The Shape of the Church to Come: Carry out in Tranquility

by the Reverend Dan Tatarnic

In 1974, Karl Rahner, Roman Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest, wrote a short period piece, The Shape of the Church to Come. Although the book was written for a special meeting of the synod of German bishops following Vatican II, the observations that Rahner makes were fairly accurate; the church to come has come. 

Among Canadian Anglicans, reaction to church statistics approaching the year 2040 has been met with everything from bursts of frenetic activity, to despair and resignation. The commonest responses seem to be, what now? Where’s the hope? What’s the point?

Let’s frame this data within a century of Christian history. For western Christians, the movement impelling the second half of the 20th century, especially after WWII was aggiornamento. It’s a hard word to translate into English, but it essentially means “bringing up to date”, “recapitulation”, and “re-sourcing”. The spirit of aggiornamento hasn’t always been embraced; it’s often misunderstood, and more frequently put into bad practice. 

But the church thrives in adverse circumstances, and often the seed sown in one generation isn’t immediately fruitful in another. What ressourcement theologians discerned in those days was movement. They saw movement toward a smaller church, a stronger church, animated by intentional Christians, and informed by intentional faith and practice. A book that profoundly impacted my own appreciation of this movement is Dust Bound for Heaven: Explorations in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas, by Reinhard Hutter (Eerdmans, 2012). I highly recommend the book for anyone engaged in catechesis and preaching, especially as we approach the year 2040. 

I know that there are people who scoff at the idea that becoming re-acquainted with theology, and especially Thomas Aquinas, could have relevance for the Church today. Hutter openly addresses this bias, “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, what could be more irrelevant, inconsequential, unpromising, and, in short, hopeless than returning to the theology of Thomas Aquinas?” 

But behind Hutter’s ‘trick question’ is an argument that I find very compelling. Namely that renewed interest in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas coincides with a renewed interest in the schools of prayer that nurture saints. That’s significant! That’s worth noting! It was Rahner, in fact, who said that in this day and age, one will either be a mystic or a non-believer. 

There are discernible signs of aggiornamento. Good examples of this type of renewal are visible in contemporary movements like the St. Anselm Community at Canterbury (stanselm.org.uk), and the St. Egidio community in Rome (santegidio.org) just to name two. 

Renewal in the Church is happening, and it’s happening in unexpected places and demographics. Most notably, it’s happening in movements: ‘radical orthodoxy’, the ‘emergent church’, the ‘new monasticism’. For anyone acquainted with the history of western monasticism, you’ll be encouraged by the parallels: Francis and Clare, Dominic, Ignatius, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross ­— movements that led to unanticipated fruitfulness and reform.

The movement is well underway. Intentional Christian places of study, community, prayer, and service, are representing on the world stage: what was old is new again. But then again, that’s the way it’s always been. So we shouldn’t be surprised that contemplative prayer, the study of scripture, the nurture of community, and the doing of theology are among those practices being reclaimed by the emerging church. It’s back to basics, and it doesn’t get any more basic than this.