Story first published Mar. 17, 1968
How long will the Christians accept being thrown to the lions?
“The way things are going, the Church as we know it won’t exist in 50 years time…” Comment of a committed Christian, a Newfoundlander with background in the service of his church, who contributes heavily to its operation and upkeep, is determined to see denominational schools preserved – though they too will change, he admits.
He is not referring only to his own particular faith when he foresees vast change. He refers to the whole Christian structure in Newfoundland, in Canada and elsewhere.
He agreed with the comment of a church leader of another faith: “Ah, if men will only listen, God may lead us to an alternative to the church.”
A clergyman of still another denomination relates that he attended a conference of lay people and clergy where there was exhibited deep anxiety about the church’s future.
He himself feared the church could not exist for more than a few decades in its present form: There would have to be a complete transformation.
Well, well, these are big times for the church. The echoes of Vatican too still resound around the world, and the changes it wrought bring almost daily changes in the practice of the Roman Catholic faith. More than 500 Anglican bishops will be in London this year for the Lambeth Conference. Nine hundred representatives of 230 Christian churches will meet the World Council in Upsala, Sweden.
In Newfoundland, the ecumenical movement is having its impact. The basis of agreement signed by major denominations regarding denominational education is a sign of the times.
The church on parade. But the brutal question is: Are the Christians any more than parade-ground soldiers? When it comes to campaigning, have they any real fire-power?
When this is suggested. It just rolls off a lot of church members. After all, Christians have a built-in capacity for punishment going right back to Roman times, when they used to be thrown to the lions.
Here the danger is that Christians may be so conditioned to trials and tribulations that they do not recognize when the dosage has become lethal. Consult church people of all types.
First discovery: A lot of dedicated Christians are convinced that the Church as we know it is doomed — and they are not sorry.
One cleric whose interests and work are much wider than his parish of 1,000 people is desperately unhappy about religion today. He confesses:?“I pray daily for the death of the church. I want the church to be stripped of all its power.”
He believes it is being killed by its concern with power and ‘establishment.’
Still tougher talk from a clever young man:?“The real trouble is that the church is no longer taken seriously as having any creative contribution to make in society. It has the reputation of living in a religious world of its own and having no connections with crucial issues and events. Unfortunately it lives up to that reputation only two often.”
He thinks that the best hope is for the present decline to continue, with emptier churches and reduced support. This may lead to a new life for the church.
“The world’s neglect and its own manifest decline may then force the church to shut down most of its buildings and get on with its real job.
Second discovery: The church’s apparent pre-occupation with buildings, structure and rite is widely suspect.
“This show is dying on its feet. All the things the church gets steamed up over are totally irrelevant to most people,” says an outspoken cleric.
The church keeps trying many commissions, working parties and reports. But, though Christianity is a dynamic religion, it is hard to find much dynamic about it today.
In Britain, Church Assembly has just had long discussions on whether the qualifications for the electoral roll should be baptism or confirmation. Would you know an electoral roll if you saw one?
Ordinations in the C of E are at the lowest point for 10 years. The Roman Catholics are just about holding their own but membership in all the other main churches is falling.
One parson said:?“If you are lumbered with medieval buildings and ancient services which seem unrelated to anything happening in real life, you cannot expect men of vision to throw themselves into it full-time.”
These critics, regarded by cosy Christians, as disturbers of belief, ring the alarm bell out of the strength of their conviction.
Die to live?
They hold with passion that the faith must be saved even if the present church dies in the operation. They are not all young men in a hurry. The Rev. John Huxtable, secretary of the congregational church, is middle-aged. He urges the need for Christians to stir themselves out of their self-concern.
He says: “I believe that we rest under God’s judgement for not getting on with the real work.”
The Church of AD 2018 – 50 years hence – will be streamlined for action, devoid of “the remnants of medieval, princely pomp… the lay function will be real, rather than notional,” according to a Herald study of opinions in Newfoundland and elsewhere.
This coincides with the feeling of a growing number of Newfoundlanders that “the church as we know it won’t exist in 50 years time…”
Rid of clutter
There is a wide agreement that the church of the future will be smaller, and rid of many of its buildings and much of its ‘ecclesiastical clutter.’
A leading layman says he is sure there will be one building only where 10 are now used or ’half-used.’ The church he believes must “move from co-existence to pro-existence.”
It must speak to and act for others
An Anglican clergyman says he is convinced that “trappings and structure” do not count, basically – “only faith can discern the real church.”
He adds, “It is not something that can be detected and located by a notice board or a parish magazine.”
Some people feel that within the next 50 years, large areas of so-called Christian countries will be designated as mission territory where Christian teams will work on the “new pagans.”
Again and again the need for action is underlined.
There are those who look to the time when groups of Christians will be committed to and equipped for various kinds of social action.
A?Catholic priest, noting that this is a field in which the church has attempted to move with varying degrees of success predicted: “My guess is that, by AD 2018, the centre of the Christian scene will be a church renewed and reformed in communion with Rome, and including many who would not now become Roman Catholics.”
At the same time there is a disturbing feature. Church opinion, of which all these people are thinking, has reached an awkward stage in some places.
A young Anglican curate says it is much more important that Christians identify with society’s needs, rather than try to shove doctrine and rite into a big box labelled ‘The One Church.’
“If the unity movement means taking five or six nearly dead bodies, and putting them together to make a bigger half-dead body, I’m just not interested,” he says.
It appears many people agree with him, both lay people and clergy. And this is at a time when organic union is highly and widely propounded in some areas by a fairly large number of ecumenists, who see it as coming under Christ’s will: “That they all may be one.”
The opposite view is that the vital element is unity of Christian purpose, and tolerance… and that there is the danger of a new kind of snobbishness, not unrelated to a new kind of bigotry, aimed towards those who refuse to conform to demands for ‘one big church.’
There is also the feeling that while heads of churches embrace in public and beam around, effective union remains elusive, generally speaking – that it is all, or nearly all, an ecclesiastical charade, amounting to a period of better manners but not much else.
In Newfoundland at the moment, a new movement has appeared on the scene. The ‘Defenders of the Faith’ originated in Winnipeg, and have now appeared on the local scene to oppose union of the Anglican and United churches based on the present articles of union. Many experts see union as being at least 10 years away.
There is other evidence of disenchantment. A joint committee of Anglicans and Presbyterians say of their own encounter in England: “We are not likely to penetrate further into the thickets (of unity conversations) by the routes of study, reflection, discussion, or even prayer – unless these are accompanied by the will to act.”
It is also clear that liturgical reform – the reshaping of the public services – is not as important as is supposed.
Theologians see in liturgical reform an instrument for enriching worship and strengthening faith.
But many an ordinary church-goer’s interest here is minimal.
The real concern, apart from ‘cosy’ Christians, who just want to be left alone, is that the church should mean something in the world. Against this requirement, the niceties of liturgical formulas do not count.
The Very Rev. Martin Sullivan, the new dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, has the message:?“We ought to be far more concerned with outward-looking activities than with inward-looking reforms.”
He holds that the church will advance only as she says something to the outsider.
Another leading observer in Britain where thinking in terms of renewal is far advanced is Miss Valerie Pitt. She says: “As for the dear old parish church, Westminster Abbey and all that jazz, I would say that anything that does not evolve will not survive.”
She wants congregations where the need is. She finds agreement in those who see no merit in a church at every street corner.
“They believe there must be death in the church before it finds new life.”
It is a hard saying. But there is challenge in it. Perhaps the real answer, too.