Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Our urgent need as a church in these islands

Beyond questions of catholic, evangelical, protestant, reformed character to our Anglican church in these islands, and certainly beyond whether we should be wearing these rather than those robes, or indeed any robes at all, the urgent question for Anglicans in these islands is whether we are willing to address the question of our continuing decline. Or not.

Tucked away in our Christchurch synod papers were statistics for our annual attendance, statistics which show continuing decline. Though we do not share these diocesan statistics with each other in our church, I would be surprised if any other episcopal unit was showing definitive signs of a trend in growth. (Even the Nelson Diocese, famous for growth in the 1990s, has been declining in the 2000s). Likely we share this decline with other denominations, at least the historic ones (save perhaps for the Roman Catholics). But I will let their bloggers speak for themselves. What might Anglicans think, say and do in order to be a church with a future?

The urgency of this question, we might begin by noting, is not only about regional or national statistics. Supposing we had all those stats at our finger tips, the graph of decline would see us existing as a church for at least a century to come, both regionally and nationally. (Our Christchurch annual attendance, for instance, is in the 400,000s, so it would take a while to whittle that down to zero). No, the urgency is that at the level of parishes and rohe, some will not exist in twenty years (or less) time. Further, closing parishes and rohe down could exacerbate regional decline (i.e. when down to the last twenty at worship and the decision to close, say, via amalgamation is taken, all twenty may not simply transfer to another church - there will be statistical bleeding in the process). Readers here may recall me posting about 18 months ago my shock at the number of Methodists churches for sale or recently sold in Christchurch. Their fate could be our future unless we address the situation with boldness and preparedness for change.

The urgency of the question posed above, we might also usefully note, is not the same as the urgency of the question of the general future of church-going Christianity in NZ: there are plenty of large churches in a city such as Christchurch, filled with young people (meaning, children, teens, young adults, young married couples) carrying within themselves the hope of the future of Christianity in these islands.

No, we Anglicans face the questions of whether or not we have a future beyond the end of this century, and what character to our life will best take us forward into that future.

The decisions of the synods of the Dioceses of Auckland and Waiapu at the weekend raise for me several questions about our future if they are joined by other dioceses in rejecting the Covenant and in pushing for quick action on the blessing of same sex partnerships.

(1) Could we become the church characterised in public perception as 'the gay church'? Would that be good for our future existence beyond this century?

(2) Does an unwillingness to embrace the Covenant represent a deep seated antipathy to doing anything substantial together in respect of joining in a combined strategy for evangelism and outreach, and for training and education together towards a coherent national mission and ministry?

Even if these questions are way off beam - I am confident commenters will tell me one way or another - the urgent need of our church to address the matter of decline remains. It is simply a fact that we have a significant number of parishes over-represented by elderly people in their Sunday congregations. These congregations have no future unless there is change. Whether the change is to the style or the substance (or both) of the service, in my judgement some radical change is required in these congregations or they will cease to exist. In a number of parishes these congregations are the only congregations, so the future of the parish as a parish is under threat.

A lurking question is then whether we can make the necessary changes in an Anglican way or not. If we make change in (say) a Pentecostal way, that will as surely lead to the end of Anglicanism here as if we make no change at all.

In my view change in an Anglican way will require us to hold our catholic and reformed heritage together very tightly, judiciously employing our protestant character (i.e. willingness to do things differently) along with an evangelical passion (i.e. urgency to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ).

Time is running out.

All is not lost. I remind readers here that there are many examples of vibrant Anglican congregations in these islands, peopled in a balanced manner with young and old. But in every case I can think of some kind of radical change  has taken place to the way things were once done in these ministry units.

Radical change is only painful when it is resisted!


Brother David said...

Peter, what do you mean when you use the phrase "the gospel of Jesus Christ?"

Andy S said...

Perhaps Peter the issue isn't Anglicanism but the real need to bring the Christian Faith as a voice in public discourse from which it has been marginalized.

From where I sit the Anglican Church has attempted to remain "relevant" by going along with worldly agendas - that doesn't work of course, spiritual growth doesn't happen when worship is replaced with inculcation in the cause de jour.

I think you know that the role of the Church is not to change society but to change peoples hearts by preaching the Gospel. And that success in that endevour will bring about positive changes in society.

But this will be an ongoing battle, the battle for souls, until Christ returns.

Rosemary Behan said...

Jesus called us 'fishers' of men .. but we've stopped fishing. That's obvious or we'd be growing as the population grows. Also fishermen need to be ready to move where the fish move. Yes, some places are not fished out, so SOME fishermen can be fairly static and stable, but MOST must be ready to move. Either to where He shows us, or to the still waters, the shady waters or the turbulent waters that we know so well as fishermen!! However we have stopped moving, stopped fishing. We no longer trust Him when He tells us to fish, no longer believe His Word that He will bring the fish to our nets. Shame on us.

Father Ron Smith said...

Numbers was never the true measure of the Faithful within the Church. Lean and mean might better serve the message of the Gospel - the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ - of God's acceptance of all, despite their sinful nature. God so loved the world!

We are not promised an easy road - that might just be the way to perdition. Only the faithful will persevere until the end.

Courage, brother! The Gospel will not be denied!

(Welcome back, David, to the blog!)

Anonymous said...


Whilst no one is saying robes belong to the esse of Christianity, it is intriguing that you keep bringing them up. Certainly there appears some incongruity in the way you seek Anglicanism to be catholic, in your suggestion that chasubles are a sign of such catholicism, and your insistence that you won’t wear one.

There also appears a clash in the way you have previously said that the NZ Anglican Church is becoming more agreeable to your conservative position as evidenced by recent episcopal elections, and now you oppose the very direction that these newer bishops are leading.


liturgy said...

Greetings Peter

If this is the urgent question, Peter, why was there not a single mention of it at our synod meeting? Why are we having another similar-length special synod meeting, with much preparation, cost, etc. – not about this urgent question but about the so-called “Anglican Covenant” which IMO will not impact your urgent question (significantly). [Although I’m fascinated by your thought that the Anglican Covenant will improve our poor training and education issues!]

Why do we “not share our diocesan statistics with each other in our church”?
The “400,000s” need not “take a while to whittle that down to zero” – depending on their age. I read that as about 8,000 a week? Do we guess there’s less than 1% of our nation in an Anglican church on Sunday?

You point out RCs are the only historic denomination holding their numbers. Why are we not looking at why? Is worship and spirituality a component? Are schools a component? At synod, during the time allotted for the Anglican schools’ reports, my highlighting how many at synod, with all ages healthily evident, are associated with Anglican schools, did not lead to even a momentary pause and reflection that that might be worth feeding into our post-earthquake strategic planning as populations move.



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Alison
I am interested in an Anglican catholicism that need not be symbolised by robes while respecting those Anglican catholics whose robe wearing symbolises the catholic faith the adhere to.

As for a tendency for our recent bishops to be more rather than less conservative: my theory has taken a hit. It might soon sink beneath the waves ...

Brother David said...

Does my question not merit an answer Peter?

Peter Carrell said...

Whoops, David, I answered it on the wrong post ... will try to get back to this, but need to dash. look for a comment which begins "Brief comments."

Unknown said...

With respect, I agree there is a problem in Western Anglicanism - but disagree that the answer is to ask how we can 'survive'.

The root of the problem (I suggest) is that the 'Church institutional' long since gave up asking, "How can we preach Christ to others so that they may be saved?" That has become, as Roland Allen put it, the 'fad of a few'.

The result is a deficient ecclesiology - the Church has forgotten what it is supposed to be. When we remember that, we won't worry about surviving.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David
I cannot find the comment I thought I posted (and then thought I posted, accidentally, to another post) ... perhaps I forgot to push the right button etc. So, here goes:

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God reconciles us to himself and transforms us into new creations, fit for the purpose of eternal fellowship with God.

Brother David said...

Peter, that sounds more like a gospel about Jesus, not the gospel or the message that Jesus taught his followers.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi David,
I think my summary of the gospel (which is not, of course, the only way a summary could be worded) is

(1) consistent with Jesus' teaching (e.g. that his death and resurrection were significant events, that reconciliation with God was important (e.g. parable of prodigal son), and that eternal fellowship with God was an end of the kingdom of God (see several parables re judgment, inclusion in God's wedding feast);
(2) consistent with the gospel as taught through the epistles.

Further I submit that the gospel is the message of and about Jesus Christ as understood through the whole of Scripture, not confined to what Jesus' taught his followers.

Juan Kinnear said...

Dear Peter

Your post raises some important issues which merit discussion. However, the connections you imply, I suggest, are problematic and somewhat misleading.

Allow me to start with the old chestnut of correlation and causation. It is very tempting to make assumptions about the reason for the decline in church membership, by linking single issues to poor church attendance e.g. by claiming ‘Liberal theology causes empty churches!’ Now arguably a correlation can be demonstrated between the processes of theological liberalisation and decline in church membership, but I would argue that several confounding factors contribute to this phenomenon. Consequently, a causal relationship simply cannot be demonstrated. Such matters as societal changes, changes in work patterns, the increased availability of alternative social/recreational opportunities etc. must be considered. It is important to remember that the church is not in the driving seat of many of these changes, but instead is subject to diminished participation in the same way as Rotary, Lions, spots clubs and mason’s lodges, to name a few.

Consequently, it must be acknowledged that internal reform will only address the decline in church attendance to some measure. That said, it cannot be denied that confident teaching and warm fellowship does church attendance no harm. While these features are not limited to parishes of a more conservative, evangelical bent, I would argue that they do both better (on the whole) than theologically liberal parishes and benefit from better attendance as a consequence. So here lies the rub. Your post seems to argue that, in some sense Anglicans have sacrificed substance (sound catholic theology, signing up to the Covenant) for style (vestments, RC catholic styled liturgy, a ‘soft’ stance towards homosexuality etc.) and because of that, our church is slowly perishing. I, on the other hand, would argue that the causes of church growth/decline cannot be reduced to simple, single issue hypotheses.

Becoming the ‘Gay Church’ or the ‘Not-Gay-Church’ will not restore our fortunes. An organisational reconfiguration along the lines of the Covenant is equally unlikely to prompt improved church membership, in my view. While some may stay home on a Sunday morning because of Anglican politics, I suspect far more stay at home because they are worn out from working every hour God gives them, or because it is the only time they have to spend with the kids, or because they have never been inside a church, believe there is nothing there for them and would rather go shopping and take in a movie.



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Juan
I cannot see what I have written which implies either a simplistic explanation for the problem of decline or advocates a simple solution to the problem.

There are some simple observations to make, true.

But the questions I raise admit of a range of possible answers.

Father Ron Smith said...

Rosemary, I like your parable about the fishing - and the need to move to where the fish are. It's good to see that you've left behind the Sydney scene - presumably because of the lack of fish there (except, maybe, because of the sharks); and that you've returned to the more fertile waters of Christchurch. I hope your rods are well baited, and the nets ready. Good Fishing!