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At Issue

Can a national church still capture the essence of what it means to be Christian?

By Connie denBok

This past semester I taught a course at an Anglican seminary. The professor was on sabbatical and loaned me his class on evangelism — possibly thinking I could do no harm. For a long time, I thought Anglicans were pretty much like us except with frilly surplices, baffling books of prayer and alcohol served at communion. But there are differences so subtle and profound that I must pause and think about what it means to be the Church with a capital C: the one they refer to as “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”

John Wesley, our ancestor in the faith, was one of them and might have left us bishops instead of Presbyteries if the Scots had been more tractable at Church Union in 1925. I think the highland DNA of clans and ancestral feuds runs in our blood to this day. The red hymnbook, a joint publication of the Anglican and United churches, sat in our pews for almost 30 years, like a returned engagement ring after union talks abruptly ended in the late 1970s. Family legend has it that the Anglicans left us at the altar.

I felt a tiny pang of nostalgia when Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams  was lampooned in the newspapers for advocating Shariah Law in Britain. Ah, for the days when our own moderators affronted pew and public with front-page headlines. No one really believes that the Archbishop practises or preaches Shariah at home or abroad, but think of it: someone cared that he might have thought about it.

It is unlikely that our own moderators are gagged with duct tape early in their terms and allowed to speak only in signs interpreted by General Council publicists. But my sense of the decade past is a church weary of warfare or maybe just weary of carrying the weight of being the church. How can a church that has spent myriad meetings discussing sex in all of its forms, fantasies and orientations for 30 years seem so dull that only a budget line can enliven discussion at Board or Presbytery? Like halitosis, purveyors of boredom are less aware of their issues than those who surround them.

There is something peculiar happening in the world of Anglicans. In Britain, more secular than Canada by 20 years, two new churches are opening every week, but not through national offices. Vital churches are planting new parishes, sometimes in old buildings. No, they don’t sell the valuable real estate under their historic buildings and use the proceeds to run the organization. They are reclaiming a word that Microsoft and Apple have been unashamed to use — evangelism. Yes, that word. The one that once meant good news to us.  And who is cheering them on? Archbishop Williams. How odd. We had heard he was somewhat progressive.

Robert Webber termed the expression “The ancient future church,” and I think he was onto something. He meant a church rooted in ancient faith and practice and rooting toward a future that has always known that the 20th century would be last year’s news.

Can a national church capture the essence of what it means to be Christian in a Canada where 50 percent of churchgoers in the Greater Toronto Area — as in the Greater London Area of England — were born outside of the country?

“One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic” is a concept worth revisiting.

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