If you’re a Christian in the West chances are your church is in decline. And if you are a mainline Christian in the West, well, you had a good run. The Anglican Church of Canada’s Council of General Synod recently published a statistical report for the Canadian House of Bishops. It is, as the French say, “not great”: “Projections from our data indicate that there will be no members, attenders, or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.”
Nevertheless we shouldn’t fear. If there’s one thing that the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church have taught us over these last sixty years or so it’s that humans are capable of so much more than we could ever ask or even imagine. All is not lost. We can turn this ship around. The following is a modest proposal for how to do just that.
- Live for the culture. There’s no denying that late-modern western capitalist culture is the most evolved/progressive culture in human history. Ever. The past has been one progressive step after another leading to this moment. We should respect and admire the early church but only from afar. After all, it’s not their fault they were less enlightened. Yes, it’s true that Saint Paul would have benefited from an undergraduate degree in women’s studies but that simply wasn’t available to him. He couldn’t possibly have been aware of the many nuances in Scripture that are opened up to someone more versed in the social sciences. I can’t possibly stress this enough, but let me try: If ever there is a discrepancy between the faith of the Church and our culture’s plausibility structures, always side with the culture. Imagine how silly we might look otherwise.
- Revise, revise, revise. In some ways this point follows on the first. If there is one thing history has taught us it is that just about anything can be revised. Don’t like that prayer book? Revise it. Is doctrine getting in the way? Revise it. Is that new young cleric too bound by the “rubrics” of the liturgy? Advise him or her that they too can be revised. Isn’t that what bishops are for?
- Speaking of revision, we desperately need a new moral ethic for the 21st century. No where is this clearer than in the matter of sexual ethics. For example, statistics show that most couples live together before marriage. The Christian teaching that the marriage bed is the most fitting habitat for sex is outdated at best and repressive at worst. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. I mean, come on, the band Queen knew this back in the 70s. But as usual the Church lags behind. It’s high time the Church caught up. Perhaps consider a condom dispenser in the church bathroom. Or, when counseling couples inform them of the benefits of ethically sourced pornography. Better yet, get ahead of the curve and affirm the goodness of polyamorous relationships. Yes, God created Adam and Eve (not literally, of course) but who’s to say it can’t be Adam and Eve and Steve?
- We need visionary leaders. For too long clergy have been held to standards from a bygone era. For example, did you know that even today in their ordination vows clergy affirm the Bible to be the word of God containing everything necessary for salvation? We are on the edge of a demographic cliff. We need clergy who aren’t afraid to innovate even if it means making things up entirely.
- Speaking of the Bible, just forget about it. Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely helpful as a window into a patriarchal and uneducated society but if given the chance to offer a Bible study or a book study just remember this: a good book study beats a study of the Good Book. Every time. Authors like John Shelby Spong, Richard Rohr, and Barbara Brown Taylor are excellent because they offer an engaging progressive faith for today while at the same time undermining any remaining confidence people might have in the Bible and the so-called apostolic faith. Worst case scenario: if you must talk about the Bible be sure to let people know that its interpretive breadth is limitless. Any suggestion that not all interpretations are equally valid or that, worse yet, there may be a coherent and unified interpretation according to church tradition can’t help but inflict undue harm on readers.
- Privilege activism over evangelism. It never hurts for the church to double-down on the things that social service agencies can do better. As a word evangelism is tainted beyond repair. As a concept evangelism is rife with problems. Just imagine Christians thinking that what they believe is true and good and worth inviting others to explore? People are already generally good — at least those that vote the right way — and don’t need saving so much as they need encouragement and motivation. Activism gives good people something good to do so that they can affirm just how good they already are. Last week I shared a photograph on social media of me participating in a protest and someone said that they would love to come to a church full of people like this if they weren’t so busy playing golf on Sunday mornings. Consider making this a priority at your next diocesan synod. We simply cannot afford to waste precious time on evangelism when we could be talking about more important matters like single use plastics. If in doubt just remember the words of Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” If you’re doing it right you’ll hardly ever have to use words.
- On that note, stop bringing your children to church. All that talk of sin and forgiveness and Jesus being Lord might so offend them that they never come back. It would be wise to pre-empt this decision by making it for them. Sign them up for as many activities as you can, especially on Sundays. Better yet don’t have children at all. It’s good for the environment.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is the Incumbent of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.