The Anglican Communion in the West has been a frequently cited source for the secularism thesis. This thesis argues that as a society advances, it inevitably and invariably declines in religious belief and becomes secular. As our societies continue to advance technologically and politically, it is natural to ask if there is a future for the Christian Church in the 21st Century?
I have always loved Church history. Church history begins in the biblical book of Acts, recounting the early adventures of the Apostles. It proceeds through the age of the martyrs and apologists winning over the Roman Empire in a few generations. This church, from a position of strength, then moved into the explosive missionary movement of the 3rd-10th centuries reaching every area of Europe. Then in the new millennium, despite internal fracturing, the church began expansion to every part of the globe leading eventually the modern missionary movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world. And it continues to have an impact on the lives of billions and billions of individuals, and the communities and nations they form.
But for those of us living in northwestern Europe, or in North America, it can seem that Christianity is a spent force. But is this assertion true?
Worship in the Anglican Communion in the 21st Century
My family and I have been worshiping for the past few years in a church that is alive, growing, dynamic, and friendly. It is part of the Anglican Communion and so part of a global fellowship. But it is also a tue local community. People care about each other. We share in each other’s lives and support one another. Our church proclaims the Gospel, the historic Christian teaching that begins with God, who is the loving creator of the world.
God created the world “good,” and placed humanity in the world to rule creation, under his authority. But, things went off the rails when the first humans joined in a cosmic rebellion against God. This historical event is called the Fall. Since the fall, all human beings have been subject to sin. Sin is the enemy of God, of Life and of Peace. It is why we are selfish and hurtful to one another, and its fruit leads to death, mental, physical and spiritual.
God will not let this state of things go on forever. He has appointed a Day of Judgement, when he will stop all evil, and set everything right. The problem is, that humans are the obstacle to this restoration. God could just punish us all. We are, after all, rebels and sinners, one and all.
But, because of his great love with which he loved us, God sent his son into the world to save the world. Jesus Christ made reconciliation with God possible throughis lifefe, death and resurrection. Jesus, God’s son, called the church into existence to be God’s embassy to this world, to announce the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of Relationship, Life and Peace.
This message is reflected in the doctrine, teaching, and worship of our Church. As part of the Anglican Communion, we have inherited a rich liturgy, which walks us through this Gospel week after week. We are brought into the presence of God, reminded of the state of Man, celebrate the work of Jesus and are called to turn our lives and hearts to him.
Our sermons draw their subjects from the Bible, the Christian Scripture. They encourage us to see the world and ourselves as God sees us. Our music and our fellowship flow from this foundation.
Is the Anglican Communion in Serious Trouble in the 21st Century?
But how is the Anglican Communion doing? “Anyone with a lick of sense can see that the Church of England is in serious trouble.” (source) A US article asks, “Why is the Episcopal Church Near Collapse?” (source). Meanwhile, “By any measurable standard, the Anglican Church of Canada is in serious decline with little hope that the numbers can or will be reversed in the foreseeable future.” (source). This was not always the case. The Church of England apart from its existence in the UK has birthed a global movement, which has long been the third largest Christian communion in the world. The Episcopal Church USA was once the Church of George Washington, “In 1966, the Anglicans reported membership near 1.3 million, the highest for any Protestant denomination in Canada” (source).
GAFCON and the “Reordering of the Communion” in the 21st Century
The recent decline of the Anglican Communion has therefore been catastrophic and unprecedented. But all is not lost. There has been a massive conservative resurgence in the communion. The traditional Lambeth Conference has been ineffective, controversial and collapsing. The Global Anglican Futures Conference has been impactful, inspirational and expanding. The Church Times reports that over 2000 delegates (more than double the attendance at the last Lambeth) came from all over the world attended the Conference (source).
Churches of the global south are the majority in GAFCON. African and South American members are prominent. The Church of England, in fine colonial overlord form, continues to hurl abuse at the churches of the developing world. One report from the Irish Church characterizes the participation of some of their bishops as “an ‘absolute disgrace’, ‘schismatic’, and as illustrating ‘how utterly out of touch some senior clergy’ were.” (source). Of course, one might inquire of whom those epitaphs better describe. The established European, Episcopal and ACC leadership sit atop the crumbling structures of an organization the Independent reports is “staring at oblivion” (source).
Is there hope for the Anglican Communion in the 21st Century?
While it may be true that mainline churches are staring at oblivion, some churches are growing and expanding. Maclean’s Magazine recently reported that churches which “focus on the Gospel and prayer are growing, while those that don’t are in decline” (source). The Washington Post reported on the study and added further detail, “Liberal churches are dying. But conservative churches are thriving.” (source).
The Church of Christ is not in serious trouble. The Liberal Church is in trouble. Why? Liberal Christianity has no reason to exist. It shares an outlook and belief system with the dominant culture. Therefore it enters the marketplace of ideas in the same realm as Hollywood, political parties, social clubs, or sports. In everyone one of these realms, the world outclasses the church. I would rather be entertained by a Hollywood movie than a church based dramatic production based on the same philosophical outlook.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are offering a reprieve from the dominant culture. They are offering an alternative way of living and thinking.
The Anglican Church in North America in the 21st Century
There are conservative Anglicans in the Church of England and throughout the Establishment churches. However, some jurisdictions of the communion have such a paucity of Orthodox leaders that they functionally left the Anglican Communion. GAFCON partners have developed alternative structures in these areas. This global Anglican Resurgence is very encouraging and very needed.
The Primates meeting in London recently suspended the Episcopal Church USA. They voted for this suspension after the Episcopal Church’s unilateral departure from the doctrine and practice of the global communion. As Christianity Today reports this action “is not a sanction. It’s a consequence.” (source). They will apply this consequence to any Province that walks away from the faith.
The Anglican Church in North America has stepped into its place and been recognized by the Primates (the leaders) of the Provinces of GAFCON (source). The ACNA has also embraced a number of Canadian congregations. The Anglican Church in Canada (ACC) has in many ways paralleled the downward trend of the Episcopal Church USA. The ACC, however, contains a number of faithful congregations and diocese. Some hope they can revive and reform the Canadian Church. A major test will be taken in 2019, where a proposed change in the doctrine of marriage will be voted on (Marriage Canon).
In the meanwhile, the ACNA continues to grow and to reach beyond its roots in Church planting and development. It parallels its Reformed sister denomination the Presbyterian Church in America in this way. In Canada, the Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC) represents the ACNA. This single diocese is currently functioning as a lifeboat for those left behind when liberal portions of the ACC sailed off.
Where this will all lead is, as of yet, unknown. But the global church of Christ will continue to thrive. Those blessed to be a part of the Anglican expression of this church will join in its progress.
A Prayer for the Anglican Communion in the 21st Century
O Lord, our heavenly Father, keep your household the Church continually in your true religion, that we who trust in the hope of your heavenly grace may always be defended by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen (From the Collect for “The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany” Collects of the Christian Year).