglicans have sustained a black eye from which we will long be recovering. Every new instance of clergy sexual misconduct is a setback to that recovery and a deterrent to anyone considering entering any church building. Trust has been lost.
Developments in scientific knowledge have also challenged the viability of our church. The content of our liturgy and our hymnody—indeed, the scriptural metanarrative that undergirds the church’s faith—is shot through with a cosmology that grates against modern discoveries in astronomy. We are learning that the universe is immeasurably immense, continually expanding, and perhaps even boundless. The idea of “heaven,” as its own transcendent space, no longer makes much sense to the modern mind. How many of us are committed to the intellectual gymnastics required to confess with integrity that the Son of God “came down from heaven,” has now “ascended,” but will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead?”
Other developments have shaken Anglican confidence in the first of the 39 Articles of Religion, which affirms that God “is the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.” With the production of nuclear weapons, humans now have the capacity to detonate all of planet Earth with just the push of a button. Earth’s climate, as we all know, is warming at alarming rates because of human activity. The human condition has reached a new Babel: “this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). It is not only human potential for global destruction but the evidence of its actualization that have led many to question whether God is there to preserve us from self-annihilation.
Is God there? Is God in the midst of the church’s decline? We cannot answer these questions with a simplistic “Yes.” That’s because the realities named above compel us to reexamine not only tangential issues of faith but core matters as well. Anglicans are unclear about the horizon of our faith. What is the Christian “thing” all about? Our confusion about this question has stifled our movement forward. We are too comfortable with the world to act with confidence, as Jesus did, to bring good news to the poor and to struggle against principalities and powers.
We must reimagine the entire edifice of our faith, including what we mean by “God” and divine attributes of sovereignty, providence and love that we so often instinctively depend on. In short, we must embrace a radical theology of risk, unhindered by suspicion and fear of the unknown. We cannot be afraid of what Peter Berger called “the heretical imperative.” What will happen when we undertake together this fundamental reimagination? Our liturgies will become more creative. Our mission—our love for the world—will be intensified. Our imitation of Jesus will be palpable.
The decline of our church fills me with anticipation, even hope. What will we do with the new wine? Will we pour it into the old wineskins and lose everything when those wineskins burst? Or will we find new wineskins to pour the new wine into?