No news, they say, is good news. And good news is, alas, usually no news. But bad news is news. So it was perhaps not surprising that Cardinal Cormac Connor-O’Murphy’s pronouncement that Christianity was “almost vanquished” as a backdrop to public and private life should attract the attention of the media. It sounded as if he was pronouncing the last rites over the Church in Britain. He wasn’t, but the complete text of his speech contained little for the faithful Catholic or Protestant to be joyous about. It had the same resigned but determined tone as Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach back in the 19th century – The Gospel is still the Gospel but all around Connor-O’Murphy hears the “long withdrawing roar” of faith... the sense that the culture is decaying rapidly and has given itself over to the empty pursuit of personal pleasure, of a set of values that no sane human would sign up to but so many seem caught in.
Certainly, Christian values no longer radically inform the policies of any of our major institutions. In education, parents may increasingly want the values they find in faith schools but the educational policy makers’ distaste for religion and for the teaching of values through other subjects is almost palpable. Similarly, while the number of Christian health professionals is high and their impact on patients no doubt enormous, the level of Christian input at senior levels, on ethics committees and on overall policy-formulation is low.
As for the media, all the major TV channels have steadily lowered their investment in religious programming, reduced the number and length of programmes and marginalised them in the schedule. Greg Dyke failed even to mention the Department of Religion in his early manifesto for the BBC.
Similarly, in the business world there is much rhetoric about ‘spirituality’, much openness to sending executives on training courses which, for example, start the day with yoga. However, there is very little heed given to the Christian view of business which sets it squarely in the context of its need to contribute to society in general, and to the overall flourishing of employees, as well as to share-holder equity.
Politics may be an exception, with some pointing to both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as key leaders for whom faith is more than spin-deep but the Labour Party, like the Church of England, is, as we have seen, a broad church.
This loss of public influence is, of course, not to say that individual Christians, churches and organisations are not making a huge difference to Britain through an enormous range of loving initiatives in local communities. If you’re looking to see who is running drop-in centres, football clubs for kids, evening clubs for youth, drug rehabilitation centres, mums and toddlers groups, care for the homeless, then you are far, far more likely to find Christians involved than any other community. Indeed, when it comes to contributing to the community 29% of Christians do, according to a Bristol University study, compared with only 9% of the general population. Nevertheless, Britain is a post-Christian society.
This was predicted 40 years ago by sociologists, written about at least 20 years ago by Bishop Lesslie Newbiggin, and was surely one of Archbishop Carey’s reasons for initiating the ‘decade of evangelism’ eleven years ago. It is old news. But it is true. And it needed to be said again. Because we have done very little about it. Overall, the Church has not produced a robust analysis of why we have failed to persuade 90-plus per cent of Britons that the Gospel is actually good news. And, as far as I am aware, no denomination has actually published a strategy for the conversion of the British Isles. This lack of analysis and strategy has led us into all kinds of well-intended initiatives which have consumed huge amounts of energy and money and yielded very little indeed. And the result of that is increasing frustration and a tendency towards entrepreneurial activism – starting new church movements, pioneering new social action projects. And often very fruitfully. But all put together these initiatives are quite small. The critical challenge for the cause of Christianity in Britain is to find ways to focus the large denominations on the key question: how will they work towards the conversion of Britain?
- What is the state of the country today?
- What is the state of our churches?
- How relevant is their initial training to the conditions of the country and the communities they will enter?
- How relevant is their ongoing leadership training?
- How appropriate are current church structures to responding to the needs of contemporary people?
- Why is it so many sub-groups in churches feel neglected – single people, artists, workers, for example?
- Why is the church so under-resourced when it is predominantly middle-class?
- Why are so few churches able to mobilise their people for ministry, witness and social transformation in the contexts where they spend most of their time – work, school, college?
One of the reasons for the lack of a strategy or a clear picture is the intellectual capital in the national Church is searingly low. We simply have not invested wisely enough in social analysis, in developing strong departments of radical, applied theology, in think-tanks, in research organisations. This dearth of data and creative thought is partly due to British anti-intellectualism. As Sir Leon Brittan put it, “Britain is the only country in Europe where it is a positive disadvantage to show the least glimmer of intelligence”. It is also due to an appropriate suspicion of unapplied theology in which academics talk to other academics as opposed to talking with the world. But no one is saying to Bill Gates, “Don’t invest in research, in thinkers.” Brits are pragmatists – let’s get on and do it. This is fine when the thinking and planning is sound, as in a number of social action initiatives, but it is not helpful when it comes to re-focusing the 7.5% of the population regularly connected to church communities. “Without a vision the people perish,” people often quote. There is much vision but actually overall very little detail on how the Church will achieve it – train its people, lead its people, feed its people, equip them with the tools and perspectives to give a “reason for the hope that is within them” and release them not only to do something great for God, as so many yearn to do, but to ‘be fully human in Christ’ where they are.
We do not need a theology of the extraordinary and the big plan, we desperately need a vigorous theology of the ordinary and of daily life in a dying culture. Curiously, for some it is precisely the desperate state of Britain which gives rise to optimism about the potential of the Church to make a radical contribution which will attract many to the Gospel. The social services seem powerless to reduce drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, the divorce rate, or youth crime, and so are increasingly attracted to Christian youth initiatives which have at least in the case of, for example, the Eden project in Manchester and some YFC initiatives, been shown to reduce crime. As one councillor put it, “You can’t change kids’ values, if you share them.” So a promiscuous, drug-taking social worker has little impact on promiscuous,drug- taking young people.
Christianity works from the inside out to deliver transformed lives and transformed neighbourhoods. So Coventry’s City Council paid for ads on the city buses to promote J John’s 10 Commandments mission – people were behaving better as a result, so the investment was worth it. And if there is hope in the efficacy of Christian compassion worked out in neighbourhoods, there is also hope in the emerging critique of consumerism. Unbridled capitalism is not working for most of the people on the planet. The anti-globalisation movement is in its early stages but to many inside and outside the church it has the same crisp logic as the green movement – millions of people are suffering and we must do something about it, whether the economic solution has its roots in right-or left-wing economic theory. Similarly, the depth of exhaustion, anxiety and relational poverty caused by current patterns of work in Britain is simply not sustainable. We cannot go on like this.
If that is the dark side of the picture, then it needs also to be said that this generation is also characterised by positive yearnings for authenticity, for adventure, for awe, for a full-orbed, life-affirming humanity. Isn’t this the way of Christ? Can’t we show people what an adventure it can be to follow Christ – not only to Brazil or the slums of Manchester – but in their offices and factories and suburban homes? Doesn’t Christ offer life to the full? And here lies part of the rub. We can blame the lure of competitive ideologies, we can blame Satan, we can blame the fact that some people, as the Bible makes clear, simply choose not to hear – Isaiah was called to preach truths to people who would, God told him, ignore them. Still, in all this looking out of the window at the world, we have to ask ourselves whether we might instead take a longer look in the mirror.
Is it primarily our failure to understand the world that is the issue or our failure to understand the culture of the Church? And here the issue of listening is vital. The Church ought to be able to understand the world because most of its people spend most of their time there. So it is, in fact, not usually the Church that fails to understand the world but rather church communities who have not found ways to connect the people’s experience of the world with the pastor’s theological and pastoral skills. Our generals have all the reconnaissance patrols they need,but there is no mechanism for the data to get through.
Of course, it is easy to dump the blame on our over-stretched leaders, or on our theological colleges, or on our congregations. But if we are to progress we will have to take a more nuanced look. And certainly one that requires more than the length of this article. Some things are clear to me:
- Our leaders are, for the most part, hopelessly over-stretched, under-resourced and burdened by job descriptions which virtually none of us would accept in their scope, intensity and unrelenting emotional demand. People with great talent in some areas rarely get to spend enough time doing what they do best. And spend far too much time what they are less gifted to do.
- Training stops too early. I am weary of hearing people blame the theological colleges for not training their pastors to preach, teach, counsel, administer, evangelise, understand IT, run an office, manage volunteers, understand the Old Testament, New Testament, Missiology, Evangelism, contemporary culture … and be able to satisfy all the needs of a diverse congregation in a witty, compelling, Biblically astute, spirit empowered, radically relevant 15-minute sermon on a Sunday. Get real. We do not expect a person with a degree in economics to be a qualified accountant, we do not expect a doctor to be fully trained in three years. No theological college can teach a potential minister all they need to know in three years. Our leaders need ongoing training of a robust nature and we need to invest in the theological colleges and training institutions so they are able to deliver it. Most churches don’t even have a training budget for their clergy.
- We will not regain influence in the public arena by scurrying after it. Certainly, we should take all the opportunities we can to influence the strategic institutions of our land, to have our say in the contemporary marketplaces of ideas but the Gospel grows through relationship. The Gospel flourishes when people see Christ’s transforming power in other people’s lives.
The great challenge facing the Church is Britain today is not to rule the leisure-time airwaves but to work together to demonstrate the abundant life in Christ, to help each other see what the imaginative possibilities of following Christ are where we find ourselves. Jesus did come for the poor and the Church is increasingly reaching out with compassion but he also came for the blind and the captive. May we help one another see and free each other so that we might free our neighbour. Connor-O’Murphy was right – Christianity in Britain is almost vanquished as a backdrop to public and private life. This is bad news for the Church but it is worse news for Britain. And it is time to go back to the drawing board. Purposefully, prayerfully. And urgently.