The Rector’s 2021 Annual Report
This year my wife and I moved to the town of Scituate, Rhode Island. As anyone native to Rhode Island knows, this sleepy rural town is best known by its defining feature: the Scituate Reservoir. Since moving to Scituate, the history of the reservoir has fascinated me, particularly the intrigue and vast consequences of its construction.
The Scituate reservoir is the largest inland body of water in Rhode Island, with a capacity of roughly 39 billion US gallons, and covering 5.3 square miles. Construction began on the reservoir in 1915, and when it was finished in 1926, it was among the most technologically advanced dam systems in the country, and the only one of its kind in New England. One of the dams by my apartment, the Horseshoe Dam, was built in 1918 and holds 421 million gallons of water about fifteen feet deep. For its time and even to this day, the size and scope of the project is hard to comprehend, and its construction would take an incredible toll on the thousands of families who lived in Scituate.
The City of Providence claimed the watershed for the Scituate Reservoir by eminent domain because the growing city needed drinking water. Overall, 35% of Scituate’s land mass was claimed. Over the decade it took to build the reservoir, from 1915 to 1925, over 1,195 buildings were destroyed. The demolition included hundreds of homes and barns, which were either burned down, torn down, or relocated. Seven schools were taken down, as well as six churches. In addition to homes, schools, and places of worship, countless people lost their livelihoods as well: ten general stores, six mills, thirty dairy farms, multiple post offices, ice houses, taverns, and fire stations. Entire cemeteries had to be relocated. When the Pawtuxet River was finally dammed to fill the reservoir, seven villages would be completely erased from the map: Kent, Richmond, South Scituate, Ashland, Saundersville, Ponagansett, and Rockland. Parts of Clayville and North Scituate were also lost.
Despite years of legal battles, the people of Scituate were powerless to stop the reservoir project. Thousands of families had no choice but to leave their homes and relocate. The emotional toll of Scituate’s exodus out of the watershed left scars which remain and define the town’s character to this day. When the reservoir was constructed, the landscape and culture of Scituate were fundamentally changed forever. But the people had to move forward. There was no going back to the way things were before. I think we as a church can learn from their resilience.
In February 2022, Holy Communion Anglican Church faces a similar inflection point in her experience, as do all Biblically orthodox churches across the Western world. This inflection point is the realization that the landscape of our culture has utterly changed. Our comfortable Christian lives have been flooded and washed away, and we now find ourselves displaced, in a culture and a church we do not recognize. Now more than ever, we Western Christians find ourselves as strangers and sojourners wandering across a desert wilderness. Our challenge, if we wish to grow and do effective ministry into the future, is threefold. First, we must remember that God’s people have always existed as pilgrims and sojourners in a foreign culture. Second, we must acknowledge the ever-changing cultural and demographic touchstones around us and understand how they will make the Church look different. And third, we must trust God moving forward into the wilderness, knowing the fundamentals of the Church Universal will never change: Pure doctrine; the Sacraments, administered according to Christ’s holy institution; and the right use of church discipline.
Pilgrims and Strangers
We read this promise in the 43rd chapter of the book of Isaiah:
“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”Isaiah 43:18-19
In this passage, God offers comfort to His people through the prophet Isaiah, who makes a future-oriented address to the Jews in Babylonian exile. The take-away for Isaiah’s audience, as well as us, is that God’s power is never exhausted. Isaiah reminds the listener that God’s deliverance did not end with the original Exodus out of Egypt, but in fact continues in a pattern of Exodus-like deliverances, which we know culminates in Christ’s deliverance for us on the Cross.
Yet, even though Christ’s work is accomplished once and for all, the image of God’s people delivered through the wilderness is still instructive for us today. In fact, Israel’s repeated desert wanderings are descriptive of the life of anyone who seeks after God. The reality of life is that the way forward is always through the wilderness, and we have no control over that. The path forward in life is not always clear, and we do not get a say about it. Present circumstances may exhaust us, but we cannot always change them.
So, thanks be to God: When God calls us forward through the wilderness, though the path is unclear, He creates a way for us; When we find ourselves in the desert without relief, God refreshes us; When we are exhausted by the trials and calamities of this world, God’s power to save is never exhausted.
Our responsibility is to trust this promise, and to follow the LORD where he leads us. Like Abraham when God called him forth, like Moses and the Israelites in Egypt, like the Israelites exiled in Babylon, we as God’s people live as pilgrims and strangers this side of Heaven. And like our spiritual fathers before us, we face the temptation to mutter and complain, and to yearn for the “good old days” we once knew (see Numbers 13:2-3). But God does not call His people back into slavery in Egypt, he calls them forward into the desert, to deliver them into the promised land! The reality is that the nostalgia we have for the past is a mirage, and it is impossible to go back to the “way things were before.” The changing circumstances of life outside of our control mean the world we live in today is different from the one we knew yesterday, like it or not!
The Church You Grew Up in No Longer Exists
The dramatic disruption to daily life caused by Covid and the protracted government response has forced everyone to reckon with how much life has changed from the one we knew before 2020. In a very real sense, we have collectively undergone a process of mourning for a type of cultural innocence we once had (either real or imagined), free of the present political and economic challenges we now face. I recently encountered a poignant picture on social media which I think encapsulates this complex present reality.
The picture in question is that of a young girl, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, standing in a large, grassy park in New York City. She has her hand to her face, looking wistfully into the distance beyond the camera. It is a hazy summer day, and there are people lounging in the grass behind her. The mood is both innocent and carefree. Yet the real subject of the picture is in the background, for behind the girl stands the old World Trade Center, both towers rising above the landscape. The picture is captioned, “The world you were born in no longer exists.”
What so resonates about the picture is not the picture itself, but the reality it represents: a time of innocence cut short by tragedy, a time to which we can never return. But despite all our yearnings, we could not possibly re-build the rubble that was left behind from that national tragedy. The only thing we could do as a country was clean up, move forward, and build something new.
As a Church, we have a tough pill to swallow: It is worthless to try and “re-build” a church back to “the way things were before” – that cultural reality no longer exists. The church we were raised in no longer exists. Rather than forever chase the past, we must embrace the adventure God has set before us, and by His Holy Spirit seize the new opportunities for ministry that await.
A Once-and-Future Mode of Ministry
An honest accounting of the world around us tells us that churches will look drastically different in the coming years than they ever have in our lifetimes. These drastic changes will be the result of the one-two punch of increased cultural opposition and the falling away of lukewarm Christians. Churches will be smaller and leaner, yet more financially and theologically engaged. Socially, Christianity in the West will become increasingly costly, so only the most serious Christians will endure. In most places, congregations of fifty or more will be considered large. These congregations, especially those with limited resources, will need to adopt the flexibility and resilience of the Church Militant throughout history, and indeed across the world today: firm in the face of state persecution, willing and able to meet in unconventional places, and fiercely committed to passing on the Gospel to the next generation.
I firmly believe Holy Communion Anglican Church is well-positioned for this once-and-future mode of ministry. We have demonstrated this through our willingness to gather anywhere to worship God in Word and Sacrament, and our uncompromising commitment to Biblical Truth and Church Tradition. But our work is far from over; in fact, it is only beginning.
The pace of cultural change is rapidly accelerating. It is therefore pointless to try and mimic cultural trends for the sake of “relevance.” What is relevant now will be ancient history in a week. Take Facebook, for example. While many of us here may regard the behemoth social platform as a hub for the next generation, the reality is Facebook has long been replaced by Tik Tok as the “platform of choice” for anyone under the age of thirty. This is just one of many examples of how cultural trends change before our very eyes, without us even noticing.
At the same time, we must not blatantly disregard the innovations and cultural touchstones of generations to come. Like it or not, the public square is where we are called to spread the Gospel. We must engage it with wisdom and discernment, not retreat into our own echo chambers.
It is also important to recognize that our church will not revive herself. Only through the eager and obedient ministry of the faithful will there be any revival. This includes: the commitment to growing in the knowledge and stature of Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament; the commitment to consistent weekly church attendance; the discipline of the 10% tithe as a baseline for Christian giving; sacrificing personal time for worship, instruction, and fellowship; and tirelessly inviting family, friends, and neighbors to share in our church community.
As we navigate the shifting realities of living in a post-Covid Western culture, an unwavering commitment to the above principles will stand out in stark contrast to the following cultural dynamics (which is by no means an exhaustive list):
First, the majority of people’s lives are increasingly lived in virtual space. Not merely “virtual reality,” but also through social media, remote work, virtual school, and online communities. In-person community will be the exception and not the norm. Our generations are starved for real community, and the Church must be willing and ready to provide it.
Second, the majority of people in the United States will soon have grown up in single parent or unmarried households. The nuclear family will therefore be both a superpower (for the God-ordained blessings it provides) and a cultural lightning rod (as the family unit is maligned by a hostile collectivist mindset).
Third, when the youngest generations among us come of age, they will be the most emotionally and developmentally scarred of any in our lifetimes. They have been abused sexually and psychologically through transgender and critical sexual ideology, and through the fetishization of mental illness. They have been abused emotionally and physically through forced masking and social isolation, which has robbed them of their childhoods. They will distrust every institution, because all have lied to them and sacrificed them on the altar of pride. These generations will also distrust themselves because they have been manipulated by adults for political gain their whole lives.
The Church must be ready to offer coming generations the healing and peace which only Christ can provide, through consistently and steadfastly speaking the truth, being slow to speak and quick to listen, affirming their dignity as made in God’s image, loving them sacrificially, and welcoming the repentant into deep spiritual community.
The Need to Speak the Truth
Indeed, the vision for ministry above only works if Christians are obedient to our duty to speak the truth in charity. Public discourse is now more than ever dictated by a socio-political monoculture. People are told not to believe their eyes when they observe the state of the world around them but are instead told to accept a pre-approved narrative. A church grounded in the simple realities of God’s good creation and Natural Law, and willing to defend them, will be an oasis in the desert to a silent population desperate for sanity and deeper meaning. These realities include:
God created men and women different, with distinct but equally dignified roles. Likewise, men cannot become women and women cannot become men.
Marriage and the family form the foundation of society.
Parents know best how to raise their children.
All people have dignity, from conception to natural death. This dignity extends to those of an opposite or even hostile political and ideological worldview.
There is an objective moral truth, rooted in God’s creation of the universe. Because truth is objective, the good, the true, and the beautiful are intrinsically linked, and Christians should live in a way that makes our love for the three evident and inviting to the world around us.
True freedom, given by God, is the liberty to choose right over wrong. That freedom ceases to exist when the right becomes compulsory, or when the wrong is given full license. Freedom is rooted in love, for such is the way God loves us: we are neither forced to follow Christ, nor are we permitted to pursue the desires of the flesh without consequence. As the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said, “Freedom does not mean the right to do whatever we please, but rather to do as we ought. The right to do whatever we please reduces freedom to a physical power and forgets that freedom is a moral power.”
Finally, true love for our neighbor supersedes fear of offense or risk to personal health. It is not loving to hide the truth from one who needs to hear it. Nor is it loving to deny someone personal liberty and freedom of conscience for the sake of avoiding illness and death. Christ sacrificed all out of love for us: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Principles for 2022 and Beyond – Lively Faith & Christian Adventure
In summary, our path forward in ministry is a call to lively faith. The Christian life calls us to so much more, not the same old thing, and not less. The Christian life requires so much more of us, not because we can accomplish anything by the might of our own hand, but because we eagerly and willingly offer ourselves to be used as God’s instruments of salvation. We are called to adventure precisely because our lives are a journey to the ultimate standard of love, holiness, and sacrifice set forth by Christ, and what a journey it is, considering how far we start from Him!
Therefore, if we merely long to go back to our prior state, we are not following the path God has set before us. God has, and God will, make a way in the desert. To stay on that path requires discipline, now more than ever. Such discipline includes constant prayer, time set aside for personal study of Scripture, consistent church attendance, reverence in worship, and a willingness to linger in fellowship after. It includes discipline in the practice of a 10% tithe, an unwavering commitment to speaking the truth, and getting creative with how we minister to our friends, families, neighbors, and each other.
When the Scituate Reservoir was completed, it had immediate and long-lasting benefits for the State of Rhode Island. Over seven million evergreen trees were planted around the reservoir to protect and clean the surrounding environment. The twenty-eight islands within the reservoir have been home to bald eagles. But most importantly, today the Scituate Reservoir supplies over 60% of Rhode Island’s clean drinking water. Without the reservoir, over half the state would not have clean water to drink. If the reservoir had not been built, Rhode Island would not have a proper water supply, and Scituate would remain a town of swamps and abandoned mills. Tragic though the circumstances were one hundred years ago, the reservoir project brought untold beauty and good to the state. Of course, the Scituate residents at the time did not know all that would come of the reservoir, but they had to move forward, nonetheless.
The same is true for God’s people. At the end of the Genesis account of Joseph, he shares these words of comfort to his brothers after the death of their father, Jacob:
“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.’”Genesis 50:19-20
Joseph was once captured by his jealous brothers, beaten, and sold into servitude in Egypt. But after reuniting with his brothers, Joseph knew that God had ordained all the evil that had been done to him and used it to bring great good to others. Joseph rose in favor with Pharaoh by his prophecy and came to power in Egypt. Then Joseph multiplied Egypt’s blessings during the seven years of plenty. When the seven years of famine came, the resources Joseph set aside saved countless lives, including those of his own family, whom he was eager to bless.
As a church, we must not give in to the temptation to despair. Yes, our lives do not look the way we imagined them. Yes, we see the multiplication of evil in the world around us. But God is greater than all our fears and concerns, and He has ordained our present circumstances to carry out His good purposes.
The way forward does not lead us back into Egypt, nor back into Jerusalem, nor back into Babylon, nor back to the large, affluent, socially relevant congregations of our past. Yes, God can bring an increase of people and resources – and we pray for such revival in His Universal Church. But as with the Israelites, the world where we once worshipped no longer exists. The way forward is only through the wilderness, through the desert. And God will make a highway and a river to lead us, but it is our responsibility to follow him and not go astray. Thus, it is not about your way or my way, but about God’s way. May Holy Communion Anglican Church in 2022 and beyond be faithful to follow God’s way, wherever it may lead.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail