In Zoology 101, we studied amoebas under the microscope.
Fascinating creatures, single-cell blobs without brains, nerves, or shapes.
They move by oozing some of their blob ahead of the rest. If that extension encounters nothing harmful, it drags the rest of the amoeba along—with the hind end kicking and screaming that it didn’t want to go that direction anyway.
For obvious reasons, I consider the amoeba symbolic of many social organizations. Especially religious ones.
Within the larger body, small groups try reaching out in new ways. Sometimes they get hurt, and have to retreat; other times they find fertile ground to explore and grow. But the hind end doesn’t like risking anything new. It resists change. It drags its heels.
This week, my personal amoeba, the United Church of Canada, meets in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, to determine its future.
Bluntly put, the church is running out of money. Like all mainline denominations, The United Church’s membership has been plunging for 50 years. (Evangelical groups need not feel smug—the same malaise now afflicts even the U.S. mega-churches.) Faithful members kept increasing their donations to maintain an unwieldy organizational structure inherited from glory days. But the trends are inescapable.
Those trends led an irreverent Presbyterian, a few years ago, to hypothesize that eventually his denomination would consist of one elderly widow who gave $50 million a year to keep her church going!
At its peak, the United Church had over one million members, worshipping in nearly 7,000 congregations. Today, it has half a million members, in around 3,000 individual congregations. And of those, about 1,000 will close over the next 10 years, as the same old supporters grow even older and die.
The affluent years are no more.
In the General Council meetings in Corner Book, parts of the United Church amoeba will be reaching out, looking for new ways to organize the larger body, new ways to express their faith, new ways to make a difference in a hurting world.
Almost inevitably, other parts of the amoeba will dig in their heels and refuse to move.
Pope Francis seems to have the same problem in the Roman Catholic church. His recent statements suggest that Catholicism’s long-standing focus on abortion, divorce and contraception are now distracting it from the larger issues of poverty, ignorance, economic exploitation and degradation of the environment.
For voicing these sentiments, even before he was elected Pope, the ultra-conservative Catholic wing in his own Argentina labelled him an apostate, a traitor to his faith.
When the Church of Scotland debated ordaining women, the opposition threatened to leave if the church moved ahead. The pro side threatened to leave if it didn’t. Faced with having only the rump of their church left, the conservatives let themselves be dragged into the 21st century.
The United Church will not split. It will move ahead, in ways I cannot yet envisage.
But I find it ironic that a church founded just 90 years ago on the premise of “doing a new thing”—the Council theme, voiced by the biblical prophet Isaiah 25 centuries ago—should have developed a hind end that wants to stay where it is.