LETTER FROM CANADA JULY 1999

THE CANADIAN CHURCH IN CRISIS

MY TOTAL MILEAGE in February was about 17,000 miles, in ten planes, two cars and two ferries, which took me on a lecture-tour to Canada. It was highly organised by Mr. Graham Eglinton, the National Director of the Canadian Prayer Book Society. During four days at King's College, Halifax, I joined students from different faculties maintaining the Daily Offices in the College Chapel as they awaited the appointment of a new Chaplain. The Chapel was packed for the High Mass of Candlemas when I preached. I lectured and preached to various groups in Nova Scotia, stayed on an organic farm near Prince Edward Island, celebrating the Eucharist and preaching for the Continuing Anglican Church. In Frederickton, New Brunswick, I met Archbishop Nutter, the former Metropolitan at the two lectures I gave to clergy and laity. In Toronto there was a weekend Patristics Conference where I gave two lectures alongside Fr. Tony Bassett, Dr. Peter Toon and a Jesuit, Dr. George Schner. A three hour journey took me to the lively evangelical parish of St. John's, Elora, where I preached at Mattins to a large and mixed congregation. The choir and music were cathedral standard. In Calgary there was an enthusiastic response from a large and mixed audience of clergy and laity to Why Anglicans Should read the Fathers, before flying to Vancouver for various commitments. The ferry took us to Vancouver Island for two lectures and an unscheduled sermon at the Ash Wednesday Eucharist in a small wooden church on the edge of the forest in British Columbia where Dean Henderson is the priest.

The Wider Church Scene

Here I met with faithful clergy and laity concerned to preserve the orthodoxy of Anglicanism at great cost to them and for clergy especially, a risk to their job security and future prospects. It is apparent that the Christian Church in general and the Anglican Communion in particular have reached a moment of crisis. Fundamental to this crisis is the emergence of two incompatible and competing religions within the Church, that are not mere differences of "emphasis" but profound differences about the content of Christian belief and the character of Christian life. They express themselves in the authority of experience, the basis of liberalism, over against the authority of Divine revelation that is the basis of orthodoxy.

For the liberal Christian, belief is essentially a matter of personal opinion, formed on the basis of his own contemporary experience; and experience in which scripture and liturgy, as well as his engagement with various social causes, provide data for reflection. His religion is not so much a matter of "Truth" (with a capital "T") as of "truths", which are subject to continual change, revision and adjustment, so as to be "relevant" to the world in which he lives. He sees his church as the gathering of a similarly committed people who, in a democratic world, must decide their "truths" by majority vote of representative councils or synods, or whatever the political mechanisms might be. (The Prayer Book and the Church in Crisis, Dr. Robert Crouse).

Crouse continues that for the orthodox Christian "Truth" (with a capital "T") has been definitively revealed in Holy Scripture, and authoritatively interpreted in the Christian Tradition. The Christian's response is in terms of belief, understanding, and obedience. "Relevance" then becomes a matter of seeking to apply established doctrinal and moral standards to the situation in which he finds himself. He sees his church as divinely commissioned in faith and order to maintain the faith "once for all delivered to the saints", with the responsibility of maintaining those standards, essentially unchanged from one age to another. The dividing line does not shade into a bold black or white but carries grey areas where some have tried to compromise their accommodation on one side or the other.

A Matter of Authority

Even more fundamental is the question of authority. This rests upon the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and has not been delegated to the consensus that is too often and too quickly arrived at in meetings, Synods or among Bishops. Too often the aim is to find the lowest common denominator. In the absence of an Oecumenical Council or Magisterium, the Book of Common Prayer has constituted our self-definition as Anglicans, and has been not merely a "useful aid to worship" but the basis of our theological method.

Since the start of Lambeth Conferences in 1867 the insistence has been upon the Prayer Book as the standard of doctrine and practice. The General Synod of Canada in its founding document, The Solemn Declaration 1893, pledged itself to "hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth the same in The Book of Common Prayer … and in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity."

As Dr. Robert Crouse (Formerly Professor of Classics at Dalhousie University and Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan), has pointed out, it would not have occurred to most Anglicans that serious questions of doctrine and worship could be decided by local, provincial or even national synods. The Prayer Book tradition was the standard. The campaign is to replace it with The Book of Alternative Services which in many points and at some points quite explicitly criticises and rejects that standard. The expressed intention is that such liturgical changes should serve to introduce theological changes – theological changes incompatible with the doctrine expressed in the Book of Common Prayer, so that polarisation within the Church becomes sharper and more widespread. Since its introduction in 1985 the cost has been in terms of a demoralisation, a loss of spiritual vitality as laity have found themselves unable to accommodate to the shape of the new religion emerging in their parishes where the shepherd's attitude has been 'take it or leave it'. As Dean Inge pointed out, the Church that is married to the spirit of the age is a widow in the next. This fashionable religion that is being promoted in Canada is, as Professor Hayes claims, out-of-date in a more profound sense because it is "theologically inflexible and narrow, expressive of a school of thought which has already passed its peak." Thirty years on, even Harvey Cox realises that he got it wrong in The Secular City. The secularisation of the Church is expressive of a generation now passing away.

Some of the Effects

Membership of the Anglican Church of Canada has been dropping steadily. In 1961 there were 1,358,000 members but by 1994 this had dropped to 781,000. This happened while generally the population of Canada was increasing; Anglicans went from being 7% of the population to 3%. Of these members only 171,000 were in church on an average Sunday in 1994. A safe conclusion is that the active membership is about 250,000.

The majority in this membership is elderly while the mass exodus of people since the 1960s has been mostly of younger people. From 1961-1994 the membership declined by 50%, baptisms dropping by 60% and confirmations by 80%. A predominantly elderly membership will decrease further by natural causes. Like Nero, the National Church 'fiddles while Rome burns', spending more time on Church structures than on evangelism, unable or unwilling to evangelise. On the financial level the remaining membership have increased their giving, enabling the Church to survive and even increase its spending while legacies and endowments have been left by deceased members. Nevertheless, a financial crisis seems to be looming as inflation and the cost of clergy increases, the maintenance of older buildings becomes a liability and Church bureaucracy becomes a growth industry. The 'knock-on effect' is that as parishes feel financial strain in their budgets, the first item cut is the diocesan "fair share" which is not seen as important a priority as the rector's stipend or the cost of heating. At diocesan level cutting the "fair share" to the National Church compensates for this shortage, for the same reasons. Parishes may hold their own but diocesan income is falling and in 1996 the national apportionment budget was down almost $600,000 on the previous year. Such financial decline cannot but affect the Church's wellbeing as it gives rise to parochialism that could evolve into a congregationalism.

Another effect is the indecent disordering of worship. The mood of most members has not been against "liturgical renewal", even if there was some disagreement. The expectation was that after controlled experimentation, the Church, would settle down with two patterns of common prayer. While officially people were discouraged from "home-made concoctions", unofficially, even a bishop encouraged his clergy to see the ultimate goal of liturgical renewal as parishes having their DIY liturgies. There has been liturgical anarchy on the part of those who wanted a contemporary service whilst not wanting The Book of Alternative Services. They have mixed their own 'contemporary service cocktail' that has started not from liturgical or theological principles but from personal preference. This has led to pressure to push beyond the BAS without revising the book.

Such a-liturgical cocktails have become mixed with inclusive language, mother God and Father God, "extempore" Eucharist in instant mode. Pastorally this causes chaos and disorder when people move from one parish to another or when in sickness of mind or body they find the Church's common prayer unfamiliar. It seems that the very idea of common prayer has been savaged and with it much of the sense of unity and identity it gave to the Church. Liturgy may well become the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual division.

With this disordering of common prayer has gone the proliferation of new hymns in new books, on overhead screens, and on sheets of copier. A collection of hymns was presented to the 1995 General Synod, attempting to provide the Church with hymns that conform Canadian Anglicans to modern sensibilities about inclusive language. Compared with the hymns of the Wesleys or the translations of John Mason Neale they often lack poetry, doctrine and ecclesiology. The step too far went beyond the commonly accepted practice of using inclusive language relating to people. Language about God was altered to 'her/ him/ itself' and required a significant modification of many familiar hymns. For example, in the hymn "Joyful, joyful we adore Thee" the line, " 'Thou our Father, Christ our Brother', became 'Thou our Father and our Mother'". Behind this trend is the avoidance of attributing masculinity to God the Father and God the Son, which emasculates the doctrine of the Trinity, while proclaiming God as the "Womb of life and source of being" or addresses "her" as Sophia. For the liberal "the language of faith is merely the symbolic representation of our own religious and moral sensitivities", that requires the gender specific Trinitarian language to be balanced by "gender neutral" forms such as "Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier", or equivalent feminine forms. The modifying or marginalizing of traditional religious language is part of the liberal agenda. While the new liturgies did not go so far, new hymns might be expected to prepare the way for this new language. Most people will sing anything if the tune is right.

This raises the crucial question about the authority of the Word of God that is the basis of our religious language and in particular the theological significance of the images and language of Scripture. As Dr. Crouse puts it:

"Is it, for instance, arbitrary (or perhaps simply relative to a particular society) that Jesus tells his followers to address God as "our Father"? Or that (with St. Paul), we speak of the Church, the New Jerusalem, as our "mother"? Is it a matter of indifference whether Christ is thought of as bridegroom and the Church as his bride, or might those images just as well be reversed? Does the fact that Jesus on one occasion takes to himself the simile of a mother hen protecting her chicks mean that it is appropriate to address Jesus as mother" as well as "son"? The questions can quickly become ridiculous; but the fundamental question about the authority of biblical and traditional imagery is of great theological and devotional importance… And the basic question, I suppose, is this; Are the concepts images and language of the Holy Scriptures, as understood in our tradition, definitive for our faith and practice as Anglicans today? I think the answer must be "Yes", and I think that the continued existence of Anglicanism depends upon that answer (Holy Scripture and the New hymn Book)."

On the level of continuing Anglican Christian education, the scene reflects the division that is characteristic of the whole Canadian Church in that there is no overall syllabus of instruction or Catechism, no uniform approach. This is not to say that priests are not instructing people seeking baptism or confirmation, but continuing education in the Anglican Way seems neglected, apart from a number of conscientious priests - though such priests are left to their own devices. Gone are the days when congregations were worshipping with the same liturgy, singing from a common hymn book, listening to the same lectionary and having their children taught from the same lessons. When this happened, even in the different expressions of the one faith between Evangelical and Catholic parishes, the common ground of essentials in doctrine and worship was the cement provided by The Book of Common Prayer that kept that unity of spirit in the one body. It was easy to distinguish between form and content between outward appearance and inward reality. Today, that reality has been changed by the invasion of "the sweetgrass smell of a native circle, the raised hands of boisterous charismatics praising Jesus on the overhead and using the Book of Alternative Services, the relaxed informality of an evangelical congregation with a DIY liturgy and even a gathering of "wimin" whose experimental liturgy seems to be more focussed on Sophia than on Jesus." The cover word for such variation is "diversity", which means no more than division and disunity because the "common ground in the essentials of the faith" is no longer present in the institution.

Finally

A final point! Some ordinands have had to leave Canada and seek ordination in other parts of the Anglican Communion after being refused ordination because of their orthodoxy. They were unable to sign the necessary piece of paper that would have bound their consciences to the liberal agenda. Space precludes discussion of other effects of the root cause of the malaise in Canadian Anglicanism. The crunch will certainly come if Canadian Anglicanism moves officially the acceptance of homosexual practice and the blessing of same-sex unions that seems imminent in the Vancouver diocese. Then "it will be torn apart along the fault lines where these two religions digress"; that will plunge it into a pit of destruction.

Despite the bewilderment of many priests and laity about what is happening to their Church there is a strong dynamic of resistance. In Charlottetown, Halifax and Frederickton successful theological conferences have been held over a number of years while St. Peter Publications, in Charlottetown, publishes and distributes theological and devotional literature in the Prayer Book tradition. These people see, that the only way forward lies in the reaffirmation of the orthodox faith in the Anglican Way that is rooted firmly in that wider patristic orthodoxy of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of which it is part. To this end the Canadian Prayer Book Society has been a mainstay of support at all levels of church life to these clergy and laity.

When I visit the homes for the elderly in my parish that I cannot help thinking this where my life is heading. When I look at the Anglican Church in Canada I cannot help asking: is this where the Church of England is heading? Let us hope that our bishops will have the strength of mind to let their convictions hang out in the direction of orthodoxy and divert our Church away from the edge of the abyss. May they have the courage to reverse the liberal agenda that so obviously conflicts with apostolic faith and order.

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, Hon Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad's College Durham

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