Why is it that while we are observing well documented decline in the life of the Church and more seriously of Christian adherence, we are hearing little or no conversation about an appropriately renewed shape for the Church this century? Are we simply going to keep doing what we have always done, accepting we are more and more irrelevant while the world gets on very nicely without us – or more truthfully languishes without proper Christian engagement? Or might we consider that our present structures, whilst serving us well in the past, no longer do so and that an entirely different way of being Church needs to emerge? Not only do these structures no longer serve us, but they are a burden that now prevent us from being a true witness in the contemporary world.
Those of us who undertook theological exploration in the 1960’s did so in the so-called death of God era. It was not simply John Robinson and Honest to God; it was also Dietrich Bonhoeffer and religion less Christianity; Paul Tillich and his proposition that God should be understood as being rather than a being - etc. Of course, none of this was about a genuine proposition of the ‘death of God’ in any real sense, less still of the demise of Christianity, much more about how one might more reasonably understand and practice religious or Christian belief in a contemporary world. I will always be grateful to my lecturers at that time, especially John Falkingham who taught theology and Gordon Griffiths who was my first Old Testament lecturer. At the age of 20 they helped me negotiate these ideas while at the same time retaining confidence in the fundamentals of faith, and love of scripture. Much later this early formation helped me chair a packed St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane who were there to hear Jack Spong in full flight, doing his best to discredit the biblical narrative, and then proceed to give us his own. His populous treatment of scripture had the same depth as the populous politics that now sweeps western democracies.
The Bonhoeffers and Tillichs of today are no less challenging and should be better known and read. They of course include James Alison, Miroslav Volf, Richard Rohr and many others. But I do not want here to engage in a theological discussion as such, but rather an ecclesiastical one.
Are we not currently facing the death of the (institutional) church and in our context, the beloved Anglican Church? I do not by this infer the death of ‘church’, the gathering of God’s people, nor am I inferring the death of Anglicanism per se, far from it, but the death of that institutional expression which no longer serves the contemporary age. Amongst other things I mean both the death, or radical redefinition, of entities like Dioceses, Parishes, and episcopates.
In the 1960’s I began my ministry in Inverell and Armidale in the Diocese of Armidale. Despite what I am sure were very imperfect ministries, it was almost impossible to get a seat on Sunday unless you were early. The Church was a lively and vital component of community life.
In the 1970’s and early 80’s I was the rector of Singleton in the Newcastle Diocese. Our Sunday school had 15 classes; one year there were 100 confirmation candidates; Christmas there were 1000 communicants; the men’s group had 150 members. All within a total population of well under 10,000 people. Many of you will be able to tell very similar stories.
Today the number of viable parishes in the bush have drastically reduced, while those in the city are able to remain viable because the population on which they draw is many times larger. We are maintaining bureaucracies and institutions at great expense as if they continue to have the relevance they once had. Everyone can recount stories (probably from one’s own children) of those who retain faith but find the parish ritual entirely unsatisfying and have dropped out. So many Parishes appear to have become chaplaincies to those who are members rather than agents of nourishment renewal, and transformation in the communities in which they are set. With a few notable and very refreshing exceptions bishops appear not to want to engage at all outside the narrow confines of their ecclesiastical lives.
So, what am I suggesting?
We need a wholesale reversal of the synod of Whitby (664)! You will recall that at that synod the Celtic Church lost and the Roman territorial, hierarchical, version of church through Dioceses and Parishes took its place (quite apart from the little matter of the date of Easter!) Now of course I am not meaning some nostalgic return to a past long gone, but I am meaning a rediscovery of a Church in tune with the rhythms of life in the contemporary world. Such a Church is likely to be far more contemplative. It is likely to connect digitally with most of its membership. Gathering together for worship on a seven-day cycle will continue but will not be the pattern for most of the membership. When gatherings occur, perhaps six to eight times a year, of which Christmas, Easter and Pentecost will clearly be three, they need to be celebratory, connecting to the life of the wider community and the rhythms and stories with which it identifies. Many or most will find regular fellowship discussion and energy from a variety of small groups associated with meals, conversation and prayer. These groups will be multifarious and not listed in the Sunday pew sheet!
We need to breed a very different style of episcopal leader, not one who sees himself or herself leading an old style Diocesan bureaucracy but a contemplative who is able to lead the Christian family into engagement with God, each other, and equally importantly with the world in which they live.
Such a bishop will not chair committees or boards, but will be the gatherer of spiritual leadership, ordained and lay, the one who identifies and gives permission to giftedness and grace. Bishop and clergy will not want to constrain spiritual exploration, least of all seek to define the atonement or other Christian verities but foster such exploration of God known to us as Trinity that ethical and other major 21st century challenges can be understood in its light – as well as the personal challenges that beset us all. Whether Parish or Diocesan boundaries and identities should remain I am unsure, but I am certain they require radical transformation and rethinking.
Western culture is decaying at the same rate that Christianity is diminishing in influence. It cannot be too arrogant to connect these realities. We need to be honest enough to recognise that continuing to do what has always been done will not lead to a different result. The world is crying out for wisdom, for insight. It is not in need of religiosity, dogma or canon law. It needs authentic Christian living, openness - not certainty, inclusiveness – not elitism, a healthy integration of heart, mind and gut.
These words are written, not to offer any solution – how could they, but to open a conversation that is desperately overdue. They are written to suggest that those who enter the episcopate behind us should be expecting to lead a very, very, different style of episcopate to the one which we led, and they should be given every encouragement to do so.