January 8, 2010
Lisa Miller writes in Newsweek (January 11, 2010 p.31) about research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life saying that 7% of Americans “attend worship in someone’s home”. While it is clear that there is no single model that constitutes a ‘house church’ or that leads people to say that they “worship on someone’s home” 7% of Americans represent a significant move away from institutional religion. One of the experts Ms. Miller consults is Robert Putnam of the Harvard Kennedy School. He sees this in terms of the smart marketing of religion in a world where ‘one size fits all’ has no appeal.
I’m of two minds about this trend. On one hand it makes perfect sense to me. I have been wondering whether the national decline across denominations and theologies in Sunday or weekend ‘average Sunday attendance (ASA) is more permanent than temporary and whether a variety of worshipping communities within a parish might not be more clearly important in the future than it has been up until now. This is an extension of ‘small or covenant group ministries in which those covenant groups become more self consciously ‘church’ for their participants. It is within such a vision that I could live with the currently controversial idea of ‘lay presidency of at the Eucharist’. Regular or even occasional Sunday worship would become more a ‘gathering of the clans’ within a parish or perhaps region (rather in the way that multi parish ‘benefices’ in England will offer worship for the whole benefice in one service on an occasional basis.)
What makes me less enthusiastic however is the idea that such churches can easily become closed and comfortable, attracting only the like-minded and so achieving a measure of unity over against others. As much as I dislike and even resist the idea of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ as it is currently being proposed, I am not necessarily against the idea of some clarity of understanding as to how we might negotiate changes in religious practice and the power structures that go along with particular sets of practice without the bloodshed (metaphorical or otherwise) of the English Reformation. I’m not opposed to coming to some kind of ‘settlement’ that includes as many people as possible. I resist the current proposals because they have come about in response to TEC consecrating on openly gay bishop living with a partner, and are designed (whatever anyone claims) to ensure some kind of future for Anglicanism in which the possibility of recognizing gay and lesbian people as full member so the church (which means recognizing the reality of the idea of ‘orientation’) is ruled out as the price of unity. Current proposals are an attempt (which may well succeed) to re-write the rules after the fact and to try and get the toothpaste back in the tube. I am not opposed in principle to some ways in which groups small (house churches) or large (independent provinces of the Anglican Communion) commit to living by some common standards.