I have promised to write more about the United Church of Christ on this blog, but have been distracted by our recent trip to England to visit Memory Cafes, which I encourage you to read about on our Aging Together blog. During that trip we spent three days with Rob Merchant, a gerontologist and theologian who serves as rector to seven small Anglican parishes in rural Gloucestershire. I had the privilege of preaching in two of these churches (the “new” one was constructed in the 16th century while the oldest dates to the 11th) to congregations ranging from seven to twelve.
While we in mainline Christianity make a lot of noises about the loss of our privileged position as the de facto “established church” in America, this was my first experience with a truly established church (it is, after all, called “the Church of England”) and what it means to serve as faithful pastor in such a setting. Here are a few thoughts and observations of some relevance to those of us living and serving in the twilight of mainline Protestant Christianity in America.
1. We should never underestimate the loyalty of members to their churches, or the deep emotional and spiritual investment of those with a multi-generational history in their congregations. In practical terms it makes no sense whatsoever to try to keep these seven rural churches going. Try to imagine the maintenance issues associated with a building that is eight centuries old. The dream of one congregation is to have a working toilet in the church building, but the engineering challenges make this impossible (in rural England, remember to pee before leaving for church). Somehow they find a way to do the repairs that simply must be done to the buildings, and to maintain the cemeteries that serve as history books for the entire village. The practical thing would be to close four or five of the churches and merge them into two or three viable congregations, and one day it may come to this. But the deep center of identity and meaning these churches provide to their members suggests that they will put that day off as long as possible.
2. Rob’s predecessor served those churches for 30 years, and provided the people of the villages with the same consistent message: you are a member of the parish by virtue of living within it; you do not need to attend worship to be a good Christian (although showing up on Easter, Christmas Eve and Boxing Day is good form); and the church will always be here for you. Rob is more or less stuck with the first point, is gently trying to correct the second, and is deeply committed to the third. While the seven churches combined rarely draw a total of 100 persons to Sunday worship, he serves as caring pastor to a flock of about 3,000 souls.
3. Not all of those souls are Anglican souls. We accompanied him on a visit to an older couple, the husband an acclaimed artist with dementia (you can read their story on the Aging Together blog). She is a Roman Catholic, but the closest Catholic parish is in the city of Gloucester, quite some distance from the village of Hartpury. She clearly regards Rob as her pastor, and gratefully shares in the Eucharist with her “vaguely Christian” spouse. If I had in any way associated the Established Church with a certain degree of arrogance, what I witnessed was precisely the opposite – humble and faithful service to all in need.
4. In American Protestantism, whether Evangelical or Mainline, busyness itself is counted a virtue and a wide range of groups and programs is considered essential to a vital church. It is assumed that a church that is not growing in numbers and planning its next expansion project is somehow failing the test of faithfulness. Worship must be a major production where no detail is overlooked. As I participated in my first Anglican Evensong, trying to find my place in various service books that were older than I am (everyone else present was apparently born already knowing the practices and traditions), I had reason to question these assumptions. When the time came for my meditation, I abandoned my carefully-prepared notes and simply reflected aloud on our texts, deeply aware of how connected we were to God and one another through this simple and ancient act of worship.
Economic realities may ultimately lead to the demise of some of these congregations, but they have persisted faithfully with far fewer resources than many of our small Mainline congregations that are labeled “declining” or “dying.” Their doors, by the way, are never locked; that would be unthinkable. They are the settings where young couples marry and the dead are remembered and grieved. They are the entire village’s anchor in the transcendent realm, the embodiment of their highest aspirations and ideals. They are where the God revealed in Jesus Christ is encountered in worship. And that is enough, it is more than enough.