Yes, I’m in a bad place with the institutional church. And Jesus and I aren’t on the best terms, either. But I don’t want the church to die. I wish it well. I think it has been, and still has potential to be, an enormous force for good in the world.
In the Autumn 2012 issue of the Anglican Theological Review, I contributed an article on Anglican social theology. English Christianity began far before the Church of England, and the contemporary Anglican-derived churches share some serious social commitments (care of place, good government, and scrutiny of ecclesiastical privilege) which took root in the tradition long before the Reformation.
I still believe that these things are corporate spiritual imperatives, and that theologically broad churches are an important resource for soceity–both Christians working in their daily context, and for those who would never darken the door of a house of worship.
Throughout his work, Parker Palmer writes of the kinds of institutions which help a community thrive. In Healing the Heart of Democracy (and elsewhere), he recounts a story of a small, rural African American church in the southern United States. Even if a very small number of people were present at a meeting, the members would proceed according to Roberts’ Rules of Order. When asked why, the members said that it was a way of practicing for participation in politics and government.
Churches help people participate in wider society. Often, it is the first place that young people can take an active role in decision-making with those outside their immediate age-peers (or even observe adults discussing decision-making processes). It is a training ground for social participation.
As well, while I was doing field research with churches, I found that the clergy and congregations were often the first interface with social services for the marginalized in their geographic context. People who don’t know how to access services, or who ‘fall through the cracks’, frequently show up at a church to ask for help. A talk with a parish administrator (if the ordained leader is not there) might yield a gift card to buy enough groceries to feed a family until longer-term help is secured.
Churches–both the congregations and the buildings (please do not dismiss the importance of the building)–are often cultural centers for their communities, and can be symbolically important. One church I visited was the only place in their tiny village where a substantial number of people could gather. When the diocese meant to shut them down, they fought hard, found ways around the challenges, and turned into a trimmed-down but vibrant congregation that served its community better than it had prior to being under threat of closure.
I do not want the church to die. It’s too important an institution to keep going down the road it’s going.
I refused the proposed title of social ethics, because I get bored with people making pronouncements about what is the “Anglican Position” on various limited social issues. There is no single acceptable Anglican position. More, there are general theological commitments which guide the moral reasoning process, and broad questions about what a society is and is for, what the place of the church is in society, and how that church may operate effectively in a spiritually plural society.