Catholic Futures

People handle the current decline in church affiliation in different ways. Some fight it with frenetic repetition of previous failed programs, some are in denial, some rage against the real or imagined forces causing it and some simply resign themselves to it.

I witnessed the latter response many years ago in North Dakota when a country congregation was nearing extinction. The bishop came out to exhort the remaining members to great efforts and trendy programs to turn around the gloomy statistics. When he was done, one of the parishioners rose and asked, “Bishop, can’t you let us just die in peace?”

The Anglo-Catholic movement is not that many years away from its bicentennial. Its precipitating start is generally pegged to the sermon of John Keble in 1833 titled “National Apostasy.” The Church was in the grip of a dry and empty theology, often deist and rationalistic, yet which few saw as a conflict with their Anglican establishment allegiance. 

The wave of Wesleyan revival had ebbed, and as often happens, produced a rise in secularism and anti-clericalism in the next generations. The Church was in the hands of rather apathetic leaders who had comfortable lives, little interest in reform and, with 60% of the clergy not even resident in their parishes, not much commitment to the encouragement of Christian life among the people.

In its first century, the Anglo-Catholic reformation challenged both the apostasy and the apathy. Its priests, despised by many of the bishops for their zeal as much as their churchmanship, were exiled to undesirable places, such as the slums and remote countryside. Instead of running from that, they energized these “undesirable” parishes with thriving catholicity, including (to the surprise of many)  vigorous advocacy for better living conditions for the downtrodden. 

They fought forcefully against the political and ecclesiastical establishment to achieve theological, liturgical, sacramental, economic and social change. By the end of that first century, they had achieved significant reformation and their numbers were great in sundry places around the world. 

Lately, however, the achievements have not been so grand. Today our national apostasy is arguably greater than that faced by John Keble, but the new clarion call in response has yet to arrive. Our parishes frequently share in the general decline and “graying” of churches across the spectrum of denominations and churchmanship. It becomes harder and harder to find a common language to speak to our neighbors and friends about the Faith. 

In response, “can’t we just die in peace?” After all, we are fortunate to live in a place where no one forbids us to gather with a likeminded remnant, until the last one turns out the lights. In practice, many have already put that plan into action. In numerous congregations, a group becoming smaller and older as each year goes by, meets faithfully to enjoy its own company. 

These “catatonic catholics,” despite their admirable piety and loyalty, have failed to grasp that it is Jesus Christ who ultimately refuses their plaintive request to “die in peace.” Because it is not about us, nor our consumer preference for catholic worship and sacrament, until it morphs into nostalgia, in a manner similar to steam engine railfans. 

Instead, it is crucial to note there is a qualitative difference between being a member of a service organization, the Legion, a car club, any human group and being baptized indelibly into the Body of Christ. In the latter, we have a mandate from our Lord to “go into all the world” to permeate the globe, including our neighborhood, with the Gospel and lifestyle of Christ. 

It is not optional, and it is not just for the “evangelicals.” It is even more imperative for Anglo-Catholics, who understand how that Gospel is integral to every nook and cranny of created existence and every human life, without barriers or division.

Therefore, the response of denial or resignation to the undisputed decline of Anglo-Catholics in America is unacceptable. The previous methodology of growth was to plant new mission congregations in sympathetic areas, such as suburbs, where people are already “warm” towards Christianity. 

Raise several hundred thousand dollars to get things going and bridge the first years before financial viability is achieved, and off you go. There are a handful of places where this is still happening. But such efforts, although commendable, cannot turn the tide of general decline. 

We must start in a different place, one which is foreign to “church planting” mantras, but which is grounded in ancient catholic Christianity. We can no longer start with planting an institution. We must now start with capturing a culture and a people. 

Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos has said it well: mission is “the incarnation of the Logos of God into the language and customs of a country” and the “growth of an indigenous Church which will sanctify and endorse the people’s personality.” 

It is often regarded as axiomatic that America is, or at least used to be, Christian or “Judeo-Christian.” If by that is meant most Americans identify at some level with a church, there has been some accuracy to the assertion. But the notions of the people who so identify, when examined, often express a theology quite distant from a recognizable creedal Christian faith, let alone a catholic sacramental profession of God’s grace and love. 

Folk beliefs among us tend to stress that we should strive to do more good than bad, and will be rewarded accordingly (perhaps compatible with Buddhist thinking, but the antithesis of the point of Christ’s saving action), or that religion is about keeping rules of behavior, or that it is unimportant what you believe, as long as you believe something. And whatever belief you have should be kept separate from daily, secular life, in order that we can all get along.

Implementing Bishop Anastasios’ thinking means that these concepts must be unlearned, and replaced by a genuine sacramental catholic way of life. The massive nature of such an undertaking, to replace a flawed culture by permeating it with an authentic Christian one, is so daunting that most of us retreat from thinking about it. 

Yet what we face is not so different from what the early Church encountered in the Roman Empire, or the missionaries of the first millennium dealt with when bringing the Gospel, with its incarnational culture, to Irish, German, Scandinavian and British pagans. Our spiritual ancestors in the Oxford movement were attempting the same endeavor. 

On American soil, Bishop Jackson Kemper and his associates understood that their task was to change the thinking and permeate the customs of the Native Americans to whom they were sent. Starting a “church plant” would have achieved nothing in that context without introducing the incarnational Christian message first.

All of this is very well, but many will have serious objections. We are but a handful of disciples in a large and populous country. Our resources are so scarce, we can barely sustain ourselves, let alone transform a culture. Few, if any, of us have access to major media, political influence, or the intellectual trend-setters of our society. Nor do we have many among us with the skill to reach and entice the public mood. 

All the above could have been equally said by the first disciples, who weak and marginal as they were by the world’s standards, nevertheless effectively planted the seeds which transformed an entire world empire in the course of a few generations. Nor did Patrick, Columba, Boniface or Ansgar arrive among the pagans with bountiful resources. 

As the anthropologist Margaret Mead has pointed out, not only can societal change be achieved by a small, dedicated minority, it is the only way it is achieved, with few exceptions.

The mandate is clear. “Go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). It is also clear the current strategy needs drastic reworking. A scattering of church plants and a gathering of new members in the more motivated current parishes is a good thing. But this can easily be swept away like sand castles by the incoming tide of secular worldview. 

It is not speculation to say this, but rather the observation of what happened in the last century in western Europe. The same phenomenon is clearly happening right here right now. If we do not change our strategy, the same result will occur. 

Education, in a word and in all its forms, is the weapon. We have only one ally, the same one the early disciples and subsequent missionaries had: the Holy Spirit. It is the only ally we need. The voice of the Holy Spirit beckons us to be committed to this, as were the early disciples and others in our Tradition. If Anglo-Catholicism for many is more like a hobby than an absorbing way of life, it is no surprise to predict it will fade, replaced by other leisure activities. 

But we hold the treasure which our generation, indeed every generation, desperately needs, even as we hold it in our cracked and messy earthen vessels. The treasure is what is important, not the jar, so the Holy Spirit can work even with us if we let him. Nor should we forget that “Catholic” is more important than “Anglo” in describing ourselves. Changing the culture is an ecumenical effort. In the reworking of American Christian commitments over the past half century, orthodoxy has become the defining glue of our community of Faith much more than denominational brand loyalties. 

The Union of Scranton, for example, is a more perfect union in the Spirit than one arrived at through the secular courts and jurisdictional warfare. And our citizenship in the Kingdom transcends any national boundaries, to give us many brothers and sisters, from Siberia to Singapore to Sweden to St. Louis, in the One Faith proclaimed at Nicea, the “paradosis” bestowed as a gift upon us, with the responsibility to pass it forward. 

Nevertheless, we must admit it isn’t going well here at home. Even as an ecumenical effort of all those with a catholic Spirit, the task is daunting. Some principles may be helpful in getting started:

1. America was never really a “Christian” nation, as we would define it. The heritage of Puritanism, the strong commitment to Old Testament concepts of “manifest destiny” and commandments to be followed, the division into sacred and secular, the lack of any idea of sacramental life in a culture dominated by reformed and anabaptist Protestantism, a heavy dose of Pharisaical legalism, all combine into a history quite foreign to the God of grace and love, the “wideness in God’s mercy.” 

Thus, we cannot “reclaim” a culture once Christian. On the contrary, we have the doubly difficult task of changing the very definition of “Christian” for a large number of Americans who have a stereotype of it which has alienated them, and prevented them from finding the real thing. 

2. This cannot be achieved one issue at a time. It is the Christian worldview which is missing. Changing one law at a time, even very important laws, without changing people’s souls and minds, will not work. Nor will school prayer do any good if the school has no clear idea of who they are praying to, and for what. A shared American religion of vague sentiments actually gets in the way of Christianity. 

3. Anglo-Catholics have to decide first what is crucial before educating others. This is not about nostalgia or religious etiquette. It is about commitment to Jesus Christ, as he comes to us as Word and Sacrament. The Catholic past is glorious. But the battle we are fighting is for the Catholic future. It presents the Tradition in the contemporary vernacular, because that is the only language which people speak. That doesn’t mean “trendy,” it means “clear.”

4. The battleground is the mind. That means this plays out in social media, newspapers, magazines, television and any other significant way to communicate. 

It means you need to be interacting on at least one campus near you, where those who will shape our future society are being formed. 

It means that, whether you are currently filling your church or not, if you are not doing effective Christian formation with parishioners, your church has no catholic future. 

It means you need to spend most of your time with people who don’t think like you, while you impact the culture around you with the Good News and its consequences.  

We are on the scene to roto-rooter American culture into something compatible with the Christian way of life. We are not there to bless, or even to condemn, the status quo. Like the way Jesus dealt with the culture around him, we are there instead to completely change the paradigm. 

5. Obviously, you cannot do any of this unless you yourself are clear on living a sacramental, Eucharistic and grace-filled life as a catholic Christian. Note that this does not involve perfection on your part. Instead, it expects an honest, repenting sinner who knows where forgiveness is found.   

6. Finally, the Catholic future depends on you. “If you want the song to continue, you must do the singing.” The mandate is given without regard to status; it is given to all, bishops, priests, deacons, laity in all situations of life. 

The days when “Father” did it all were never a good idea, regardless of how they fed the ego and petty power trips of certain clergy. Those days are absolutely past now. The future is most likely going to happen without many paid clergy. Its effectiveness will be a shared effort of all the baptized. 

Many will bemoan such a scenario, even if they acknowledge its reality. On the contrary, if you accept the mission to those around you and those awkward to reach, Catholic future is an opportunity to shape an America with a real and rich Christianity, starting fresh and freed of the distortions of our national religious history. 

With the Holy Spirit leading, it can be done. Remember to start with changing the culture of those around you, not with a sales pitch of why your church is better than the competition. 

The Church has faced this challenge before, and succeeded. Now it is our turn, together.


1. Anastasios Yannoulatos, Discovering the Orthodox Missionary Ethos, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1964, p.144-145, as quoted in Oleksa, Michael, Orthodox Alaska, Crestwood, NY, c.1992.

The Rt. Rev. Winfield Mott is a bishop in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and the Reformed Episcopal Church.

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