By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
While I appreciated Fr. Victor Austin’s recent article, “Why Stay in a Declining Church,” something about it left me with an ambivalence that I could not quite put my finger on. On further review, I think the problem I had with it is that the article was a further expression of the lethargy that holds sway over the Anglophone Anglican spirit when it faces the reality of its catastrophic disintegration. “Why stay?” can only be a central question for the aging generations that make up our quickly dwindling congregations, and one can perhaps even note a vague clericalist hue to the sentiment.
According to the latest statistics were released by the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada, my generation, the so-called “Millennials,” will outlive all three churches if the trends of decline continue unabated. Given the serious demographic problem that we already have, many of our parishes having few, if any, young people in sight, simply retaining our current members as loyal congregants can hardly be called a solution.
When one reviews the discourse of the past decades within Anglophone Anglicanism, one recognizes a cycle by which official statistics are released, leading to all sorts of noise from the institutional hierarchy, only to have this collective groaning pass without any effective measures being made to actually address the problems. Instead, we have decided to deceive ourselves into thinking that busily pursuing novelties is a valuable use of our dwindling time and resources.
One can only come to the disturbing conclusion that Anglophone Anglicanism today is a collection of institutions that actively pursues its own demise. Whether or not the self-destruction of Anglophone Anglicanism over the past four decades was fully consciously and purposively enacted is, at our terminal hour, a rather luxurious question that we can hardly afford.
Anglophone Anglicanism has largely failed to retain its children and youth. The future of our churches rests on whether we can once again become a Church where faithful Christians, mostly converts, will desire to not only enter our doors but also lay their roots down with us. The ground reality of our parishes already makes it clear that many of the precious few young people we have are not “cradle Anglicans.” These are real sparks of renewal that we find in our churches, and if Anglophone Anglicanism has a future it lies with these converts. They show us that the real question we should be asking is not “why stay?” but “why become Anglican?” If we cannot provide a compelling answer to this latter question it will be our fate to dwindle into extinction, and if we disappear it will decisively prove that we became a false church. This question is made urgent and difficult for us today because our churches are in a state of pervasive corruption.
There are two things I wish to stress here. In spite of the catastrophic crisis we are currently facing, there are genuine sparks of spiritual vitality that should be recognized. But at the same time, we must also be honest enough to recognize that these sparks are still few in number and are hardly enough to effectively reverse our precipitous decline anytime soon. As bad things are today, we have not yet seen the worst that is to come. Given the sorry state of our Church, whether on a parish or national level, I would have a hard time faulting a young colleague for thinking that Anglophone Anglicanism is a lost cause with an incomprehensible predilection for self-mutilation. Nevertheless, despair must also be recognized as a temptation to be resisted.
So why should anyone become Anglican despite its corruption? When we gaze upon our churches today, we are confronted with the reality of pervasive doctrinal, moral, liturgical, and even social corruption throughout our churches. Even if, as Wesley Hill noted earlier this year, we might be seeing a complex return to dogmatic orthodoxy in mainline Protestant youth, it is still unfortunately commonplace to see and hear members of our clergy casually professing heresies. I can share with great joy that the rag-tag groups of young Anglicans I have befriended over recent years, mostly converts from disparate origins with equally diverse positions, confess the Christian faith without crossing their fingers. But in the same month Hill’s article was published, I was also confronted with a clergyman openly denying the bodily Resurrection of Christ—in my monthly diocesan newsletter, no less. The April 2019 edition of the newsletter opens with my bishop explicitly affirming and teaching the reality of the empty tomb to her flock. But later in the very same newsletter one also finds a cleric denying the bodily reality of the resurrection, clearly contradicting the bishop’s opening letter. This clergyman’s reduction of the most fundamental confession of the Christian` faith into some demythologized White Boomer Religion can hardly be called Christian in any robust sense.
What kind of church is our house if a senior clergyman must be reminded that we confess not only that Christ rose again in the flesh, but that in the fulness of time we too will see the resurrection of our own bodies? Such conditions present us with serious ecclesiastical dissonance, and inundates the faithful and inquirers with scandalous confusions. Denials of the Christian confession by our own clergy unfortunately persists rather flippantly—whether from the pulpit, ecclesiastical publications, public and private social media, or personal conversation. Our stasis is here to stay for a while longer.
I must painfully confess that I have sometimes been reluctant about inviting inquirers (whether Christians seeking a new home or unbaptized persons interested in learning about Christianity) to visit some of their local Anglican parishes due to this present disarray. I am a loyal Anglican, and I am willing to pour my entire life into our house, but I fear God and wish for my friends to find spiritually fruitful and stable pastures. Sadly, due to the experiences of my friends and I, I currently have little confidence in many of our own clergy and elder laity. But it need not be this way, and I am convicted that we will, God willing, find a way out of our quagmire.
I have little doubt that the disastrous decline of the Anglophone Anglican churches really is a manifestation of divine punishment and mercy. I have even less doubt about the fact that we Anglicans have no choice but to take our rightful punishment as a penance that is both unavoidable and absolutely integral to our atonement before the mercy seat of God. Frankly, we will continue to receive heavier punishments because our churches still have not even begun to repent. There can be no true atonement before there is a clear acceptance of our sins, unfettered by self-righteous rationalizations, deflections, and apology. Kyrie eleison.
Even if our Church, somehow, by the grace of God, truly began to repent in my lifetime, my young colleagues and I would still have to work out our penance in humility and patience for untold years — probably for our entire lives. There is a Korean saying about the proper posture for receiving punishment that comes to mind, the sense of which is expressed felicitously in a Western tongue by Martin Luther: “True repentance desires and loves punishments.” And it is here that I feel that our conversations often do not go far enough, either from a lack of nerve or just simple forgetfulness.
The most profoundly idolatrous and evil king of Judah, Manasseh, was so abominable that God declared that Judah and Jerusalem will be punished severely for his sins (2 Kings 21:10-15). Manasseh’s successor, Amon, continued his father’s evil. But succeeding Manasseh and Amon was Josiah, a king so righteous and pious that scripture claims him to be the greatest king of Israelite history: “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25).
During his reign, Josiah repaired the house of the Lord, and a book of the law of God, which was rejected and forgotten during the reign of Josiah’s father and grandfather, was rediscovered. When this recovered book was read to Josiah, the king tore his clothes in repentance, “for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13). Josiah becomes a tireless reformer, renewing the covenant with God with all his people; the Temple was cleansed of idols and the idolatrous priests were banished from the land. But for all the efforts of this good and unparalleled Josiah, Judah was still not spared of their punishment merited by the outrageous provocations of Manasseh.
The mercy God grants to Josiah is the promise that he will die early, spared from witnessing the desolation of his kingdom. And so, the good king Josiah, after a life devoted to atoning for the sins of his predecessors, is slain by the Pharaoh Neco at the age of 39. The Kingdom of Judah quickly falls under the subjugation of Egypt, and is finally conquered by the Babylonians, who instigate the exile.
I recount this piece of Israel’s history here to stress my belief that my generation has been given the role of receiving the brunt of God’s punishment for the sins of our Church. For even if my generation, by the grace of God, is granted a Josiah; even if, by the mercy of God, our sincere repentance spares us from the righteous punishment provoked by our predecessors; even if, by the boundless charity of God, the Lord blows a purifying gust over our Church—all such divine gifts would still leave my generation, and the generations that will follow us, with the task of restoring our ruinous house.
Given that my generation is largely a generation of converts, most of us will indeed be toiling to restore the crumbling structure we have all so happily inherited from our adopted mother. And if it is our Father’s will that our house be trampled and sent into Babylonian captivity, who are we to say otherwise? It would be the Lord’s work, and it would be glorious in my eyes.
When we invite inquirers into our churches and hope for them to stay and become the new seeds of our Church, in the Anglophone churches we are not just asking them to become a part of the Anglican tradition. We are also, whether we like it or not, asking them to become the forerunners of the reform of the Anglican Church, to rescue it from self-sabotage and painstakingly restore its vandalized tradition. This is, of course, ridiculous — how could we possibly impose such an unfair responsibility to the young converts who have become a part of our life? But that is the reality we face, and if we refuse to face it honestly, we will not just be guilty of practical, institutional blindness. We would be guilty of deception.
Does this fill us, those in the Church, with shame and embarrassment? I do hope so — at least then we might begin to repent, and maybe even begin to atone. Perhaps we might even come to kneel and pray:
And now I bend the knee of my heart,
beseeching thee for thy kindness.
I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned,
and I know my transgressions.
I earnestly beseech thee,
forgive me, O Lord, forgive me!
Do not destroy me with my transgressions!
Do not be angry with me for ever or lay up evil for me;
do not condemn me to the depths of the earth.
For thou, O Lord, art the God of those who repent,
and in me thou wilt manifest they goodness;
for unworthy as I am, thou wilt save me in thy great mercy,
and I will praise thee continually all the days of my life.
For all the host of heaven sings thy praise,
and thine is the glory for ever. Amen.
So why should anyone, given not just the decline of Anglophone Anglicanism but the comprehensive corruption of Anglophone Anglicanism, become Anglican in these lands? Many of us, for reasons mysterious, have been called to this house. To these brothers and sisters, I can only suggest that it really is God who sent us to our often-uninspiring churches for a real purpose, whatever it may be. And it is because I have faith that our Anglican house really is a true Church, despite all the casual heresy, moral laxity, liturgical anarchy, and canonical irregularity that continues to rage through it, that I dare to say to you that it is our duty to tend to our churches.
Our current crisis will continue for years to come, but I also believe that the present stasis is more complex and interesting than is sometimes noted. The spectre of Liberal Protestantism (and all its pointedly Western Enlightenment arrogance) does not appear to have the same kind of grip over our new young Anglicans as it did over our predecessors. Many of us, as noted by Wesley Hill, embrace an affirming position on gender, and sexuality, and the question of marriage, while insisting on the dogmatic orthodoxy expressed in the creeds and our liturgies. God knows what the outcome will be of the apparent “turn to orthodoxy” in my generation of young “progressives,” and whether this development will prove to be wholly coherent. But it does show that there are new saplings to be tended to, and perhaps even fruits to be harvested. I urge our “conservatives” to examine the seeming idiosyncrasies we discover here. Irreconcilable differences between conservatives and progressives will persist, and we must all reject the delusions of false peace, but we might also be surprised at how differently the lines might be drawn in the days to come. It is within an honest recognition of our present reality of impaired communion that I encourage us all to look past some of the rather stilted older conversations.
So why should anyone join our troubled Anglican Church in all her present disarray? If we truly love the Lord we will love his Body, and true love always contains within it the patience to endure long-suffering. The Christian faith is not some private intellectual fancy, and its truth only fully manifests on this side of eternity in the lived life of the Church. Moreover, the truth of the Church does not lie in the righteousness of its ministers and congregations, wretched sinners we all are, but in the overwhelming love of God. The current crisis in the Anglican Church presents us all with the challenge to banish prideful neo-Donatist temptations from our hearts and zealously tend to the humble works of charity. I believe our current crisis is not so much a trial as it is a gift. To be magnanimous and kind; to resist the temptation to despair and degenerate into defeatism; to dutifully work in the complexities and tensions of parish life; to study and contemplate against the lackadaisical banalities that besiege us both within and outside the church; and to be concretely obedient, deferential, and loving to even bad bishops and excruciating ecclesial characters — what is to say that all this is not in fact the purifying penance our Lord has decreed for us? The Church is our mother, and we are to love her. We should not fear because true repentance desires and loves punishments.
So, have we been called to this house? Are you called to our house to toil with us? Then let it be so — let us repent and desire and love our punishment together, out of love for our Father and our mother. Let us together restore our churches to their timeless beauty as a worthy sacrifice to God. St. James teaches us that every good and perfect gift comes from above — brothers and sisters, what is there to fear?
Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a lay reader in the Diocese of Niagara of the Anglican Church of Canada, and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.