Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”—John 8: 12
Attendance at Church of England services has plunged to an all-time low. “Just 15 per cent of people in Britain consider themselves Anglican,” according to a 2017 survey of British social attitudes. “This is half the proportion who said they were Anglican in 2000.” We Americans take heart that church attendance in our country is considerably higher, but those of us in mainstream denominations can hardly afford to be complacent. Rates of church attendance are declining, not growing; denominational budgets are shrinking, not expanding.
Imagine a great stained-glass window in an ancient cathedral, a window containing many multicoloured panes, just as the church universal is composed of many different faith communities. Behind the window is one glorious source of illumination, just as there is but one God worshipped throughout Christendom. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Now imagine this stained-glass window steadily darkening over the centuries. Smoke from altar candles inside and grime from pollution outside gradually cover the window until it becomes opaque. Cathedral visitors pass by the darkened window with hardly a glance. Why would they do otherwise? There is really nothing to see.
Such has been the history of the church. In different ages and different lands, its windows became darkened. Its core message was clouded by (what shall we say?) tradition that became stale, ritual that became rote, formula without formation, a lukewarm civic religion that warmed no one’s heart. The church failed in its primary task, and its place in society diminished. God was obscured, not revealed. The church’s windows might just as well be replaced with concrete blocks, all solidly mortared in place.
The church in the early twentieth-first century remains in distress. Many windows are clouded with peripheral issues, internal dissension, and spiritual atrophy. Often it seems the light of God is barely discernible. We wonder why our local churches are diminishing. Seekers pass us by without a glance because all they see is darkened glass rather than a luminous transmission of God’s presence.
During the long history of the church, our windows have been cleaned periodically by visionaries determined to set the church aright. These reformers and revivalists worked to remove whatever had darkened the church so that it might once again be a place where God could be seen and worshipped. It has been my joy to be a member of vibrant parishes both in England and at home in California where the light of God streams in (and out!) through sparkling windows.
Cleaning the church’s windows is a formidable task. But they must be cleaned if the church is to be a place where seekers come to encounter God. It is a task all Christians share as we each consider our own beclouded panes, some more darkened than others. The goal ever before us is to renew our beloved church so all may be illumined by the light of the world, the light of life, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.