Church Needs Clearer Vision, but It's Not on Death Row

By Harris, David | Anglican Journal, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Church Needs Clearer Vision, but It's Not on Death Row


Harris, David, Anglican Journal


Noticing that something isn't working or is worn out doesn't require a great deal of ingenuity, only a degree of attentiveness. Genius is figuring out how to fix a problem. It's the ability to see the way forward.

It's no surprise, then, that lots of people can see problems with the institutional church these days.

Anglicans in Canada, the U.S. and England are involved in a degree of introspection. Both the Americans and English conducted major surveys recently to find out what the faithful, and perhaps the unfaithful, are looking for in the church. Canada has no official surveys under way. But that hasn't stopped self-appointed observers from diagnosing the church's problems.

Last year, Rev. George Eves of New Brunswick self-published a book on the decline of the church and sent it to all General Synod delegates. This year, Toronto's Rev. Marney Patterson has published a similar book, Suicide: the Decline and Fall of the Anglican Church of Canada? Both are full of doom and gloom and call for a return to the good old days of the 1950s and early '60s. But society has never succeeded by going backwards. Put in terms of the arts, it's pastiche at best -- unoriginal copycatting.

Worse, such proposals fail to see the crucial role the era they are praising had in causing the present deplored situation. If one believes liberalism beginning in the late '60s is the root of all evils, it will hardly help to return to the values of the preceding period, since it was rebellion against the evils people saw in the '50s that gave birth to that liberalism.

Worst of all, in the case of these church critics, is that they seem to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today.

Some people say it doesn't matter if these authors get a few details wrong because they see the big picture: the church is in trouble.

Well, yes it is, at least to a degree. It's what might be the problem that's at the heart of this question. Increasingly, the strident voices in the church are extreme liberals who feel capable of changing Scripture and doctrine if necessary so that it suits their prejudices. At the other end are the Pattersons of the church who are reading Scripture in ways it has never been read in the Anglican Church.

Numbers have fallen from the peak attendance in the late 1960s, but the decline is a slow drip at the moment. In most respects, the church has achieved a measure of stability: in numbers of members, income, the number of ordained clergy, and other such simple measures. Still, there are far too many churches in many urban and rural parts of the country. In cities, some huge churches are almost empty while booming new developments lack any churches. In the country, many clergy spend time racing around multi-point parishes developed in the days of horse and buggy when people could easily drive to one or two central locations, as they do for their groceries and recreation.

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Church Needs Clearer Vision, but It's Not on Death Row
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