Info on 2011 Holy Land Pilgrimage

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September 25, 2008


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I'm looking forward to the postings and hope that they can stimulate some good conversations.


Of course, the temptation exists on all sides to assert that the Church would be growing and thriving if only it would conform to what I think. Whether it is the liberal idol of "relevance" or the conservative idol of "tradition" (both in quotation marks for a reason), the individual diagnosis tends to have more to do with conforming to the individual's will rather than God's.

In fact, parishes and congregations thrive or decline for a constellation of reasons.

But the most significant factor, from my observation, is the focus and culture of the parish or congregation.

Inward-looking parishes are unlikely to grow. In such places, it rarely occurs to anyone to proclaim the Good News to anyone who isn't already a member. The Field of Dream mission strategy (if you build it, they will come) is inclined to be endemic. If someone accidentally does wander in, we usually don't do too badly at making them feel welcome as guests - but we don't do so well at making them welcome as new members of the community.

And we suffer, of course, from our tendency to move towards that on which we are focussed. And where is our focus?

Well, much of the Anglican Church of Canada has spent the last couple of generations focussed on managing decline. And we've accomplished it. Managed decline, that is.

Those parishes which are thriving are the ones focussed instead on proclaiming the Good News - not only among themselves, but to the whole world.


An interesting and ironic side note is that that synod was held in the building that St. Mary's Open Gate (ANiC) congregation was kicked out of. I can attest that they are a thriving, healthy parish, because I worshiped with them in a school gym this past summer.


Malcolm: I agree with your diagnosis that inward vs outward focus is a big part of this. There are a few aspects to that which I want to explore. I think the first part is some honest self examination. There is the question of corporate focus - are we as a body simply about serving ourselves? And then there is the question as it pertains to ourselves as individual disciples: has my own faith grown to the point where my focus is on others?

I expect we need to experience the Good News of Jesus afresh in order to believe we have something (or Someone) worth proclaiming to those around us.


I have no doubt that you latter point is part of it. But I think a larger piece of it is that we have an institutional culture that really believed building a new building constituted planting the Church, that "if you build it, they will come."

Instead of focussing on proclaiming Jesus, we (as an institution) have been sidetracked into defending pale, two-dimensional saviours, emasculated by false relevance on one side and an unlively tradition on the other. At both ends of the spectrum, there is a tendency to create the God we want to preach, rather than to preach the God we find.

I'll try to expand on this a bit more later.


>>we (as an institution) have been sidetracked into defending pale, two-dimensional saviours



Leslie, the comment quoted was intended as an equal opportunity slap at liberals and conservatives. My point is that all the sides in this are inclined to recreate Jesus into the sort of thing we want him to be (social worker / political agitator for some on the left or sex obsessed autocrat for some on the right).

On the larger point, you may want to check out Seven Wole Days take on this at

I don't entire follow the logic of including the South Park clip, but . . .

Fr. Gunn's post begins:

>Here’s the way most Episcopal congregations try to grow:

>1. Do what we’ve always done, only “better.”
>2. ???
>3. Hope for growth.

>So there it is. We have to figure out why we’re actually around,
>and what might lead to growth. Too many parishes are in
>“maintenance mode”, just keeping on keeping on. Others persist
>in imagining that whatever worked in 1958 is going to work in
>2008. Still others are glorified social clubs, emphasizing
>relationships among existing members. There’s a new trend in
>which congregations become little more than social service
>agencies, where the focus is on political change only.

And later:

>We can’t lose sight of Jesus as Savior. We can’t lose sight of
>our duty and delight to proclaim the kingdom of God and to share
>the Good News. If we’re not talking about something that’s life-
>and world-changing, why would anyone get out of bed on a Sunday
>to crash your dated social club? Why indeed.


>>Joe: I expect we need to experience the Good News of Jesus afresh in order to believe we have something (or Someone) worth proclaiming to those around us.

Yes. In my own personal experience it is a path of tears that leads to this...and not just social justice tears for others, the tears that come from our own rot within. I think.

Malcolm, it's an interesting post. Thanks. Along those lines, in a weird way contemplation of possible solutions to the church's problems leads the faithful away from the divine destination.

Who has time to repent and let God work if we're all busy trying to figure out what to fill in to number 2?

God has given us this promise. Isaiah 55:

10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

If the Bible is true, and the churches are empty, aren't we left to ask if the message we are sending out is actually God's?

Christ died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.



I take your caution that we can be so obsessed with figuring out 2 that we forget to do any version of 1 and end up without 3 at all. (Anyone who didn't follow that, go read the Seven Whole Days post linked above.)

But I think you final question hits at the nub of it. If the churches are empty, is the message we're sending actually God's? Or, if I can edit slightly, If the churches are empty, are we being faithful to God's call?

I propose the edit because the problem may not be our message - Alleluia! Christ is Risen!. It may be our failure to proclaim it in the way we're called to proclaim it. (Which, just to complicate the issue, might not be the same way for every parish. Same message, of course. Different vocations.)

Does that further the discussion? Or am I just wandering in the weeds?


>>But I think you final question hits at the nub of it. If the churches are empty, is the message we're sending actually God's? Or, if I can edit slightly, If the churches are empty, are we being faithful to God's call?

Interesting thoughts Malcolm, I confess your edit prompts my inner Lutheran manifests itself so probably I'm about to send myself into my own patch of weeds.

My own personal feeling about the church is we have made it an institution of our own effort. If we would only love people more, feed people more, connect with people more...

If the promise in Isaiah is true, it doesn't include qualifiers like method and style, it merely says his word will not return empty. Is God powerful enough to work through a non-relevantly styled message delivery? It leaves me thinking that if the churches are empty, it's an issue of whether or not the message is present.

(Not that attendance is necessary an indicator of God's blessing of the word. Long overflowing pews don't necessarily mean salvation. What if we said it this way -- if the soul's are empty, it's an issue of message. I don't know.)

The ironic tension that I imagine must exist for the clergy when the church is in trouble is that there'd be an overwhelming desire to get in there and fix things. But my feeling is this too is a distraction.

Last night I happened across a podcast of a man speaking about the role of eloquence in Christianity and the fine line between eloquence drawing people to the cross or overshadowing it. I had never thought of the way emphasis on the style of message delivered (whether or not it is a sermon or lifestyle I guess) could really make a statement about our position in relation to God. It elevates us. My actions will cast God in a better light?

Be that as it may, it seems like maybe an overall discussion of what IS the message would be a starting point.

NB. I don't see of this as simply an Anglican issue or a clergy feeling is culturally, we, meaning all of us, have bought into some ideological distractions.


Seems though, that there's something almost Anglican about this balancing act. On so many of these issues we need to find the via media.

An ineloquent message has difficulty reaching anyone, but too much eloquence distracts from the message.

Serving the poor or the disadvantaged can be a way of living out the message, but service to the poor and disadvantaged cannot be confused with the message.

Beauty in worship can speak to the ineffability of God, but, like service to the poor and disadvantaged, must not become the ends.

Fr. Gunn's critique about doing what we've done before only better makes us uncomfortable because, at least in part, we feel that what we've done before IS a significant part of proclaiming the message. And for the most part, it probably is.

The hard part is determining the point at which that which is valuable has passed its spiritual "best before" date.

Worship should be intentional and should strive for beauty. But if we get obsessed with which thumb goes over which (right over left for the ordained, left over right for the lay, according to Ritual Notes), we've probably crossed the bar.


It's about rediscovering the liberty in repentance.

Scott Gunn


I included the clip because it humorously points out how easy it is for us to keep busy without knowing how, or why, our busy-ness might lead to something meaningful.

And I agree with your point that much of our tradition must be part of our ongoing proclamation. That said, we need to ask relentlessly how to be the church in this place and in this time. As St. Paul said, we must be all things to all people. I'm in no way suggesting that "anything goes." Quite the opposite. But I'm saying we mustn't idolize our past or our present.

This is particularly easy to see in some of the externals of organization or furniture. Must our churches look like 1936? Must we have the same committees we had in 1961? The core of our message is timeless. The adiaphora must be flexible.

My view is that we've spent so much time defending pointless things that we've (a) risked irrelevance and (b) sometimes lost sight of the important things.



It would be cool to hear the list of important things we've lost sight of.


I'd agree that PART of worship is, as Leslie put it, about "rediscovering the liberty in repentance." But even that, if isolated and elevated above other considerations (encountering the fullness of God, for example) can become a distortion.

It is worth noting that most of the great heresies actually reflect a particular truth taken apart from the rest of the truth and exaggerated to the point of becoming a falsehood. (ie, the Arians emphasized the distinction between Father and Son to the point of making the Incarnation something less than what the Incarnation is, while the Docetists emphasized the unity of the Father and the Son to the point of making the Incarnation something less than what the Incarnation is.)


Indeed. And so then what role does repentance have in the Christian faith?


Repentence - real repentance - is essential to the Christian life as part of conforming the indivual to the mind and the will of God.

But repentence is not the only thing which is essential, surely. One can be penitent for sins and failings without even believing in God. One can be penitent while having an ill-formed conscience and therefore being either selectively penitent or unaware of the need of repentance over certain aspects. One can even be inappropriately penitent, either in the form of self-aggrandizing scrupulosity or in the form of taking ownership and responsibility for guilt which does not properly accrue to the person. (This is a very common problem with those who have been victimized over an extended period, where they have accepted the abuser's lie that they are responsible for their own abuse.)

It seems to me that elevating penance over such other things as the knowledge and love of God, the responsibility to neighbour, and cetera, is analagous to placing so much emphasis on the Crucifixion that the Resurrection becomes an afterthought.


Again, it's about discovering the liberty in repentance.

If we're considering all this in the light of the emptying pews, my guess is the market share of people who wish to contemplate the nuances of the paradox which separates repentance from heresy (?)is relatively small.

people just want to be freed

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blank stare...

  • Copyright Rev. Joseph Walker, St Timothy's Anglican Church

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