Those who say that history repeats itself may have historians in mind when they do so, for it is certainly true of them; but history does not. As the ancients held, no man can step in the same stream twice. Some of the things which afflict the modern Church may well have parallels with the past. So, Bishop Schneider can tell us we are in the fourth great crisis since the Arian dispute rent the Church, whilst not disagreeing, I would suggest we are in a unique one, and that it is shared by other Christians. There is nothing new, or unique, in the challenge from islam; but since the 1770s Europe has not felt it, worried about it, or made preparation to deal with it. The tide of conquest which began when Mohammed and his armies erupted from the desert in the middle of the seventh century, was finally stemmed in 1688 at the gates of Vienna, and since then has ebbed away. The abolition of the Caliphate in 1923 passed with little acknowledgement in the West, and any commotion in the Islamic world was ignored by most. Europe was in the ascendant, and in as far as ‘Mohammedanism’ was considered, it was generally looked upon in the West as a backward faith which, with the advance of education and civilisation, would fade from view; Ataturk assumed as much when he made Turkey secular republic and adopted non-Arabic script. A century on, we can see how ell that worked; in fact, that whole set of Orientalist assumptions now looks very poor prophecy. In part this is due to the ability of the Western world to destabilise its own civilisation with two world wars and the Cold War; in part to the effect of petro-dollars on the world’s economy and the Middle East; and in part, it is down to the fact that the one defining feature onto which inhabitants of that region could cling as a bulwark against Westernisation has been their religion. Islam has proved itself far more resilient in this respect than has Christianity. The novel feature for our times is one which does have some parallels with early Christianity, but they are not encouraging. We know that early Christianity’s spread was greatly helped by the presence in many Roman cities of Jewish communities, who proved the catalyst for the conversion of the Gentiles. The West has many Muslim communities which, even if they do not (at the moment) convert many Westerners, will continue to prove unassimilable. The challenge of Islam is internal and external.
Christianity cannot focus upon this challenge for two reasons: the first is that, committed as they are to ecumenical dialogue, the leaders of the churches do not have a language of apologetics with which to debate Muslim scholars; they fear, and surely correctly, that they might be accused of Islamophobia; they want, rightly, to coexist with another of the world’s great religions; unfortunately they lack the ability to deal with those sections of Islam who rejoice in Islamophobia because they see in it a sign of fear, and who do not want to coexist with any other religions because they believe that error has no rights. A relativist mindset finds itself at a disadvantage when trying to comprehend conservative Islam. If a resurgent Islam is part of the problem, Christianity has another – the society in the West in which it finds itself embedded. Here, too, there is something novel.