By Jonathan Turtle
As we begin, Lord willing, to emerge from the fog of this pandemic, it may be worth examining and re-considering our relationship to church. Not to the Church but rather to your particular church. The one you attend, or used to before things got turned upside down. Despite the trials of the last two years, we have the opportunity before us to return with a new vigor and confidence. What if we made the most of it?
What follows is something of a reflection on The Rule of Life, found at the end of the Anglican Church of Canada’s prayer book catechism, which we from time to time are instructed to consult in order to consider the extent to which our lives cohere with the gospel and the faith and order of the church.
When I was a postulant (one who has been accepted into the ordination process but not yet ordained) in the Diocese of Toronto, the story that was going around was that the coming decade could see the shuttering of 100 or more churches. Most of these churches would be rural. In other words, they would be churches like the two I currently serve, St. Paul’s Midhurst and St. John’s Craighurst.
Indeed, this sort of thing has already begun to happen right here in my own deanery. A number of years ago St. Giles’s in Barrie (the nearest city) closed. The property was sold, and most but not all of the remaining parishioners began attending another larger parish in town. More recently the diocese announced a new initiative, a Regional Ministry, involving a partnership between another three churches in the deanery, a sharing of clergy and resources. It is a trial project and too early to tell what fruit it will bear, but we pray for an abundant harvest.
It can be tempting to be cynical here, but I am not. The fact of the matter is that the religious and cultural landscape here in Canada has changed drastically over the last few decades, and it is changing in the U.S. and elsewhere even now. These decisions are always difficult to make, though in some cases, they are necessary and perhaps even good. But they are always painful, and as a diocese we clearly lose something (gospel witness in a particular community) even if we stand to gain something else (renewed vigor and energy for ministry, we hope).
Yet the truth remains: our communities need churches. Churches add tremendous good to their communities (Google “The Halo Project”), and chief among these goods is the proclamation of the gospel : Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus lives and reigns and calls us into new life. If the Church is not present, who will proclaim and embody this good news?
This is simply to say that it matters that we are here or there. It matters that St. Paul’s exists in Midhurst. It matters that St. John’s exists in Craighurst. These communities would be poorer were it not for the faithful presence and witness of these particular churches over many decades.
But we do not deserve to exist. No institution does, least of all the Church. For wherever she is to be found, the Church knows that she is there but by the grace of God alone. We cannot presume, therefore, that just because we have been here for 100 years that we will still be here 100 years from now. We hope and pray that this is the case. But your diocese has a contingency plan.
Let me get to the point. It matters that you support your church. It matters that the parishioners I am privileged to serve support St. Paul’s and St. John’s, and not just because I hope to earn a living. And I’m so thankful that they do. Surely one of the stories of our little parish from the past two years is that despite the obvious challenges, and despite projected deficits, somehow, we have ended each of the last two years with a modest surplus. They have risen to the challenge. The years to come will surely have more challenges, and by the grace of God they will rise to meet those as well.
While I’m on the subject of finances, it is good practice to take time each year to consider your financial contribution to the work and witness of your church. The reality in my own diocese is that many churches are struggling financially but this need not be the case. For example, according to the stewardship folks the average Anglican in the Diocese of Toronto gives about 1% of their income to their church. The point has been made that were this to be raised to just 2% the financial needs of pretty much all of our churches would vanish overnight. Never mind the 10% (tithe) that we should all be aiming for.
But this isn’t simply an appeal for finances. We all know that the Lord calls us to give. This is an appeal to continue to support our churches holistically, we might say. For example, as we begin to emerge from this pandemic, consider making attendance on Sunday morning a priority, not just an option. Yes, online options will be with us probably forever. And yes, there will continue to be reasons for not going to church (e.g., I’m tired; brunch is good; my kid has gymnastics; etc.). And yes, some of those reasons will actually be legitimate (e.g., illness; shut-in; church trauma/abuse; etc.).
However, generally speaking, you should make every effort to actually go to church. Consider it a duty to God and neighbor; that is what it is after all. Bring your children and your grandchildren. Invite a friend. Practice speaking about your faith, and as you do you will grow in boldness and confidence. You have been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ and have become by grace what Jesus is by nature, a child of God. Your soul has come to find rest in God, your Maker, who has given you the gift of the Holy Spirit.
That this is available to absolutely anyone is astonishingly good news. The best news, we might even say. Yet we can be so slow to share this news with others. In 100 years you and the other members of your church will all be dead and gone. That means others will need to fill your church. That means that others will have to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. And that means that we have to get to show and tell. What a privilege.
So go to church, but also pray and read the Bible, every day. Preferably in the morning before you forget and move on to the cares of the world. And then ask the Holy Spirit to help you incorporate the life and teachings of Jesus into your daily life. This is not just good advice or some triumph in your endeavor to become a better person. This is, rather, the chief way that you will come to know Jesus Christ and experience his grace. Always according to his word.
In other words, take responsibility for your faith. Prioritize it. Nurture and tend to it. Prayer is our whole service to God, wrote Donne. To make your life an offering to God is, perhaps paradoxically, the greatest gift you can give to others because it is a genuine — not perfect, but genuine — life of faith, and a genuine community of faith, that will provide the witness our neighbors so desperately need.
If you’re a parent, a grandparent, or a godparent, you have a particular responsibility to pass the faith on to your children, grandchildren, and godchildren. You must make every effort. In fact, this is our duty as a church. It is what we have vowed to do. But it is also our duty to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded. Let us by the grace of God strive to do just that.
You know as well as I do that there are no secrets to the life of faith and there is no blueprint for success that if followed will guarantee the survival of your church (or your faith). There are only time-tested practices that, when embraced, have the cumulative effect over time of forming ordinary people after the likeness of Christ. “Do this, and you will live,” says Jesus (Luke 10:28).
Of course, in the Christian view life and death are caught up together, so it is possible to do “all the right things” and still see your church diminish and decline and perhaps even close. When that happens, we cannot but entrust that seed now buried in the earth to God who in his infinite wisdom is able even to raise the dead.