The Future of the Anglican Church

by Keith Rayner

Keith Rayner

We cannot pretend to be able to predict the future with accuracy. As I look back over the period of almost half a century of my ordained ministry, I see how many things have turned out quite differently from what might have been foreseen at the outset of my ministry.
We can, however, be perceptive about trends, and we can chart different possible approaches to the way we face the future and their likely consequences. We can begin by ridding our minds of any notion of inevitability: consider, for example, how unexpected were such events as the collapse of Communism, the emergence of Islam or the terrorist attack of September 11. The first question to be asked is - Will there be a future for the Church? There are plenty of people who are prepared to write off the Church and Christianity as a whole.
Consider the scenario posed by Timothy Gorringe - "Perhaps it will go something like this: In the year 3410 (now known as 872 of the Agreed Common Era) historians commemorating the 3000th anniversary of the commencement of Augustine's City of God will be more or less agreed that the terminal decline of Christianity began about two decades after what was known as 'the Second World War'. Interpretations vary but by and large two dominant reasons for this are adduced. The first is that it was at this period that dramatic advances in technology finally brought to a head the decline in superstition which began two centuries earlier in the Enlightenment. All religions more and more lost their plausibility structure. The move was aided by the axial turn whereby patriarchy, which had been socially dominant since the inception of agriculture, finally gave way to new feminist forms of society leaving the old patriarchal religions stranded.
Small denominations such as Anglicanism, Methodism and Presbyterianism ceased to be viable by 2300, and their few remaining adherents joined the Roman Catholic Church. This body had long since had married clergy, and even some married Popes, and not long afterwards finally admitted women to the priesthood (as it was called). Even these changes could not save it however and by 2500 scarcely any believers in this old form of superstition were left".1 It is a devastating picture, though many would argue that it would happen more quickly! Gorringe himself does not accept the picture he has drawn. Nor do I. My own reasons are three:
- I have a simple faith in God's promises.
- The pattern of crucifixion/resurrection, which is the very heart of Christianity, has recurred throughout Christian history. But it must always be remembered that resurrection involves transformation.
- There is the basic reality of human nature reflected in St Augustine's profound words, "You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."2

What we are seeing today is not science overcoming superstition but a human restlessness which reflects the abiding human need for communion with God. Yet there is no doubt that things are looking grim for the Church today and it is no use pretending it is not so. We are conscious of declining numbers and influence; of the loss of young people in particular and of our failure to communicate to them even a rudimentary grasp of the faith; of an antipathetic climate of an age marked by consumerism, hedonism and secularism; and of a loss of credibility of the Church, not least through recent revelations of sexual abuse. In this context I find a passage in the First Epistle of Peter particularly relevant:
"Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ's sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief-maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God".3
Certain things strike me in this passage which precisely fit our situation today:
- Do not be surprised at this time of trial.
- Rejoice in sharing Christ's sufferings - provided it is for the right reason.
- We are experiencing a judgment of God, a judgment that is not only on the Church but that begins with the Church.

One way of characterising the present time is to see it as a wilderness experience. How important the wilderness has been in the biblical account of the human grasp of God's revelation. Think of the forty years of the Exodus, the wilderness of Israel's exile in Babylon, Jesus' experience of wilderness at the outset of his ministry, or Paul's going into the wilderness of Arabia after his conversion. The wilderness is a place of danger, hardship and struggle. It is a place of facing up to who we are and what we believe. The Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama writes:
"Wilderness, then, is the place where we are face to face with danger and promise. And that is an educational situation for the people of God. When danger and promise come together to us, it is called crisis. The Bible does not simply speak of danger. If it did so, the biblical faith would be reduced to a 'protection-from-danger-religion'. The Bible does not simply speak about promise. If it did so, the biblical faith would be reduced to a 'happy-ending-religion'. The Bible speaks about a crisis situation, co-existence of danger and promise - wilderness - and there God teaches man. In the wilderness we are called to go beyond 'protectionfrom- danger-religion' and 'happy-ending-religion'. There we are called to 'trust' in God".4
It all depends on how we respond to the wilderness situation. Passivity will not do. The call is to struggle. Surely one of the most powerful passages in the Old Testament is the account of Jacob engaged in wrestling someone all night. The struggle brings blessing as Jacob realises he has been wrestling with God. Out of the struggle comes blessing... and transformation.5
As Koyama says, we are called to trust, and not least to trust in God's providence, that God is working his purpose out. We are a people under judgment, and the sin in the Church that brings down God's judgment is not good. But no evil is so great that God cannot bring good out of it: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose".6
That does not mean that we are simply to wait passively for God to do good. We have to struggle to discover what direction God wants us to go. Last year Dr Peter Jensen, the Archbishop of Sydney, gave one of the Halifax-Portal Lectures on the theme Speaking the Truth in Love. He recognises that many will not agree with his thesis; but it is an important lecture in which he sets out without apology what he believes to be the way ahead
for the Church, and we are indebted to him for his clear, direct statement of his position. Among the points he makes are these - The task of the Church is to speak the truth in love.7
- 'Truth' in this context means not just genuine communication or conformity to reality, but "the truth, the truth of God's word, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners".
- The Church has ceased to talk about the theological foundations of all the many things it talks about, such as medical ethics, accountability, forgiveness, authority etcetera.
- The Church is too concerned with relevance, with the consequence of gradual loss of faith: "The first generation believes; the second generation assumes; the third generation loses".

I agree in fact with much of this; and though Peter Jensen and his Roman Catholic counterpart Dr George Pell have very different points of view on many matters, I suspect that Archbishop Pell would also agree with much of it. At least he would agree with the principle, though not with some of the content of what is to be spoken in love. Peter Jensen recognises this - "In my view the differences between Catholic and Anglican remain of enormous significance, and I am in duty bound to try to convince my Catholic brothers of 'my' truth". That phrase "'my' truth" is critical. I would suggest that for Peter Jensen (as indeed for most of us) my truth is assumed to equate with the truth. Now it is a critical issue of postmodernist understanding that there is no absolute truth. Peter Jensen and George Pell would agree that there is absolute truth, and each would say that he holds it. Dr Jensen would say, "I hold it because it is in the Bible, which I understand and teach".
Dr Pell would say, "I hold it because it is in the teaching of the Church, which I understand and teach". I agree with both of them that there is absolute truth, and I believe it is essential that we maintain this position in the face of postmodern assumptions. But I disagree with them both, because I believe that none of us can claim to have it.
Ultimately God is the truth, and the infinite God cannot be fully contained in the finite human mind. Nor can any form of words fully contain the truth... not the Bible nor the dogmatic definitions of the Church. They bear witness to the truth (especially to the greatest revelation of the truth in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh), and they guard against error. But truth is always bigger than us, our thoughts, our words and our understanding. That is why God has made the fullest revelation of himself in a person, in a life lived among us. This means that while we may confidently hold to the truth as we understand it, we rightly do so with humility and reticence. It also means that we should be open to learning from others' understanding of truth.
As Hans Kung put it: "The ecumenical task of theology on both sides is seriously to consider the truth in the error of the other and the possible error in one's own truth".8
In that light, how are we to understand Peter Jensen's definition of the truth as "the truth of God's word, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners". I fully agree that this is an important truth. But is it the truth? Is it the Gospel? What is it that sinners are to be saved for? In the Gospel of John the emphasis seems to be on life abundant, eternal life, life in loving communion with God.9
In the Synoptic Gospels the heart of the good news is the Kingdom of God.10
Again the emphasis is on the fullness of life, which includes relationship both with God and with one another.

The Gospel is not only about saving individuals but about community. Repentance and forgiveness are a critical part of this, but they are the means to an end rather than the end itself. How the Gospel is presented makes a difference. Is it sin-centred or life-centred? Does it concern only individuals or communities too? What then is to be the future direction for the Church? In the 'wilderness' experience which we are facing, we are not to lose our nerve.
We can have confidence in the providential working in history of God the Father, in the redemptive work and pattern of life of God the Son, and in the renewing power of God the Holy Spirit. Our faith must be firmly built on the foundation of the Bible and the great developing Christian tradition. And we must be open to God's leading to further development of that tradition. Let us examine a number of areas in which these general principles are to be worked out. We are beckoned in two opposite directions - on one hand to a biblical literalism tending to fundamentalism, on the other hand to a liberalism willing to cut loose from biblical and traditional roots.
The first misuses Scripture. It denies other parts of God's truth (such as what we learn from wellgrounded science) and forgets that all truth is God's truth, and truth is one. It is likely to bring shortterm success, offering authoritarian security in an uncertain world, but it alienates many who take truth seriously.
The second eventually ceases to be Christian, as we see in people like Don Cupitt. Or it may lead to a sentimental, watered-down version of Christianity, characterised in James McAuley's verse:

"The puzzled sects have let their doctrine sag,
Or melt like lollies in a bag,
Until the Christian faith has seemed to mean
Only "Be good, be kind, God save the Queen".

The Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia locates the Bible as "the ultimate rule and standard of faith". We must take that standard with absolute seriousness. The constitution does not bind us, however, to one way of understanding scripture, and certainly not to a narrow literalism. There is - and always has been - diversity in the interpretation of scripture within the continuing tradition of catholic and apostolic faith. We need as a Church to work hard on understanding and evaluating the different approaches to biblical interpretation that co-exist within the church.
Historically, biblical interpretation has not been static. There is continual dialogue between scripture/ tradition on the one hand and reason/experience on the other. One example is the dialogue with science that has modified our understanding of creation and the biblical creation stories. The change in the Church's attitude to the remarriage of divorced persons is an example of similar dialogue. Perhaps I might speak personally of my own journey here. When I was ordained, the marriage of divorced persons with the rites of the Church was not allowed. We took it to be forbidden by those biblical passages that spoke of divorce as contrary to God's will and of divorcing and remarrying as being equivalent to adultery. Two things caused me to rethink the received interpretation.
One was the recognition that the question Jesus faced was different from that faced by the Church. For him the question was whether divorce was in accordance with God's will. For the Church, recognising that divorce was in itself contrary to God's will, the question was how best to help people move forward once divorce had occurred. The other thing that made me open to rethinking our position was the experience of knowing people who had married after divorce whose new marriages showed all the signs of having been blessed by God. This experience raised for me the question - May we have misinterpreted scripture? The Church modified its position not because we ceased taking scripture seriously, but because we came to see that we had been misinterpreting it. As we face puzzling issues about human sexuality, the same patient process of dialogue between scripture as traditionally interpreted and human experience is required. It need hardly be said that this dialogue needs to be reflected in our week-by-week preaching and teaching in our parishes.
Some of the present uncertainties of church people about what we are to believe are directly related to the failure of the Church's teachers (which includes the clergy in particular) to relate the received revelation with the intellectual and life experience of people. We are a liturgical church, but there is no doubt we face a problem about our style of worship.
People (especially many of the young) complain of boredom, incomprehensibility, and being culturally out of touch. Again, two opposite remedies are proposed.
- One is to take the line, "this is the Church's liturgy - like it or lump it". In Anglo-Catholic circles it may be eucharistic worship that alone is seen as having value. In the case of the most conservative, the usage of The Book of Common Prayer may be insisted on.
- The opposite line is to argue for complete informality, contemporary and non-liturgical, without distinctive vesture, emphasising human fellowship rather than a sense of the numinous. It is a style that easily slips into entertainment.
The latter approach seems successful, especially with those under forty years of age. Evangelicals and Pentecostals do it best, and the flourishing state of their congregations reflects this. Yet I cannot forget an account given some years ago by Peter Watson, the present Archbishop of Melbourne, who was then an assistant bishop in Sydney. On an overseas tour he visited Wales and Russia. He described passing through Welsh villages with large chapels which, in the 19th Century, were thronged with congregations using free and contemporary styles of worship of the day. He found them almost empty.
In Russia, after seventy years of virulent atheistic propaganda, he found churches thronged with people of all ages in which the liturgy was as formal and remote from contemporary styles as could be imagined. There are in fact real strengths in good liturgy. It is God-centred, with a real sense of the numinous. It links today's congregations with the continuous offering of the Church's worship down the ages. There is beauty and depth in the language and the theology. Its very familiarity means that it can become deeply ingrained in people and thus can be a vehicle for truly corporate worship. It serves as a powerful means of transmitting the faith from generation to generation.
By contrast, much contemporary worship, while instantly attractive and even entertaining, is marked by banality and theological shallowness. It must be admitted, however, that boredom is a problem in liturgical worship. Sometimes it is because the liturgy is done terribly! There is no excuse for that. But even when well done, there is inevitably a marked contrast with the glamour, the sensationalism and the professionalism (and the cost!) of contemporary popular entertainment. So what is the solution? Not, I suggest, trying to compete with popular entertainment.
The real problem is the superficiality of the faith, love, sense of awe, sense of God's presence that we bring to worship. Go to a match in a football code that you do not understand, and you will find it boring. Know what it is about and enter into it and you find it thrilling. Yet like liturgy it is the same week by week, but with the subtle variations which you recognise as you understand the game. Like football, worship needs to be learned and understood. The way forward, then, is not to scrap liturgical worship. The Church would lose immensely if that were done. But it must be well done. Its images and symbols must be constantly renewed so that they do not grow stale and meaningless. And while maintaining the dignity and the flow, it can be celebrated with a real measure of freedom, spontaneity and informality.
That is one of the lessons we can learn from the charismatic movement. Alongside the liturgy, there is also a place for occasions of non-liturgical (including non-eucharistic) worship. They can be a valuable bridge into the life and worship of the Church for the unchurched for whom what seems to be the complexity of the liturgy can be a real barrier. In contemporary Australia there is a lot of interest in 'spirituality' as against 'religion', and that is a judgment on the Church. Again, there are alternative and opposite ways of looking at this. One is to say that the only valid spirituality is that which is overtly Christian and that anything else should be opposed. The other is to take the view that anything calling itself spiritual is acceptable, and that as religion and church are out of favour we should salvage what we can by going along with anything that can be labelled spiritual. The gospels indicate that Jesus recognised goodness and spiritual searching in people and responded positively to it. It is sobering to remember that the Pharisaic condemnation of Jesus was that he was not 'religious' in their understanding of what religion meant. So we should not too readily dismiss the exploratory ventures into spirituality of people who are not attracted to institutional Christianity. Yet not all 'spirituality' is equally valid. Jesus is the pattern and standard of true spirituality. He himself said, "you will know them by their fruits".11
When people's lives show Christlike fruits that is a sign of real (though possibly incomplete) spirituality. The Church should recognise that spirituality and seek to build upon it. Indeed this takes us to the heart of what the Church is to be about. The vocation of the Church is not to be efficient, wealthy, powerful, successful... but holy. The style and structure of the Church changes from age to age. George Herbert may well be the ideal of the Anglican parish priest, but his ministry fitted the patriarchal village which is not the formula for our generation. The formula changes, but as Austin Farrer reminded us -
"Every formula, every ecclesiastical strategy, is out of date as soon as it is devised; and while we are busy with such concerns we may lose grasp of the one thing needful. Sanctity is never out of date; and sanctity is nothing but entire simplicity towards God".12

I served my first curacy under Fr Darrell Cassidy. He was not what you would call a successful parish priest, and the congregation was not large. He went for depth, not breadth. When a new parishioner came, that person would soon be invited to meet with the Rector, not for social chitchat but to discuss the person's spiritual life. Did they pray? What difficulties did they find in their prayer life? Could he lend them some books for spiritual reading? And so on. Fr Cassidy believed that it was the priest's task to help people come into deeper communion with God. The fact is that (though it may not be consciously recognised) people are looking to us clergy for holiness. Not that 'holiness' is an easy word nowadays - perhaps 'Christlikeness' is better. That is why Cardinal Hume made such an impact in England. It is interesting how many people have referred approvingly to holiness as one of the marks of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. We are called to be a holy clergy, and the only basis for that will be the reality of our own communion with God. That requires a disciplined, but joyful, spiritual life. Without that our ministry will be nothing. It will have nothing to offer.
The Church is not popular today. Our credibility is not high. There are various reasons for this, not least the current highlighting of cases of sexual abuse. More broadly, though, it is part of the current mindset of anti-institutionalism which is reflected in negative attitudes to institutions in our society such as the parliament, the courts, educational institutions, the family and of course the Church. This attitude is part of the judgment upon us. Yet in a sense it is unrealistic, because institutions are a necessary part of the social structure. What is needed is not the neglect or abolition of institutions but their renewal and reform. We Christians, including the clergy, are influenced by the anti-institutional mood. There is not the sense of mutual loyalty - of bearing one
another's burdens - that there should be. Even as we recognise the all-too-human sins and weaknesses in the Church and its leaders, we need to remember that the Church is a divine society, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ, and "the pillar and ground of the truth"13.
This calls for a proper loyalty - though not an uncritical one - especially among the clergy. We cannot be content to be loners or mere individualists or carping critics. Nor can we afford to be parochial in outlook, seeing our own sphere of ministry as all that matters. The current emphasis is on the local congregation or place of ministry. That is the cutting edge; but it is not the only location of the Church's mission.
There is a mission to the city, the nation, the world. So we must see ourselves as an active part of the diocese, the national church, the Anglican Communion, and the world-wide Catholic Church. In our Anglican Communion I prize - as do most of us - our freedom and lack of centralised power. But a necessary concomitant of that is a real sense of mutual responsibility to one another. It means accepting freely the decisions of proper authority (whether that authority be the local bishop, the diocesan synod, the general synod or the Lambeth Conference ) even when we do not agree with those decisions. If we don't agree, then we should work for change. If our disagreement is on a profound matter of conscience, it may be that our only course is to resign. This is why, though I had long reached the conclusion that the ordination of women was theologically justified, I did not think it right as a diocesan bishop to ordain women until proper synodical authority had been given.
Many people were impatient at the delay, but an important principle was at stake, and it meant that when women were eventually ordained they were able to exercise their ministry with a far grater degree of acceptance than would otherwise have been the case. The same principle is applicable to other controversial matters before the Church. Take the decision of the Bishop of New Westminster in agreeing to endorse the resolution of his diocesan synod in favour of the blessing of same-sex partnerships. I agree with the position taken by Philip Huggins, Bishop of Grafton in an open letter to Bishop Ingham -
"After the 1998 Lambeth Conference you should never have given any expectation to your people that you were in a position to act unilaterally on this matter. If, in conscience, you were not able to abide by the resolution of the Lambeth Conference, your only honourable course of action was to resign as Bishop". 14

Bishop Huggins points out that the same principle needs to be consistently applied in other areas, notably bishops presuming to exercise or authorise ministry in dioceses other than their own, church planting in other dioceses, and unilateral decisions on lay presidency at the eucharist. It is a principle that rests upon a profoundly Christian and Anglican attitude, that authority in the Church is best exercised by the free acceptance of moral authority rather than by imposed authoritarianism. That should be our way for the future. In the past our normal expectation was that we lived in a Christian community while other faith communities were in distant places where they might be subject to Christian mission.
Now we cannot avoid contact with other faiths, either because they have communities living in our midst or because we are daily made conscious of them through the media. As Christians we believe that in Jesus Christ we have received the fullness of God's revelation of himself. Yet as we come to know people of other faiths and see them as persons, not as stereotypes, we find among them many good people whose lives reveal what we understand to be fruits of the Spirit. Once again we face diametrically opposed positions as to what should be the Christian attitude to other faiths. The exclusivist position is that because salvation is from Christ we have nothing to learn from other faiths, and that we need have nothing
to do with them except to see them as objects for conversion. There is no place therefore for inter-faith dialogue.
The opposite - and currently widely popular - position is that all faiths present an equally valid path to God and that is not appropriate to seek their conversion to Christianity. It is crucial both for the integrity of Christianity and for the wellbeing of the human race that we pursue a sound path in our relations with other great world faiths. We must hold firm to the uniqueness of Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. Yet we can also recognise that there is some truth in every religion that endures, for what is without truth will not endure. We also need to recognise that our understanding of Christianity is always subject to cultural conditioning. As I argued earlier, there is absolute truth, but we can only reach out to it and never have a perfect hold on it. It is often the case that other faiths hold on to some aspects of truth that have been neglected or forgotten in our culturally conditioned understanding of our Christian faith, and they can remind us of truth that we have effectively forgotten.
Are there not things, for example, in Aboriginal spirituality, such as their sense of the sacredness of the created world and the obligations of kinship, which are part of God's revealed truth but which Christianity has often neglected? We are bound to seek to share with others our understanding of God's revelation. That is what evangelism means. But that need not imply a negative or arrogant attitude to other faiths. Evangelism requires cultural sensitivity and a context of growing mutual understanding. Christians have vital things to give; there are also things others have to give to us. Humanly speaking, the future of the Church will depend on what we Christians are. With some justice, the world is cynical about rhetoric. It looks for a faith that is demonstrated in life, not merely preached in words.
That was what people noted about Jesus - he lived what he taught. At present the credibility of the church is undoubtedly low. One reason is clearly the revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and other officers of the Church. This is a serious matter. But I would comment that we must watch lest excessive defensiveness and a desire to win popular approval should cause us to allow the gospel of forgiveness to be lost in a frenzy of legalism.
Our credibility is threatened, however, by many other failures which are no less important. I mean, for example, our wanting to be liked, which may lead us to avoid teaching hard truths. There is also that spirit of authoritarianism which seeks to dominate and control, and which is often a manifestation of underlying insecurity. There may also simply be among us clergy laziness and insensitivity in pastoral care.
There is, too, the lack of prayerfulness and holiness, which ought to be the distinctive mark of the Church and its members. I come back to the theme of the Epistle of Peter that we are under judgment, and that judgment begins with the household of God. Christianity, the Gospel, the Church have a future - I have no doubt about that. These things are rooted in the way God has made us. But what exactly the Church of the future will be like, I cannot pretend to know. It will certainly be different, just as it has been different over and over again throughout its history. In some ways in my declining years I feel thankful that I shall not have to face those differences... but then my predecessors would also have been thankful that they would not have had to face the circumstances of my Church.
The fact is, we are all children of our age. What is clear is that we are passing through one of those experiences of wilderness, or struggle, which have punctuated the history of the Church. It means a kind of death. But without death there can be no resurrection. It is in fact a time of opportunity, for what is a problem for us is an opportunity for God. For God it is the opportunity to reshape and renew the Church. We for our part must be alert and responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. God is leading the Church into the future... into God's future. In that faith we may be quietly confident.

Archbishop Keith Rayner was Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia from 1991 to 1999.

1. Timothy J. Gorringe, "After Christianity", in Philip F. Esler (Ed), Christianity for the Twenty-first Century, pp. 261 f.
2. Confessions, Book 1 i (1)
3. I Peter 4:12-17a
4. Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God , p.4
5. Genesis 32:22-30
6. Romans 8:28
7. Quoted from Ephesians 4:15
8. Cited in Hermann Haring, Hans Kung, p.127
9. e.g. John 3:16, 10:10, 17:2-3
10. Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:23, Luke 4:43
11. Matthew 7:16
12. Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, p.154
13. I Timothy 3:15
14. Memorandum Clarifying Expectations from Bishop Philip Huggins to Grafton Diocesan Clergy