A Dying Church

by Andrew Stephens-Rennie

The Anglican Church must die, and I’m thinking it’d be better sooner rather than later.

Before you jump on the bandwagon, or line up to pillory me, let me make it clear that this has nothing to do with culture wars, the Episcopal Church’s recent convention, or anything of the sort.

This has nothing to do with my sympathies for the liberal, conservative, or the caught-in-between. It’s not about the role of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people in the church. It’s not even about the divinity of Christ.

(excuse me?)

How can it be about Christ’s divinity, when what we’re most concerned about is our own grasp on power? How can it be about the centrality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection if we’re more concerned with drawing attention to our version of the faith than pointing towards the figure of Christ crucified.

How can it be about Jesus, when we’re constantly drawing attention to ourselves, and how we are superior to some other group of people?

How?

I fear that on many sides of todays debates, we are not primarily dealing with a deeply nuanced theological issue, but rather, the fear and “amorphous anxiety,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it, that accompanies a loss of power.

The reality of the church becoming less and less integral to North American society is with us. We long ago lost our perceived rightful place in society, and we are anxious.

In the midst of this purification; in the midst of this division of sheep and goats, it seems as though we all want to claim that we are the sheep, “they” are the goats, and we’ve got it all sorted. We are the faithful remnant, they are the ones who have strayed.

We’ve got it all nailed down.

Or, at least, we’ve nailed the other one down, pegged them for who they truly are, insurrectionists, threats to our better way of life. We’ll nail them for who they really are. We’ll nail then down, and in so doing, crucify them.

Who then, in this unravelling narrative is like Christ?

Not one. No, not one.

I’m sick and tired of these power hungry games. I’m sick and tired of the back-and-forth, and the empires that need to be rebuilt in the wake of recent skirmishes. Of churches that “need to be planted,” or “re-potted,” or whatever, in order to prove a political point.

If so-called Christian communities are formed, not in faith to Jesus’ radical, self-sacrificial gospel, but faith to a leader, and their particular power-hungry hubris that boldly proclaims “we’re right, you’re wrong, that’s the way it is, and are we ever going to show you!” such communities, rather than being the body of Christ, have put another nail in Christ’s body.

Our power hungry hubris gets in the way. All the damned time. And it doesn’t matter much whether it’s the Anglican Church of Canada or the Anglican Network in Canada, or any other denomination, for that matter. So much of the grandstanding on either side has everything to do with power and control, and little to do with Christ Crucified.

Power couched in the language of moral uprightness is still, in the end about power.

So I’ve been thinking. What if the Anglican Church, in its variety of forms actually did die? What if rather than using every last tool in its arsenal to keep this thing afloat, what if it was allowed a proper burial at sea?

Or, more to the point, what if we got back to the heart of the matter? What if we died to ourselves, our desire for power, and the need to prove a point? What if we stopped hanging on to the way things have always been, the need to hold things together, and allowed new and fragile expressions to emerge from our sacrifice?

What if we allowed our dreamers to dream new dreams, to point us towards a path of life. What if the royal consciousness of our hierarchy was replaced by a disruptive, prophetic imagination?

What if such imagination was not captive to the narrative of power and control, of friend and foe, of us and them, but were to give birth to new life, new adventures, new possibilities in rich, fertile soil?

And what if our aging expressions of church, what if our once-powerful bureaucracies issued a final DNR order for when death finally comes? How would such willing sacrifice be honoured, and what nutrients would be offered up to new life for generations to follow?

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Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.

11 Responses to “A Dying Church”

  1. Lon

    Love this post Andrew – I wrote a bit about my proposal to model christ-crucified and ‘end’ the church I led here – http://solarcrash.com/2011/11/ending-church/

    Reply
    • andrew

      Lon – That’s what I’m talking about. It’s exciting and scary all at once. It means sacrifice, it means giving up ourselves and our own private kingdoms for the good of the greater, for the good of God’s. And yet, so hard to do. Oh that we could let go, when the time was right.

      I think about Kester Brewin’s experience at Vaux – creating something beautiful, mystical, that eventually had to be allowed to die. The effects of that community still carry on, even though it no longer exists in its gathered form. Oh death, where is thy sting?

      Reply
  2. B. Walsh

    “… what nutrients would be offered up to new life for generations to follow?”

    That is a very provocative and hopeful last line, Andrew.

    A Rocha Canada has a tee shirt out with the words “I plan to compost this shirt” on the chest. As my daughter wears that shirt around the farm, my comment has been, “I plan to compost this body.”

    Compost. That’s where the nutrients lie for generations to follow. On the farm most of that compost comes from manure. Horse, cow and human shit. That’s good, generative stuff.

    Maybe, just maybe, all of the bull shit that is the church – Anglican and otherwise – will be allowed to decompose and from that ecclesiastical compost there will be nutrients offered up to new life for generations to follow.

    But you got to get the shit out to make that happen.

    Maybe, just maybe this body will decompose and there will be nutrients offered up to new life for generations to follow.

    But for that to happen, the body has got to die.

    Christ crucified indeed.

    Reply
    • andrew

      Brian – I love that tshirt, and I love the level to which you’re willing to take it. I know that I struggle with what self-sacrifice means – personally, ecclesiologically, all of it. And yet, at the end of the day I truly do want to offer up my body, this church of which I’m a part to the possibility of what might come next.

      I’m just afraid that too often we opt for embalming a body that should be allowed to decay, holding onto and preserving something that we must let die, in order for life to emerge anew. Perhaps that’s what gets to me – our modern fear of death and dying leads to the denial of the possibility of new life.

      In so doing, we hold on, preserve, and create museums of Egyptian Pharoahs and ancient Cathedrals. We do so, it seems to me, not in the hope of new life, but transfixed by the long dead. Will new life spring from such a posture? Not likely.

      What then will we do not to stand in the way of new and abundant life?

      Reply
  3. Gregor

    A dying church – YES! Are we not called to die every day, dying to all of the idols we bow to – our need for power, control, affection, esteem, security – die to the over-identification to our group and our own self righteousness? Only to consent to be resurrected – to be sanctified, divinized into the image we are created to be? Surely, this is what is at the heart of our faith… “Following on the early Christian creed, often quoted from St Athanatius – ‘God became man that man would become God.’

    The joy of dying with the Assembly is that it is only together, with all my broken sisters and brothers, that we journey on this great pilgrimage. And it is only together that we embrace resurrection…So let us continue to die and rise – and gather in the great death and resurrection of the Eucharist and become who we are.

    Let us die and rise on the 8th day of creation, and break bread with female clergy, and LGBT sisters and brothers, and offer up our brokenness as incense, and the lifting up of our hands as an evening sacrifice” at the banquet of creation…As St Irenaeous says: “Our teaching is in harmony with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.”

    Shall we gather at the table? Oh death, where is your sting?

    Your brother in Christ, Gregor

    Reply
    • andrew

      Gregor – Many thanks for your comment, and for drawing my attention back to the Table. Surely this is what we celebrate week-in and week-out. Surely this is what forms us and transforms us as we die to the old life, and are renewed in Christ’s resurrection.

      My only fear is that we’ve tried our best to anaesthetize the table, and her elements, to not fully embrace what we proclaim in words each and every week – that in dying we are raised to new life. It’s almost as if we need a weekly check-in – how have we died this week, how has God raised us to life anew?

      If the power of the cross, if the power of the Eucharistic feast does not flow forth beyond the walls of the church, what does that say about our faith – that is, our fidelity to the gospel we proclaim?

      Reply
  4. Jeffrey Metcalfe

    To continue with the compost metaphor: there are always more entities whose lives are entwined with compost than we are aware of.

    Thinking about my own diocese in Quebec, after the Canadian government and the major corporations (e.g. via rail and the airlines) have abandoned our rural farming communities and fishing villages (now that their existence has been deemed unprofitable), the Anglican Church of Canada along with the Roman Catholic Church are often the last institutions left that advocate on behalf of the people there. A year or two ago, for instance, it was a potluck meal hosted by the Anglican Bishop of Quebec and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Gaspésie on a via rail track (in front of what was a moving train I might add) that restored full via rail service to the community of Gaspé.

    In the Anglican community I am a part of in Toronto, Church of the Redeemer, we feed upwards of 100 people two meals every week day.

    Elsewhere in Toronto, there is an Anglican community that is providing sanctuary to a family of refugees our government is trying to deport back into harms way — a very political act that only works because of institutional structures and secrecy.

    If the Anglican Church of Canada were to institutionally collapse or die in the straightforward way suggested, it is difficult to understand how that would benefit many of the most vulnerable people who depend upon the institution of the church. Speaking as a bourgeois intellectual, I understand and share the excitement of being able to start over, to craft something new, but that is a luxury that many others cannot afford. As St. Augustine understood, celebrating the fall of the empire mistakes the true object of hope as much as celebrating its triumphs: in both cases the destiny of empire determines the hope of humanity.

    I entirely agree that the institution needs to be transformed, and dramatically, but – to return to the compost metaphor – there are many already working away at this task beneath the surface, within the institution. It sounds like you are one of them. I like to think of them as red wigglers: quietly munching away at the shit and turning it into something the world can use. They tend not to be as visible as much of the problematic aspects of the church: red wrigglers avoid the light.

    Jeffrey Metcalfe

    (p.s. I invite you the check out catholiccommons.ca, to see what some other red wrigglers are up to).

    Reply
  5. andrew

    Jeffrey – Thanks so much for this post, for your insights, and those of St Aug! For me there is this tension between what has been and what will. I get frustrated at the pace of change, and yet, I find the notion of Red Wigglers incredibly valuable. That behind-the-scenes, below-the-surface kind of work, the work not always spoken of or lauded by the official channels is probably some of the most important. And, perhaps, subversive.

    I appreciate the reminder in the midst of my own frustrations, even as we seek change from within.

    andrew

    Reply
  6. walk out, walk on – and the death of the church « waiting for the believers

    […] my friend Andrew Stephens-Rennie wrote these provocative (and dare I say prophetic) words on the empireremixed blog earlier last […]

    Reply
  7. John

    I was doing a search for “Brueggeman on empire”… I wrote a sermon for tomorrow on Matt 22. 15-22 and was thinking of a quote that I remembered reading but couldn’t find it… I came across your blog.
    Troubled by my sermon and your post. Thanks.
    I was sent an article by a friend by Rev, Lynice Pinkard entitled Dangerous Love (in The Sun) which left me stunned. I am an Episcopal deacon and wondering now, not just how I can speak about the gospel and empire in a fairly imperious church, but I can extricate myself white, middle class, privileged self from empire.
    Thanks for your posts.

    Reply
    • Andrew Stephens-Rennie

      John – Grateful for your reflections here. I too find myself wrestling with similar things, as someone who serves within the ACC, similarly imperious (and at times impervious to this very fact). Thing is, there are some things about our denominational structure and practice that I find helpful and others that seem to act quite counter to this alternative kingdom that Jesus was talking about in this week’s gospel (Matt 22.15-22).

      I hope that your sermon went well in the face of all this troubling stuff. I was thankful for the words spoken in my own congregation here in Vancouver last night, the text of which you could find here:

      http://empireremixed.com/2014/10/20/clash-empires/

      Reply

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