I went to the Canadian Council of Churches’ Church Leaders meeting last week, an overnight at the Presbyterian Retreat Centre in Crieff Hills. It seemed like an appropriate time to have such a gathering, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, no?
The CCC is one of the most ecumenical councils in the world since it includes not only the usual suspects—United, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Lutheran—but also the Catholics as full members, not just as observers (including the Apostolic Catholic Church), and seven Orthodox denominations (who knew?), and, to my surprise, Baptists, Mennonites, the Salvation Army, and the Reformed Church of Canada. And then, to my even greater surprise, I discovered that the Pentecostal Assembly and the Christian and Missionary Alliance come to the biannual board meetings as observers. Now that’s ecumenical!
At this gathering we spent a lot of time in worship, and there were discussions about our shared concerns about climate change and right relations with First Nations peoples, all of which was helpful and expected.
What caught me by surprise was that we all share the same struggles and challenges as we look to the future. I knew that the United Church was not the only denomination facing declining numbers, an aging membership, and dwindling finances. But I confess that I had thought it was primarily a problem facing the “mainline, liberal Protestant” traditions. Not so—it’s everyone, including the Mennonites, Baptists, Salvation Army, and Reformed Church! The times they are a-changing, with secularization, distrust of institutions, spiritual-but-not-religious people, and a social-media-interconnected generation that just doesn’t show up on Sunday.
I realized that what separated and made us distinctive was becoming far less important than what we shared in common. We had a good discussion about how “denominations” are becoming less and less significant.
And I discovered that the United Church is not unique in being in the midst of a Comprehensive Review, where structures and just about everything else are on the table. So are the Lutherans and the Mennonites. The Reformed Church is about to bring such a report to their June national meeting. And the Anglican Primate couldn’t be part of this leaders’ meeting because his church’s restructuring task group was having its first meeting that very week.
So we talked about needing to change our structures so they might better support congregations. But everyone agreed that what’s happening on the ground is changing, and fast. No one really knows what “congregations” are going to look like in the future, so how do you organize your structures?
Willard Metzger, head of the Mennonite Church of Canada, described his sense of what was happening by imagining the church leadership as being in a boat, trying to go forward but being surrounded by fog. You can’t see what the future church looks like or even where it’s going to be found. But you keep peering ahead, watching carefully, trying to read the currents, hoping you won’t hit the rocks. Always staring ahead, trying to discern what’s out there. Then the fog clears for a moment, and you catch a glimpse of the “new church”…but it isn’t anything like what you thought it would be. And then, just as you reset the tiller, the fog closes in again, and you’re forced to steer by faith once more.
There was talk about this being God’s work—that what is happening to the churches, to all of us, is the movement of the Spirit, similar in many ways to Jeremiah’s understanding of the exile of Israel into Babylon. We are not being called to “fix it” but to discover new ways of being, to discover where God is already doing a new thing and join in. That is both scary and reassuring.
So, some of us decided that it makes sense to have a special gathering in the very near future of those denominations (leaders and key staff) that are engaged in this revisioning/restructuring work (the Reformed Church leader, William, with a wry grin, hoped it could happen before their report is tabled in June! :-)).
We’re all in the same boat, and maybe we’re all headed into a “new creation.” Do you think?