We’re in this together

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The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, a sculpture by Bill Reid. Photo: Bengt Oberger/Wikipedia

As I read the articles on the statistical decline of the Anglican Church in Canada, the image of the “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” surfaced dramatically for me.  This iconic sculpture by Bill Reid has several versions—appearing at the Vancouver International Airport, the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C. and the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. These magnificent art works represent a great myth of the Haida Gwaii Indigenous heritage.

Reid renders a traditional dugout canoe with passengers, including Raven, Mouse Woman, Grizzly Bear, Beaver, Sea Bear and Killer Whale, among others. The significance of these travellers, according to Haida tradition, is highly symbolic. The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represent the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for survival. These passengers are diverse and not always in harmony, yet they must depend on one another to live.

Summarized poignantly, it says, “We’re in this together.” And that, in effect, is my response to January’s Anglican Journal articles on the state of the church.

Understandably, most of the pieces on statistical decline focus on the Anglican Church in Canada, but in a larger sense, “we’re in this together.” Let me unpack some of what I think that means.

Archbishop Linda Nicholls reminds us insightfully about the future: “[The result] may be a smaller church, but it will be a church.” The Rev. Neill Elliot, key author of the study, adds, “God will have a church.” The prospect involves everyone, not just the leadership.

Other mainstream Canadian denominations are experiencing similar decreases. Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Canada and some Baptist groups are not surprized by the news, because their experience is similar. All Canadian denominations, including the Roman Catholic and many Evangelical Protestant denominations, are increasingly aware that the traditional tributaries of church growth have been drying up. Some pentecostalist groups have had to deal with slow growth. Immigration patterns have changed; birth rates, scandals and hypocrisies—they have all taken their toll.

An encouraging sign in this rather dismal story is that some of our denominations have been paying more attention to evangelical Christian voices, who are thankfully different in tone and philosophy from their American sisters and brothers. We need to listen to those voices.

Ethnically diverse or “big tent” communities are worthy alternatives to the shared nature of our traditional (usually single-ethnicity) constituencies. We are learning that there is no substitute for community outreach, discipleship training and meaningful worship experience. Creative forms of youth ministry continue to be important congregational investments. We have tended to neglect these.

In spite of the importance of heritage and tradition, denominations like the Anglican and Lutheran ones have been cooperating for more than a generation and have much solid experience (not just the quick fix) to share across our divides.

“We’re in this together” is not a cliché. It is a lived human experience—one needed if we are to survive as humans and as human communities of faith. Necessity is the mother of invention. Again, this is not just a platitude.

Let’s be grateful to those who are sounding alarm bells that can spur us to change. The “Spirit of Haida Gwaii” is an inspiring image.

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Wayne Holst
Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for 25 years. He taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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