Can we be a Christian nation?

August 3rd, 2015
by Chris

The Spectator has a fairly recent article about the decline of Christianity in Britain which makes for depressing reading for those who yearn, as I do, for some revival in the fortunes of the church generally, and even more depressing reading if your chosen church is Anglican, as mine is. If the projections in that article were correct, in 52 years there would be no native-born Christians in the UK, and Anglicanism would die out in a mere 18 years.

My main church at present is evangelical Anglican, and has a magnificent vision of being at the head of “God’s Transformation of the North”. It is without doubt one of the most vibrant congregations in the area – or, more accurately, four of the most vibrant congregations, as crossover between the four Sunday services is limited. Even so, I note that its electoral roll has shrunk over the last 15 years or so, from around 800 to around 500. (For American readers, that is a significantly large congregation by either Anglican or indeed UK standards…).

Of course, the projections are not likely to be anything like accurate. Had I extrapolated from the decline in church attendance between, say, when I was 10 and when I was 30,¬† during which time church attendance went from being something which on balance I expected of everyone at school, the main question being which flavour of Christianity was involved, I would have predicted total demise by the time I reached 50. At the worst, we’re looking at an exponential decay, which is never quite going to reach zero, overlaid by more short term fluctuations.

Patheos Progressive channel is having a set of contributors assessing the future of Progressive Christianity at the moment, and one at least of the contributors, Elesha Coffman, thinks that American Christianity including the Progressive wing is going through the same process, albeit perhaps a little delayed from the UK experience (the last time we had church attendances here as high as they are now in the States was probably at the most recent the 50s, and more likely the 20s).

Coffman, in my opinion rightly, notes that one factor at work is the reduced will to join things in the States. I think this is very much what we saw here in the earlier part of my life; going to church on Sunday was the norm, it was a major focus of social activity (with only the local pub and sports spectatorship being serious competition), and at first, the competition won – and then, the pubs started declining and sport became more something to watch on TV. There was a growing rush for the exit of those who were attending out of reflex or out of social motives, growing as it progressively stopped being the norm and peer pressure reduced. Then the decline slowed, though the figures for the first 15 years of this century seem to show another abrupt decline, so there may be other factors at work there. It may be that, as she suggests, community is being found increasingly online, and that that revolution has only really started to bite since the turn of the century.

I am not certain that I consider it a real loss to Christianity for those who do not see the Church as a vehicle of personal transformation to stop being part of its institutions. I do, however, see it as a loss to society that we are abandoning social structures. Anything which contributes to the isolation of the individual is damaging (and I say that as an arrant introvert who does not take at all well to social situations and, for preference, will curl up with a book rather than go out and talk to people). Ben Dixon looks to a faith liberated from religion – and that is fine, but ignores the fact that the Progressive movement only exists because people in evangelical and mainline congregations find themselves called to something more radical than those structures can currently accommodate, but how are people to find that faith once the evangelical and mainline congregations are no longer there?

Jennifer Butler optimistically says “If we build it, they will come” (to paraphrase slightly). I think she’s over-optimistic; without a certain critical mass, there is no forum in which to find the builders, and as matters stand, that critical mass is becoming increasingly difficult to find in the UK. In effect, the Progressive tendency in Christianity is inevitably parasitic on mainline and evangelical congregations (just as in centuries past the monastic tradition was parasitic on the near-100% church attendance of the laity), and without a host, the parasite dies. I can’t find a Progressive congregation anywhere near me (which is a prime reason why I’m currently a member of a rather conservative evangelical congregation who don’t mind their parasitic liberal/progressive, or at least so far have been tolerant). It seems probable that the critical mass of more traditional congregations just isn’t there.

Jim Wellman doesn’t put it in quite that way, but I think expresses sentiments fairly close to my own. But there are definitely other voices, including Kyle Roberts, who as a former evangelical thinks that Progressive Christianity might become evangelical. Eric Smith has another upbeat riff on the concept of yeast (and makes me recall Jesus comparing the Kingdom to a leaven, i.e. yeast), and Mark Sandlin goes in a similar direction, though his analogy is chickens rather than craft beer.

I would love to think that Kyle, in particular, is right – but have to say that I have no idea how you can evangelise Progressive Christianity, any more than you can evangelise liberal Christianity (the mainline churches found that out years ago, and basically stopped trying to evangelise, which accounts for the more savage decline in their numbers). The trouble is, the message is not simple enough.

At least, it isn’t simple enough when I try to explain my faith to anyone. Comments to me along the lines of “I hadn’t realised it was that complicated” are commonplace, and that’s with people who are already committed to at least some kind of Christianity. In the case of the unchurched, at about the half hour mark the eyes of even the most polite glaze over, and I know that talking further is pointless. I grant you, that may be just a function of my tendency to over-intellectualise everything, the lack of a “common touch”, you might say. However, I can’t point to many of the main Progressive leaders and identify how they are able to engage those outside the church any better than I can; they are almost without exception talking to those who are already part of a mainline or evangelical congregation or have recently left one.

In the UK, at least (and it looks as if the USA might be catching up with us, or at least following our example), it is also becoming increasingly difficult to evangelise the “conservative” gospel. Paul’s impassioned condemnation in Romans 1:19-23 probably made eminent sense in the year 60 or thereabouts; the concept of some kind of God was an integral part of the world-view of almost everyone in those days. It does not make much sense in 2015 to the majority of Britons (and that goes for the majority of Western Europe as well). The concept of sin, of transgressing some absolute laws (as opposed to humanly constructed, relative ones) is better founded, although without a concept of God, what it is founded in is very much not apparent to the majority of people I talk to here. Most can manage an amorphous sense of guilt, but there is no clear source of forgiveness. With no concept of God and no clear concept of sin, it is just not possible to preach a gospel of salvation.

I therefore see a steady tailing off of the ability of the conservative and evangelical churches to gain new adherents, and as liberal, progressive and radical Christianities are currently parasitic on them, they will likewise tend to wither.

Some of the commentators in the Patheos round-robin have a vision of a kind of religion-less Christianity, where Christianity has gone outside the institutional church and found other roots in the community, a kind of Bonhoefer-like “Christianity after religion”. This is an attractive concept. Some years ago, I would have said that we perhaps didn’t need Christianity as an institution here, as basic Christian principles of communitarianism and love of the other had become an integral part of our world-view (at least as an ideal which people respected), just as that of God was integral in Paul’s world. I was still thinking that way even after the country lurched to the right in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher – I didn’t think her statement that “there is no such thing as society” really represented the national world-view. Indeed, I was still thinking that way after 1997, when Tony Blair scored a landslide victory over the conservatives. At least he talked a good communitarian line, even if what Labour did between then and 2010 looked very much like Thatcherism light.

The most recent election, in which the conservatives managed a majority (albeit small) and which put an even more anti-communitarian and less compassionate party (UKIP) in third place for number of votes¬† was a blow to that hope. Granted, the Scots voted overwhelmingly for the SNP, with solidly communitarian and compassionate policies, but the rest of the country knew that the conservatives would pursue a policy of austerity and that that would affect the poor, the sick and the less able more drastically than the more privileged, but nonetheless they voted that way. Maybe we were just sold on the line that the economy needed austerity, and other parties weren’t trusted to deliver it (something which I am fairly convinced is not actually the case), in which case perhaps our collective social conscience will come to the fore again in 5 years – or, indeed, if there are sufficient by-elections, before that.

I fear, however, that we are stuck with whatever government the market says is best for the economy for the foreseeable future, irrespective of the pain it causes all those whom at least the Christians among us are supposed to be prioritising, and irrespective of whether the market takes into account the welfare of the mass of individuals who make up society – which it doesn’t, and which is why I sometimes characterise it as a fundamentally Satanic system.

If my fears are correct, we cannot be regarded as a Christian nation, a nation of Christians or even a nation whose heart is with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, irrespective of whether it thinks it’s Christian. I think we should be at least the last of those, but I don’t know how to get there from here.

Perhaps praying for revival is all I can do?

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