Much has been said about the virtue of remaining within a church or denomination from which one dissents on theological and spiritual grounds. A number of posts on this blog more or less express my views on the matter. Remaining in the Anglican Church of Canada is something I am committed to, especially as a pastor in a parish and diocese in which I have taken vows. Still, there are reasons for people to leave, and sometimes the rationale for remaining can fly so high that it leaves people in the cold. I say this as one who finds himself in the Anglican Church of Canada after having come from somewhere else, and as one whose parents left a tradition. It was a difficult decision, but one that may have very well saved my life.
Division, as we know, has a way of draining and destroying the spiritual energy of a Christian community, and this has very real, practical consequences. In my case, the lack of a vital youth program, among other reasons, prompted my parents to move to another church so that they might reach their youngest son who was quickly losing his way. This was a decision that, in time, returned incredible and incalculable blessings. Indeed, it was at a large, energetic evangelical church that I was drawn into the orbit of a young man, a volunteer in the youth program, whose singular and passionate devotion to God changed my life and the lives of many other struggling teens. The church was far from perfect, but it was capable of forming and supporting this young man’s ministry. It was not merely a program that drew me to the light of Christ, though the program was indispensable, but a holy man who showed me what it was to love God and to pursue a life of devotion.
The absence of such programs, and the people who bring them to life by the spirit of God, are not small matters that we can do without. They are matters of life and death, and it is a hard irony that the people most aware of this spiritual need are the ones most likely to seek it elsewhere, the very people we cannot afford to lose. Divisions over sexuality in our national church have had absolutely devastating effects on parishes in measurable and immeasurable ways. Some congregations have divided, some have left for other denominations, but on a far more widespread level, the current divisions have created hesitant, resigned, confused, and uncertain communities that in many cases feel powerless to respond the very related crises of secularism and demographic decline. God only knows how many desperate and needy people have slipped through the cracks while its leaders and clergy (including me) have spun their wheels on the well-worn pathways of embittered and paralyzing division.
In a remarkable book, Seeing and Believing (Dacre Press, 1953), the Rev. Gordon Phillips wrote: “We should be alarmed at the absence in our communion of that specific type of Christian living we call sanctity and we should be uneasy that the clash between modern culture and divine revealed truth has not produced in our land and in our tradition that vivid sign of supernatural operation” (p. 78).
This obvious exaggeration was based on his fear that a certain kind of Anglican rational theology — the kind that doesn’t “check its brain at the door” or that fashionably entertains and wrestles with uncertainty — had produced a style of Christian living that valued intelligence and sophistication over submission and obedience. Phillips added: “There is a tendency to suppose that the specifically Anglican virtue is to live on a frontier,” mediating between positions, and “not holding to anything consistently” (p 73).
Modern Anglican theology, Phillips lamented in the 1950s, had produced “a puzzled stream of young men who emerge from the theological seminaries, convinced of one thing only, the essential relativism of all theological truth” (p. 74). Instead, he argued, they should have been given “something more like the shining sword they need with which to assault the ramparts of sin, with which to cleave asunder the joints in the armor of human complacency, a fit instrument to perform the healing surgery of the good shepherd, a truly serviceable weapon in God’s underground” (p. 74).
Of course, there are countless signs of sanctity and supernatural operation throughout the Anglican Church of Canada. Despite the claims from certain corners that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing, there is lots of evidence that the work of the Spirit is being frustrated, forgotten, or ignored. It is true, as it has been said, that there is no safe place in which to flee, no pure church unsullied by division or error. In many cases fleeing, from conflict and division may do little to inspire and animate our stagnant hearts. It may very well be the case, however, that there are churches in our communities and neighborhoods where we would be more likely to encounter energetic and passionate Christian faith, the kind of communities in which God radically changes people’s lives and calls them to a new life in Christ.
As a young person, I needed something powerful “like the shining sword” to cut through layers of confusion, selfishness, and desire. I know there are many more like me. Modern Anglicans don’t always like strong theological language, or words like passion, love, zeal or devotion, though they are very much a part of our heritage. Even a concept like mission, now prevalent in many churches, can quite easily retreat into the more respectable terrain of strategy and policy. The result of many of these coordinated mission initiatives will be modest at best, if they are not fueled by something at least approaching a burning and contrite love for God.
I think we should be kind to, and hopeful for, those who leave our communion, that they would find what they need to endure. Our culture so effortlessly and efficiently destroys the faith of our young people that many Christian families are trying cling to the little bit of light they can see. Those of us who remain need to be careful that the acids of division and spiritual complacency do not dissolve our spiritual energy and commitment. Our church and our world need bishops, clergy, and lay leaders who love God, love each other, and love their people with the kind of self-sacrifice and devotion my youth leader showed us. It is possible and I have seen it firsthand, but in the absence of even a desire for such a thing, we can hardly wonder when faithful people decide to turn elsewhere.