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By Rev. Canon Grayhame Bowcott

A group of Anglican priests and church leaders came recently together (virtually) to have a conversation.

Ever since the last national gathering of Anglicans at General Synod in Calgary this past summer, there have been some voices in our Church that have argued that Anglicans have some important things that we need to talk about, but we never end up finding the time to have those conversations. So, a group of us has committed to getting together once a month to talk about important issues that are facing our Church today.

Our first conversation was entitled: Formation Failure or Formation Defeat?

It explored how church membership seems to be struggling in the face of a Market-based World where churches are facing so much competition in lives of Canadians.

Our first presenter, The Rev. Dr. Jesse Zink, described all the pressures facing churches in our largely secular society: The opening of stores on Sundays, a previously sacred day off for most Canadians; the challenge of young families balancing weekends that prioritize sports and other family activities; the nature of the workplace, where today, one income often doesn’t cover all the costs of raising a family and so it is more common for both parents to now work, decreasing the time that families have for rest, leisure and social engagements.

On top of these challenges, churches face a post-modern suspicion that many in society hold towards any and all institutions: in post-truth world, how can anything that is being promised be true?

There are also the cultural trends in our consumerist society, that have resulted in a generational shift in the focus from caring for community to caring for the individual: the “what’s in it for me?” syndrome.

Our group also discussed the belittlement of religion in the eyes of some in the scientific community and the largely distorted presentation of religion on TV and in the media. In general, there seems to be a lack of understanding within wider society as to what churches exist for: about the things we do, the ways we care, and the services that are being offered throughout Canada, given freely to others.

“Where would Canadian society be if, all of a sudden, all the churches were to disappear?”

This is a question that churches often raise to appeal to the wider public. Sadly, there are those in our society who would answer by saying: “Canada would be better off without any churches.” There are even voices today who are lobbying for the removal of the charitable status of churches. They argue: “Why should they be treated differently than any other business?”

The conclusion of this presentation didn’t necessarily leave us feeling very hopeful for the cause of Anglicanism in Canada. In one way, it seemed to let churches off the hook for trends of membership decline throughout Canada, for in a Market-based Economy, Christianity can be seen as being out-competed for a share of the attention and meaning of the lives of Canadians.

Yet, there was an important question that was missing from our conversation: where is God to be found in the face of such secular pressures in Canada today?

This is a question that churches always need to be able to answer. It’s a rational question. It’s a relevant question. It’s an important question! And how would you answer it?

Let’s go back to that depressing list of things that make life difficult for churches, for a moment, all the things that are competing for what we do together each week.

Remembering the long list, let me have you consider these questions for a moment:

In Canadian society today, where can someone go to be loved? Where can someone go to feel included, seen, appreciated, and to find belonging? Where do we go to find a sense of peace? What about if we are seeking forgiveness; where do we find that? What about compassion, in the moments in our lives when we are broken, hurting, isolated or alone: where does secular society offer compassion?

How about hope?

In a time and season where there is so much suffering in the world and, some would argue, even in the lives of Canadians, where is hope to be found? And what about goodness? Morality? Truthfulness and accountability?

It’s pretty slim pickings out there, in the “Market-based World” wouldn’t you say?

And while it may be true that today we can buy just about anything that we desire, can someone buy self-worth? How about dignity? Sense of purpose or meaning? And when it’s all over, when our expiry has run out, where do we turn to for life? Where can Canadians find salvation?

It is true that in a competitive, market-based world, sometimes Christianity is clobbered in its efforts to hold the attention of people in Canada. There are so many other options out there. But the question that needs to be asked is this: Are those other options good for us? Are they good for our hearts? For our souls? Are they always good for society?

Sometimes our churches can lose hope in the face of the various pressures that we face, in the vulnerability of being seemingly out-competed. But perhaps God is calling us to be something different, something not meant to compete for the attention and heart of Canadians. Jesus Christ served others from an authentic position of weakness, disregard and even scorn from the society of his day, and yet he was able to bring transformation and healing to the world. Perhaps it is good for today’s churches to be finding ourselves in a similar position of weakness, so that we may follow in Christ’s footsteps and, through him, become churches that seek to do the same.     

Rev. Canon Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as Rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains and as Program Director for the Licentiate in Theology program at Huron University.

Illustration: El Greco. The Purification of the Temple (detail)