Leigh Silcox has a provocative commentary on membership decline in the Anglican Church of Canada.
The question I asked was this: as the Church of England had to grapple with the consequences of the Western church’s division—a contradiction to Jesus’s own prayer for concrete unity in life and witness—how could it go about discerning the truth in faithful witness?
What I discovered was that there was most certainly a strong drive for unity, called comprehension in the 17th century. But why unity? Why not simply scour for the truth of Scripture as individuals or congregations? Each of the mainline Church of England theologians whom I looked at, following Erasmus and Hooker, had a fairly straightforward underlying premise: an individual’s ability to discern the truth is obscured or obliterated by the reality of the effects of sin. And the more one “goes off on one’s own direction,” particularly with logical or emotional zeal, the more likely it is he or she will be deceived in pursuing the truth. The only way to mitigate (while not entirely removing) the effects of sin while trying to live faithfully in accordance with Scripture was to submit one’s actions to the discernment of the church (in this case, of England).
I am happy for our decline. For too long, both Catholic and Protestant churches were filled with nominalist Christians for whom church has been a mere social club to exercise power, influence and money, rather than a school by which one is saved—that is, reshaped and reformed by God. I am happy for the decline because I see this as God’s own pruning: pruning not so as to exclude, but in chastening, in pressing into the humility of confession, of prayer, of thanks, to open those who are called and willing to persevere in leadership, in worship and in service, within the particular temporal fragment of the body of Christ they are in.
What should be done? What did God do? He remained unto death, put to death upon the cross, took the very peculiar and particular life he took on, assumed, was sent to live out, and remained to witness just there. He did not leave for the newest or different or presumed true group of worshippers. He remained with broken, often erroneous, poor, hungry, sad, rebellious, depressed, sick, abused, confused, and tormented people—those whom he’d been given simply because of time and place. And so then should we. Though we shrink, the questions that arise from our shrinking are more pragmatic: should we continue with full-time priests, should we do house churches, should we rent facilities rather than have huge overhead, should we increase or decrease the size of dioceses, etc. But these questions are irrelevant if we do not first commit to remain where we are, despite the heartbreak of decline.