So, What To Do?: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
So, What To Do?
Sometimes “church” is hard. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the Church, but finding a church can be hard, especially as an Anglican. Culturally, theologically, temperamentally, I am an Anglican, but the Episcopal Church that I once knew is, in many ways, almost unrecognizable. I find, however, that I’m not alone. Many of my friends who are cradle Roman Catholics no longer feel comfortable in parish churches that were once a second home to their families. Changes in liturgy, social issues, the lack of a role for women and the crisis of abuse have all combined to make them feel like strangers in sanctuaries which once gave comfort. Mainline Lutherans and Presbyterians face aging congregations and similar divisive social issues. Many of the independent, Calvary Chapel type churches have faced their own challenges with pastoral abuse and changing demographics as well as cultural shifts in attitudes toward church participation by the lay rank and file.
For some, who feel the need to be engaged in at least a limited aspect in a faith community, the relative anonymity of the local mega-church is appealing. Others look to have their faith affirmed in the historic breakaways, such as Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, or newly formed breakaway denominations such as the Anglican Church in North America. Yet, even in these breakaways, you can never be sure exactly what you might be walking into on any given Sunday. With ACNA you might encounter anything from an Anglo-Catholic Mass, to a 1928 Prayer Book service, to a Charismatic Vineyard-style gathering, or, to be honest, anything in between. It is also likely to be a fairly small church with a bi-vocational pastor/priest who may, or may not, know a great deal about Anglicanism. In a LCMS church you may hope for a straight forward Divine Service liturgy, but it is likewise possible that you will encounter a Contemporary Worship service replete with screens and a praise band.
Now we await developments in the United Methodist Church. While no one can predict exactly what will happen, one thing seems certain – what we once knew as the UMC, most likely, will no longer exist as a recognizable cohesive denomination. No church body seems to be immune to what is taking place. With about fifteen different church bodies under at least eight different jurisdictions, even the Orthodox in North America face challenges. While those challenges may be different from those outlined above, they are real nonetheless.
Needless to say, all of this is somewhat dismaying to the individual believer who simply wants to live out their faith in a community of believers. Moreover, it becomes more and more difficult as churches align themselves on one side or another of our current cultural divide. No, I don’t want to hear about Pride month when I go to church, but neither do I want to be subjected to an angry gay-bashing sermon (I would probably walk out if either occurred). As I settle into my seat, I really don’t want to hear that the current President is God’s gift to the nation, nor do I wish to hear that the Millennium will commence once there is a Democrat in the White House. (Indeed, if it were up to me, I’d remove the American flag from our sanctuaries, revoke the tax-exempt status of our churches and related properties, and have clergy cease to be state functionaries in performing marriages.)
So, what to do?
Well, there is always the Benedict Option proposed by Rod Dreher. His appropriation of the Benedictine categories of Order, Prayer and Work, Stability, Community, Hospitality and Balance certainly have an appeal. The withdrawal from the politics-obsessed nature of American society with the intent of preserving a “Christian culture” may be praiseworthy and, indeed, may provide a solution for some, but certainly not for all. Dreher readily admits that, “I am certain that there is no such thing as a perfect Ben Op community, and that each and every one of them will have struggled with similar problems.”
My thinking about this issue has taken me in a different direction. I don’t think it’s about withdrawal… I think it is about engagement.
We cannot replicate the past. We cannot replicate the monastic world of medieval Europe. Equally, we cannot replicate the Episcopal Church of decades past, or the Lutheran Church of decades past, or, indeed, even the Calvary Chapel of 1968. Any attempt to do so will result not in ministry but in the curatorial tasks of the keeper of a museum. What we can do, however, is bring the most valuable parts of that past into the present and, most importantly, into our own individual lives. It is not a great overarching plan that will give new life to a church, it is the combination of individual lives – yours and mine.
We need to model and we need to engage. I will use my own tradition by way of an example. I attend an Anglican church in which, until relatively recently, the Daily Office was largely unknown, even by the clergy. As a priest, I have said the Daily Office, morning and evening, for decades. Initially, after I discovered this, I was deeply offended. A vital part of what I considered to be a hallmark of Anglican identity was simply being ignored. So, what to do? For a time I considered curtailing my attendance, or going elsewhere. Instead, I began to talk casually about the importance of the Daily Office in the life of the priest and the parish. Nothing happened immediately, but through conversations and supplying some materials and encouragement, it began to change. The clergy began saying the Offices and encouraging others in the practice. Currently a simplified version of the Daily Office is posted on the church website. Now, is the church perfect? Absolutely not, much needs to happen, but something of value from the past has been added. Next we work on showing reverence to the altar… slowly…
I think we have come to a time in which we’re not likely to find that perfect church that suits all our needs and desires. Instead, we have to individually model in ourselves that which we wish the church to become. So, again using my own tradition, if you are drawn to Anglicanism you may find a wonderful Anglican church to attend… then again, you may not. What you can do, however, is to begin the journey yourself. The resources are there – the Daily Office, the Book of Common Prayer, practicing the the Lectio Divina… you might even find a mentor or two who will help you along the way. Might I add, this is not just the case for my tradition, the same could be said for all of the denominations and bodies I mentioned above. The important thing is to start the journey, modeling in yourself that which you wish to be as a believer and, perhaps, God willing, you’ll find others to walk alongside.