Megachurch or bust?

About a week ago, I read the article Defining Church Growth for Traditional Anglicans: Leaving behind failed models of church growth for new ones. I wondered whether it would inspire some thoughts from me. It didn’t. Then this came up: The Church is abandoning its flock, the CofE’s great leap forward will cull clergy and abandon parishioners by Giles Fraser. I found this in Unherd, the group of people with critical minds about our slow descent to Orwellian Dystopia and living hell.

Already for Nietzsche in the nineteenth century, there was something very wrong with institutional Christianity. I keep quoting Alan Watts about the Church having lost its way from the notion of spiritual life. It is odd to hear about some of the clerical elite calling for a de-clericalised church that should sell off the buildings. Rest assured that the elite would change form but still hold the purse strings! Only the appearance of the bureaucracy would change. The medieval church is sold and the rich person’s lounge becomes the new church. Who else has enough space for the crowds of “vibrant” worshippers. It all drips with cynicism.

The church is not called to be successful. It is called to be faithful. I would prefer for us to die with dignity, being faithful to our calling, rather than to turn ourselves inside out trying to be superficially attractive, thus abandoning the faith as we have understood it.

The first article I mentioned is from a Continuing Anglican source (the second concerning the Church of England). The American scene is so different from what we have in the UK and even less in Continental Europe. The author of this article is critical of marketing methods as I have always been. I do quite a lot of translations of texts about corporate management, leadership of teams and projects. If that kind of collectivism enters the Church, that is the end of human spiritual life. Why bother?

What is important is quality, not quantity. The author tries to resume his recommendation in several points. I add my own words to his theme titles.

Authenticity. Let’s cut the crap and decide what we believe in.

Inspiration. People are inspired by different things. Again, we can begin by being ourselves and honest.

Beauty and Mystery. This is mainly manifested through liturgy, resisting the urges of philistinism, the “cancelling” of beauty, yet avoiding exaggerated rubricism. Naturally, beauty will only be appealing in a world that is mostly concerned only with money and what money can buy. You don’t throw pearls to swine!

An emphasis on mystery, paradox and interiority are antidotes to cold rationalism, and empty materialism.

These are the very thoughts of Romanticism.

Meaning and Purpose. Frankly, I find very little in the way of meaning of life in the average parish. It is much easier in the village where I live. The church is open every day, which is a complement to the person who keeps the key. I suspect it is more to keep the building dry rather than anything else. I often visit the church to go to a discreet place and pray. I haven’t seen anyone else doing the same thing. The church is only used for funerals and those are rarely conducted by priests. It is quite heartbreaking, but there is still some love for this Romanesque building and its baroque altars. Memento mori. The cemetery is beautifully maintained here, though, sadly, some graves have been abandoned and forgotten for decades. The remains will be removed and buried in the common grave, and the spaces will be made available for new burials. Ironically, a church reduced to the burial of the dead reminds us all of that one certitude, our mortality. Are we machines to be thrown away when we don’t work any more? Is there a consciousness that transcends both life and death and which eludes both reason and imagination? Perhaps the old church is still doing its job by its mere presence and the lay people working with the undertakers to ensure a decent burial for all.

Authority. There will be authority for as long as there is law and consequences for not observing the terms of the social contract. My freedom to swing my fist is limited by where your nose begins. Authority exists for the common good, though it often falls into the hands of the unworthy and unscrupulous. It therefore has to be subject to criticism and accountability. It is the same with Popes, Archbishops of Canterbury, Patriarchs and Metropolitans, clergy of every denomination and religion. The most important is the purpose of this authority and what it upholds.

Christ-likeness. What was Christ like? We have the Gospels as witnesses, but interpretation is not always easy. Most of us think of kindness and forgiveness, willingness to suffer rather than make others suffer. I tend to think of the paradox, the Sign of Contradiction, being oneself rather than following fashions and collective thinking. I don’t think we will solve it all in a few words. I think of the contrast between the Grand Inquisitor of Dostoyevsky and Christ who was in the place of the heretic on trial for his life. Who was the most Christian, Christ himself or the Cardinal taking advantage of his power having “cancelled” the freedom of the little people?

In his Charge to Synod yesterday, Bishop Damien Mead spoke of future-proofing the Church. That can mean good material stewardship, but it above all means our fidelity even if we end up doing little more than bury the dead. I believe we can still do more and be a small worshipping community of the living.

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4 Responses to Megachurch or bust?

  1. Michael Gray says:

    The article commented on is on the website of the four uniting continuing churches in the USA. As it makes little sense to unite in one country and not world-wide (so far as is relevant) this is a concerning matter in the UK. The article therefore deserves careful study – if we believe that God wants continuing Anglicanism to have a future. It is, I think, a time for discernment.

    • I was listening to an interview with Rod Dreher a few days ago. He recognised that in writings his Benedict Option, he was thinking of the American situation and that he needed to be more helpful for Europe and the UK. Even as a fully committed priest of the ACC, I am sceptical about the future of Continuing Anglicanism this side of the Atlantic. We don’t have the “critical mass” and we can only go on for as long as we can. I would like to know more about your idea of “discernment”. Is this just a rhetorical word or does it mean something? I’m not being facetious but totally naive in this question.

      • Michael Gray says:

        Your question is entirely proper. As a priest and church member, I have to decide what to say (when we can hold a synod) about our future. I have to do so knowing that I (and some others) have buried most of our parishes and are too old to achieve much if there is an effort to design a Continuing future. But it requires no little confidence that I have understood God, if I am to say that we will not survive and should therefore organise a tidy end. It is of course obvious that both you and I should continue in worship and prayer, and perhaps also in study, while we can.

      • My own intuition is to look beyond our little institutional Churches and seek to serve Christianity at a wider level by writing and making YouTube videos. Maybe some have a few lay people to live something like a parish life. I don’t. Being a priest in the ACC is nothing to be triumphalistic about, but I am grateful for Bishop Damien Mead’s pastoral welcome (back in 2013) and that of Archbishop Haverland. Episcopal jurisdiction gives the priest his ecclesiastical mission, even if it seems to be very little. My chapel has one choir stall, a simple altar and a sacristy. That is all, and perhaps one person could attend Mass or Office, but have never done so. I believe that the vocation of the remnant Church is contemplative, Romantic and artistic. “Beauty will save the world“, as Dostoyevsky said in The Idiot. We should not sink into nihilism, but rather do the things we can do even if other people show no interest at present.

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