Caroline Miley, The suicidal church: can the Anglican Church be saved?, Annandale, N.S.W.: Pluto Press, 2002.
There is much to agree with in Miley’s argument with the Anglican church. As an Anglican working in a pentecostal context, I too feel the frustrations of much that is said in the Church. But in reading it I constantly found myself hovering between exclamations of ‘Amen, Alleluia’ and frustrated: ‘where did that come from?’! This book, although directed at the Anglican Church of Australia, has much in it that should resonate across the broad denominational landscape of this country. Surely, all churches need to constantly examine their raison d’etre. Once a church decides, either consciously or unconsciously, that it no longer needs to examine its’ institutions and philosophies, it is marching inexorably down the path of irrelevancy. But then, I also still have questions.
In asking students to ‘do a book review’ I indicate that I want more than just a summary of the first 30 pages. This book demands that the reader read the whole 166 pages to get a full understanding of the author’s frustration at seeing a Church that is not successfully fulfilling it’s God-given commission to make disciples. The book reaches its climax in the final 10 point manifesto that comes but 10 lines from the ending.
What did I find helpful in this book? There is a strong plea for change – but specific change, namely, "Changes in attitude and in administration are the key, and they will be difficult enough"1. Further, to ‘set the scene’: "A continuing motif throughout this book is the necessity for the church to sit as loosely as possible with organisational and ideological structures so as to allow the maximum opportunities for divine disorder"2.
I also find an interesting juxtaposition between this author’s writing and that of Eugene Peterson. Miley is decrying the tendency to ‘ordain the mundane’ tasks of the laity (which in reality is seen as further entrenching the ‘power structures’ of the church). Peterson on the other hand calls for the ‘sharing of the mundane’ as a hallmark of effective leadership mentoring. I suspect that they are both saying the same thing – that we do a disservice by emphasising the hierarchical structures of the church, which in many ways contradicts the whole concept of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. This does not suggest that there is no place for a ‘set aside’ leadership of the church – but, (Wagner3 citing David Edwards) "it must be a leadership with a difference". Once again, I see the book resonating with other writers such as Howard Snyder – who in the mid-1970s reminded us that some issues never go away. Can we ignore such warnings three decades later in such uncertain times?
I am fascinated by the attention both the media and this book give to Bishop John Spong who, in a very winsome way, expresses the thinking of much of the ‘liberal’ tradition’ of the church in a very popularist way. No one can doubt the genuineness of Spong’s compassion for the marginalised, and to those who wonder where Spong finds a constituency it is clear that he is speaking to the relatively small number of disgruntled church members of a declining church as compared with those ‘outside’ the church. I raise this issue because I wonder whether the author of the book under review is not unduly influenced by Spong’s ‘prophetic’ voice of hope for the church? There is no doubt that she fits Spong’s core constituency.
And so, to some troublesome ‘accounting’. The author speaks of4 some 14 million Australians as being ‘Christian’. Apart from wondering what is meant by this, Miley here clearly indicates the vast majority of Australians. One can’t help wonder, therefore, why we get so distressed by some 200,000 Muslims, a similar number of Buddhists and half that number of Jewish and Mormon adherents. Of the major Christian denominations, Roman Catholic ‘members’ and even regular attendees are in the majority and a long way behind comes the Anglicans at 180,000 (having declined from 190,000 between 1991 and 1996). Whatever the figures, it is important to remember that less than 10 percent of Australians regularly attend church – so, across the whole spectrum of the church, there is a major challenge because clearly no one denomination is making much of an impact on the overall society – let alone the overall church. These figures seem reasonably substantiated, but I was somewhat bemused by the suggestion that 19 percent of the population consists of two-parent-with-children households. It is not meant to be confusing, but the reality is that the vast majority of children still live with both their biological parents. Nonetheless, this is more of an introduction to the fact that the church lays so much emphasis on ‘families’ and neglects the singles in the church. It is no doubt helpful that the author suggests that the church could address the current context nby being more intentional in its’ support and affirmation of those who live in singleness. One wonders, however, why such authors insist on argument from the edge - must this been only seen in terms of affirming ‘alternative’ lifestyles?
An important section of the book addresses the issues of ‘racism, sexuality and homophobia’. I still believe that the latter term has done more to ‘demonise’ the church than any other: why do we never hear of the effective ministry of much of the church that has guided people out of this and other alternative lifestyles? There is no doubt that great hurt has been caused by a lack of compassion and empathy in the Church, but effective ministry is usually based on its’ love and not because of any ‘phobia’. The influences of Spong are strong here and I found it somewhat bemusing to read the suggestion that ‘wife-beaters, child-abusers and murderers’ were not singled out for refusal of the Sacraments of the church. Of course these people are not singled out, because they do not enter church carrying banners or wearing ‘rainbow’ sashes that declare that they are ‘wife-beaters’ etc.!
Of major interest to me – having done some writing on the issue – is the author’s considerations concerning the issue of leadership. The generic (and correct) comment concerning the ‘priesthood of all believers’ has already been addressed. The suggestion that such matters as church finances being centralised and more equitably distributed seems to reinforce the power of the bureaucracy that is a (valid) concern of the author. Further, if many churches are inefficient / declining, cannot such a system not only penalise the ‘successful’ churches, but also serve to prop up the already inefficient churches that cause the author so much concern? Again, the concern of clergy being tied up with so much minutiae in small parishes highlights the very frustration of the system – what is one to do, dole out ‘all’ the unpalatable tasks to the poor unsuspecting ‘laity’? I would suggest that the idealisation of the common liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church (is it so uniform world-wide?) being a benchmark (as compared to variations between Anglican parishes and dioceses) can produce a similar centralisation of the hierarchical structures. On this latter issue, it seems that the opportunity for variation in the newer Prayer Book liturgies gives the very opportunity for contextualisation that the author so desires. I also wonder whether or not the issue of deciding who should be ordained simply on the basis of ‘call’ is not a little naïve. Surely the answer is to review the process, rather than to discard it totally – the Church, I believe, is at last trying to filter out those who are potentially ill-equipped or ill-suited to the rigours of full-time ministry. And on that note it still seems fair that the church should have some say in who and how it ordains it’s ministry (scripturally there is the injunction to not ‘lay hands suddenly’ on anyone – a lesson not always learnt by growing churches). One final issue of leadership: what happens when we compare the business of clergy with other ‘professions’? There is no doubt that the ‘on call 24 hour syndrome’ claimed by some clergy is over-exaggerated. I remember being disappointed as a young enthusiastic curate, having been called to the hospital at 2am, only to find that they didn’t want my prayers, they wanted my blood. Despite the fact that my vital fluids possibly saved a life, the frustration lingered. None the less there is a significant amount of writing in such definitive work as that of Arch Hart,5 that speaks of the unique combination of factors – mostly individually present in many jobs – that cause extra stress. Perhaps foremost in this is not only the obvious pressure on families, but the actual fact that ordination includes a promise to ‘pattern the life of your family as an example to the flock’. The latter issue is a unique pressure and should not be ignored.
One final comment. I recently read another review of this book that decried the lack of reference to Sydney Diocese - there is some mention, but it is essentially negative. Sydney Diocese is the only diocese in Australia with significant growth. Probably much of that growth is because of its’ strong conservative approach (a pattern that is common throughout the world). Is it not possible that this is demonstrating a contextual sensitivity as much as that claimed by such as Bishop Spong? The wider Australian Anglican Church must move beyond it’s critique of the Sydney and other growing conservative churches (note the growth of Pentecostal Churches) and ask the hard questions - not least ‘what must we do to be saved’ (let the reader understand!)?
Enough. I found this a thought provoking book that raises many issues that should not be ignored by the Anglican church. Indeed the book raises issues that are pertinent to the whole church in Australia because with 90 percent of the population not attending church, we all have a long way to go before we can be confident that we are making headway with the ‘Great Commission’. I commend the book.
1Miley, p. 4
3C. Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth., Regal Books, 1984. p. 143
4p. 19 The figures that follow are those offered by the author.
5Archibald Hart, Coping With Depression, In the Ministry & Other Helping Professions, Waco, Tex.: Word Books, c1984.