In our Anglican Communion, there are a number of vibrant, growing Churches- how many were planted by the Episcopal Church, or the Church of England, or another of the national Churches? The answer is ‘very, very few.’ Why? Because they were planted by mission societies, the Church Missionary Society, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, the South American Mission Society, and so forth. They were Anglican (Episcopal) to be sure, but voluntary, para-church societies. Such were very popular in the 19th century, and we in Church life know of many holdovers from this era: the Mothers’ Union, Daughters of the King, the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, etc. More recent examples are the Order of St. Luke, Cursillo, Happening, etc.
Such groups are so important that it is helpful to think of them as the warp to the woof of ordinary Church structure, parishes, deaneries, diocese. They sometimes reinforce and sometimes complement one another. They ensure that ministry tracks calling and charisma, and collaboration crosses structural lines.
A few years ago, a sociologist named Robert Putnam wrote a influential book called Bowling Alone. The thesis went like this. There is the same amount of bowling as two generations ago. But then, folks did so in teams and leagues. It was a community activity. Now if you choose to bowl you are more likely to do so as an individual. As a result the social fabric is less resilient. You can see this, perhaps, in your parish, where it is harder to get younger people to join groups. It may not seem like a big deal in and of itself, but it is emblematic of a change in church culture which tracks secular life, and makes a significant difference. So the title of this blog is alluding to Putnam, and wondering under what conditions para-church joining might continue.
Why does this matter a great deal? . Let me give two pertinent examples. First of all, societies help to preserve and encourage minority opinions and special vocations. They tend to spiritual biodiversity. For example the Communion Partners provides fellowship and resources for more traditional Episcopalians, and may also provide a way to be in on-going fellowship with sympatico Churches in the Global South. Secondly, we need to be thinking and praying about new forms of renewal without our own Church, by analogy with Cursillo. The latter was crucial for raising up a generation of strong lay leaders. I am grateful that Father Bob Corley is thinking about this question, particularly as we have emerged from COVID.
How then are we to revive interest in para-church organizations within Church? First of all, we need to ask younger Christians this question, and then we need to hand off leadership to them more readily than we sometimes do. We need to spot who is in the greatest pastoral need and show how any particular ministry can aid them. We need pioneers, those willing to lead the way. We need to retell the tales of the groups’ origins in ways that grab peoples’ attention. The Mothers’ Union was actually at its origins in the 19th century, an urban anti-trafficking ministry- rephrasing its origins builds a bridge for those who might be interested today. Most of all, we must be praying that the Holy Spirit might show us how the same God is at work in the same gracious way though the forms of our gathering may have shifted. For example the basics of the small group were the same, but the form it took in the east African revival were uniquely local. May the Holy Spirit teach us this, and give us the will and joy to carry it through.