It is no secret that the Anglican Church of Canada is past its demographic prime. For those in doubt: hmm, let’s see… I think these four articles should do it.
It is a melancholy object to those who attend church weekly when they see the pews, the aisles, and the choir lofts as sparsely populated as Tatooine: the tottering elderly spaced out as thinly as trees in a Moose Jaw city park, the bedecked priest with the voice of an electric can-opener, the quavering choir of strained, ultrasonic passion. It is almost as sad a sight as an under stocked shelf at Costco, precisely where the price-deduction indicates a deal should be! Where, we ask ourselves, are the shrill cries of the babies, interrupting solemn prayer with an announcement: I have pooped in my diaper? Where are the young couples, whose PDA is so closely monitored by beady eyes over the rims of prayer books? Where are the youth groups with budgets enough to buy bananas and sprite for Romanesque eating-till-you-puke-(literally) competitions?
In his book, Light at the Edge of the World, Wade Davis introduces us to just a few of the deeply-rooted societies from the culture-cornucopia that is the earth. One culture, and one religious tradition in that culture, caught my attention: the Kogi people, in Colombia. I believe what these people practice contains the key to solving what some have called the crisis of attendance in the Anglican Church. (Side note. Because I am an Anglican, my energy is channeled by that commitment back towards the Anglican Church: hence everything I write will have that specific branch of the greater tradition as a referent. This by no means precludes other Christians from utilizing anything I write here to rejuvinate their own tradition.)
The Kogi live in a world enlivened absolutely by the sun: everything that matters, everything that is real, is given being by the sun. For a people who are so immediately involved in the rhythms of growth and decay of the jungle, this is not some commonly-held opinion or even a hard-and-fast fact: it is a felt reality. Where the sun shines, things grow. They see it every day. Therefore their religious practices (I apologize that I am not writing with the cultural sensitivity of an anthropologist: that is because I am not an anthropologist) are, like the solar-system, gravitationally bound by the sun. At the center of the Kogi sociological space are, accordingly, those who can relate to, communicate with, and propitiate the sun. These are the mamas, the sun priests. I’ll let Wade Davis describe them (coincidently – for those who seek the meaning of life – the following passage is from page 42):
Those who are chosen for the priesthood through divination are taken from their families as infants and carried high into the mountains to be raised by a máma and his wife. For eighteen years, they are never allowed to meet a woman of reproductive age or to experience daylight, forbidden even to know the light of the full moon. They sleep by day, waking after sunset, and are fed a simple diet of boiled fish and snails, mushrooms, grasshoppers, manioc, squash, and white beans. They must never eat salt or food not known to the ancients, and not until they reach puberty are they permitted to eat meat.
The apprentices pay little attention to the mundane tasks of the world, but they do learn everything about the Great Mother, the secrets of the sky and the Earth, the wonder of life itself in all its manifestations. Knowing only darkness and shadow, they acquire the gift of visions and become clairvoyant, capable of seeing not only into the future and past, but through all the material illusions of the universe. In trance, they can travel through the lands of the dead and into the hearts of the living.
Finally after years of study and rigorous practice, of learning of the beauty of the Great Mother, of honoring the delicate balance of life, of appreciating ecological and cosmic harmony, a great moment of revelation arrives. On a clear morning, with the sun rising over the flank of the mountains, the apprentices are led into the light of dawn. Until then, the world has existed only as a thought. Now, for the first time, they see the world as it is, in all its transcendent beauty. Everything they have learned is affirmed. Standing at their side, the máma sweeps an arm across the horizon as if to say, ‘You see, it is as I told you’” (42).
None of us can imagine that moment. The rush of sunlight, thick with reality, a flood of golden confirmation that everything you were taught is truer than you could have ever known. It hardly needed to be confirmed, for what else could compete with such strange claims, deep in the caves of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta? But it comes anyway, gratuitous as creation itself. These Kogi priests, at 18, are literally submerged in the stories they had grown up with. It might be construed as a mockery of the tradition if I said we would have an equivalent in 21st century NA if a child was allowed to enter an RPG videogame he/she had been playing. But analogies are our only hope in these unfamiliar waters. With the Kogi priests, it really is Plato’s cave pantomimed in a human life. No truth than can compete with this. I defy you to give me any greater way of strengthening conviction in an interpretation of reality.
So this is my modest proposal: we must mimic the Kogi. We must create a space for a breed of Anglican mámas, a space in which these select children can be raised with descriptions of our liturgically-saturated tradition and yet be completely isolated from it, eating only a simple diet of wonder bread and weak, terrible wine. In this way, their appetites will be whetted. They will grow up enraptured by teachings: how the liturgy sustains Anglican life, how the Eucharist renews our community under the memory and the promise, how the sensors infuse the sanctuary with a holy aroma. But they will not know the liturgy.
Only on their 18th birthday will the veil be torn. On this day we will bring them into the sanctuary; their eyes will light up like exploding suns and their breath will be knocked from their very chests. They will sit through a service; they will taste the well-aged wine and the multi-grain bread, and when it is over and people begin to assemble for coffee in the back, their teacher will say: “You see, it is as I told you.”
But we need children. Therefore, I ask for a few expecting parents hoping to raise their kids in the Anglican Tradition to step forward. These donated babies will be the new foundation, the cornerstone, on which we will rebuild the Anglican Church: people of unshakeable conviction and passion, so bedazzled by that day, when they were given the reality they had been promised for 18 years, that their trust in the life-giving liturgy has no room for doubt. This is the way forward.