When our Lord Jesus began his public ministry, he went about “proclaiming the kingdom of God.” The reign and rule of God was breaking in, and men and women were called to enter it. The first preachers of the gospel were given no other message than that the kingdom of God was drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth. To hear the gospel of the kingdom, and to receive it by faith, was to enter into the Family of God. From that moment, the will of God was to be central in their lives, as taught and exemplified by Jesus their Lord. As crowds gathered to hear Jesus he told them that they must “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
What would we expect to be true if our parishes were organized so as to spread the kingdom of God, not just keep alive the message of the kingdom? It seems beyond dispute it would mean more and more people would hear that message and receive it. Non believers would become believers. Parishes would normally grow. Reading the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that fact on every page. It has been so in every time of renewed faith in Church History. There will be opposition to the gospel, Jesus said so, but the kingdom will spread like leaven in a lump. It is unstoppable.
Why then is the overwhelming evidence of parochial organization stasis? If not decline?
As one who has studied the parochial system, and lived in it and with it for a lifetime, I can say without a moments hesitation: in the modern Anglican world we place a premium on secondary things. The parochial system has widely degenerated among us from a tool for the spread of the kingdom to a means for maintaining a Christian cultural heritage. When healthy and rooted in biblical truth, in a culture that affirmed its presuppositions, it helped the spread of the kingdom of God. Today, most certainly in the West, it largely funnels the energy and resources of its people into maintaining a way of being Christian. Numerical growth, when it comes, almost always is because already churched people are embracing its culture and ethos. True, many of these are believing Christians, attracted to a deepening of their own spiritual lives.
So what do I mean when I say we are maintaining a “cultural heritage”? I will grant to any objector that we are a community filled with people who love the Lord. Of this there is no doubt. But ask yourself this one question: How many people in any parish have ever participated in the conversion of one other person? Among those few, how many have been a part of participating in an adult conversion to faith since they became active as Anglicans? Rare indeed is a parish that can yield a two digit answer.
But what do we do? We teach people to love the liturgy. We introduce people to the Daily Office. Frequently we introduce them to Christian Literature, especially Anglican. We usually introduce them to Church History, especially English and Anglican History. Less often, we introduce them to our brand of serious theological study. Overwhelmingly we enculturate them to the ways of our parish, our Anglican system.
Next Week: Gospel Content or Cultural Form?