One of the churches I serve marks its eighty-second birthday this weekend. St Nicholas’ was dedicated as a place of Christian worship in the early days of the Second World War. One member of our present congregation was there, as a choir boy, on that first day.
The congregation is struggling with the challenges of aging. In fact, of dying. Across the West, the Church is dying. Here in the north-east of England, 1% of the population belong to a church congregation, of any denomination. Very locally to us, the Methodists have just closed three of their churches, for ever.
I was asked, earlier this week, if I take this reality personally, if I feel that it is due to my failure. No. My ego is not that insecure. That the church is dying is not due to my failure, any more than, if the church were strong, it would be due to my success.
It is a reality of the natural order that every living entity dies. Trees grow over many decades, die, and can remain standing, dead, for a long time, before the wind topples them. Due to environmental factors, a whole forest can die at the same time. Cities, too, grow and die, often over centuries, with periods of accelerated growth and decline.
The same is true of the supernatural order. Jesus said, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains but one seed; but if it dies, it bears a harvest. He also said, anyone who would follow me must take up their cross and die. The Church proclaims that God leads us not from life to death, but from death to life, through death into life. Our Scriptures chart the history of many communities, across centuries, who experience the end of the world as they have known it, only to return, renewed.
The Church across North Africa and the Middle East has been dead for centuries; and is now bursting into new life. The Church in much of Asia is in its infancy; in much of Africa, a confident adolescence; in much of Latin America, a maturity; and in the West, approaching death. I have no doubt that the Church in parts of the world where it is currently at other stages will get there in time; and that the Church in the West will be reborn. But not without passing through death.
Is that sad? Well, yes, just as the death of any person is sad, for those who knew them. Does it distress me? No. It is the Way. Would I rather be living out my calling in some other time or place? No. This is what God has prepared in advance for me to do.
If the church were simply a gathering of individuals, we might expect to see every stage present at every moment in time. But the Church is not a collection of individuals, it is a living entity, within an environment. Not every congregation is in exactly the same place, but, nonetheless, the Church moves through the stages of life on a larger scale than the microscopic.
I am committed to proclaiming the gospel, in finding ways to help people to connect, with greater confidence, with the God who is already present in their lives. In fact, this is my everyday experience. But I do not expect that to result in the growth of my congregation, or to the rescue of the Church.
Why not? Because our congregations are hospices for the dying. In many cases, for those living with Parkinson’s or dementia or cancer. And it takes an extraordinary person to choose to join a hospice community, to be a doctor or nurse or cleaner or groundskeeper, or to be a palliative care nurse in the community. Of course, their work is valued, and people will take part in sponsored activities to raise funds for just such charities. But, to join them takes more. My sister was a hospice doctor. I have sat beside hospice beds, and I know that I could not work in such an environment. It takes someone quite extraordinary. By which, of course, I do not mean that the rest of us are bad people; just that most of us cannot bear to be faced by death so imminent, or life so raw and, in a paradoxical sort of a way, so very alive.
I am committed to proclaiming the gospel. But the death of the church does not scare me. Resurrection lies beyond. I resist the temptation of the death-avoidant culture around me, to desperately attempt to push death away. The Church, in the West, is a hospice. There is no cure. But there can be dignity, and a good end. And, outside of the Church as we have known it, there is still faith, hope, and love...