Friday, October 16, 2015

How Can We Renew Our Churches?



The chief concern of my fellow Christians these days seems to be survival, the survival of Christianity, the survival of our churches.  Indeed, I do not doubt that one of the chief concerns of those at the Synod of the family in Rome over admission of the divorced and remarried to communion is getting such persons back in the pews, and preventing the hemorrhaging of people off of the church roles (with the consequent loss of the church tax).  It is hard not to be a little cynical when one observes clergy, and others of us whose livelihood depends on the church, worried about these things.  And indeed, when one sees some of the tactics employed to get people into church, and contributing, the cynicism seems even more justified.  I would suggest that focussing on the problem, especially in this way, namely getting people back into the pews and contributing, is not only counterproductive, but will inevitably result making matters much worse.  If we really wish renewal it will involve looking both at the roots of the present problems and addressing them and also in re-engaging precisely those things which make for spiritual health and life.  Below I will outline what I think this should include. 

The chief cause of the collapse of Christianity that we are now undergoing is doubtless our failure to deal in a honest, rational, and scriptural way with human sexuality.  The things which burst upon us with the Sexual Revolution were undermining our churches long before.  Of the Sexual Revolution, I am reminded of Fr. Thomas Hopko's comment that there has not been  a Sexual Revolution, merely a "copulation explosion."  A Sexual Revolution, he said, would have us discovering anew our God-given sexuality, and entering more deeply into the mystery of it, and into an understanding of its role in God's plan for a redeemed humanity.  This is not what has happened. 

Any renewal of our churches must address the question of human sexuality, and it must do so in a new way, that is a significantly different way from how we have been doing things.  We cannot keep doing the things we have done in the past, and expect different results.  Right now we have two equally untenable positions duking it out with each other.   One uncritically asserts a series of moral prohibitions passed down from the previous generation, without examining their rationale or discerning their roots.  Nor can we adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards sexuality, blessing whatever comes along.  It must be a true sexual revolution.  In order to be a true sexual revolution it must be grounded in human nature and right reason, including the principle of natural justice or natural law.  It must also be well founded on Scripture and on the Christian vision of human life and the human body, as being created good, as being subject to the fall, as being redeemed, and as being destined for resurrection.  In order for it to be a true sexual revolution, there must be an unprecedented honesty about our present sexual state, including what went wrong both before and after the so-called Sexual Revolution.  And, most importantly, there must be an offering to God of our sexuality, and a prayerful invitation to Him to enter what is perhaps the most embarrassing part of our lives for us.  None of this will be easy.

Nor is this the whole story for spiritual renewal.  It is neither all that is required, nor can the addressing of our sexuality be done in a vacuum.  Church renewal must include a renewal in our spirituality and worship, and also a renewal in our approach to leading the moral life, and these two are related.  Probably the chief obstacle to our approaching God in worship is our inability to face our own sin.  Indeed we seem to go to great lengths to avoid this, and much of the activism in the life of our churches seems to me a way of avoiding examining our consciences, praying, and offering to God our repentance.  Perhaps, just as we believe that our sexuality is something too embarrassing to offer to God, so likewise we are so ashamed of our sins, and so unbelieving in the free gift of forgiveness and salvation prepared for us in the Atonemenment, in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, in the fact that God does forgive, that we cannot face them.  So, instead of engaging in the disciplines of the Christian life—daily prayer and worship, reading of Scripture, Christian meditation, examination of conscience, and confession, including sacramental confession—we create programs, engage in social ministries, put on social events, or have teaching and classes on subjects other than basic Christian doctrine and ascetics—all good things, but not a substitute for the basics, which alone can make a real difference.

Spiritual renewal has to include a renewal of the basics of life, for us Anglicans, as these are set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.  Chief among these is renewal of our worship, worship as an occasion for a real encounter with God.  This used to be true of both "low" and "high" Anglican worship, but it seems like we are falling to much to the tendency to use even our worship to avoid God.  It tends to degenerate into either into a worship of ourselves and "community", or it becomes a matter of inducing an emotional high that is either sub-rational, or even anti-rational.  These are precisely trends which Christian worship, which is worship of the Logos, the divine rationality, must avoid.  Christian worship is not dry worship, but neither is it irrational.  A liturgy without doctrinal and rational content is not Christian worship, it is not the sobria ebrietas, the sober intoxication, which is characteristic of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of the Logos, but it becomes rather a kind of dangerous surrender to irrational forces which can destroy us.  Nor is a turning towards ourselves as an object of worship anything but the creation of an idol, a god without substance, which only leaves us feeling empty and desperate.

Finally spiritual renewal must be a renewal in ascetics, in the disciplines of the Christian life.  Christianity is about being a disciple of Jesus, and as the word indicates, discipleship means discipline.  We cannot merit our salvation or God's forgiveness, but being on the path of salvation means that we must allow God's grace to work within us, to change us, and that is where ascesis, or Christian discipline, come in.  Chief among these in our time has to be the cultivation of silence, of attentiveness to God.  This is always true, but it is especially true for us because in our society "the greatest menace to our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul", as Josef Pieper says.  That is, we live in a society, which, having turned its back on God, is constantly in frenetic motion so as to avoid him, and which thus creates all kinds of noise so as to make silence impossible.  Our first great task then is to cultivate precisely those things which will make the soul more receptive, and to remove those things—including not least our own sins and vices, that is bad habits—that impede or kill off that receptivity.  This means among other things the creation and preservation of sacred times and spaces where the world of busy-ness, including the world of busy-ness in the name of religion, cannot intrude.

If there is renewal, God will do it.  We cannot do it for him.  But renewal cannot happen if we are unwilling to face ourselves as God created us, including our sexuality.  Renewal cannot happen if we do not make room for God in our souls by dealing with those things which close us off from God. Renewal most importantly cannot happen if we are unprepared, created as we are by God, to face him, who is ultimately lovely, and real, and good, and to fall down before Him as alone worthy of our worship, adoration, and praise.

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