With just three weeks here, I have been struck by an image of the United Kingdom. Of course there are the caveats that I have had limited time, I am only in a tiny portion of Great Britain, and that I am from a different culture. Yet with all that acknowledged, here is what I see.
I see a land filled with dying churches: old, beautiful buildings that will outlast their congregations. I see a culture that has suffered the consequences of its break with Christianity; aimless youth meander around with a clear lack of joy and purpose. Finally, I see a faith full of dusty habits: elderly vicars and rectors who see the crisis around them but do not seem to have the will or drive to do the hard work that would be required of them to make changes.
I am reminded again and again of what Esolen says, “No one can do everything. Everyone can do something.” While our work here is a small something, I continue to discover more and more work that “has to be done.” As a part of our work, Jessica and I have been meeting with local church leaders to talk to them about the school (and to try to find an orthodox liturgical church to attend as well). These conversations have mostly confirmed the image outlined above.
“Christianity has failed to capture the imagination of the younger generation,” Reverend Philip told us yesterday. I think thus far this is the most honest and accurate assessment of the situation. A couple nights ago, while sipping on a cup of tea, Tom told us, “Many people have forgotten, or were never told, that Christianity shapes the entirety of your life.” This, I think, is true even of the generation that does form a majority of the Christian population. The amount of work we have to do to even convince people that a faithful Christian education might be a necessity is almost baffling. There is a fragmentation of life, one that seems to separate Christianity and everything else into its own spheres. Of course this lacks a grip on the imagination. What is the point of going to church if it is one or two hours of your weekend that you won’t get back? What is the point of becoming a Christian if most or all of what it means to be such is to attend church?
At this point I have so few answers and solutions. Each day it seems that there is another fire to be kindled. I know the work ahead that I have do to, but there is much here that is problematic beyond the work of our hands. Thankfully, we did have a conversation yesterday with an encouraging priest who did not seem threatened by the school and who did understand the missional work that needs to be done in the area. Perhaps it helped that he too had moved to the area somewhat recently. While Jessica and I have not yet found a church that captures our imagination, it was comforting to find at least one rector (thus far) who has action on his mind.
This morning we met with another church leader who was openly liberal in his theology. While he did not try to belittle us for our traditional and conservative viewpoints, he did his best to make it clear that socially conservative churches were few and far between (and the liberal churches were growing and lively). “This church has the most baptisms and marriages in the parish” He shared, but also admitted that his congregation was aging. “I would love for you to come here, you would halve the average age of this church overnight.” When asked why he thought the numerous baptisms and marriages did not result in church growth, he made it clear that these Christian ceremonies were cultural and did not carry much (if any) spiritual significance to them.
I want a church with a spine. I told Jessica afterward. It seems that the trend in Anglican churches is to remove any barriers from the church and let God sort out the details. While I may understand this desire on the surface, I think the church is for Christians. To open the sacraments to people who have no intention of keeping the faith, to open the clergy to people openly living in opposition to the teaching of Scripture is to blur, if not remove, those things which help define our Christian life. All are welcome to join the church and the fellowship of Christ, but if the church looks like everything else just in a different building, I again return to the question, “What’s the point?”
Furthermore, what does it offer for the faithful Christian? It seems that churches would be far better served by creating and holding to some boundaries to preserve some sort of identity rather than this laissez-faire approach of having fewer and fewer distinctions between community with Christ and community without him. I know Tom, Hayley, the staff of The King Alfred School, and the parents understand this. The key is finding a priest who does as well.
Finally, I conclude with a story that Tom told us recently about a nearby church. Locally, there is a church is that closing its doors. The costs of maintaining the building have outpaced the wealth of the elderly congregation and there is little hope of that changing. As Reverend Hugh told us yesterday, “They knew they were up against disaster if they kept doing things as they had been doing, and they decided to keep things the same.” An elderly gentleman, who–if I recall correctly–served as the caretaker of the church, learned that his church was closing its doors. He looked around at local options and decided to attend a mega-church to get some ideas for how to bring more people into his church. Tom told us that when the music started, it was so loud he stuffed his handkerchiefs in his ears and tried, with some difficulty, to find his way out.
Into this, we have come.