In February 2020 on this site I wrote:

in a few months I will pass the fortieth anniversary of my ordination in the Anglican Church. And, the reality of my ordained ministry, is that for all those forty years, I have operated under an institutional death sentence.

It is surely, even more significant that, in that same piece I quoted my father who in 1977! quoted a letter saying,

‘From time to time one hears gloomy prognostications concerning the future of the Church.’

So the rumours of the church’s immanent demise have been around for at least the past forty-five yers. And now the prognosticators of doom are back: “‘Gone by 2040’: Why some religions are declining in Canada faster than ever.”

But I confess that the onslaught of COVID a month after I wrote my cheery optimistic little piece in February 2020 has shaken my confidence.

COVID has been hard on the church. People have, understandably and justifiably, stayed away from corporate worship. Who wants to add one more discretionary potential exposure event to their already pressured lives? Who wants to attend worship behind a mask and with no opportunity to share the familiar intimacies that are such a central part of worship in the Christian tradition?

As COVID restrictions begin to loosen, it is pretty obvious that some people who were fairly regular in attendance before COVID will, perhaps quite unintentionally and unconsciously, have drifted onto the Christmas and Easter side of the attendance ledger, while others will have slipped all the way over to the Spiritual But Not Religious category. At the very least, I am pretty sure no churches have experienced, in the past twenty-four months, anything like the attendance increase that is a necessary part of the journey to sustainability for religious institutions in Canada.

I have no idea what the future may hold for institutional religion. And I feel a bit guilty that, for me, retirement from a leadership role in the church is only five months away. There is no doubt, I am passing on to my successor a community that is, at least in any measurable terms, diminished from the one I inherited from my predecessor.

But, perhaps “measurable terms” are not the most important ones in looking at church life.

I remember many years ago attending a clergy gathering at which a church development expert was the speaker. In the question period, one of my colleagues suggested that perhaps we should not be putting all our hope in numbers. Perhaps, he dared to propose, we should rejoice that there is a faithful remnant who continue to walk alongside one another in the institutional expression of faith in which we serve. The church development speaker responded pronouncing that, “Remnant theology is a cop-out!”

I’m not so sure. In the face of forces that are challenging all institutions, it may be that the best we can hope for in the church at the moment is that a faithful remnant may continue to find meaning and nourishment in the practice of corporate worship, the intimacy of community connection, and the opportunity this community offers to serve some reality greater than any one individual.

In a moment, I am heading out to lead an end of life ceremony for a family who have only the most remote connection with any church community. When they learned that a beloved family member was about to die, they called me to visit and have now summoned me to oversee a ceremony to release the deceased into some vaguely discernible future that awaits us all after physical death. These are lovely good people. They live well, with kindness, compassion and beauty. Yet, they have never felt any need for church. But now some vague desire for an embodied spiritual presence stirs within them. I find it hard to believe that, even under the assault of secularism, materialism, individualism and COVID, this draw to give external expression to the hidden mysteries of life will entirely vanish from our culture. I hope that, when hearts call from the depths, there may still be leadership within the church able to support people in navigating the sensitive transitions of their lives.