by John Perriam
I wish to begin this opinion piece by putting forward three facts:
1. The Christian Church in the western world is losing ground.
2. By no means all, but more and more Christians find that what the Church has to offer is irrelevant.
3. Leadership is either conflicted or going through the motions (there are some exceptions).
Churches in most western countries are closing. Larger and more artificial communities are being created by amalgamating parishes because many members are no longer participating.
All those who no longer take part in “organised” religion have a story to tell. “It no longer does it for me”, is the reply. When pressed further they will mention the contraception issue or the role of women in the Church, or say that science has filled in the gap that religion claimed knowledge of, or, you know, I even doubt the existence of God, I can’t see him in my life, and clergy abuse is the final impediment.
Leadership in our Church is a huge disappointment. Pope Francis hoped for so much from his two synods. What he got was bickering, factionalism and unresolved issues. Rebellion on one occasion was almost above the surface. Francis has said to bishops’ conferences around the world that if they had “ideas that were thought through” about future directions for the Church they should present them to him and he would consider them seriously. Has the New Zealand conference seen the benefits of such a task? Not to my knowledge. Has the Australian conference participated in such an exercise? Not to my knowledge. If they had indeed answered the invitation why have the laity not been consulted?
The above illustrated points are facts and no rationalising or seductive rhetoric will alter them. There is a further profoundly sad fact which underlines the entire body of our Church and it is this. God gave to the Christian community his most precious jewel in the person of his Son. Jesus infused the apostles and disciples with his person and his teaching. “Go to all nations,” he said “tell them and teach them all things that I have imparted to you.” There are a number of texts in the Scriptures which express the depth and certainty of this mission and the promise of eternal life which accompanies it. This philosophy of life, this promise is entrusted to the Christian Church. Peter was given “the keys of the kingdom”. His mission and the Church’s, is to take not just Jesus’ message as encompassed in part in the Beatitudes, but the person himself, the jewel of God, and introduce him to the people of the world. Today this is not happening in the Western world, nor are we able to retain our own.
What then is different in today’s Church from the Jewish religion which Jesus was born into? Laws were strictly adhered to in Judaism. Transgressions were severely punished. For example women indulging in adultery were stoned to death. In fact women were without doubt subservient to men. Religious structure was very much an important facet of Judaism. In our Church of today structure, traditional structure, is seen as extremely — and I would say excessively — important. It has been so for the hundred years my mind or those of my parents’ generation can traverse. It has echoes of the Jewish tradition, the one Christ came to perfect. There is no stoning but rather the threat of eternal damnation. However this is not the dramatic headline of yesteryear.
Pope Francis is concerned about the direction of our Church and introduced a Year of Mercy which is one of the hallmarks of Jesus mission. Today’s Church is weak in matters of spiritual life. In fact our Church is lost with regard to this. It needs to go back to Jesus himself and look to his person and mission again. It is my opinion that a prayerful scholarly consultative rethink with full participation with the laity is necessary to produce a truly relevant Church today. Tradition, a great strength of our Church is also a huge weakness. At no time in history is that more evident than today. What used to be, is not necessarily relevant today. Scripture warns about putting new wine into old caskets. Human nature is not a static entity, rather it adapts to the changing environment of the times.
Christianity is at once a spiritual movement and a religion.The spiritual dimension is centred around Christ, his example and teachings. The religious dimension is the structure which leads to and from the spiritual. It may be that many parts of this structure (religious dimension) are antiquated and something even of an impediment to the life of the spiritual. Rules, regulations, protocol, liturgy, concept of community, requirement and function of priesthood are all part of structure and they have been clung to and almost jealously guarded by our leadership for at least many decades. Christian spiritual development has suffered greatly as so much energy has gone into the preservation of a severely outdated religious structure. That must change and priority be given to our spiritual heritage or our Church will continue to dramatically decline in number and relevance. Huge societal change is becoming our constant companion as technology on every front advances. Is our Church ready to accompany us and mentor us through these times of possible dislocation and uncertainty? Where indeed is Jesus in all of this? He has given direction, but are our leaders truly listening? Can they not read the signs? Did they not listen to Jesus when he said to his fishermen “Launch out into the deep”. Do they not appreciate the wisdom and warning contained in the parable of the talents when Jesus said, in essence, that we should invest and take risks. “Fear not I am with you always.”
Let me say that I do not have all the answers to the Church`s demise. I am but a canary down the mine shaft. There are many like me but nothing can be meaningfully achieved unless our leaders i.e our bishops take initiative. The time is most opportune now with Pope Francis occupying Peter’s chair. There is an open window. Soon it may be shut.
Never let it be lost on us that we have been given the enormous privilege of being part of Christ’s discipleship. It is incumbent upon us, the Christian community, itself in need of refinement, to acknowledge and present to others the precious gift of God’s jewel.
This jewel, Jesus himself, has been for too long neglected in the name of religion (structure). Important as this religious structure is, it must always be the bridesmaid, never the bride. Our relationship with Jesus (spiritual dimension) is paramount. Without this intimate connection with him any talk of Christianity is an empty concept and this is what I fear we have and are inheriting. We can change. We must change. But as each year goes by many disciples are lost to the Church. This surely runs counter to Christ’s wishes.
John Perriam, who lives in north Canterbury, worked as a priest for six years. He then worked as a family counsellor in private practice for 35 years. He married his wife in 1973 and they have five children.