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Losing the chains of Christendom: asking the right question.

Across the lake from our place there are a number of old log pilings strung out in a straight line down the lake towards the San Jose River. Gulls, terns and bald eagles frequently roost on the top of these pilings. When I paddle my canoe out to there it appears that they were established expressly for the purpose of roosting birds. Great streaks of bird whitewash trail down their sides. Nothing else within eyesight would indicate another use. However, 26 years ago when we first moved to Lac La Hache there was no doubt about the primary purpose of these pilings. The Blackwater Timber Company sawmill site was still well evident on the lakeshore with its sawdust burner and several other mill structures dominating the view. The only thing left now are the log pilings that once secured the sawmill's log-booms, now strung out down the lake like whitewashed tombstones.

Blackwater Timber went the way of the dodo bird. It was unable to, or perhaps better put, unwilling to make the necessary adjustments that changing economics, environmental concerns and government quotas demanded as society changed. Like so many small sawmills in the British Columbia interior, it became a victim of its own institutional inflexibility, unable to change as the societal realities of the day dictated.

Today as I look at those log piling tombstones I can't help but think about the Christian church. The Christian church in this country is in the midst of a rapidly changing society. Its inability to change with Canadian society and maintain some sort of relevance is expressed in many ways but none so simple and profound as the closing of many congregations across the country that have existed for decades. Sociologists, ecclesiologists and missiologists who study this church decline often point their fingers at the church clinging to its religious institutionalism, more specifically the stuff of institution that the church adopted soon after the fourth century as it entered what has been called the age of Christendom. It appears as though many people in Western countries like Canada have deemed the church, with its continuing Christendom focus on all things religious and institutional, to be irrelevant while at the same time expressing more interest than ever in the very things the New Testament declares the church ought to be about; faith, spirituality and participating in a unique egalitarian community. Apparently the institutional relics of Christendom like an ordained priestly cast, cathedrals and churchy programs do not speak to 21st-century Western society and its constituent people. This church withering movement in Canada is striking and very troubling.

What is most troubling is our own denomination's inability to change with the changing realities. For a long time now we have realized that we live in apost-Christendom society where many people do not confess Christian faith and most people don't attend or participate in the church. And yet we continue to be willingly locked in a Christendom mode of being. With a penchant for our religious institutionalism, our Christendom way of being church, we keep on doing the same thing over and over, like we are driven by some ingrained inflexibility.

We keep on focusing on our precious polity, our version of holy orders, our cathedral-like buildings and our indoctrinating programs, desperately hoping that by some miracle we will attract people into our Presbyterian version of Christendom.

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." Perhaps ingrained inflexibility can be understood in the animal kingdom where it often results in tragedy, death and even extinction. But in the human realm, with the ability to assess, reason and predict, the kind of inflexibility we are exhibiting in the Presbyterian Church is nothing short of a kind of insanity. This only serves to make the church's decline even more troubling.

A case in point. In a little while it appears our denomination is going to attempt to become really avant-garde and begin to argue vehemently about the question concerning ordaining people who are not heterosexual. The question seems to be driven by what appears to be an altruistic desire to be inclusive. But real meaningful change and adaptation means getting the question right. In the face of Canadians' apparent suspicion of anything to do with religious institutionalism, the real question for the church is not if it should be ordaining people who are not heterosexual, but whether it should be ordaining people at all.

Ordination as we practice it is a relic of Christendom and seems to create a separate class in what purports to be a classless society that seeks to follow only one leader and head, Jesus Christ.

What is needed for a post-Christendom age is a post-Christendom church; a church loosed from the chains of Christendom. How do we go about becoming such a thing? This is the question we Presbyterians need to be addressing at General Assembly and at every court and in every congregation. In an age where people have found the church irrelevant and opted out, how do we develop the apostolic vision to engage in the mission, the great commission really, to take Christ and his community of faith to them? How do we take our minds and eyes and focus off of our polity and institutional survival and become primarily focused on the people of our society who need the love of Jesus? As Presbyterians, how do we give our life for the world, how do we take the love of Jesus to those who live beyond the church? It has got to amount to much more than trying to make our version of Christendom more inclusive by ordainingnon-heterosexual people to be priests or ministers.

In practical terms, it means becoming primarily a sending church--a missional church--rather than an attractional church. It amounts to rediscovering the pre-institutional church of the New Testament where the focus is on living out the purpose of Jesus in the world in terms of mission and doing so in the most imaginative, Spirit-led and institutionallyunencumberedways.We already have elders enough for order. What we need for leadership now is people gifted by the Holy Spirit to function as apostles (faith pioneers), prophets (faith encouragers), evangelists (faith instillers), teachers (faith equippers) and pastors (faith shepherds). And please Lord, save us from turning these wonderful and biblical functions into institutional offices and ordaining people to them.

Rev. David Webber is newly retired from the Cariboo Presbyterian Church, B.C. His fourth book, When the Aspen Flowers: Blooming in the Creator's Garden can be ordered through

By David Webber
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Title Annotation:FOR THE JOURNEY
Author:Webber, David
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2015
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