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Church Decline, Faithfulness, and Hope

By Jenny Andison

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” — Mark Twain, ending a letter written in 1897 to a newspaper journalist, in response to reports that he had died.

The latest demographic statistics for the Anglican Church of Canada have recently been issued, including the projection that the last Canadian Anglican will turn out the lights in 2040.  With that projection, some feel it is now time to turn down the sheets and plump the pillows of the deathbed.

I am not going to spend time here unpacking these statistics in detail, nor argue that the numbers presented should not cause serious concern or grief.  I firmly believe that the Anglican tradition is a theologically robust and personally life-giving vehicle for historic Christianity and that its death would represent a significant loss for the body of Christ and its witness here in Canada.  I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic as I believe Christians have a sacred obligation to adopt a posture of hope towards the future; and in light of that posture of hope, I offer some observations.

First of all, I frequently tell the clergy with whom I serve that the kind of growth in parishes that concerns me most urgently is spiritual growth, or what we used to call sanctification.  Are people growing in devotion to Jesus? Are their lives increasingly marked by holiness, prayer and sacrifice?  Of course, such things cannot be plotted on a graph, yet we must acknowledge that if someone is maturing in their Christian faith, it will naturally lead to loving, culturally sensitive and effective evangelism.  In my own experience of parish ministry, when the piety of a congregation was being intentionally challenged and nourished, numerical growth usually followed.

Second, the Christian Church has always been one generation away from extinction, and so our situation is not unique. Each generation needs to ask itself afresh, “How are we going to share, with people who have never heard it – starting with our own children and grandchildren – the good news that we have come to know in Jesus Christ?”

We have been in a catechetical crisis in our church for several generations now, and the chickens have come home to roost.  There has never been a more critical time to be equipping Christian parents to form living faith at home with their children, and for clergy to take the lead in creating opportunities for lay people to be deeply discipled – either through ready-made programs, one-on-one discipleship, rules of life, or small group ministry.

Third, we need a revival in our prayer lives, both personally and in our parishes.  Even a cursory glance through Church history will reveal the key role that prayer has played in bringing about revival and renewal in different generations. Prayer is not a program, it costs nothing in the parish budget, and the new believer and seasoned veteran alike may enthusiastically participate.  If every ounce of energy that we (myself included) spend fretting about institutional decline was spent instead on our knees, I wonder where we would find ourselves.

Fourth, we must keep an eye on vocations to the religious life, the diaconate, and the priesthood.  Whenever I have the privilege of officiating at an ordination, I remind the congregation that this ordination is a sign of hope for the Church. For as long as our Heavenly Father keeps raising up faithful women and men to serve in the Church, then God still has work for our branch of the catholic Church to accomplish.  There may come a time when God no longer chooses to use the Anglican Church of Canada for God’s glory and purposes, but until and unless there are no more ordinations, that time is not upon us.  We must be intentional in encouraging a diverse range of people in our parishes to consider such a vocation.

And finally, there are gifts hidden in the decline, if we have eyes to see them.  As resources become scarcer, we are being pushed into local and national ecumenical collaboration and dialogue in a fresh way. Surely this delights God. If our own numerical decline means that we decide to get serious about reclaiming our apostolic calling to be missionaries to our culture and encourage church planting, fresh expressions of church, and reshaping our parishes for mission, then it’s about time.  If these statistics light a fire under us to keep re-imagining ministry in our neighborhoods in fresh and creative ways beyond the traditional parish model, then excellent. And if the decline means that we are more ready to acknowledge our own sinfulness (personally and institutionally) and come to God in great humility and repentance, asking to be led forward by the Holy Spirit, then bring on the bracing statistics!

I am privileged to serve in the Diocese of Toronto. Thirty-two percent of our nearly 200 parishes are numerically growing, a further 12% are numerically stable, and the rest are in different stages of decline.  The numerical growth is found across the diversity of our diocese, and while there are certainly common characteristics within these churches, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for numerical growth.

My episcopal area of York-Credit Valley is the Anglican Communion in microcosm, with individuals and families who have come to Canada from all over the globe, many of them with Anglican heritage. We are only beginning to grapple with the opportunity that this represents. While our diocese will presumably (not discounting the possibility of God bringing revival) be smaller in the coming years, if we are smaller but better formed in the “faith which was once delivered” (Jude 3) then we can still be used for God’s transforming purposes for many generations to come. Small, diverse and well-discipled congregations may well lead the renewal of the Anglican Church of Canada that my grandchildren, God willing, could be a part of.

While the reports of our death may be premature and exaggerated, our calling remains exactly the same:  to proclaim the good news of the risen and ascended Jesus Christ in season and out of season, that we may be found faithful on the Last Day.  No more and no less, to the glory of God.

The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Toronto.


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