A couple friends have asked for my projection/predictions about the church fifty years from today. Frankly, I am not good at predicting the future; and fifty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own fifty years, more than twenty years ago.
There are of course trends in the church — in all churches; and I do have some thoughts about where these trends will take us in the coming five to ten years.
Polarization between church leaders and church members, as well as between ideological groups within the church, is now approaching a point of no return. I expect ongoing explosions, confrontations, and further division of the church into smaller and independent churches. I think it is unavoidable.
Regardless what’s happening to the earth’s polar ice caps, ecclesiastical climate change is a fact of life; and it will shape and reconfigure Christian identity and behavior in the coming decade.
First of all we have the melting-away of the church due to departures. Not so much a storm. More a low pressure dissipation. Whether out of frustration, ignorance, or just plain spiritual laziness, large numbers of people will continue to walk away from institutional churches. Especially young people.
Those who remain “Christian” will be either “Stationary Christians” or “Pilgrimage Christians.”
Simply put, “stationary Christians” are those who see change as either a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They have age-old answers for every age-old question. Even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. In the contemporary Roman Catholic world, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is a clear example of the stationary Christian, incapable of understanding Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth and development. Commenting this week about the Irish same-sex marriage referendum, Cardinal Parolin stressed “I believe that we are talking about not just a defeat for Christian principles but about a defeat for humanity.”
In my Dominus Vobiscum observations here last week, I referred to other examples of retro-catholic stationary Christians. Stationary Christians are now circling their wagons and building fortifications against the evil world, or, as Augustine of Hippo would say, the great confrontation between “The City of God” and “The City of Humanity.” (As we gear up for the coming U.S. presidential election, I suspect we will see a lot of defensive maneuvering by stationary Christians who want to circle their wagons around an America threatened by secularism and Islamic fundamentalists. I just read, for instance, that U.S. Senator Marco Rubio from Florida has announced that same-sex marriage is a real and present danger to the United States and to Christianity.)
“Pilgrimage Christians” are believers who experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended journey with the Divine. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries. It may bring disappointments and misery as well. The cross is part of Christian life. Throughout it all, we make progress. We move forward. Life is stronger than death. We mature. We are not abandoned. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..
In the coming decade I expect major clashes between the “stationary” and “pilgrimage” people at all levels in our churches. While the Vatican’s Cardinal Parolin sees approval of homosexuality and same-sex marriage as a defeat for Christian principles as well as a defeat for humanity, Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx has called for a “welcoming culture” in the church for homosexuals, saying it’s “not the differences that count, but what unites us.”
Today Vatican authority is being challenged in yet another way as Roman Catholic women act upon their vocations to ordained ministry. Since 2002—when seven women were ordained by male Roman Catholic bishops—more than 190 women have been ordained to the priesthood, including at least a dozen women bishops; and all have served or are serving their faith communities very effectively. Reiterating the teaching of his predecessor Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, remains steadfastly opposed to the ordination of women, stressing that “The church has spoken and says ‘No.’” Not everyone in the hierarchy is in agreement with Pope Francis however. The head of the Swiss bishops, Bishop Markus Büchel of St. Gallen, has spoken out quite openly in favor of women’s ordination, saying that the church should “pray that the Holy Spirit enables us to read the signs of the times.” Hierarchical polarization for sure. (How I would love to hear the head of the U.S. Catholic bishops echoing the voice of Bishop Büchel.)
Polarization is strong and “stationary” and “pilgrimage” groups are going to clash and collide many times and in many places, over the next few years. They will contribute to a further dissolution of large institutional churches into smaller and independent churches. Open to women. Open to all. With no hierarchical distinction between ordained and non-ordained. A variety of roles and responsibilities within genuine communities of faith. Prophetic church movements….Small Christian communities are less capable of exerting the kind of demeaning power over people that one sometimes sees in large institutions.
Because of this further break-up into smaller groups, I see major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church, which will be unable to maintain its large buildings, institutions and services. In the Roman Catholic Church there will be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I don’t necessarily rejoice in this; but acknowledge it as a fact of life.
I see as well major and ongoing explosions about human sexuality and gender issues, coming from more honesty about what is going on and has been going on in the church. Clerical sexual abuse is not over. In addition, one has not yet seen major reports from India and Africa, where my contacts tell me it is a major problem. One African bishop told me he hoped the stories would never come out about clerical sexual abuse of African women religious. A few years ago, my eyes were opened when a bright young African priest arrived at our university to begin working toward a doctorate in theology. I helped him get settled in town. Arriving a few days later, from the same diocese, was a young African sister, dressed in light blue, and sent “to study philosophy.” A few months later, I learned that the young priest’s bishop had sent “sister philosophy student” to be the young priest’s sexual companion to comfort him during his strenuous doctoral studies. An isolated occurrence? I don’t think so.
On the positive side, in the coming decade, I expect to see — in all areas and forms of church life — stronger prophetic action and I expect to to hear more courageous prophetic voices. More prophets like the Vicar General of the Diocese of Essen in Germany, Klaus Pfeffer, who commented about Cardinal Parolin’s recent anti-homosexuality remarks, in this way: “’Defeat(s) for humanity’ are things like violence, terror, war, and inhumanity.” Gospel challenges to contemporary values and behavior….
All in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit.
I cannot predict details but will offer two final thoughts about fifty years from now:
(1) Certainly there will be a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.
(2) Regardless what happens fifty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own ministry and witness.
Next week I will be on the road for some summer travel. I may be quiet for a couple weeks, depending on what I see and hear….. And how much sunshine comes my way. That too is part of being on pilgrimage. Many kind regards to all. I do appreciate your own thoughts and observations.