I am writing this shortly after Ash Wednesday, a day when we acknowledge to one another that we need God’s mercy far more than we might care to admit. On Ash Wednesday, ashes – while a sign of our failings, finitude and unwillingness to live in denial – can point us squarely away from death and toward the new life that is coming on Easter morning. They can set our faces from death to life.
Beginning in 2001, I served in the Diocese of London for five years as the associate vicar at a church re-boot in the heart of the city. During this time, my area bishop was John Sentamu, now Archbishop of York, and my diocesan bishop was Richard Chartres, who has recently retired. Leading the Diocese of London, at least as varied as our own, Bishop Chartres was famous for saying that the only division that actually mattered in the Church was whether a church was dead or alive. The key to growth, in his opinion, was not whether a local church was high or low (or pick any other category you can think of), but whether or not it was alive in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. Dead or alive. He encouraged his clergy to pay close attention to nurturing the piety of those who were in their congregations – teaching them how to pray and to read the scriptures. Bishop Chartres recognized that there is no other way to renew the local church but to equip people to encounter Jesus themselves.
Bishop Chartres’ insistence that the only division that matters is whether a church is dead or alive made an impression on me, and I was reminded of it recently when I visited one of the churches in York-Credit Valley that, while small and facing many challenges, is certainly alive and growing. As we live in a context that is post denominational (and, in many senses, post Christian), hardly any of the millions of people who live within our diocesan boundaries wake up on a Sunday morning and think, “I should check out my local Anglican church today.” However, many people would be willing, at the invitation of a friend, to explore a Christian community that is alive and not dead. With this in mind, I recently urged all the clergy in York-Credit Valley to investigate how they could host some form of Christian basics course (there are so many to choose from) after Easter or in the fall. This would not only nourish those already in the congregation, but would also serve as a non-judgmental space for those in the neighborhood who are interested to explore the claims of Jesus, maybe for the first time.
I believe our diocese needs a wide diversity of local churches with varying styles of worship to reach out to our eclectic and growing city and to our changing suburban and rural areas. Confident in God’s unfailing love for us, we should be ready to cast a constructively critical eye over the ways we have strived to share the Gospel in previous generations and in our current life together, and to ask a number of important questions. Where are we true to the mind of Christ today in our local churches? Where have we forgotten our first love, and where do we now worship our preferences? We must be guided by the tradition of those who have gone before us, but not controlled by traditionalism. The fact that other denominations are effectively planting churches across our province reminds us that the Gospel has not lost its power to transform people’s lives, and this can give us great hope as Anglicans. The Gospel does not change, and yet we must continue to seek fresh and vital ways to proclaim the news that Jesus lived, was crucified and yet was raised in great power by God the Father. We follow a God of the living and not of the dead (Mark 12:27).
Secure in the knowledge of God’s love and mercy displayed for us on the cross, Lent gives us the opportunity to be honest about our finitude and sin. When looking at the renewal of the local church – which every generation of Jesus-followers must earnestly and urgently labour for – we must similarly be led by God’s vision for us and not by our problems and failings. Because of the character of our God, I believe many of our churches can be renewed in their love for God and in their love for neighbour. At the same time, we do not need to fear the death of some of our existing structures, since the death and birth of churches has been going on since St. Paul first went on his missionary journeys. Death to life. Thanks be to God, as we all stumble together toward the joy and hope of Easter.