Most of our staff travelled to Palm Beach, Florida last week for the biannual provincial synod of the Anglican Catholic Church. The most notable thing we encountered was the growing presence of African Anglicans. Ours is not a predominantly Caucasian church. More of our members live in India and Africa than in America, Canada and England.
Our church conducted a workshop on evangelism. There is great need among traditional Anglicans in the west to focus on reaching out to people who are not Anglicans or even practicing Christians. Many of our churches have been very good at holding on to the faith. Now they need to learn now how to give it away. We are a model for traditional Anglican mission because more than half of our members were not Anglicans before they joined our church.
We believe that there is an historic opportunity before us because of the changes in our culture over the last generation. When I began my ministry in the early 1980’s, being a traditional Anglo-Catholic was odd. This was on the heels of the Jesus movement, the praise band and the explosion of the non-denominational church. The hallmark of these was the abandonment of tradition. It felt like being among the last herd of a dying breed. Times have changed. During the last generation, the assumptions of the consumer culture have run amuck in many churches. People are tired of latest new thing in religion, and the highly subjective and emotional character of cultural evangelicalism. Many people have a new appreciation for the value of tradition. Traditional Anglicanism can speak to this cultural moment in particularly powerful way—-if we will commit ourselves to mission and evangelism.
Our church has been engaged in an ongoing discussion about evangelism and mission since we first considered purchasing this property in the mid 1990’s. At the synod workshop, we talked about the things we’ve learned. We talked about the need to begin with a commitment to pray. Since we don’t really know what to do, we need to begin by asking God to show us.
The most important thing we have discovered is that community is central to evangelism. I used to think that people became a part of a church community because they came to believe what the church believed and then decided to join. We have discovered that the opposite is true. People are drawn to the community. If they find the community to be genuine and attractive, they will stick around and begin to ask what the people believe. If they don’t find the community to be genuine and attractive, they don’t care what the people claim to believe.
This does not mean that having a sort of “touchy feely” church is more important that believing what is true. Rather, it means that what we believe as a church must be expressed in who we are and what we do. People will only embrace a faith they can see. The most compelling mission statement is a community that gathers together to celebrate life in Christ, is serious about its practice of the faith and welcomes new people and gives them a place in the church.
We have also discovered the importance of discerning and using the gifts of every member of the community. My late friend Archbishop Cahoon used to say of Episcopalians that they viewed the priest as the one they paid to be a Christian for them. This has always been false and heretical. Now it simply does not work. To be sure, the Apostolic Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons is essential to the fullness of the church. But so is the ministry of each member of the body with his or her particular gifts. Contemporary people want to be participants in, not merely consumers of, ministry.
We went to synod looking for conversation partners. We found them in distant places—India and Africa. We discovered that our overseas brethren are very committed to reaching out to their people and are doing significant things in both evangelism and caring for the poor. We found that we can learn more from them than they can learn from us.
A conversation Fr Mark had with Fr Phanuel from Rwanda was revealing. Fr. Mark asked him what he did to bring people to the church. Fr, Phanuel said, “I kill the goat.” Fr. Phanuel explained that the way he invites people to church is to prepare a meal and invite people to come. Ministry in Rwanda may be different in significant ways from here, but it is also very much the same. Our ministry is also been centered on food and community. They kill the goat. We kill the cow and the chicken. Then we both invite people into our community to share a meal that serves as a foretaste of the banquet in the coming kingdom of God.
We don’t have to tell our overseas brethren to reach out. They went into ministry because that was what they were called to do. They don’t need to convince their audience that they need God. God has chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith. By contrast, in this country we need to exhort both priest and people not become comfortable and complacent and not to live merely for themselves.
We have building plans that we will share with the whole church after evensong on Saturday, November 5. The purpose of building a larger church is not to have a nicer place for those of us who are already here. The purpose of building is to create more room so that we can invite more people to repent, believe and join as we celebrate life in Christ and prepare for Christ to come.
We see our church as center for traditional Anglican mission throughout our region and, indeed, throughout the world. God has called us to be faithful lo these many years not for the purpose of building a museum to the past. God has called us to be faithful because what we have held on to is now exactly what the world around us needs. God has given us a mission to a dying world.
Two years from now our national synod will be held right here at St. Matthew’s. We will have the privilege of hosting traditional Anglicans from around the globe to hear about their ministries, show them what we are doing and rejoice in the life in Christ that we share. Your commitment to Christ through this church is bearing fruit. We have much to be thankful for and much work left to do.