Many of us are concerned (or should that be ‘obsessed’) with how church attendance continues to decline in Western society. Church attendance and membership have been declining in Britain, among Anglicans at least, since the eighteenth-century as working-class people forsook the Tory-dominated Church of England for Nonconformist Churches. Even during Victorian times Matthew Arnold saw“The Sea of Faith . . . retreating”, and it has continued thus ever since.
The same retreat was occurring in Western Europe, but not so much in North America. When I first arrived in Canada from Britain, I found Anglican churches relatively full, and their members somewhat complacent, as Pierre Berton had just pointed out in his 1965 book The Comfortable Pew. The Church had become ossified, and in the process had become too attached to the social, economic and political establishments. It was not renowned for calling attention to injustice and oppression.
About this same time, two other books were published: John Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963, and the Qu’Appelle Liturgy in 1969. Robinson aimed to move the results of one hundred years of biblical study out of the universities and into the parish churches, while the Liturgy aimed to move liturgical practice from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. These publications heralded changes affecting three areas of parish life: teaching, liturgical practice, and outwardly-directed ministry.
Teaching became less dogmatic and more related to everyday experience, with lay people becoming more directly involved. There was less insistence on the inerrancy of Scripture with questions no longer resolved by a straightforward biblical quotation; reason and experience were also to be taken into account.
Changes in liturgical practice were more readily seen than heard. Morning Prayer was increasingly replaced in our parish churches by celebrations of the Eucharist. At the Eucharist, no one could fail to see that the presider was now often a woman and, woman or man, faced the people, not the east wall. The presider addressed the people as a community not as an assembly of individuals, a community whose members acknowledged themselves as such by exchanging the Peace with each other as well as with the presider. The Eucharist became more truly eucharistic, expressive of thanksgiving, and not solely penitential in tone.
This greater openness was seen also towards those outside the Church. All Christians were welcomed to Anglican Eucharists and non-Christians were no longer regarded as objects for conversion. The ‘soup-and-salvation’ approach to outwardly directed ministry was abandoned in favour of service for its own sake and not for its possible effects on membership. Meanwhile, as membership declined it became more diverse in terms of ethnicity, language and culture. ‘Anglican’ ceased to mean ‘English’.
The changes are astonishing to recall, and I suspect that many of our fellow Anglicans are unaware of them, or having become accustomed to them have forgotten that they occurred. We have forgotten, too, the changes which did not take root: guitars, liturgical dancing, glossolalia, and house churches, for example. But whether they took root or not, they had been introduced as a response to a moving of the Spirit and not to stem the decline. The Church had been discerning how to preach the Gospel in our time and place.
But the concern (or obsession) with numbers continues, and so also does our pre-occupation with Western society. Perhaps we need to step back a little, and adopt a position that is more inclusive of both other times and other places.
Despite the impression given by St. Paul’s journeys as related in the Acts of the Apostles, and by the locations named elsewhere in the New Testament (Thessalonica, Corinth and Rome, for example), our Christian Faith had its origin in Asia, not Europe. The Faith spread from there to the north, south and east as well as to the west. Today, in India for example, we can meet Syrian Christians who look to Antioch as their apostolic home, not Rome (or Canterbury or Geneva). Today, too, we can see the Faith growing fast in Africa and other parts of the world as it once grew in Western Europe. We must bear in mind that the centre of the world does not lie in mid-Atlantic.
Credit: Conchi Martinez