Herbert O’Driscoll

All institutional forms in our culture are going through difficult and stressful times. To see this clearly we have only to think of political parties, educational structures, and health care delivery systems. It is not just the church.


Certain things are happening in these early years of a still new century that we would not have thought possible a few decades ago. Among them is the resurgence of religion as a force to be reckoned with in most of the world, a development particularly unexpected in western culture where religion has tended to be seen as something nice to have in one's personal life but largely irrelevant in the public domain.

As the 20th century progressed, Christian faith became deeply marginalized from what we have come to call "the public square". Perhaps the apex of this process in Canada was at the public memorial for the victims of the Swiss Air disaster off the coast of Nova Scotia.

It was September 1998. The occasion involved a Rabbi, a Muslim cleric, a First Nations voice, a Minister of the United Church and a Roman Catholic priest. Some time before the occasion there was a request to submit texts to a government protocol office. The two Christian representatives were requested to omit the title Jesus Christ from their prayers.

The irony of this was that by that time a great change was already occurring across the world and in Canada.

As Eamonn Kelly wrote in Powerful Times - Rising to the Challenge of our Uncertain World:

"The sacred is clearly back and in many forms. Witness the resurgent evangelical and fundamentalist movements in the United States, the astonishing growth in Pentecostalism globally, the widespread resurrection of religious practice in many parts of the former Soviet Union, the rise of radical fundamentalism in Islam, the spread of eastern religious traditions throughout the west, the growing tendency for indigenous people to reconnect with their own traditional spirit-based cultures, and the mushrooming of New Age practices among the world's affluent. Secular modernity now has sacred company, adding to the complexity of our times."

To the surprise of many, the sacred writings of the world's religions are affecting modern history. When we look at the Bible, the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity, and those of Islam which we call the Koran, we see them emerging in new and powerful ways.

As this takes place we see all churches today that are attached to world wide communions - Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Orthodoxy come to mind - experiencing culture clashes arising from differing attitudes to holy scripture.

For many western Christians the Bible has come to be regarded as a collection of writings written in different periods of history and conditioned by culture and time. Because this has not been the thinking of most of the Christian world outside the west - including much of African Anglicanism - these differing assumptions have in recent years complicated communication and mutual understanding in our Communion.

While this is going on, much of American Christianity is showing a deepening conservatism and a growing wish to interpret scripture in a literal way. The United States is the only society in western culture where religion remains as an integral part of the lives of a majority of people and where religious institutions play an integral part in the life of the society. Alone among western societies the United States has Christian institutions and power structures capable of influencing its public and foreign policy. Alone among western societies, the United States has elements of Biblical interpretation powerful enough to form apocalyptic thinking in the minds of millions of people.

A corresponding movement is discernible within Canada in the form of powerful churches forming of a deeply evangelical and even fundamentalist kind. Within the traditional mainline churches - Anglican among them - we now have Biblical stances forming that are making it possible for some clergy and congregations to consider leaving the Anglican Communion and in some cases aligning themselves with other Anglican Provinces and Bishops.

When such deep fissures appear in Anglicanism, many react with mystification. Sometimes there is the attempt to dismiss all of this as some kind of in-house disagreement going on at some high level in what we think of as the official level of the church. Would that these deep fissures were indeed just some passing in-house spat! In actuality, just as there are deep fissures in the soul and thinking of Islam so there are deep fissures in the soul and thinking of Christianity.

It is commonplace today to say that Islam - not just its radical elements - faults the West for certain features of its culture. Islam has long done this but only recently has it become strong enough to challenge the West. Much of Islam condemns what it considers to be the license and immorality of western culture. Much of Islamic opinion considers western culture to be decadent. I would venture to suggest that this judgment of Islam on western culture has encouraged a similar attitude to the culture in much of western church life and is moving much of western Christianity to an increasingly conservative stance. To what extent is this attitude justified?

These are not issues we can ignore if Christian faith is to be an integral part of our lives. Even by leaving our church and joining a community more acceptable to us, we do not escape these issues. Whatever worshipping community we choose, the choices in how we regard sacred scripture as being a vehicle of truth for out lives must still be made.

I would suggest a way through, not a way out. The new power of sacred texts is going to affect our culture into the foreseeable future, therefore we need to think very clearly in ways we have had the luxury of avoiding until now. I would suggest four questions around which we need to have deep and committed conversation across our disagreements...

Do we wish to form a Christian community that is prepared to bring together reason, faith, and lived human experience to its encounter with holy scripture?

Are we prepared to grapple with the complex task of applying holy scripture to the immense changes in contemporary society?

When we do this wrestling, are we prepared to live and worship in community without necessarily being in full agreement about such things?

• In other words, can we have unity without uniformity? There are voices saying that we cannot. Is this true?

About a year ago a large poll taken in the Episcopal Church in the United States produced an interesting pattern. In many large congregations there was seen a pattern of reaction to the issues tearing at today's church. While there was a minority of 20% radically committed to change, and a 20% minority equally committed to resisting such change, there was a solid 60% of congregational life resolved to get on with the life of the church while acknowledging that the community could not find full agreement on every issue.

Some months ago a truly great Christian died. Roger Schultz, Prior of Taize, was stabbed by a deranged person as he led the worship of some thousands of young people from all over the world. The English magazine The Economist chose to editorialize Roger Schultz's death. The article ended with these words:

"Taize was, and is, resolutely ecumenical, taking brothers from all Christian sects and basing itself on love, reconciliation and forgiveness. There was much space for searching there, but none for dogmatism - hence its attraction for the alienated souls of the modern age."

"There was much space there for searching but none for dogmatism" At its best this could be said for our Anglican tradition. To give that tradition as a gift to the future demands the fullest and deepest commitment of every one of us.

The Rev. Canon Herbert O'Driscoll is a former Dean of Christ Church Cathedral. This article is based on a talk he gave in Calgary, the report of which first appeared in The Sower, the newspaper of the Diocese of Calgary. It is reprinted with permission, and has been slightly revised by Canon O'Driscoll.