The Anglican Church of Canada is hollowing out. It’s in steep decline. Some might call this a “free fall.”
This shouldn’t be a surprise to most of us. We’re used to seeing almost vacant sanctuaries built to house congregations that no longer exist. We’re used to seeing glorious architecture fall decrepit, standing like remnants from a lost world.
What may be surprising are the figures themselves. Seeing what was once a shadowy spectre in the background counted and tallied makes its threat imminent and real.
How do we make sense of all of this?
We make sense of it by recognizing we as Anglicans in Canada are in exile.
We are a church in exile in a culture that we have helped to create. Like Israel, we are few in number, being driven and scattered by the Lord. Surely, this is the result of our own sinfulness—and the sinfulness of our ancestors in the faith. We are seeing the iniquity of our fathers being visited upon us as children (though we also reap their blessings).
Yet we as a church are also Christ’s body. Perhaps it is God’s will to crush us, the way he crushed the body of Job, or the way he crushed the body of his Son.
This may seem pretty bleak. And it is. But what is the alternative? That God has somehow failed? That he is wishing us to prosper and his purposes have been thwarted?
I am not necessarily saying that God has sent this difficulty on us, but perhaps he has. In any case I am confident he has allowed it. The God of infinite love and goodness—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is allowing our churches to crumble. He has not abandoned us, but our decay continues, the stats tell us.
This is deeply discouraging, certainly.
What can be done about this?
I think the first step is to grieve and to lament. I for one, feel deeply grieved. I grieve often.
There has a been a real loss for many people here, seeing a church that was once a “given,” that has been there for generations, declining and closing doors. There is no happy ending in sight here. There is no hopeful glimmer on the horizon. Not yet, at least. I think we first must reckon with our loss as clergy, and with the loss experienced by our parishioners.
Then, I think it’s time to pray. I admit I’m not a great example. I tend to try to work my way out of difficult situations. Prayer does not feel as productive as starting new programs. But I really believe this is the way forward: Grieving, deep grieving. And then prayer.
It’s not the time to abandon ship on traditional parochial ministry either. I’m all for Fresh Expressions and innovative contexts for worship, but I don’t see these as a viable way forward. Perhaps I am naïve, but I think local congregations are the lifeblood of the church, and they always will be, though thinned out and scattered farther apart than they have been.
One of the ways I see God at work in all of this is his purgative role. Any sense of pride one may have felt as an Anglican a generation or two ago is vanishing. We do not have the cultural clout we once did. We are divided amongst ourselves over sexuality, tradition and how we read the Bible. We are in decline.
The mercy in all of this is that this suffering has the potential to make us humble. Humility allows us to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses with a clear head. It also enables us to recognize the blessings we can give and receive in the wider body of Christ. It’s not so easy to scoff at the unrefined beginnings of Pentecostalism when it is a dynamic force in the wider church—and when we are trying to keep our heads above the water. We are most apt to share in the pain of our sisters and brothers in the mainline and Roman Catholic churches when their trajectory looks very much like ours. These bonds can only be forged in the humility that is born out of our failure.
The projections tell us that there will not be church in 20 years. I don’t know about that.
Though we are suffering as a whole, I see pockets of growth. Much of this is in the North. But even here, where I serve in Saint John, St. Luke’s is a congregation that was once in decline and is now growing. The growth is slow, but it is steady. If I look at the trends in our congregation from the past five years, it should be thriving in the next 20. Dioceses are declining, but some parishes are bucking the odds.
My family and I will be around in 20 years, God willing. I may not have a remunerative position as a priest, and I have thought about that and how it might look. This is discouraging, and not something that would be easy. But I will continue to serve however I can, in the capacity that I can.
The Rev. Cole Hartin, assistant curate, St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Saint John, N.B.