Sunday, July 15, 2012

What now? (Part 2)

In part one of this mini-series I raised these questions as part of a reflection on some of the decisions made at the recent ACANZP synod in Fiji, held last week:

"What is the state of the society in which we seek to be the visible church of God?"


"What is our Luke-Acts [sociological legitimation] story for the Western church today, for ACANZP?"

My next question concerns the future of our church as it seeks to be a sociologically legitimated church in a 21st century Western society (in NZ) and in a 21st century Maori society (in Aotearoa) and in a 21st century Polynesian group of societies (in Polynesia, and, mostly, in Auckland in respect of NZ).

Before raising the question it might be worth a quick read of an interesting article by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, headed "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" In case you cannot access the full article, here are the key paragraphs:

"Traditional believers, both Protestant and Catholic, have not necessarily thrived in this environment [i.e. the 1960s social and moral revolution in the Western world]. The most successful Christian bodies have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message.
But if conservative Christianity has often been compromised, liberal Christianity has simply collapsed. Practically every denomination — Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance. Within the Catholic Church, too, the most progressive-minded religious orders have often failed to generate the vocations necessary to sustain themselves.
Both religious and secular liberals have been loath to recognize this crisis. Leaders of liberal churches have alternated between a Monty Python-esque “it’s just a flesh wound!” bravado and a weird self-righteousness about their looming extinction. (In a 2005 interview, the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop explained that her communion’s members valued “the stewardship of the earth” too highly to reproduce themselves.)
Liberal commentators, meanwhile, consistently hail these forms of Christianity as a model for the future without reckoning with their decline. Few of the outraged critiques of the Vatican’s investigation of progressive nuns mentioned the fact that Rome had intervened because otherwise the orders in question were likely to disappear in a generation. Fewer still noted the consequences of this eclipse: Because progressive Catholicism has failed to inspire a new generation of sisters, Catholic hospitals across the country are passing into the hands of more bottom-line-focused administrators, with inevitable consequences for how they serve the poor.
But if liberals need to come to terms with these failures, religious conservatives should not be smug about them. The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence."

My question for our church is this:

What kind of church do we want to be after 2014?

Acknowledging that the Anglican Church in Polynesia is a minority church, compared with the influence of the Methodist churches in Fiji and Tonga, to date the Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand has been one of the largest churches, with (still) the largest comprehensive geographical reach into our cities, towns and countryside, embedded in the history of both Maori and Pakeha worlds in these islands, with some semblance of being the de facto established church (at least in respect of State funerals). The pre-eminence of the Anglican church in these ways in Aotearoa New Zealand can no doubt be explained in great detail by historians and sociologists, but here I suggest a significant explanation has been our comprehensiveness in theology and churchmanship.

We have catered for many different styles, and a wide range of theologies. We have incorporated a number of fashions and moods of the times: Ritualism in the 19th century, Modernism in the early 20th century, the Charismatic Movement in the late 20th century, shades of which, some stronger and some weaker in colour continue to drive forward the shape of our church today. Arguably we have been this comprehensive church precisely because of the tension in our beginnings as an evangelical, missionary church of the 1820s and 1830s swamped in the 1840s and 1850s by the influx of non-evangelical, not so missionary minded settlers: our origins were in comprehension and our development never quite lost any of the initial contributing elements.

But a two year period of re-examination of our theology of marriage could lead to a diminishment of our comprehension, specifically to a displacement of the conservative contribution to that comprehensiveness by a settlement of that re-examination which is determinedly liberal/progressive. If so, we would have taken a TEC-style turn for the future. Ross Douthat sets out clearly the dangers of settling for such a solution to our current encounters with the consequences of the 1960s.

Personally I would be deeply saddened to find that the comprehensiveness of the church to which I belong, through birth, baptism, conviction and license, is jettisoned. But worse, I see signs that it would be the beginning of the end of this church. As Anglicans used to being the largest and greatest church of the land, we can miss seeing the bigger picture of contemporary Christianity in these islands. In that bigger picture we are increasingly a smaller player. The growth areas in congregational life are in churches of other denominations and even of no denomination. Anglicanism could disappear tomorrow off the face of New Zealand's earth and Christianity would continue to thrive, grow, permutate and develop. In particular, Christianity of the non-Anglican variety is showing itself as particularly adept at winning young people to Christ. And, guess what, most are joining up to a discipleship programme which is not liberal/progressive.

I see a huge temptation in the GS of 2014 to determine that when most of the rest of Christianity in Aotearoa New Zealand is conservative, traditional, biblical in its orthodoxy and orthopraxy, ACANZP can become the liberal/progressive alternative. My prayer, wish, agenda and campaign here (for what it is feebly worth) is that our church does not take that turn, but determines, whatever re-examinations take place in the next two years, that we will both remain a comprehensive church and be part of the mainstream future of Christianity in these islands.

What kind of church do we want to be after 2014?


MIchael Reddell said...

Humanly speaking it must surely be too late for your wish to be fulfilled. Too much else of orthodox faith and practice has been set aside, why stop without endorsing gay marriage and the like?

But we must long and pray for a movement of the Spirit, purifying, renewing, and transforming the Anglican practice and proclamation here in New Zealand.

By the way, Douthat's entire book is well worth reading.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Michael,
I am ever hopeful!

Chris Spark said...

To be honest Peter, I am just hoping that we will be a church that a young-ish, conservative-ish (can I get away with that?) Anglican minister like myself can still serve in good conscience, and reach out with the transforming and liberating gospel of Jesus to sinners like myself. Like Luke - to be able to keep calling for and seeking to live repentence for the forgiveness/release from our sins in response to the gospel of the witnesses of Jesus.

We'll see.

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, do I detect here what I may diagnose as a similar fear to that of the Jewish hierarchy, when threatened by the emergence of a radical Christian liberality - by 'The One who came to His own, but His own did not receive Him'?

If we believe that we are part of God's Holy Catholic Church, and that God has a use for us in helping to bring about the Gospel's emancipation of ALL from the burdens of captivity to competing ideologies; then we have to trust that God, through our experience of God in Word and the Sacraments of our Church - with the charism of Holy Charity enjoined on us by Jesus Christ - will continue to use us.

If, however, we are afraid to open up 'The Kingdom of heaven to ALL believers', in the fear of our being contaminated by the world that Christ has redeemed, we may, indeed, become superfluous to God's plan of reconciling the world to God's Self.

Anonymous said...

"Our experience of Word and Sacrament"

That would be the same Word that says that homosexual activity is a sin?

How can you claim to experience the Word if you ignore it when it does not suit your political beliefs?

Jesus did not promote "liberality" he preached redemption through repentance from sin.