On March 9, 1974, on a remote island of the Philippines, a soldier thought dead for 15 years walked down from a mountain and ended a thirty-year-long war. Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese intelligence officer from World War II, had been living in isolation, carrying out clandestine operations for the Japanese to defeat the Philippine and American forces in World War II.
Not long after the end of the war, he and two fellow soldiers had found a note that said, “The war ended on August 15, 1945, please come down from the mountains!” Having heard gunfire a few days before, they assumed it was enemy propaganda. Again and again, the Phillipine and Japanese armies tried to reach them with the news, but they remained unconvinced and unwilling to surrender. They continued carrying out small sneak attacks against local police and burning crops to disrupt the food supply.
It wasn’t until his commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, long retired from the military and working as a bookstore clerk, finally came to the island and ordered him to stand down that Onoda surrendered his sword, his still-working rifle, ammo, and grenades. Onoda spent one year fighting in World War II, but he spent twenty-nine more years fighting a war that had been over for a long time.
Is this an analogy for the Church?
Throughout the Western world, the story has been the same. The Church has experienced declining attendance, and seminaries are closing. Within the Episcopal Church itself, the demographics might leave little evidence for hope: attendance has steadily declined by a significant percentage every year for decades, and just last month, Philip Jenkins, an Episcopalian who is Professor of History in the department of religion at Baylor, extrapolated from the demographic data that, if the current rates of decline continued, the Episcopal Church would be empty in 30 years.
While Jenkins’s interpretation of the data may be unnecessarily alarmist, 1.6 clergy currently retire for every newly ordained priest. All things remaining equal, this rate will skyrocket in 10 years when over half of the current clergy will reach retirement age.
But man does not live on demographics alone. The lost cultural cachet of Christianity in the West is deeply felt and widely accepted. Bishop Dan Martins recently posted on this blog about how “the Constantinian synthesis has run its course,” and Elisabeth Kincaid has also written of Kenda Creasy Dean’s analysis of Smith and Denton’s study of the faith of youth resembling a gospel of “niceness” more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The picture isn’t pretty. Few think of going to church as something necessary for a well-rounded life. Readers of the blog have likely watched friends and family members walk away from church, with no one to take their place. We’ve watched with sadness as churches we love struggle and fight for survival.
Are we that soldier? Those of us in the West who have chosen to remain in church, are we like that soldier — hiding out on a mountain, fighting a war that has been over for a long time, while we are just the last to know?
In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Feast, in which a king gives a wedding feast for his son. When the RSVPs start coming back with regrets, it looks like it is not going to be much of a banquet at all.
He sent his servants to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying … “I have prepared my dinner…everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.”
But their response?
“They made light of it and went away.” It was just a big joke to them!
As the vicar of a church that is actively reaching out to young adults in a rapidly changing, diverse neighborhood in Dallas, I find it is not difficult to sympathize with the king’s messengers. Many of us have reached out to invite friends to church, or we’ve done even more elaborate forms of outreach and evangelism, only to feel when we walk away that we are little more than the butt of a joke.
Of course the parable doesn’t end there. “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet … and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
A nice ending, right?
Except we have a strange epilogue to the parable with a confusing, and downright disturbing ending. The room is filled with riff-raff fresh off the street, but the king comes in and singles out this one guy not wearing a wedding robe, and he has him roughed up and thrown out of the feast. Party foul.
So what is this wedding garment, and what makes it such a big deal? Here, Gregory the Great’s sermon about this passage can be quite helpful:
What do we think is meant by the wedding garment, dearly beloved? For if we say it is baptism or faith, is there anyone who has entered this marriage feast without them? A person is outside because he has not yet come to believe. What then must we understand by the wedding garment but love? … [This person] may have faith, but he does not have love. We are correct when we say that love is the wedding garment because this is what our Creator himself possessed when he came to the marriage feast to join the church to himself. Only God’s love brought it about that his only begotten Son united the hearts of his chosen to himself. John says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for us (Homily 38.9).
But what kind of love is this? We can come to church and love the worship. We can love the sermon, and love to see people we know and catch upon their lives. We can be neighborly and friendly and do good things in our communities, and these are all good things. But love, true love, the love that comes from the Father, given through the Son, and poured out through the ministry of the Holy Spirit is the point of the banquet. It is a wedding banquet, after all. This is a love that overflows in self-giving, a love that gives itself away.
This is the only way the church will go forward. In fact, it is the only way the church has ever gone forward. St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonian church are particularly helpful here:
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition … we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves (1 Thess. 2:1–2, 7–8, NRSV).
This isn’t just a kind word, or a smile and handshake at the peace. This is taking great pains, like a mother caring for her child, to impart life to the next generation.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey was quoted in the English papers as saying that the Church of England is one generation from extinction. This is true for the rest of the West as well. But what Lord Carey said has been true for many years: the church has always been one generation away from extinction. Ever since the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the marching orders have been to make disciples, to hand the leadership onto the next generation. We can’t do anything about the church of fifty years ago, and we can’t do anything about the church one hundred years from now, except this: we can love those whom God has put in our path. We can make disciples of children and grandchildren in our churches, and we can reach beyond our churches to make leaders and disciples of those who are the future of the church and the world.
So, is the church rightly likened to Hiroo Onoda? Only if the church retreats to the mountains to hide.
Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name. Amen (BCP, p. 58).