While on the road recently, I passed a billboard advertising the final tour of the Ringling Brothers Circus. I had briefly registered an article about the passing of the circus earlier this year, but the billboard brought it home and I confess that I was surprised by my reaction. I felt a visceral sadness that the circus was leaving town for the last time.
I’m not entirely sure why. I wasn’t much of a circus kid. I probably saw the Ringling Brothers circus two or three times in my childhood and my memories are fond, but it didn’t play a significant role in my life. The sadness was more for the passing of an institution that I took for granted. It was part of the background of life in a particular time and place (the United States in the twentieth century), and its goodbye seemed a goodbye to that time and place as well.
I know there are good reasons for the natural death of institutions. In the case of the Ringling Brothers Circus, new forms of entertainment, indeed new forms of the circus itself, have captivated new audiences and the Ringling Brothers’ time was passing. And the treatment of circus animals, so central a part of the Ringling Brothers spectacle, has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years, suggesting that its methods were part of the past as well, and for good reasons. But even now, I can’t help but feel a little melancholy that my son never saw this particular circus and that soon it will exist only in memory.
I think the tone of melancholy and nostalgia that often attaches itself to discussions about the church these days is a similar type of sorrow. For many of us, a particular type of church catering to a particular type of people and worshipping in a particular type of way was so much a part of the backdrop of our lives that we assumed it would always exist, as it did when we were children. And our worry about the direction of the church today is often colored by that longing.
Much of our leadership grew up in the Presbyterian Church of the 1950s and 1960s, when mainline churches dominated the social landscape in this country like no time since (and to be accurate, like no time before). At times, we betray a longing for that church when we worry about the state of the church today. Of course, we know that while the church of our childhood may have seemed more robust than the one in which we worship today, it had its share of problems. It was a more exclusionary church than ours is, even if we have much work to do. It was a church of the status quo, and as such often avoided the difficult task of being prophetic. It was a church of abundance, often disconnected from a world of need.
That church is largely no more. My childhood church is no longer a part of the denomination. Our numbers are smaller, and our life as an institution is entering a new stage, perhaps a terminal one. But God’s work in the world is not done. We are called to this time and place, to be a remnant perhaps. But God still has use for us, and I for one am excited to see what comes next.
Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.