World Without End: Letting Go of Permanence

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‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost…’

Since the 16th century, Anglicans have said those words at the end of psalms and canticles. They  are usually followed by ‘…as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.’ The church’s obsession with permanence is a deterrent for some, and those who find it comforting can develop unhealthy attitudes to tradition, as if it were the church that ought to be the same for ever, world without end.

Once upon a time, a couple might move to a new community and start going to the local church. As they settled in, they might be given opportunities to get more involved. They might join the ACW and the Men’s Association. When they had children, they would go to Sunday School, and eventually grow up to follow their parents’ examples. Grandchildren would be born, and older members of the congregation could step back from leadership, confident that younger generations would take their place. The institution could continue, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

Except the world no longer works like that. People change careers and move more than ever before: to a different community, a different province, or a different country. Joining a church is not necessarily the lifelong commitment it once might have been. Investing time and ministry in ‘the youth’ needs to be seen more as an investment in them as individuals, or the communities of faith they will one day be a part of, and less as an investment in our future.

When I went to university, my vocation was nurtured in the college chapel. The vibrancy of that faith community came from the fact that we were all students, and only there for a short time. Within three or four years, the congregation was almost completely replaced, as senior students moved away and new ones arrived. Wardens, servers, choir and altar guild members all served for a year or two, and then graduated as others took up leadership roles. There was enough continuity that a sense of tradition was maintained, but the overall atmosphere in the chapel changed and evolved with each new class of students.

In contrast, some churches are so dedicated to ‘the way we do things’ that they stagnate. Aunt Mary might hold the same position year after year because others think that they couldn’t possibly do as good a job as her. New members need to spend enough time (sometimes twenty years or more!) before they’re established enough in the congregation to be trusted with leadership. Or worse, as soon as they arrive, people swarm them, happy that “new blood” has arrived to take over from exhausted seniors, but also ready to criticize them because ‘that’s not the way Aunt Mary did it.’

What would the church look like if we were able to trust that God will always provide us the leaders our churches need, if we would only give them the opportunity to lead? What if we recognized that the youth and young adults in our midst might only be with us for a short time, but can still have a profound impact on our life as a church while they are? What if we embraced the fact that impermanence in the church is just as natural as it is in every other part of life, from our growing and aging bodies to the change of seasons? What if we were content to say that God’s glory is the same, world without end, even if the church is constantly growing and adapting to the changing world around us?

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