Winter in Church

My move from the Roman Catholic fold to the Anglican branch of the Christian family has been surprisingly smooth sailing. I’d like to think that several factors played a role in this ecclesial transition. While my reflection on these factors is articulated in previous blog entries, let me simply summarize them here.

One, the move was motivated, not by negative reasons away from Rome, but by clear positive reasons of sensing a deep call into the Anglican tradition. While I was drawn because of the possibility of fulfilling my priestly vocation, this was by no means the only motivation. It had better not be, for there was no guarantee that the Anglican bishop and the Anglican vocational discernment processes would recognize my calling as valid and suited for Anglican priestly ministry. I vividly remember realizing that my spirit was ready for the stretching and growing that the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship would afford me. The past nearly five Anglican years have only confirmed this.

Two, because of the above, I made sure that any negative ecclesial baggage was left behind or at least dealt with. The last thing Anglicans need is an angry, frustrated and resentful RC woman joining their ranks. What we do not allow God to transform, we transmit in unhealthy ways. It is one thing to experience righteous anger and frustration, but it is quite another to keep tapping that negative energy as a habitual way of life. I know other women who took their unresolved pain and anger with them into another denomination. While some may have good reason to do so, I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do for me.

Three, I was very intentional about sharing my denominational transition as an internal move within the Christian family of God instead of treating it as a family rupture. It is for this reason that a public liturgical ritual was celebrated to mark the denominational move, with an affirmation of our common baptism, and a ritual of “handing me over” to the Anglican family. I remember preaching at that liturgy, saying that, referring to Jesus’ words in John 14:2, I was only changing rooms in the Christian household, I was not leaving the house.

Finally, I have discovered that, while the institution no longer considers me a card-carrying Roman Catholic, my Catholic heart is alive and well. All the best and the finest of the Catholic tradition has gone with me in my spirituality, my theology and even in my ministry. I would be remiss to leave out the gifts and lessons learnt from intimate engagement, to this day, with our Lutheran siblings as well. In fact, the profound sense of ecclesial union/communion in my heart and mind tells me in unmistakable ways that I have not “left” anything or anyone. On the contrary, the Anglican move has expanded and deepened my Christian discipleship while I continue to drink deeply from the spiritual wells of my ecclesial family of origin.

So now, here I am, fully ordained and ministering happily in a rural community on the Canadian prairies. And the news broke a few months ago that this Anglican room in the Christian family home is rapidly emptying out, with its parishes in a major numerical free fall. What is it like to be a spiritual leader in a church that could see the lights go out in about 20+ years?

Well, I can honestly say that it is fascinating to be a part of a spiritual family that is told from all sides that its days are numbered. As for the causes of this numerical free fall, there are plenty of speculations out there, all vying for first rate attention. I feel no need to add my two-cents worth to this chorus, so I will simply limit this reflection to my own personal musings and spiritual experience.

First of all, church and ministry is about real people, real lives with all the joys and sorrows. Yes, my two parishes are small, unable to afford full-time ministry services even between the two churches. But in those small church families life happens, folks. And where there’s life, there’s love and hate, there’s joy and grief, there’s hardship and accomplishment, there’s hope and despair. Recently I celebrated with a 94-year old parishioner who still drives her own car. I delight in our 4-year old parishioner who, at every hymn we sing, steps un-self-consciously into the centre aisle and loses herself in a spontaneous and unique liturgical dance, much to the awe of all present. I attend to the sick and visit the lonely, bringing Christ’s holy food of communion and God’s mercy. I lend a listening ear to those overburdened and struggling with challenges too big to bear. I preach and preside at the Holy Eucharist, an act that fills me with reverence and awe every time. To feed God’s people with holy food and merciful words, to bring Christ’s gaze of love into hurting hearts, to pray the Holy Spirit into lost souls and lives — that holy work continues even in seasons of decline.

Second, there is a strange refreshing wind that begins to blow in seasons of diminishment and loss of influence. The wind of decline is pushing us on our knees, forcing a spirit of humility and self-examination. This honest knee-bending scrutiny is quite easy to avoid when we can take comfort, however false, in numbers and importance, whether that’s our parish, our theology or our tradition. In fact, humility retracts into the shadows when self-righteousness, superiority and pointing fingers assert themselves. We are reminded quite starkly that this is God’s church, and not our project for self-glorification. Given that we follow One who suffered death on a cross, we should not be surprised to suffer a similar lot. It is in fact quite biblical to become the counter-culture instead of being part of the culture that calls the worldly shots.

Three, there is a sense of moving closer to the early church, when Christians met in homes to break bread and share the Word of Life. The Christian community originated with very small beginnings; I wonder if becoming small again might allow us to recover what we lost when we grew too big. There is a sense of being pushed into one another’s ecclesial arms for sheer necessity. I think here of the many Catholic religious orders who are living their own diminishment, a diminishment that for some looks to become the end of their witness in church and world. The Anglican Church is not alone — we’re in this together. The sooner we admit this sober fact the sooner we can allow God to show us the way into the future.

The other thing to remember is that this numerical decline in institutional Christianity is not uniform across the globe. In fact, all mainline churches are experiencing significant growth in developing countries, which we refer to as the Global South. The Anglican Church is no exception. It is primarily in western cultures that Christian witness is waning. Guess what — we are not the center of the universe, far from it. Keeping the global view in mind helps to put our own diminishment in perspective; it might even raise different questions for self-examination than might otherwise appear.

In this sobering moment of organized religion’s decline in the western world maybe Christian unity might now get a fair chance, provided we are willing to carry burdens together (Gal. 6:2), to learn from one another, to confess our sins together before the cross of Christ, seeking mercy together. The most recent Anglican—Roman Catholic Document Walking Together on the Way considers us fellow pilgrims journeying at the summons of God’s Word. … Walking together means that, as traveling companions, we tend each other’s wounds, and that we love one another in our woundedness (Par. 21).

Asked how we should pray for the church, Canadian Anglican Primate Archbishop Linda Nicholls replied, “Pray for the Spirit to blow through the hearts and minds of everyone, and open our eyes to see where Jesus is calling us to be at work. It’s not that God isn’t there in the community already. And it isn’t that God isn’t calling us—sometimes we’re just expecting God to be in a different place, and so we don’t see God where God actually is. Pray for us to be flexible and open in how we express the gospel. And pray for that deepening of discipleship in us that will lead us there.

So, on our knees, let us pray, together, for one another, and for the world. Pray that we will be open to new wine in new wineskins, and in the process be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. ~ Ephesians 4:32