One of the biggest benefits of being a professor is the opportunity to have a sabbatical. Since mid-January I have been on sabbatical from my church history position at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. I have been living with my family in Oxfordshire and enjoying my position as a visiting scholar at Ripon College Cuddesdon, a theological college preparing people for ministry in the Church of England and elsewhere.
Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to questions of ecclesiology. So it has been a great pleasure for me to be at Cuddesdon (as they call it) and to spend time listening to and talking with Mark Chapman, an important voice in Anglican ecclesiology. Mark Chapman has been teaching at Cuddesdon for 20 years and last weekend there was a symposium held in his honor.
I was only able to attend his lecture (a family outing to see Thomas the Tank Engine at the Didcot Railway Centre held precedence for most of the day). In his talk, Mark Chapman spoke of the decline in the established Church of England. He quuickly laid out the statistics showing decline in the Church of England in terms of active membership (about one million), current baptism rates (about 20% of the population), and current confirmation rates (about 12%). But he refused to bemoan these statistics. Chapman argued instead that it is in keeping with the gospel vision that Christianity should be a minority religion. When a church becomes established, becomes normative, it loses it vitality and sense of mission. But a small church is one in which all members are called to do the work of the church and engage in a life of active discipleship. When an established church devolves to the work of being a local church it can overcome the stultifying effects of bureaucracy. People are called upon to act for themselves to achieve the gospel vision of a community of love, justice, and peace. As I interpret these words, when a church begins to conceive of itself in local terms, and not in established terms, it also begins to conceive of itself as a community of disciples, not a community of consumers.
All of this got me thinking about the difficult situation the Episcopal Church has found itself in. There has been a signficant decline in membership over the past decade. Currently there has been much outcry about the new budget for the Episcopal Church. Behind those budget cuts is the story of the decline of this denomination. For a long time, the Episcopal Church has acted like a quasi-established church in the United States. It has assumed that it held a place of cultural prestige because of its wealth, its association with American elites, its aesthetically pleasing liturgy. But none of those assumptions have held.
Amidst the tumbling down of assumptions, Chapman’s words are useful. It is at the moment of decline and of crumbling assumptions that we can best hear the call to discipleship. Perhaps now is the best time to abandon Henry Hobart’s dream that the Episcopal Church will become the national church of the United States. Now is the time to stop assuming that if we just show how we worship in the right way, people will be drawn to us. Now is the time to stop assuming that because we once were influential we still are. Now is the time to take up the opportunity to reimagine how best to be a church called to discipleship. If the Church of England needs to own up to these questions, so do we.