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From the November, 2003 issue of Touchstone


Declining Spirits by Ian Hunter

Declining Spirits

The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Anglican Church

by Ian Hunter

The collapse of the Anglican Church in Canada has been swifter than its detractors predicted, more abject than its adherents can credit. StatsCan reported recently that in the decade 1991–2001, the Anglican Church lost more than 150,000 members approaching 10 percent of its total membership. Worse, this is only formal membership; the drop in actual church attendance has been far steeper. And since 2001, the pace of decline has accelerated.

I take no pleasure in writing this. I am a long-term Anglican, baptized and nurtured within that church, albeit now casting about for some more secure denominational anchorage in which to face the oncoming tempests.

Why? What precipitated it? Three developments, I suggest, all rooted in a desire to obey the “spirit of the age” as seen by a certain sort of churchman, a spirit the people who have hitherto filled the pews are far less inclined to follow.

Banality & Duplicity

First came a revolution that began in the 1960s with the promise of “relevance” and petered out in the nineties with the reality of mind-numbing banality. This is most clearly seen in the rejection of classic Anglican worship for new forms that (their advocates energetically claimed) better met the needs and desires of “the modern person.” For centuries, the defining feature of Anglican worship was that it was “common”; I do not mean that it was low or meretricious but that it was universal. One could worship anywhere in the English-speaking world and expect worship to be conducted in a language that conveyed the numinous.

Why? Because the Liturgy would have been based on Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Shakespeare knew the prayer book; it appeared 15 years before his birth, and his plays and sonnets resonate with its phrases and cadences. Even as late as 1962, the Canadian Book of Common Prayer was dedicated (in the Preface) “to the reverent and seemly worship of Almighty God.”

But what had satisfied worshipers for centuries was seen as inadequate in the 1970s. Trendy priests (often under pressure from trendy bishops) abandoned the Prayer Book for a green book infelicitously called The Book of Alternative Services (BAS). The green book featured politically correct prose, a palsy-walsy approach to the Almighty, and liturgies written by and for the tone deaf. In most Anglican churches, the green book soon became the Only Book of Services. The dumbing-down of theology evident throughout the BAS sat easily with graduates from almost all the Anglican seminaries, institutions where ideology had come to trump theology.

The precipitate decline in Anglican attendance coincides with the coming of the BAS. Parishioners, who had once come to church hungry for transcendence, now found enforced jollity and egalitarian claptrap the order of the day. They voted with their feet.

A second cause of decline was the duplicity of Anglican bishops over the residential schools litigation. From the beginning, everyone who considered the issue realized that most of the claims of physical and sexual abuse and cultural genocide were spurious. Yet it suited the bishops to pretend that they were all genuine, in order (a favorite phrase) “to show solidarity with our native sisters and brothers in Christ.” Put simply, the church subordinated the truth to political correctness. That was disillusioning.

The duplicity of the bishops was evident from the moment that Archbishop Michael Peers made his first public apology (the first of many) at Minaki, Ontario, in 1993: “I am sorry, more sorry than I can say,” he said, “that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally, emotionally.” At the time the primate said that, there was no proof of any systemic physical or sexual abuse, or of “cultural genocide.” Nor has there been since.

Few, if any, of the teachers who worked in residential schools were sadists and/or pedophiles. They were “missionaries”—a word the contemporary church disowns. The memory of those missionary/teachers was collectively defamed by church “leaders,” but few cared about that. So sweeping was the church’s assumption of collective guilt that it put itself in an indefensible legal position, unable to distinguish valid from bogus claims. As a result of an agreement reached with the federal government this spring, the Anglican Church is now faced with $25 million in legal liabilities.

Parishioners implored Sunday after Sunday to dig deep in order to pay the church’s legal bills are unlikely to be very enthusiastic about its life. In my own diocese (Huron) there is a $5-million bailout campaign underway called “Huron Grace Works”; to date, it has raised less than half a million dollars. Some parishioners continue to attend church but do not contribute; still more, I suspect, just stopped attending.

Comical Bishop

The third cause of the Anglican collapse has been the almost comical performance of Bishop Michael Ingham of the diocese of New Westminster in British Columbia. Bishop Ingham decided to bless same-sex unions. The fact that this is inconsistent with Scripture, not to mention 2,000 years of consistent church teaching, did not deter him. Nor did the fact that he was flouting the direction given to all bishops at the last Lambeth conference (the gathering of the world’s Anglican bishops, last held in 1998), as well as the direction given by the heads of the world’s Anglican churches at their meeting in Brazil. Just one day after the Brazil direction was issued, Ingham proceeded with same-sex blessings.

No sooner had Ingham authorized same-sex blessings than a Vancouver priestess proceeded to perform one in her church. So has a priestess in Toronto; her bishop, Terence Finlay, while avoiding any condemnation of her action, has promised to call her in for “a chat.”

The unilateral nature of Bishop Ingham’s action was denounced by 13 “conservative” bishops (“conservative” is media-speak for “orthodox on sexual matters”), roughly one-quarter of Canadian bishops. And it led to eight (now ten) parishes in New Westminster walking out—in effect, declaring unilateral independence—and seeking alternative episcopal oversight from Yukon archbishop Terrence Buckle. How this will ultimately play out remains to be seen.

How important a factor the New Westminster schism will prove to be in the ultimate demise of Canadian Anglicanism is difficult to say. Bishop Ingham’s ham-fisted tactics, including threats to revoke the licenses of orthodox priests within his jurisdiction and a public warning to Bishop Buckle not to set foot in British Columbia on pain of ecclesiastical charges, have made Ingham a cartoonist’s delight and provoked criticism even from some liberal bishops not unsympathetic with his political agenda.

A dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London once remarked: “He who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower.” In its present sorry state, the Anglican Church of Canada exemplifies the truth of this remark.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of biographies of Robert Burns, Hesketh Pearson, and Malcolm Muggeridge.

“Declining Spirits” first appeared in the November 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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