I have been away for two months, as part of a sabbatical leave which continues until the end of the year. I have not been on such an extended break from normal routines of work and home before - my last two sabbaticals were mostly spent at or near home. It was pretty fabulous being free from those routines! (There were countervailing stresses re travel). It was good to be away. It is good to be home. But this is not a travelogue, so what has struck me as worth noting in an 'Anglican' blog?
I suspect several things will emerge from my ongoing subconscious reflecting, but here is one reflection, based on being part on several Sundays of full Anglican churches. (To keep in perspective the general state of the global church, my experiences while away have included some great services in well supported Methodist, Catholic and Elim churches).
What fills an Anglican church in 2015?
This is what doesn't fill an Anglican church: one specific style of worship. I have been impressed by congregations filling churches offering a variety of styles of Anglican liturgy, to say nothing of styles of preaching.
This also doesn't fill Anglican churches: getting everything right. OK so I am sole judge and assessor here, but I felt on occasions in full Anglican churches that if I were in charge of them, I would do some things differently and, naturally, better. (Having said that, no full Anglican church I experienced these past two months, or ever in the past, was full despite doing all things badly!)
Thirdly, what doesn't fill some Anglican churches is things done Anglicanly. I've experienced full Anglican services where things were done 'by the book' and full churches where they were not done 'by the book'. It is also doesn't seem to make a difference whether the vicar is robed, or, when not robed, whether the vicar wears a clerical collar, or a tie and shirt, or an open necked shirt!
So what does fill Anglican churches? My hunch is that what fills Anglican churches is simply that these churches do what people desire in a church. But that then leads to two kinds of Anglican church doing what people desire in a church.
(1) Anglican churches which do what people desire, though not by being distinctively Anglican (i.e. distinctive by virtue of use of Anglican prayer book services, or offering rites in an Anglican manner-prescribed robes, due solemnity).
(2) Anglican churches which do what is distinctively Anglican and that happens to suit a bunch of people, some of whom may be committed Anglicans, some of whom may be not so loyal to our denomination.
There is nothing new in these observations. But the key to understanding them in depth may be to think about what it means for people to 'desire' something from the experience of being in church. My sense having crossed a culture or two in the past couple of months, is that what we desire from church may be shaped by our culture as much as by other, hopefully Spirit-fuelled desire.
To give a very general illustration. I see enough cultural desire within English culture for certain forms of Anglican worship to explain why some kinds of services there seem able to draw a full congregation when pretty much the same approaches in NZ fail to draw full congregations.
So one question, returning to NZ, is what is going on in our culture that the churches could better connect to?
It is not a new question. It has been rumbling around 'church growth' and 'mission strategy' discussions for years now. I guess I am returning with a renewed conviction that we need further discernment of our Kiwi culture and how the gospel of Christ connects with it.