There are bleak and far too melodramatic times when those of us who call ourselves practicing Christians in contemporary Britain share our detractors’ belief that the church is on its way out. In fact it sometimes feels as though it has it’s already gone and died, and that we are living in a curious kind of institutional afterlife. It can’t even be said that this post mortem condition is the joyful oneness with God of traditional Christian hope and expectation. It’s more like an afterlife of shadows as in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s film, Poltergeist, when the medium Tangina Barrens informs the haunted family that the dead often don’t know that they’ve actually died.
Such morbid bleating if taken too seriously would certainly be to ignore the faith and commitment, the immense and freely given efforts of so many people up and down the country to keep buildings, rituals and confessions rooted in their communities as living testimonies, a Christian witness that goes on despite everything.
However if the disproportionate pessimism of the first paragraph can be said to be unwarranted, the other side of the coin can be sunny self-delusion. And to be frank a person can be driven to exaggerate the desperation of the contemporary British Church’s plight as a reaction to various official spokespeople who feel the need to dress things up in order not to frighten the faithful. Whilst not exactly denying that there is a problem they can at least suggest that things are not so bad. It’s as though they feel the need to adopt the politicians posture responding to journalistic suggestions that the latest poll results point to the probability of a terminal drubbing at the next election. Some of our spokespeople can appear to dismiss such suggestions in far too airy a fashion. They point out that the polls don’t show the full picture, that there are new forms of church emerging which the statistics don’t sufficiently recognise, that people still on the whole talk of having a belief in God and so on. There is, I think, an element of truth in such suggestions, but there is also something infuriatingly reminiscent of pathological denial in it. It is in thoroughgoing contradiction to the concrete experience of many clergy and people in parishes up and down the country all the time, will keep on fighting but know that things are desperate in a historically unprecedented way.
Also, there is something in this of the Church, of England’s traditional way of dealing with the laity. Sometimes it is felt that the children should not be too brutally exposed to reality lest it give them nightmares. So we tell people that everything is going to be alright. But even the most upbeat peddler of motivational optimism knows that people have eyes to see what is going on for themselves. The life of the church is now a subculture and even the faithful spend most of their time outside of it, with a majority of others living in total indifference to the church and think that the believer’s membership is at best eccentric. In fairness the leadership of the church knows that on times they can too easily seem naïve and so cannot entirely pretend to those who sit in the pews that there are not considerable difficulties. And senior clerics will concede that there are profound problems of growing social, economic and political indifference to the church. Some even claim that there is a culture war humanism and atheism afoot that has seized the commanding heights of cultural formation to such an extent that Christianity has become the faith of a persecuted minority. To others this is hardly more credible than the notion that the church is actually, though occludedly, very healthy. It is more likely that a faith group that has enjoyed cultural dominance for far too long, and has enjoyed the privilege of imposing its beliefs concerning sexuality, gender and so on, on everyone else, is now ‘throwing its toys out of the pram’ at having to take their place as just one faith group – worldview, morality system, lifestyle alternative – amongst others in a pluralistic society.
The leadership of the church is attempting to strengthen and encourage its people as indeed it is its job to do. But sometimes it can seem as though it is ignoring to too great an extent the reality is that most people experience on the ground. Nevertheless, it is never entirely out of touch and understands that the need to inspire must be tempered with the responsibility toward the truth. For the most part this is the response of a responsible leadership. But also, perhaps, more cynically, it also has to be said that as the financial burden of the church falls more and more upon the shoulders of the laity it has to be understood that if the public representatives of the church were to produce too rosy a picture people might become too complacent, feel like the church doesn’t really need their help and fail to respond in their financial giving adequately.
There is, however, a different aspect, a possible source of optimism that it seems to me is often overlooked. If it is the case that the form of Christian expression that is characterised the church in Britain until this present time has lost its ability to articulate in a credible and concrete fashion spiritual dimension of the life of ordinary people, this does not, of course, mean that Christianity per se has died or is dying. It is not new to say this. On the one hand there has been reflection on the need to contemporise Christian religious language and worship to respond to cultural change for some considerable time. This is often taken the most popular form of, for instance, forms of worship that incorporate contemporary musical styles into them. However, much of the language, some of the central terms of reference of Christian expression, for example, are often retained. Arguably, the only sense in which this language has become contemporised is in the way that it seems to have taken on something of the individualised, sentimentalised mawkishness characterising a wider contemporary popular spirituality. For some of us the lack of critical reflection these church cultures allows Christianity to be expressed without ever properly performing the critically important function of any great language of faith which is to speak the most profound depths of the human existentialist dilemma. The often terrifying realities of human existence in the world, living the paradoxes of freedom and confinement, of the soul and the body, of guilt and absolution, of the desire and the need to make contact with other people and things in the world and anxiety over what such reaching out my possibly do to us, of our strength and creativity and yet dependency, vulnerability and weakness, of life and its rapture in the midst of corruption and death – so much of this can be buried under a layer of more superficial forms a spiritual expression.
Popular Christianity tends to be founded on certain philosophical assumptions that are nowadays powerfully contested in intellectual debate. I’m speaking of ideas of the self and God as a bigger version of the human self. The self is intuited as a self-contained, self-present inner being, a mind present to itself prior to its entry into language, and prior to being with other people or things in the world. God is roughly the same only massively, infinitely bigger. God is a spiritual thing, apart from physical things, self-contained, perfectly free prior to relation. Whether these ideas are less sophisticated versions of the philosophical theories or a basic, universal way in which human beings think of themselves is an interesting question in itself. It is marked by nostalgia for pre-industrial, pre urban, a
more apparently organic past in which the sense of the supernatural was much easier.