Castaways: Dr.Duane Arnold
I’ve not written very much of late as I have been dealing with family health matters having to do with the care of my mother. Nevertheless, I’ve continued with reading articles that have been coming out, checking out the threads on various blogs (including this one) and trying to follow the news.
I’ve also continued in conversations with friends. Late last week, I was talking with my friend Michael about the state of the institutional church, both in America and abroad. We agreed that “the ship is sinking”. Now, before anyone attacks their keyboards to inform me for the umpteenth time that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church, please save your time and energy. There is a Church that Christ will, by his goodness and power, preserve. I understand that part of the promise. I do not, however, identify that Church with the institutional church made up of denominational structures or ecclesiastical formulations.
All that being said, the institutional church has for centuries been the “public face” of the Church of which I speak… and the institutional church is in trouble. You may think the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church over sexual abuse does not concern you because you are not a Roman Catholic, but I think you might be wrong. The crisis has dominated front pages of newspapers as well as broadcast and internet news cycles. The watching world does not differentiate along denominational lines as we do. Nor should they differentiate as we see similar behavior uncovered in other church bodies ranging from Southern Baptists to independent mega-churches to Anglicans. We are now the character in a John Donne poem who should “not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…” Moreover, the tolling bell will increase in volume as new investigations take place. As of last count, five other states, following the example of Pennsylvania, are setting up grand juries or establishing special commissions of investigation to deal with clergy sexual abuse. There will be more headlines.
All of this is not to mention the 800 pound gorilla contentedly eating bananas in the corner of the room. Denominational churches are declining and aging at an accelerated rate. So as not to throw rocks at other glass house, my own old denomination, The Episcopal Church, released new numbers this last August. From 2004 to 2017, 753 parishes closed. From 2000 to 2017, almost 300,000 Sunday attendees disappeared. Denominational membership in that same period dropped by almost a third of the total denomination, some 616,482 people. Additionally, we are aging. The average age of an Episcopalian in 2011 was 57 years old. In 2017, it is closer to 64. What this means is that roughly three-fifths of the Church’s membership will be dead in the next twelve to sixteen years, including, at least statistically, the author of this article.
Similar issues are being faced by other mainline denominations, including United Methodists, the ELCA, PCUSA and numerous others. This, of course, simply deals with major scandals and demographics. We have not even touched upon the ongoing issues involving sexuality, an aging clergy, the estrangement of at least two rising generational groups, the closing of seminaries or the average age of ordinands (now at 50+).
Yet, as I look around, I still see believers struggling and striving to live their lives as Christians. Some have taken up the Benedict Option; that is, a withdrawing from the storm into small intentional communities of prayer and sacramental life. Others have merely abandoned the very idea of any institutional church (including independent churches), having tired of the drama. If indeed the ship is sinking, many of us have become castaways, swimming to the closest desert island and trying to figure out how to survive.
Now, if indeed we are castaways, how are we to live. (Parenthetically, I might say Gilligan’s Island is not an option or ideal model, although some groups of castaways bear a striking resemblance to that comedy of errors.) I would suggest that Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe, might, however, offer some thoughtful suggestions. You may remember that when Crusoe made his way to the island, he saw the next morning after the storm that the ship that he had sailed upon, while sinking, was not yet gone. He realized that the ship contained stores and supplies that would enable him to survive as a castaway. He made the decision to gather all that was good and profitable from the sinking ship that would enable him to establish a new life on the island. He knew that he could not repair the ship. He had no illusions concerning his own strength and ability to do so. He could, however, by great exertion gain much that was valuable that would sustain him.
To strain the metaphor, might I suggest that the sinking ship of the institutional church still does have much to benefit us, and to teach us, even as we see the waves breaking over the decks. There are lessons to be learned as to what brought these institutions to the present crisis and warnings not to repeat the mistakes that we have witnessed. Abuse of clerical power, whether exercised in a clerical collar or a Hawaiian shirt, is still abuse. Identification of one’s faith with a particular political agenda – whether right or left – will result in the alienation of a large segment of those people we are called to reach with the gospel. Moreover, in addition to lessons learned, there are resources to help us. There is a rich history in all of these institutional bodies which have been brought forth through the centuries – liturgies, prayers, confessions, works of theology, hymnody, music, norms of pastoral practice – and so much more. They are all there for us to appropriate and use… and we need not fear making use of those resources. The Book of Common Prayer with a Calvary Chapel chorus… why not? An evangelical style prayer meeting in which we sing a Roman Catholic hymn by John Michael Talbot… why not? Martin Luther’s Evening Prayer at the end of an Anglican Daily Office… why not? These are all the riches that will sustain us in our time as castaways.
Perhaps, finally, you will also realize that your island is not as deserted as you once believed. Perhaps, you will find another castaway to pray with, to sing with, to read with… and then the two of you might find another… and another… and another…
In the end, you might even call it a church.