Early in January, the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay released a report acknowledging the near-term death of its institutional structure. The word used—and that has caused a great deal of unrest—is palliative.
This particular word has become a lightning rod for many. To this I say Good and About Time. I should add to this something else: this reality is probably just as true in a good number of dioceses across the country, but at least at this point, they haven’t acknowledged out loud the reality being experienced within: the exhausting reality experienced by members of congregations, lay leaders, clergy, and yes, even bishops.
The question posed by the Diocese of Kootenay’s Structures Working Group is ultimately a question of legacy.
What legacy do those of us who are Christians and current members of the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay wish to leave for future generations? How are we going to get our house in order that we might pass on the gifts we have received to generations to come?
Like many parts of the church, the Diocese of Kootenay has been adrift for many years. We have a vague sense of where we came from, and a vague sense of what the church is (or at least what it has been in recent memory). What exactly we call the church varies from place to place, but it has something to do with Eucharist and Worship and Warm Brown Water we try to pass off as coffee after the service. These rituals are somehow meaningful to us, but rarely can we articulate why we keep doing them should someone ask. Luckily most people don’t.
We gather for an hour to meet our spiritual needs, and then we go back to whatever it is we do the other 167 hours of the week. How often do we connect that one hour of spiritual practice with the other hours of the week? What shapes our lives more—the hour of liturgy on a Sunday, or the countless hours spent consuming media (whatever the source).
Growing up in the evangelical world we talked about church and personal devotion as a way of developing “my personal relationship with Jesus.” In the Anglican church I more often hear it phrased as “following my spiritual path.” In both worlds, it’s still an individualistic pursuit that places few demands on how we interact with one another. We may be in the same building for some period of time, but that doesn’t mean we share a vision of our work in the world.
And perhaps that’s a part of the problem.
In a recent article written by Ken Gray, former Dean of the Cathedral in Kamloops, he writes that this current moment, this current crisis is all about leadership.
And in some ways it is. Somehow, over the past fifty or so years, our sense of what the church is and what it’s about has been significantly diluted. Church is one therapeutic product amongst many that we consume (or don’t) to help us make it through the week, as observed by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book “Soul Searching.”
The features of this particular belief system go something like this:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Jesus does come to earth to offer comfort, of course. And yet it is comfort and blessing offered to the oppressed. Those kicked to the curb by the normal way of doing business (whether that be religious, political, economic, etc.) are the ones who are to be centered in the Jesus-shaped community.
The thing about leadership, then, is not simply about being entrepreneurial. It may involve creativity and it certainly ought to be focused beyond the community as it currently exists. But also, the crisis of leadership in this moment is that for a very long time, the church has been teaching that the gospel is essentially being nice to people, and finding comfort in our eternal salvation. We’ve made some strides in some places on important justice issues, but only if they don’t cause too much institutional discomfort (cf. #ACCToo).
Jesus invites one and all into comfort and blessing and community, but it is not community free from conflict, free from challenge. It is community that affirms that all are beloved, that all are created in God’s image. In affirming these things, this Christ-centered community invites its members into (often difficult, sometimes painful) transformation.
Such cruciform transformation, publicly acknowledged in our baptism, is one in which we die to the self-serving and consumptive logic of this world. After this death in the waters of baptism, we rise with Christ in a new life that resists—with God’s help—the pressure to dominate others and God’s beloved world. As a part of this resistance, we join Jesus as members of Christ’s body to ensure that all have enough (neither more nor less) and that all know that they are enough (not more, not less).
This is and has always been true in God’s eyes, of course, but we often have significant work to do believing it for ourselves. This too is the work of Christian community—living for, anticipating, and embodying a world in which every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low (Isaiah 40:4).
And so, there’s another layer of leadership that needs to be explored here.
Because it’s not simply about individual leaders becoming more entrepreneurial. It’s also about systems that reward a particular kind of leadership. In many parts of this country, the system rewards the formation of leaders for a particular kind of institution—the one the Diocese of Kootenay has dared to suggest is dying. The kind of system that under these particular circumstances is leading to increased burnout amongst clergy and lay leaders as they serve the machine that is supposed to serve the people in pursuit of God’s mission.
The question is not only are we training leaders for a missional church, but also, are our systems being adapted to support those who God is calling to lead such a church?
This is perhaps a bit rhetorical, but: are there structures standing in the way of supporting an emerging crop of church leaders who God is calling into ministry for the next generation?
In what ways are our congregations and dioceses, our licensing bodies and seminaries equipping leaders to do more than shore things up in order to keep the machine running? How might each of these systems be transformed so that we start working today to prepare them to support the church of today while also working to support the church of ten, twenty, thirty years from now?
Given the reality that the institutional machine as it currently operates is dependent upon resources that few communities (especially rural communities) have any more, a lot needs to change. As fewer are able to volunteer their time due to age, economic constraints, etc, the work that was once shared by many is left to an-ever shrinking pool of volunteers and the remaining part-time clergy.
It is no wonder we talk about the structures of the institutional church being in a palliative state. Bit by bit, different systems in the organization are facing stress that they can not manage. Congregations and leaders are becoming stretched beyond capacity, less and less able to support life. As more and more parts of the system shut down, we know that the end of one lifetime is near (even as other lifetimes are just beginning).
Which brings us back to the question of legacy.
What are the gifts from the past five decades, the last two thousand years, that might be passed along? When we prepare the last will and testament of the dying institution, what are we willing to pass on—for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of generations to come.
Those of us who are a part of the church and who have a role in the current institution have a responsibility to pass on whatever we can to support emerging generations in embodying the way of Jesus in ways that make sense for the world that they do and will inhabit. We may not know what that looks like yet, and perhaps we don’t need to know more than this: God is faithful, and remains faithful from generation to generation.