R. Matthew Stevens, an ordained clergyperson within the United Church of Canada, now retired from active ministry, gives a vivid and unsettling picture of the current state of the United Church of Canada. What he has to say certainly is on target for many so-called mainline denominations in the United States as well. It would be interesting if others around the world recognize some of these symptoms. I would love to host a discussion of some of these issues.
Not unlike many formerly mainstream North American denominations, the United Church of Canada is currently going through a sincere attempt to plot for itself a new future direction. Just about every level of the church is independently engaged in some sort of pilot-programming. The national church having previously commissioned a number futurist reports, has now launched an official “Comprehensive Review Task Group” with its very own website and live discussion forums. It’s all very exciting, but in my humble opinion it tends to boil-down to some myopic navel-gazing, misguided and puerile, even if essentially innocuous.
It seems that the history of the United Church of Canada, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a certain cost associated with maintaining a genuinely liberal theological orientation. Adherents to theologically liberal oriented denominations have to be prepared to think, and continuously re-evaluate their own evolving sense of spirituality. That of course requires a degree of intellectual rigour, a commitment to study and spiritually reflection, along with accepting the concomitant risk of being misunderstood and unpopular with one’s peers. Simply put, it takes honest effort to retain a liberal theological orientation, and in an era of “push-button convenience” and “instant gratification” the notion of “hard work” is very much déclassée.
Unlike the more fundamentalist oriented churches there is no Biblically inerrant list of rote learned and formulaic responses to rely upon. Nor is there the solace of a safe haven within a long established and ornate orthodoxy that the traditional episcopal churches can shelter within. Liberal theology has always held as a quintessential principle rigorous consideration of the evolving contributions of science and humanist philosophy, often placing these churches at the vanguard of social/cultural/economic reformation. The pointy part of reform can be a intimidating place to occupy!
Not surprisingly this continuously evolving theological stance makes many folks uneasy, and results in significant defections to either denominations where rules take the place of rationality, or into a sort of “nonaligned” status. This condition has been allowed to remain ineffectually addressed for so long now – with the resultant creation of at least two generations of “unchurched” young adults – that no single method is likely to correct the situation. One-size religion no longer fits all.
This is by no means “new news”! The current sense of denominational urgency arises from the fact that revenues have final slipped to unsustainable levels, but this trend has been decades in the making. If you recall the bumper-crop Sunday Schools from the 50ties, 60ties, and 70ties, have you ever pondered where they all went? They didn’t all move to another town. Were a significant percentage of those folks to suddenly decide to return to church, most theologically liberal denominations would be building new facilities – not closing them.
There’s simply no returning to yesterday – and how many of us would want to go back even if we could? Generally speaking people are no longer “joiners”, (if you doubt that just speak to anyone involved in service clubs, fraternal organizations, or charities) and what were once esteemed as benefits conferred through “membership”, are now regarded purely as encumbrances. Individuals within society are quite prepared to remain loyal adherents to any religious organization that is routinely serving and advancing their spiritual development. Should they ultimately reach a plateau and no longer perceive such growth, the likelihood is great that they will simply move along – no umbrage intended.
As people permeated in “churchiness” that attitude may initially seem rather crass to us, but stop and consider your own actions in other areas societal interaction and exchange. In contemporary society loyalty resides only to the extent that legitimate needs are meet. Add to this the convenience factor, and you have the prime ingredients of the ever fluctuating social dynamic. It’s for precisely this reason that major financial institutions and retailers jockey with one another in offering enhanced ”loyalty incentives” to their cardholders.
As liberal churches we’ve often been slow to adopt change that would benefited us. A simple example: As a boy my Mother would ask me to deliver an envelope of cash to a local merchant to pay our account. Years later I’d write cheques and address envelopes to mail payment to all my accounts. I just paid all of my monthly accounts on-line in less time than writing one cheque. We live in an age of “plastic currency”, and we’d be hard pressed to come-up with more than a few dollars cash from our pockets or purses. Yet, how few churches have bothered to install Interact, thus seriously limiting their revenue potential!
The future for theologically liberal denominations is going to be much more scattered and diverse than ever before. National church organizations may continue to exist, but solely as effective networking, purchasing, and supply hubs. Much of the policy development that once was regarded as the natural perquisite of centralized church offices, will evolve to liberally oriented ecumenical agencies to be developed in a broader and less sectarian context. In a similar fashion functions such as stewardship, revenue generation, pre-authorized remittances, payroll, and accounting, could be handled on a much more efficient basis as a co-operative administrative function between an amalgam of denominations.
Vital and thriving congregations will be those that are well and truly rooted in their home communities, providing a variety of effective forums that permit adherents to grow and share their faith/spirituality in a range of personally relevant manners. Apart from the overarching name above the door there will likely be very little similarity between congregations, both in terms of the physical facilities and the range of modalities utilized. Come to think of it, it will look a whole lot more like first century Christianity than what we’ve witnessed for a very long time.
Freed at last from the fallacious notion that it is the role of congregations to create structural memorials, churches will be able to liquidate real estate holdings to empower genuine ministry initiatives. By leasing facilities adequate for their current needs congregations can physically locate themselves where they are best able to access their potential adherent growth. Likewise, hours of time and effort will no longer need to be diverted into arduous efforts to finance and manage structural maintenance, renovation, and repair. Perhaps churches might then borrow a page from Jesus’ ministry manual, and take the message into the marketplaces where the masses are already congregating.
There is both a place and a disparate societal need for theologically liberal oriented churches – now and well into the future. As the pace of scientific research continues to exponentially increase, calm and well reasoned integration of these discoveries with the wealth of existent spiritual wisdom will remain a crucial requirement for the vast majority of humanity. To achieve this worthy goal we must be willing to get our hands dirty in the conventional world we find all about us, and be a whole lot less “precious” in our attitudes. It will always require hard work to maintain an authentically liberal approach to theology, and this is the cost we must willingly forfeit without lamentation.
For liberal theology to turn-away from this challenge is to essentially vacate Christianity to fundamentalism, accompanied by the virtual certainty of an escalating devolution into some form of fanaticism. Jesus struggled throughout his ministry – and ultimately gave the supreme sacrifice -to prevent his ministry being co-opted into the fanaticism. As contemporary liberal Christians can we do less?