I understand the appeal of looking for that perfect church that is the “right fit” for you. I’ve engaged in that search, too. But as much as I understand that drive, I’ve been getting pushback against that from my own thoughts and growing convictions. In engaging in this sort of quest for the church that’s “just right for me,” we’re short-changing ourselves, we’re short-changing the local church we aren’t participating in, and we’re potentially distorting the wider Church.
The local church is supposed to be the gathering of local Christians, and problems can be created when we take advantage of the fact that it’s a small world, and pick a church away from our local community because it “suits us” better. I have commented in the past that the General Synod, the highest decision-making assembly of the Anglican Church in New Zealand (The Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia, or ACANZP), has a liberal skew. Somehow, I thought, a more liberal or progressive voice was being amplified in the proverbial halls of power, so that general Synod was more liberal than the Church. I’ve noticed the same thing at the level of the local (Diocesan) Synod, but I’m not sure if it’s true there to the same extent. But how could this be? When I raised this concern once, the pushback response was that representatives are democratically elected, so how could representation at Synod not be representative of the state of the Church in general?
I don’t profess to know all the ways this could happen, but I got an insight into one of the ways this can happen a couple of years ago at a pre-Synod meeting (I think that’s what it was, but it might have been something else) a couple of years ago. I was talking with a fellow about which parish he is a member of. It was St Peter’s on WIllis Street in downtown Wellington, a parish with a reputation for being a mouthpiece for progressive causes, especially when it comes to LGBTI issues. I made no comment on that at the time. Shortly after that, he made a comment revealing that he lived in a suburb that was not close to central Wellington. In an inspired (maybe!) moment, I asked him, “But you go all the way into the city to church. Isn’t there an Anglican Church near where you live?” His reply: “Yes, but we’re proud to be a very progressive parish.” In other words, yes there are parishes that are more local to where I live, but people (including me) travel from all around to come to this particular parish because it holds and promotes particularly progressive views.
In case I’m being too subtle in my translation, here’s another one: Yes there are more local churches, but if we all went to local churches, there wouldn’t be parishes like this one with a distinctively progressive point of view because in any given part of Wellington, that’s not what the church is like. We create and preserve a parish with that point of view by not going to church where we live but all travelling to the same church so that we can have a church that is not the natural formation of Christians who live in an area worshiping together, but is one that we designed.
If Synod was made up of representatives from parishes that form naturally in a geographical area because Anglicans who live in that area attend their local Church, we would have Synod representation that represented fairly “ordinary” Anglicanism, rather than activists.
And there it is. If Synod was made up of representatives from parishes that form naturally in a geographical area because Anglicans who live in that area attend their local Church, we would have Synod representation that represented fairly “ordinary” Anglicanism (now there’s a slippery word in some people’s view, I know), rather than activists. Outspokenly liberal voices are much less prominent in that setting than in an engineered Church like St Peter’s, so they are much less likely to end up as representatives of their local body. Because of these engineering efforts, picking and supporting a parish on ideological grounds, Synod now has representation from parishes that are being formed into what we might call artificial communities, communities that did not arise because they were the church that lives in a place, but were built up and preserved because these communities skew the faith in precisely the direction parish members want. Part of what enables the creation of such parishes, and what explains why their existence is such a late phenomenon on the timeline of history, is the ease of travel in the 20th and 21st century developed world. Naturally, such mobility is easiest of all for more privileged people, which is also a very (very, very) partial explanation of why such parishes are almost always fairly monocultural – white and economically privileged. The poorest people worship at their local church, which is where they should meet you (although you, of course, might be one of them). The presence of such “designer” churches within our Anglican Diocese skews the way representation works at the Synod level, and in this case that means creating a far louder liberal voice than would exist if we allowed church communities to form more naturally by choosing to belong to local churches.
The church you worship in is an instrument of Christ, with all the warts that come with a church made up of people who just happen to live where you live.
My comments here are certain to fall on the deaf ears of most people who engage in this sort of engineering and artificial community building. Because nobody in that sub-community is going to have a flash of awareness where they realise that they are having this effect. Such parishes are activist parishes, and distorting representation at Synod level in this way is intentional, rather than an accidental spinoff. But if it is up to you in any measure, dear reader, I urge you to discourage this sort of gerrymandering (I call it this because it is a practice that involves placing oneself into a local body in order to favour a partisan cause, rather than belonging to a more naturally forming body). The church you worship in is an instrument of Christ, with all the warts that come with a church made up of people who just happen to live where you live. Christ is supposed to transform you, through the church. We get this backwards when we go out of our way to create a church around our own interests.
Here’s one of the reasons the local church doesn’t have those things: You’re not there.
Here’s another reason to support your local church. You might be someone who says, “We don’t go to our local church because they don’t have any/many….” A number of things could come next: Young people, children, young married couples, older people, good musicians, educated people, and on it goes. And here’s one of the reasons the local church doesn’t have those things: You’re not there. Instead, you’re taking those assets out of the local community and to a different church, just like everyone else who is leaving their local community to attend that big popular church downtown that has it all. Yes, if you’re the only person dissatisfied with the local church who therefore decides to change their approach and invest there instead of going elsewhere, you may have a hard road ahead of you. But someone has to be the first to start the wheels of change turning. Do it, and be an evangelist for change to others who don’t support their local church. I don’t know the best way to do that. What we need to do is find a way of holding in front of people a vision of what the best version of the local parish looks like if the local Christian population worshipped there.
One of the concerns you might have about belonging to the church where you live is that you just never know what you’ll end up with. What if they turn out to be a bunch of people you don’t agree with? What if, in spite of being a natural community of Christians rather than an ideologically engineered one, it just coincidentally turns out that there is a strong presence of people who don’t submit to church teaching and who want to always be updating the church to fit with the values of its surrounding culture without causing offence? Part of this is just a matter of you having to suck it up and accept that not everyone is exactly like you, and that even if you’re right, other equally sincere Christians, even within the same Church, might not always see it that way. But part of this (especially the latter) is an issue of church structure. Yes if the church is a completely independent one, established when some people twenty years ago decided to start a church, this could be a problem. You might be thinking – but it’s a problem for the Anglican Church, and they do have a structure of authority that supposedly deals with this sort of thing. Fair point. If (as is the case here in New Zealand in the Anglican Church) leadership (in the form of bishops) do not see it as part of their role to exercise teaching authority and uphold the faith in the face of efforts to water it down or change it, all sorts of things may go unchecked. That is a difficult problem that I don’t have any good ideas about in terms of finding a solution. But in principle, in the best version of the Church, in a Church that has a historical conscientiousness, placing itself in the movement founded by Jesus and governed from the beginning by a succession of ordained leadership that really is committed to preserving the faith and the integrity of the Church, there are checks on the degree of autonomy a local parish has, so you should be able to attend your local church without such fears. But the reality is, attending your local church rather than your ideal church is a powerful antidote to the local church being commandeered by those with an ideological agenda. That’s because most pew sitting Christians aren’t liberal ideologues. They get the idea of being adherents.
There might be other, more romantic sounding reasons to belong to your local church rather than the church that is “right” for you. And they may be good reasons. And maybe I’m just being cynical and they aren’t really “romantic” at all, even if they sound that way to me. Something about the organic beauty of a church that grows where it’s planted, or the Gospel being a light that draws members of the local community in out of the dark / cold or some such thing. Whatever. Maybe. But for reasons like those above, I’ve become convicted about this. It’s because I’m not supposed to search for a Church that suits my tastes. I’m supposed to bring my gifts to the local church to help build it up. I’m not supposed to seek out and create an artificial community based around a designer faith. We’re all supposed to come together and be transformed together by the faith that was delivered to the saints a long time ago. It’s because I need to be changed and challenged as much – more, in fact – than I need to be satisfied and affirmed, and hopefully God will use me to challenge and grow those around me in the Church where I live, whatever I may find there.
These convictions are going to require me to act, and I will do so, with some reluctance perhaps – you get attached to your worshiping community after all (we still attend the church in the area where we once lived, and do not attend any of several churches that are local to us now). But with convictions comes a degree of confidence and resolve, perhaps even excitement about what obedience might yield.
Consider doing likewise.