The Future of the Church … or … The Church of the Future? April 11, 2018
We are now less than 7 months from the 30th Session of the Diocesan Synod of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador to be held November 8-10 at the Parish of All Saints in CBS. At that Synod the report of the Diocesan Commission on Parish Viability and Renewal will be presented. The members have been at work since last year and our church has good reason to expect great things from them. I continue to ask your prayers for Canon Greg Mercer who is chairing the Diocesan Commission, and those working alongside him: Mr. Peter Reccord, the Rev. Jolene Peters, Mr. Peter Adams, Ms. Debbie Pantin, Ms. Pamela Norman, the Very Rev. William Bellamy, and Mr. David Legge. Another vital discussion we will have at Synod will be about Marriage Equality as our Diocese prepares for General Synod in 2019. On the evening of Friday, November 9, at the CLB Armoury the Bishop’s Dinner will be held with Sister Elizabeth Davis as our Guest Speaker.
Although the precise theme for Synod has not yet been decided, I suspect it will be some variation of the theme for the Lenten series of invited speakers at St. Mark’s Parish in St. John’s this year. That theme – The Future of the Church … or … The Church of the Future? – almost perfectly describes the work we need to do in November ... and beyond November. We need to bring an end to conversations about maintaining the church we have and shift totally into a conversation about becoming a different community of faith as we move into the future. Although I am not usually given to hyperbole, I believe this will be the most important synod for our church since 1976 when we decided to create three dioceses in Newfoundland and Labrador. I also believe it will probably be our most important synod for the next 50 years. 2018 is the fullness of time in many ways for us.
The second week of April finds us all still in the glow of Easter. In churches across this diocese on Easter Sunday worshippers were greeted with the words, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and the people responded, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” Around the world, that proclamation continues as the Easter celebration of Jesus’ resurrection stirs Christian churches everywhere.
But the resurrection of Jesus does present a problem for Christians. Christians sometimes find it easier to keep a holy Lent than to keep a holy Easter. And, as I have often said over the years, churches, like people, can get stuck at Good Friday and find it so very hard to move to Easter Sunday. A darkness and sadness reminiscent of the Lenten season is sometimes more evident in the life of some churches then the joyful proclamation of Easter. The solemnity of the Lenten season culminating in the tragedy of Good Friday seems to linger within the church.
There is a character in the movie, The Princess Bride, who is still and pallid and seemingly dead. When someone observes that he “can’t talk” he is told that, “… it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There is a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”
In the church it can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between mostly dead and all dead. But it should not be nearly so hard to tell the difference between being truly dead and truly alive. The interaction between death and life resides at the centre of our story as Christians. Our Holy Scriptures do not deny the reality of death in human life.
But in Jesus we learn that mortal death will not have the final say. A Christian faith is a faith that affirms the power of death while proclaiming the still greater power of God to overcome death and bring new life.
And that new life is qualitatively different from the old. Two episodes in Holy Scripture suggest such: When Mary Magdalene first came to the tomb and encountered her resurrected Lord she did not recognize him at first. She thought he was the gardener. Only when he spoke her name from the other side of the grave did she recognize Jesus. For the disciples on the road to Emmaus it was much the same. They two did not recognize Jesus as he walked with them. Only later, at supper, did his identity become apparent. There was something different about Jesus following the resurrection that was unexpected and at first unfamiliar for disciples like Mary and the others. The new and resurrected life was not the same as the old life in the flesh. That was true in the resurrection of Jesus. It will also be true in our resurrections one day. I suggest you it is also true in our church. The new life will not look like the old life.
Things are dying all around us in the church today. Buildings, structures, systems, are passing away right in front of our eyes. We are drowning under the weight of our buildings right now. In this diocese today, we are operating with less than half the people we had a few years ago. And over half of our worshippers are older than 50 years of age with many in their 70s and 80s. Our active worshipping contributing members have become fewer and older. Many of those who are left are shouldering heavy burdens at a time in their life when they should be able to step back and enjoy a well-earned rest. Difficult and painful decisions need to be made almost everywhere today for the sake of our church and more importantly for the sake of the Gospel if we are to be able to continue the work that our Lord has asked us to do. If we do not change course and bring about renewed growth we will be facing collapse in the decades ahead as the current leadership cannot continue forever. Although there are many ways of measuring, of our 79 active churches in the diocese, about 40 are in some form of decline, about 30 are holding their own (for now), and maybe 10 are growing. Think about that.
A new and resurrected life is needed in our church. And here is where the Easter Gospel speaks to us in ways that we may struggle to understand but we really need to. Behold, I show you a mystery. The Gospel tells us that the new and resurrected life promised to us by God and witnessed in his son Jesus will be a different life from the old order. That old order of sin and sickness and death. But the other thing to note in the Easter Gospel is that the new and eternal life only comes after death. Something must first die. There are some, perhaps many, today who believe that the way to new life in the church is to go back to the way it used to be without anything needing to die.
There are some, and I hear from them, who want to abolish every modern innovation and discovery so that we might revert back to some idealized point in the past. For many people that idealized point is somewhere in the 1950s or the 1960s before we saw all of the social changes that we are dealing with today and before we started to see the decline in the numbers of active worshipping Anglicans. But that past is gone, and I really don’t think we will see it again soon.
What we will see, and I believe this firmly, is an entirely new faith community emerging as the old passes away. And that emerging community is sure starting to look different from the old. For some, the new is barely recognizable compared to the old and they don’t like it. For others the new is a welcome sight after long years in death and in the shadow of death. Remember those 10 churches I mentioned that are showing signs of growth in our diocese? Not one of them looks at all like it did 10 years ago. Not one.
I have seen a lot of death in my life. As a priest there have been many hundreds of funerals, and countless final prayers with people as they left this world. No two people die in exactly the same way. I have known some whose journey into death was filled with anxiety and even with fear. I have known others whose death was truly holy in the confidence and joy of God to the very end so much so that I could almost hear the heavenly angels singing them home. I think if I were to characterize the difference it has something to do with trust and with a relationship. Trust in God and a personal relationship with Jesus.
I call our church to trust in God as we prepare for November. I call our church to a personal relationship with Jesus as we prepare for November. I believe that November will bring both death and resurrection. Let us together face both with confidence and trust so that we may truly leave Synod on November 10 no longer speaking about God’s church having a mission … but knowing that God’s mission truly has a church in the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador.