Friday’s Guardian headlined with the figures showing that Christianity in the UK is in what looks like terminal decline. My own church is losing ten people for every one convert, and those for the RCC would be even worse were it not for the effects of immigration
It is only the smallest and most self-consciously sectarian forms of Christianity that manage to retain believers, in part no doubt because they feel cut off from the society around them.
Archbishop William Temple once said that the Church was the only organisation which existed to benefit those who were not its members; we seem to have forgotten that. If we retreat to the margins and our own comfort zones and take refuge in the thought we are members of a purer ‘remnant’ safe in our ancient traditions, we betray the longest tradition of all – the Great Commission. Jesus did not say the his disciples, ‘hang round in upper rooms in Jerusalem and they will come to you’.
The Guardian makes an interesting point here:
The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe
That is, in part, what prompted my short series this week on evangelism and the hot button issues and the question of how we minister to those people who still ‘believe’ but do not see the churches as part of their lives or as a way to become connected with that ‘benevolent purpose’. It is, I suppose, ironic, that a set of our commentators here, who have gone from church to church, and in some cases belief system to belief system, should have decided that someone who has remained in the same church all her life, is the one person out of line; but I take comfort from the fact that those here involved in active evangelism ‘get it’ and know that in asking questions about what we do about this situation, I am prescribing no one remedy.
If there is a call for the Latin Mass, fine, let those who want it have it, but let others have what they find works for them. The Church cannot be Henry Ford – ‘any colour as long as it is black’. Sometimes we ask how it is that there can be so many churches, with the implication that there should be only one. But what if there is only one – the One Gospel – but put across in many forms because that is how we have traditionally reached people? I have no idea whether this idea is true, but it is a reality all the same.
I was interested to read in the Catholic Herald that the American RCC is doing well, especially in the south in bringing in the unchurched. The tremendous Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith (why isn’t he a bishop?) outlines the characteristics he finds work in a church with a successful mission:
• It is Marian.
• It is Christocentric.
• It is Eucharistic.
• It is not clericalist: all the parishioners are called to be involved.
• It emphasises prayer, education, fellowship and works – in that order.
He refers, rightly, to ‘inculturation’, and this in the context of speaking to Spanish speakers in their language. But what about the culture we are in here? My series here this week was an appeal to a different from of inculturation.
This is what the Guardian had to say about the relationship between our faith and our culture:
Over the last 50 years “religion” has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. “The religious” now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both
Is that hard? Is it untrue to those of us in the Church? In both cases the answer is ‘yes’, but if that is what people outside the churches think, then there is no use our playing the victim and saying how awfully unfair that is. Young (and not so young) people did not get that impression by accident – and if, as one departed commentator tried to, you say there never was any misogyny in the church, you simply lose any credibility. I’ve never understood why so many in a religion founded on the idea of repentance, find it so difficult to admit fault. Of course all the churches have been misogynist – they have also been women-friendly in some ways too – so let us first face up to why people think this about us – and then do something other than quote obscure texts no one has ever heard of to pretend the elephant in the room is not there.
One of our commentators told me yesterday:
Your Jesus is as about as historical as Bosco’s.
God doesn’t change. So what you worship is not God.
We change, society changes, and if this has no impact on how we perceive the Eternal Message of God, and we refuse to change, not the Gospel, but the way we work in a changing culture, then we become exactly what the Guardian is talking about.
If we are frightened of a culture, we cannot do inculturation. Too often our attitude to the culture in which we exist here is akin to that of an English speaker in Latino communities who insists in speaking in English because it is his language and the one he is comfortable with. No doubt some, especially if they perceive some benefit in knowing English, will come, but you cut yourself off from everyone else – you effectively say you are not interested.
We risk, as the Guardian points out, losing much if we slip away altogether from the public square:
A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it.
As Tim Stanley points out in the Telegraph we have seen peaks and troughs many time in the history of Christianity, and effective evangelism has usually come out of our wrestling with what the Spirit is trying to tell us to do. Inculturation has worked in every age of the church. If we have become too conservative, too fearful, too attached to our own comfort zones to do what the Apostles did, well then, it will be left to other Christians made bold by the Spirit, to go where we will not. But as I have tried to suggest this week, the oldest method of all – inculturation – that is walking with people where they are and preaching to them in language they understand – can still work. The question is will we be bold as our forefathers were, or are we to retreat to our safe spaces? My answer is clear – if God is with us, all things are possible – even talking to people about what matters to them, rather than our own internal churchy concerns.