Bishop Michael Bedford-Jones' Sermon: Nov 17, 2019
CHANGE: A Bishop’s reflections on his former parish
The Right Reverend Michael H.H. Bedford-Jones
Suffragan Bishop of Toronto (Retired) Rector of St. Aidan’s 1983-1988
Some words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading: “This will give you an opportunity to testify......By your endurance you will save your souls.”
The invitation to preach and preside today came with a catch. In light of the very significant changes to the St. Aidan’s property and building, your Rector asked me to give some reflection on what change means in terms of my experiences and perspective as a bishop for over a quarter of a century. The subject of change is usually fraught with at least a little apprehension. Personally, I have to admit, I have trouble with change. For example, I like my cottage to remain just as it was when I was growing up. My music tastes are a bit frozen in time. I prefer attending a church that is recognizably and strongly Anglican in liturgy, preaching and music. I have been uncomfortable with some of the changes in church land. Indeed I was a little startled when I first heard of changes planned for St. Aidan’s.
Still I agreed to come and do a reflection on change. But where could I possibly start?
Perhaps with a quote that the late Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral London, William Inge claims to have found in the book of Genesis: Adam turns to Eve and says, “My dear, we live in an age of transition”.
A better start would be to go back to a story which some of you have heard before. It was June 1983, over 36 years ago, in my first week as Rector of St. Aidan’s. I knew very little about the parish or The Beach. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out, the lake was sparkling, the grass was green. I spotted a lady across the street working on her garden. So to be neighbourly, I went over and introduced myself. She pointed at St. Aidan’s and asked, “ What is that building over there?” Very surprised , I answered, “It’s St. Aidan’s Church.” ”Oh it’s a church” she replied. “We call it The Mausoleum. It’s always shut up”.
Her reply got me thinking : wouldn’t it be great to put a great plate glass door facing Queen St. so that passers by could see through; keep a few lights on all the time; and perhaps put a small outdoor chapel in front of the glass door open 24 hours a day? I had seen some churches that did that, and given the vibrant Beach community St.Aidan’s was serving, I thought it a neat idea. Of course it did not happen, but that story has stayed with me because it was a harbinger of the kind of change churches would need to make if they were to move effectively into the future. Too many of our church buildings look like private clubs.
So here is a great theological question: “How many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb”? The answer is three. One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks and one to argue why the old lightbulb was so much better.
This lightbulb joke is actually theologically profound. 1. Call the electrician: The electrician stands for expertise, knowledge, experience. Anglicans are not afraid of expertise, or science or reason. 2. Mix the drinks: the bar tender signals that Anglicans value community, partying, , joy, and the ability to offer hospitality to strangers as well as to each other. 3. Argue about the value of the old: this person stands for the fact that Anglicans place great value in our roots, in tradition and in stability. We value our buildings because they are shrines full of holiness, prayer and holy memories. We don’t easily move from or even change our buildings, especially our sanctuaries because of that holiness and also because we value staying with the community in which they are placed even when (especially when?) the community itself changes. But we don’t get stuck with our buildings either, when through prayer and informed conversation we realize that to carry our our real mission change is necessary. In the joke, the lightbulb does get changed.
The reality and need of change jumps out from our scriptures, which is why it is deep in our DNA as Christian people., The Old Testament is a constant story of change. The New Testament even more so as it proclaims the greatest change in humanity since the dawn of creation, that being the Resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. Resurrection continues to be followed by dramatic change: Pentecost, the conversion of Paul, the admittance of non-Jews into the Church (may seem obvious to us but it was a drastic change then and almost split the Church). Change galloped with the expansion of the faith into the Roman world, and after much persecution a change happened which has affected us to the present, namely the change from being an outlawed sect to the official religion of the empire by Constantine in 313 AD. Christendom began. Our Anglican family story is also about change. There is so much I could talk about, but let me just mention the Reformation, colonial expansion, the development of synodical government and then Anglican churches throughout the world becoming an independent members of The Anglican Communion each with their own polities and Prayerbooks, though modelled on the original books of Common Prayer.
This morning’s scriptures are specifically about the reality of change in faith, drastic, apocalyptic change. Apocalyptic language, such as Jesus uses, proclaims change and teaches how, if we are to be faithful, we can and must live through such change. Each year from All Saints to the feast of the Reign Christ, as we approach the end of our liturgical year we hear a version of “end of the world as we know it” through the proclamation of the prophets, the early church, and Jesus himself. Today’s readings are clear. Life for Jesus’ followers and indeed the whole of the wider society was going to change, and they needed to know how to be faithful in the face of catastrophic change. So it is that the prophet Malachi talks of the catastrophic Day of the Lord,. But, says, Malachi, for those who revere God’s name, the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. (We sing of that in the Christmas carol “Hark the herald angels sing”.)
St. Paul writes to the church on Thessalonica with practical instruction how to live as they await the second coming. Although he reminds them of the dangers of idleness, his main message is that they keep doing justice, and that they not get weary of doing what is right. He urges them to trust in the traditions passed on by the apostles so that the life and ministry of Jesus would remain a reality in their, and by extension, our community.
In the gospel Jesus speaks in apocalyptic ways about the destruction of the beautiful temple of Jerusalem. He tells them what not to hold on to (the Temple, a building which was their central religious symbol and which the Romans would destroy in 70AD). He warns his friends about the hardships they will endure. He tells them , “This will give you an opportunity to testify...By your endurance you will gain your souls”.
THIS WILL GIVE YOU AN OPPORTUNITY TO TESTIFY. BY YOUR ENDURANCE YOU WILL SAVE YOUR SOULS.
The biggest change we have had to face, as a Church, is the end of Christendom. Christendom means many things, but basically it has meant a series of assumptions about the dominance of Christian faith in our society. These assumptions are that most people are at least nominally Christian and that other structures of society will support Christianity and in turn Christianity will support those structures. In Christendom there is a kind of cosy relation between state and church. For example, places of worship get a tax break: for a long time public schools could teach a kind of Christianity; clergy would get a prominent place at official events and Christian leaders would get easy entry into governmental conversations.
No more. We more or less assumed that people in our neighbourhoods would know what churches were, what they stood for, who Jesus was and that people by and large understood our language. There is a lot more I could say, and I am certainly not telling you something you don’t already know. But the fact is, Christendom as we accepted it is over, and we can no longer count on its assumptions. Fewer and fewer people are drawn to institutional religion. Many, many people have no idea who Jesus is. The church many of us grew up in and loved is a very changed kind of place. Somebody once said that we are now preaching to a culture we thought we owned. And that means that our structures, our language, the way we live as Christian people and come together in community will have to change if we are to be faithful to God’s call. But it is this very change that will give us the opportunity to testify...and it is by our endurance we shall save our souls. What we are changing to is described as a mission shaped or disciple making church. And our task is no longer to maintain an institution but to make disciples.
When I went to divinity school I received a fine classical theological education. But I was educated for a Christendom style church. I was given no courses in mission, evangelism, church planting in a secular society, financial management or care of dying congregations. As students we certainly did not read the signs of the times. Through the different parishes and administrative posts I served I had to learn how to manage, and then as a bishop, to lead a very different kind of Church than I was inside tidily trained for. What has happened to me over the years is that the change from Christendom to a mission centred, disciple making church has been a process of DISILLUSIONMENT in the best sense of that word. For Christendom had become an illusion. In the early years of ministry I had been living in an illusion, and I personally had to undergo a process of disillusionment. I have had to change some very basic assumptions about how the church and its congregations now have to work in today’s world.
Over the past 50 years of ordained ministry I have witnessed and worked with some fundamental changes in our church. At the time they seemed like separate things, but I now see that all of them in one sense or another, were attempts by our church to move out of Christendom models into a church that was missional and disciple making. Our Church needed and still needs to be disillusioned.
Here is a list of some of those changes which have helped us change from a Christendom based church to a missionary disciple making church:
1.The first I encountered in 1967 was a change in our Marriage Canon....yes that marriage canon,.... to allow divorced people to be married in the Anglican Church. Seems rather ordinary now but at the time it was highly controversial.
2. The ordination of women as deacons, then priests, then bishops. I don’t remember hearing a whisper of that in divinity school. 3. There was a major change in our Baptismal discipline, which included the development of the Baptismal Covenant which I am convinced is a most important charter document; move to baptisms taking place in the context of the principal Sunday liturgy, requirements of training; repetition of the baptismal covenant by everyone at a Baptism or Confirmation; early communion of children; Confirmation no longer no longer understood to be a rite of passage; and subsequent decline in numbers of confirmands.
4. Ecumenical relationships changed from organizational union to working together in mission. 5. Liturgical change, text and architecture; altars moved out from the wall with the priest now facing the people; different seating arrangements and furniture; new church buildings which better suited liturgy. 6. Sadly there is increased illiteracy in our people of scripture, theology and our history.
7.Change in music...style, lack of trained organists, but increased use of trained musicians playing different instruments, new kinds of music eg praise bands, explosion of new hymns, new hymn books + music licensing services allowing easy reproduction of texts and music 8. Many new translations of scripture
9. Many more clergy being trained on a part time basis
10. Lack of clergy mobility, especially beyond urban centres; change in clergy housing from rectories to clergy owned houses. 11. A significant rise in competent lay leadership
12. Amalgamation of various women’s groups into the ACW. 13. Sexual revolution and resultant change in marriage practice (living together before marriage as the norm or no marriage at all) 14. A significant decrease in church funerals 15. LGBTQ2S participation openly and generally welcomed 16. Quite drastic numerical decline in many congregations (post war explosion then decline ; amalgamations plus Lutheran/UCC; urban, suburban, rural) 17. Decline of youth ministry in parishes 18. Social media world; communication: (We are a long way from realizing the implication of this)
19. Change in weekend practice...car culture..cottages, skiing, Sunday employment
20. Multiculturalism...many different cultures bringing gifts + expectations 21. Area Episcopacy, changes in the role of bishops, diocesan de-centralization 22. Change in Anglican Communion: decline in traditional west, rise in Africa and Asia 23. Indigenous church members suffering and rising hope
These are just a few of the changes as we move from a Christendom model to a mission shaped, disciple making Church. Each and all of these arose not as spur of the moment fad, but from careful consideration that while we no longer live in a Christian society, we were still called to proclaim, to testify, and model God’s Kingdom in our lifestyle and deeds. There has been truthful disillusionment with Christendom and a move towards a disciple making and missional church.
There is another word we use for change. “Repentance.” Repentance includes being genuinely sorry for wrong doing as an individual or community, but it means so much more. Repentance is the ability to have our eyes opened to see, and have insight to something either that was there all along or something that is brand new. Repentance is, in St. Paul’s words, “to have the eyes of your heart enlightened.” (Ephesians 1:18) Scripture is full of people who were once blind but now can see. And that is why we are constantly called to repentance. In the words of Bishop Michael Marshall, “Repentance-or metanoia, in Greek- means to stop and think it out again”. (Michael Marshall: The Freedom of Holiness.p. 47).
That I believe is what you have been doing here. The hard change decisions of selling property and reshaping the building is an act of true repentance in the sense of stopping, thinking it out again and through prayer and holy discussion radically seeing new realities and being committed to make disciples to live faithfully, to endure and to testify.
Yes there is grief. I certainly had a pang of grief when I first heard your plans, remembering fondly the lovely park like setting of the church where I lived and worked for 5 years. The French writer Anatole France speaks for me: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy, for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another”.
In the end, the changes at St, Aidan’s may not work the way you hope, but they have come out of hard work, prayer, vision and repentance and God in God’s way will bless them. These changes “ will give you the opportunity to testify and by your endurance you will save your souls...and those around you.
Dear friends of St. Aidan’s: May God richly bless you in this.