The following text is taken from a sermon preached on Sunday, February 6, 2011 by the Rev. Canon Rick Condo, Interim Priest of St. John’s Cathedral. As an introduction to the parish’s discernment process, which was begun at the first congregational gathering after the service that morning, the sermon provided a broader context of what is happening in mainline Christianity. It is intended as a kind of backdrop for the parish as it moves through this time of transition.
The Age of Christendom is over
The Age of Christendom (a term which blends the words ‘Christ’ and ‘Dominion’) is over. No longer is Christianity the one dominant religion in North America. The once powerful religious influence of the Church in matters of rule, governance, and establishment has ended. How did this happen? To answer this question, we need to look briefly at the ages through which Christianity has traveled since the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
The Apostolic Age
During the first three centuries A.D., the Christian Church was in its infancy. The world outside the church (especially the ruling powers of Rome) was considered hostile towards the faith. Christians were being persecuted, arrested, incarcerated, and oftentimes executed. The Church therefore needed to be careful about who was let in. Only those who bought into the Christian purpose and mission were allowed to be baptized. A three-year period of intense baptism preparation enabled the Church to screen out any who were not willing to engage in a serious change of life-style that would lead to their Christian initiation.
During this age of the Christian Church, the apostolic task of witness to the faith derived from an understanding of the church’s mission as being right outside its doors (not in some far off country). Local church leadership was not hierarchical, but rather functional. There was very little difference between clergy and laity.
So, despite the growth taking place in Christianity during the Apostolic Age, the Church was not “in the driver’s seat” in the affairs of the wider community within which it was struggling to stay alive.
The Christendom Age
Christianity went from the margins of Roman society to its centre, from being legally banned to being legally mandated.
In the early part of the 4th century A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine I embraced Christianity. Following his conversion experience in 312 A.D., Constantine declared the Christian faith to be the official religion of the Roman Empire (hence the term “Holy Roman Empire”). Church and state were amalgamated. Christianity went from the margins of Roman society to its centre, from being legally banned to being legally mandated. Public institutions were required to teach Christian morals. Within the Roman Empire, one was born into the Christian faith and Church. Therefore, it was illogical and illegal to not be Christian.
Within the organization of the Church, ministry became professionalized (the property of the ordained) and hierarchical. The clergy’s task was to look after the religious needs of parishioners, while the role of the parishioners was to support their parish church and clergy, and the hierarchy of the state church.
The Church’s mission was no longer regarded as right outside its doors, since all of society was “Christian.” Instead, mission was overseas – somewhere else – as Roman armies endeavoured to conquer new lands and people for Christ.
The Church institutionally came to be identified with culture. Society and faith overlapped; being a good Christian and being a good citizen were equivalent. Christendom was in large measure responsible for the building of colleges & universities, the establishment of hospitals and welfare institutions, developments in the arts, and exercising great influence over governments and the economy.
In North America, church and culture were interwoven. Canada and the United States were regarded as Christian nations.
In North America, church and culture were interwoven. Canada and the United States were regarded as Christian nations. Public holidays were observed around Christian festivals (e.g., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday). School days began not only with the singing of the national anthem, but were accompanied by the Lord’s Prayer and some scripture reading. The truth of testimony given in a court of law was authenticated by the witness placing his/her hand on the Bible.
The Post-Christendom (Emerging) Age
The Christian Church’s position as organized and influential religious belief has given way to a greater variety of autonomous and individual choices in spirituality.
Early in the 20th Century, a great surge of immigrants from other countries brought people of different cultures and religions to North America. As a result, society became culturally and religiously pluralistic. Canada was no longer a Christian nation. With the emergence of an officially secular society, the Church began to witness the disestablishment of mainline Christianity.
The Christian Church’s position as organized and influential religious belief has given way to a greater variety of autonomous and individual choices in spirituality. There has been a steady exodus of people out of traditional churches – some into more fundamentalist “big box” churches, others into many of the community and sporting activities that had previously been banned from Sundays under the Lord’s Day Act.
Now, the Church’s mission has drawn back from strictly overseas work, and has returned to the local congregational neighbourhood. Unlike earlier times, however, the world outside the Church (at, least in North America) is rarely hostile, but more often indifferent. Within many parishes, the ministry of the baptized has become pivotal, with the clergy being called to ‘support’, not to ‘do’ ministry. Faith is now chosen, not inherited, such that many of those who attend church do so out of personal decision and conviction, not family coercion.
Now, the purpose of the Church is to change lives
During the Christendom Age, the purpose of Church had been to act as the conscience of the community, to aid the less fortunate, and to be the centre of family and community life. Now, in the Post- Christendom Age, the purpose of the Church is closer to that of the Apostolic Age (i.e., to change lives). This means that local congregations are choosing to set as their mission or purpose the work of growing people of faith, of being and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Mission and ministry are no longer the exclusive property of the ordained; they now belong to the whole community of faith.
In order to engage in this primary task, the Church itself must become “missional” in its life and ministry – called to be an instrument of God’s mission of healing God’s creation. Mission and ministry are no longer the exclusive property of the ordained; they now belong to the whole community of faith. Clergy are, therefore, no longer simply “deliverers”, but rather “developers” of ministry – equippers, enablers and mentors of the baptized.
As this parish moves through a time of discernment, it is imperative that we be continually aware of what the Spirit of God is saying to us. Through our prayers and discussions, may we seek the mind of Christ in the decisions that are to be made concerning the mission and ministry of this parish, and the kind of leadership gifts that will be required of a new Incumbent of the parish and Dean of the diocese.