correspondents

Canada

Self-destruction

The Anglican Church of Canada, once the bastion church of all non-Roman Catholic Christianity north of the American border, was formally warned this month that it is ever more rapidly disappearing, and that unless something drastic is done it will vanish altogether shortly after the mid-century.

The warning came in a report to the church’s bishops. It carried an unusual note of authenticity in that it was founded, not on census figures, but on the actual membership roles of parish churches. All its news was bad. Church membership has declined 53% over the last 40 years – the sharpest decline of any major Christian denomination. That is, it fell from 1·3 million in 1961 to 642,000 in 2001. Moreover, the rate of decline is quickening, the drop between 1981 and 2001 being much sharper than that between 1961 and 1981.

Comparative figures

Other churches are losing members as well. The United Church of Canada (an 80-year-old union of Methodists, Congregationalists and some Presbyterians) has fallen from 1·04 million to 638,000 over the 40-year period. Presbyterian membership (i.e. those Presbyterian congregations that did not join the United Church) is down 39%, Baptist membership is down 7% and Lutheran down 4%. The membership lists of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada have meanwhile risen 38% over the period to 232,000 in 2001. Last year, that number stood at 243,000.

But the Anglicans lead the decline, a sad fate for the church that in the early nineteenth century was virtually the state church in English-speaking Canada, and the man who prepared the report did not sound hopeful that anything will be done about it. He is Keith McKerracher, a retired marketing expert, who volunteered to undertake the study.

‘My point to the bishops,’ he told the media, ‘was, ‘Hey listen, guys, we’re declining much faster than any other church. We’re losing 12,836 Anglicans a year. That’s 2% a year. If you draw a line on the graph, there’ll only be one person left in the Anglican church by 2061.’

‘The church is in crisis,’ he said. ‘They can’t carry on like it’s business as usual.’ He doubts, however, his message will be heard. ‘I don’t think the Anglicans will do anything. They talk things to death. My impression is that the bishops are not going to go around telling priests to shape up.’

The response of Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the Anglican Primate of Canada, tended to affirm McKerracher’s doleful view. The report, said the archbishop, is ‘a wake-up call’ that will ‘cause us to refocus our efforts on issues that we haven’t been able to address effectively in recent years.’ Up till now the church has been preoccupied with the ‘residential schools affair.’ Now that this has been resolved, it can turn its attention to ‘church development,’ he said.

(The ‘residential schools’ were boarding schools for native children, run by the church on behalf of the federal government, in which native children, now adults, complained of ‘abuse.’ About 2% of the cases involved sexual abuse. Most concerned ‘physical abuse,’ (i.e., that the kids were spanked), or ‘cultural abuse,’ (that the kids were taught English, rather than native languages.) The government is now paying off most of the claims for $4 billion.)

Liberality

However, the significance of the archbishop’s response lay in what he did not mention, notably the church’s consistent departure from traditional Christian teaching, which has been going on throughout the whole 40-year period of decline. It began with the acceptance of serial marriage, progressed to the ordination of women, then to the funding of terrorist groups in Africa, and finally to the acceptance of homosexual practice. The church’s latest foray is its tacit approval of homosexual marriage, which has seen it virtually disowned by the Anglican churches of Africa and Asia.

These ventures into ‘tolerance’ began in the Sixties when the relatively few cases of sexual abuse of native children occurred. The perpetrators, doubtless persuaded that paedophilia would soon be ‘tolerated’ along with everything else, guessed wrong. It wasn’t.

But the fact the archbishop refuses to recognize his church’s liberal leaning as a possible explanation for the exodus of more than half its members means he is highly unlikely to begin reasserting Christian teaching.

‘By Jove,’ he seems to be saying, ‘our churches appear to be getting a little empty. We’ve never noticed this before. This is a wake-up call. It’s time we did something.’ Not to worry. They won’t.

Ted Byfield published a weekly news magazine in western Canada for 30 years
and is now general editor of ‘The Christians’ a 12-volume history of Christianity

Australia

Execution

On the same day that the United States of America executed the 1000th person since the re-instatement of the death penalty in the 1980s, the first Australian citizen to be hanged in twelve years was executed in Changi Prison, Singapore.

25-year-old Nguyen Tuong Van, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, moved soon after his birth to Australia with his family. Three years ago he was arrested at Singapore airport taking heroin from Cambodia to Melbourne. The 396·2 grams placed him in the category of mandatory execution. Van never denied the charge, but maintained he was carrying the drugs in order to pay off legal bills incurred by his twin brother Khoa.

Baptized in gaol

During his time in prison he was baptized (he had attended St Ignatius School in Melbourne). Known as the ‘Baby of Death Row’ he gained much respect from the prison officers (who were hugged by his brother just after the execution) and other prisoners facing the same fate.

Some 2,000 mourners attended the funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. What was said during that Mass was an example to those who all too readily beatify the deceased through their eulogies. No such pretence took place here. No claim was made to saintliness for Van, nor that he was a martyr. But at the same time he was not presented as evil. Rather as one who had committed an evil act and repented.

Grace and mercy

The Catholic Church in Melbourne must be applauded for its ministry to the family and how it addressed the nation in the days leading up to the execution and the funeral itself. For one of the more disturbing aspects of the situation was the number of people who supported the execution of a man they did not know and whose remorse they did not believe or consider.

As Father Peter Hansen said in his homily at the funeral ‘Why is it that some people seem angered that we celebrate Van’s life and commend him to God in death? Why is it that some people are anxious to suggest that this great basilica, this mother church of Van’s city of Melbourne, is not a suitable place to pray for his soul, or to remember his life. I say to them; you are the people who look uncomprehending; it has not entered your heads that grace and mercy await the chosen of the Lord.’

In his eulogy, Mr. Lex Lasry qc (one of Van’s barristers) spoke of the change in Van over the years he had come to know him, ‘In the last two years of Van’s life, selfishness gave way to selflessness, lies gave way to truth and indulgence gave way to spirituality, and anyone watching that couldn’t help but be moved by it.’

Contradictions

Nonetheless, one poll stated that 52% of people in Australia supported the execution. Yet these are the same pollsters who found 76% of people thought that Schapelle Corby’s sentence in Bali was unfair. (She was given 20 years for trafficking 4·1 kilograms of marijuana.)

Although the offences may be seen as quite different, one does have to wonder about the hysteria which took place in Australia over the sentence given to Schapelle, a supposedly pretty young white woman in a popular holiday destination, compared to the disinterest (and at times vitriol) towards a man of Asian birth sentenced in Singapore.

But there was a strong, silent support for Van in Melbourne. It was not just the curious who stood outside the cathedral as his Funeral Mass took place. It was mothers with children in push-chairs, parents of dead drug addicts, and office workers who added to a feeling of heaviness in the city that day.

Policy and popularity

The Prime Minister, whose Government had pleaded clemency for Van, has put himself in a difficult position by supporting the very same sentence for the Bali Bombers. In 2003 Mr Howard said of the possibility of their execution, ‘There won’t be any protest from Australia.’ This coming from a government which in 2002 said ‘The Australian Government is universally and consistently opposed to the use of capital punishment in any circumstances. The death penalty is an inhumane form of punishment which violates the most fundamental human right: the right to life.’

It would seem that the policy on the death penalty, rather than being a blanket one of human rights, can be changed to be one of popularity.

The Church in Australia, and particularly the Roman Catholic Church, has eloquently, compassionately, pastorally and sympathetically responded to this one case, and done so extremely well. But at the same time she has made it clear that the argument applies to all. It has re-presented the late Pope John Paul II’s call that the need for the death penalty is practically non-existent and has re-focused minds towards the dignity of the human person and the right to life, rather than anger and retribution.

Now that Van’s body has been laid to rest, the charge for all churches in Australia is to work for a consistent government response to the death penalty, unaffected by popularity and to bring pressure to bear upon those countries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where it is still sanctioned.

If ever there was an instance of a change of heart, remorse and conversion, Van, according to those who came into contact with him, is a good example. May he rest in peace, but may the fight for the dignity of human rights not rest.

Philip Murphy

America

Extinction

he Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, New York, has found a handy way to deal with parishes that resist the new revisionist order, and will not pay for it either: declare them obsolete. On November 19, the convention of the Rochester diocese, whose bishop once served as an assistant to notorious Newark prelate John Spong, voted to declare the Parish of All Saints’ in Irondequoit ‘extinct’ after its refusal to pay its $16,000 apportionment to the diocese. The church’s rector, the Revd David Harnish, who (for now) remains a priest in good standing in the diocese, indicated that he would ‘continue to serve All Saints’ as I’ve been called to do.’

Joy and sorrow

All Saints’, which, with a regular congregation of 65, hardly fits the image of an abandoned chapel frequented by starlings, squirrels and a handful of ladies of a certain age, had refused to pay the apportionment because of the support of the diocese and its bishop for the consecration of openly homosexual priest Vicky Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and for the blessing of same-sex unions. An offer by the parish to put the apportionment money in an escrow account pending the outcome of the parent denomination’s General Convention next June was refused by the diocesan authorities, who instead moved to secure the abolition of the troublesome congregation.

All Saints’ failure to pay its 2005 apportionment was hardly a first in the history of the Rochester diocese. As is the case in most other Episcopal dioceses, parishes have not paid apportionments before for a variety of reasons. However, according to a diocesan spokeswoman, it was the first time in living memory that a parish in Rochester was threatened with dissolution for not paying.

In the aftermath of the 2003 General Convention, which in ratifying Robinson’s election set in train events on the world stage that have brought the Anglican Communion to the brink of dissolution, Fr Harnish met with Rochester Bishop Jack McKelvey to discuss the convention’s results and implications. The two agreed that the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) would never be the same because of the differences over the Robinson consecration, but their agreement seems to have been limited to that. ‘[Bishop McKelvey] and our diocesan leaders were overjoyed,’ said Fr Harnish. ‘We were in deep sorrow.’

McKelvey contends that he ‘met with the leadership of All Saints’ on many occasions’ and ‘offered to continue the dialogue around our theological differences.’ In the end, however, there was a price the diocese was unwilling to pay for dialogue: it was not willing to forgo, even temporarily, the apportionment money. In this case, it seems that talk was not cheap.

Big tent?

The attitudes of the parties concerning the money were finally irreconcilable. The diocese was not willing to talk unless the apportionment was paid; the parish was unwilling to see its resources used for the promotion of an agenda it saw as antithetical to the whole Church’s mission. The proceedings of the diocesan convention suggested that, in the end, the ground of unity in ECUSA is economic. For the authorities in Rochester, the essential element of membership in the diocesan family appears to be paying the apportionment.

Bishop McKelvey claimed that, ‘We have made no indication that this church (All Saints’) needs to accept and believe everything we believe as the Episcopal Church, but what we say is that our tent is large enough for all of us.’ This appears to mean that it is large enough for all who are willing to pay the rent, for in his convention address McKelvey referred to the canons enabling the extinction of parishes for non-payment of apportionment, and called for the convention to take ‘actions that you must consider when a congregation decides it does not wish to be a part of the family.’

It is questionable whether All Saints’ non-payment was indicative of a wish not to be a part of the diocesan family. It seems instead to have been intended as a means of recalling the diocese to its familial, theological obligations.

Technicalities

During debate on the measure, it was evident that not all of the delegates were convinced of the sincerity of the diocese’s public hand-wringing and its protestations of reluctance to take action against All Saints’. Larry Rockwell of Clifton Springs remarked that the Rochester diocese is ‘probably one of the most liberal in the country.’ In spite of that, he said, ‘I don’t think we are treating this group fairly. We are looking for technicalities to tell them they are no longer part of our diocese.’ Another delegate, Sandra Curtis of Hammondsport, pled for more patience, asking, ‘Are we not the church that believed Saddam Hussein needed time for the world to negotiate with him?’

Others, speaking in favour of snuffing out the parish, were more candid about the source of irritation than the diocesan leadership. Lynn Sinnott of Palmyra stated on each of the convention’s two days that she was offended by All Saints’ calling on the rest of the diocese to change its position on the gay issue. She asserted that All Saints’ demand had been, ‘If you do not repent and agree with our parish’s theology, we will not support the diocese.’ In the end, resistance to the diocese’s draconian solution to the problem failed. The motion to extinguish All Saints’, Irondequoit, passed on what was described as a ‘resounding voice vote.’

The vote had no immediate visible effect at All Saints’. The congregation assembled for Sunday worship as usual on the following day and Fr Harnish presided and preached at the Eucharist, ignoring a November 15 letter from Bishop McKelvey that forbade him to do so. In the letter, the bishop had stated his intention to come at the regular time to ‘conduct a prayer service and be available’ to answer questions from congregants.

When the bishop arrived, he was informed by a vestryman who met him at the door (accompanied by a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy) that he was welcome as a fellow worshipper, but not as officiant at a service. The bishop (who had brought along his own security man) stated that he would not participate in the service as a worshipper, since the rector was not authorized to conduct it, but he did sit in a pew throughout the service, reportedly standing only when greeted by some parishioners at the exchange of the peace.

The following day, the bishop and his chancellor, Philip Fileri, appeared at All Saints’ to get the keys and request the transfer of the parish’s assets to the diocese. They were met at the door by attorney Raymond Dague, who informed them, ‘The church isn’t open and we did not bring the keys.’ After a brief argument over the legalities, the diocesan delegation retired empty-handed.

While no decision had been announced at the time of writing, and the bishop has said he hopes to avoid legal proceedings, it is likely that the case is now headed for the civil courts for resolution.

A frequent contributor to the US based CHRISTIAN CHALLENGE magazine,
 FR SAMUEL EDWARDS is the former executive director of Forward in Faith, North America.
He is now a priest of the Anglican Province of Christ the King
and rector of Holy Comforter, Montevallo, Alabama

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