It appears that Anglicans are really quite talented at creating entire cottage industries around problems of identity. Books about “Anglican Identity” and “What is Anglicanism?” abound in numbers far greater than you may at first imagine. I feel as though, if one is allowed to judge by certain internet circles, we are about to start on a whole new creation when finally – about 30 years too late – we get around to addressing the “problem” of “mainline decline.”
The facts are…
- We’re getting older
- We’re getting smaller
- We’re getting poorer
- We’re getting less and less important in our social stature
Well, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT!!!????
- Should we eschew hierarchy?
- Should we come up with THE missional strategy?
- Should we maybe wear khakis to preach?
- Should we mess with the liturgies? Make God more feminine; black; expansive; Celtic; relevant?
Now, these are not all merely banal questions (though perhaps some are), but I would like to suggest that so long as the beginning and focal point of the discussion is centered around decline and “stemming the tide,” then we’ve already failed.
This line of reasoning puts us immediately in a reactionary position. “What are we going to do about this threat? (This too is where the “identity fetish” creeps in. Constantly going in circles trying to fence the boundaries of identity means that less and less do we care to look to Jesus to judge what we think it important about our identity).
It also creates an atmosphere where even practices and beliefs that are very good are swept aside by the well-meaning or self-proclaimed “prophets” and “reformers.”
What often goes overlooked is how deeply institutional this line of reasoning is, and how ironic it is that these questions are often under the guise of being “anti-institutional.” Concern about numbers and colleges and seminaries and ages are all very institutional issues. (Though, far be it from me to be anti-institutional.)
Allow me to suggest that whether numbers are waxing or waning, the primary issue ought to be one of praying, working, longing, to be faithful to our Lord and faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel. I know this might seem just empty and pious word-mixing. The point I’m trying to make, though, isn’t about out-piousing anybody, but about shifting the seat of discernment from one of reactionary concern about structures to a positive freedom to love and worship our Lord and love our neighbor without concern for “maintaining” the Episcopal Church.
Doing otherwise evinces a deep lack of faith. As if somehow Christ isn’t risen and it’s up to us to pick up the Church by her bootstraps and keep her going! (Thus, even now the pelagian shadow of liberal protestantism lurks behind every question and every answer)
I think we could all stand to learn from people like Derek Olsen, who when prodded on the question of a drop in numbers responds not by saying what ought to go in order to stop the bleeding, but by pointing out what ought not be negotiable because they are the things that help to keep us faithful to the Gospel that we’ve received. Or +Rowan Williams who concludes his astounding essay “God” in this way:
“In a church that is in many ways deeply wedded to ‘territorial’ preoccupations, it is unlikely that the gift and promise of the non-territorial God will be clearly discernible. In other words, a church that is concerned about its internal politics will not transform the political in the way that is in fact made possible by Jesus. The desire to secure purity and control in the Church (which can be a preoccupation as much of ‘progressives’ as of ‘traditionalists’) looks to a territory in which believers may see in one another a reassuring sameness; and when believers are looking at one another to test that assurance, they are less likely to be attending to the foundational absence on which the life of the community rests. And if the contemplative life is central in some way to the integrity of the Church at large, it is because of this: not to point to ‘values’ above and beyond the concerns of the world, not to pass judgment on the unspiritual conflicts of the Church or society, but to witness to the way in which a life may be constructed in which all acts are referrable to God and in which the consequent ‘deregionalizing’ of the life of the spirit, life before God, impacts increasingly upon the understanding of prayer. It is to do with the poverty and wealth of the everyday; with the fullness and emptiness of faith.”