Saturday, October 27, 2007

Why the American Church crisis is not front and center

St. Andrew's Church, Impington, where I am worshiping

Watching the goings on in the American church from a distance of 3,000 miles, is an eerie, almost out-of-body experience. It is like sitting on the window sill and looking across at the being you once inhabited while a melee of people work on it, and you are not quite sure which ones are doing the healing and which ones are doing the ripping apart!

What is more intriguing and a little disconcerting is that apart from a few enthusiasts, ecclesiastical events on the landmass that sits between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans do not seem to be high on most lists of priorities here in Britain.

Part of me understands that response, because when I log into various of the blogs and read the pronouncements of bishops or the Episcopal News Service, the bit of me that is getting absorbed back into the English church and the new ministry before me is distancing from the crisis in an attempt to protect myself from the on-going pain. The other part of me, the part that is still a priest of the Diocese of Tennessee, rings my hands, prays, gets anxious about what is going on and how people I love are being treated (or hurt); but most of this I have to do in private -- because there is an entirely different set of agendas and priorities here.

Now, I confess, that I have not traveled much out of Cambridge since arriving here, so my insights are limited to the sliver of opinion in the little bubble in which I function, but the world in which I live is pretty engaged with broader circumstances so what is happening here is probably not much different from what is happening in a lot of other places. Everyone knows that things are not easy in the American or Canadian churches, but either they have a different set of pressing concerns, or they don't want to know about it. Although I haven't heard it said, I suspect some are shaking heads and a muttering to themselves something about those crazy Americans.

Yet, I suspect there is more going on beneath the surface than just this. In Britain there is now this huge sense that the Christian perspective on things is very much a minority taste that should be neither seen nor heard. Regarding the tussle to shape postmodern culture, a relativistic utilitarian approach to living and decision-making prevails, and attitudes which are rooted in an omnipotent God who has revealed himself are often condemned as irrelevant, intolerant, or both.

Nevertheless, in many hearts there is this yearning, and people find it difficult to put their finger on it. Yesterday afternoon I was talking to a totally unchurched family whose daughter had completed some graduate studies, and the graduation ceremony had taken place a few days earlier in the cathedral of the city where she had been studying. There was, it seemed, something about the building, the prayer, the graduation exercises, that had grabbed at the soul and heartstrings of these folks: they were aware of their need for the transcendent, but did not have the language with which to express it.

Thus it is that the Church of England and others are concentrating increasing amounts of attention on how to reach the unreached: folks who are three, four, five, or more generations removed from any kind of faith expression or church involvement. There are now folks in my own extended family who are four or five generations removed from any kind of Christian profession or church membership. What the Christian gospel is about is a mystery to the vast majority of the British (and I would have to add broader European) native population.

I suspect that what people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are doing in their best-selling frontal attacks on belief in God is both shaping public attitudes as well as amplifying the prevailing popular mindset. One American Christian visiting here that I was talking to the other day was describing a very interesting conversation with a taxi driver in which he expressed many of the same opinions as Professor Dawkins, although he had probably never heard of him. The general drift of his argument was that "no one believes that stuff any longer," something that is eagerly reflected back to folks through the media.

Thus the challenge before the churches is huge. Just how do you coax people into a relationship with the believing community when a large part of it either seems totally inept, or might affirm ideas and values that the popular culture either does not understand or sees as petty and narrow-minded. My own commitment to biblical Christian values has already been roundly condemned as such by some of my nearest and dearest, even though I have overtly said very little.

Last Sunday evening I attended the village church to which I have chosen to attach myself and delighted in the office of Evening Prayer, together with eleven others. As one who has spent his whole adult life hanging around the church and soaking up the liturgy, it was a joy to be part of that act of worship, however, what we were doing in that ancient building would not have made much sense to the vast majority in the homes that cluster around St. Andrew's Church. To them this was about as relevant to daily life as the strange secret ceremonies of the Freemasons.

It isn't that there aren't gifted and godly people attempting to find the way to bring Christ into the lives of the unchurched population of this land. To my delight I have been discovering some of the most committed and creative people imaginable who are seeking to respond to today's challenge, but there are few parts of England where the seed when planted sprouts forth thirty, fifty, a hundredfold. In most places the going is much tougher than that, and apart from this wistfulness that there must be something more to existence than this, there is little evidence of the spiritual tide turning.

Thus, the goings on in the United States are not going to be on the front burner. What is happening in America is a bit of static, there in the background, irritating, but like someone else's civil war of which we here are spectators. It is almost as if the English church is saying, "We're sorry, we have bigger fish to fry."

Yet when one part of the Body is troubled there is no way that another part can responsibly wash its hands of the problems. If you were to ask me what is the biggest problem facing the English church at this time, it is that in so many ways it has taken on the relativistic utilitarianism that prevails in so much British thinking. Thus, instead of expressing conviction and living it out, it shrugs its shoulders and says we must be tolerant, committed to diversity, non-judgmental, living and letting live. While some of this may be admirable, it should not take place at the expense of biblical standards and values, however unpopular they might be in the prevailing culture.


Anonymous said...

Welcome back to olde Englande, Richard. I hope you'll have lots of opportunities to meet and talk with evangelicals in the CofE, which will be a very different experience from Ecusa. New Wine, the HTB network and Reform, in their different ways, are trying to address the kind of concerns you mention, but one problem or factor to bear in mind is that biblical Christianity has no real political voice in England and little access to the media, where a liberal-secular outlook dominates. Trying to recreate a Christian culture (of the sort that has vanished from the thinking of most) means recreating a Christian education from the bottom up. Muslims are trying to do this for their own community, but non-Catholic Christians have not done so, beyond involvement in primary education.
Compared to the US, ISTM that Christians in England put little effort into developing Christian intellect.

Richard Kew said...


Thank you for those thoughts. Yes, the total (and often intolerant) domination of the media by those of a secular mindset has come as something of an eye-opener.

The paradox is that while the churches seem to be doing little to form the Christian mind, there are in the UK some of the most significant and thoughtful Christian minds in the world.

Anonymous said...

Richard, I agree - the land of C S Lewis also offers the world Tom Wright, Alistair McGrath, Oliver O'Donovan - as well as Rowan Williams, though his pieces often pass understanding, at least as far as the general public is concerned.
Perhaps you know that UCCF sponsors a website that engages in a lot of apologetic work, with lots of MP3 files available for free - a good resource for students.
What is less present is the kind of social and cultural critique that I imagine interests you in particular; there's nothing in the UK comparable to First Things or Touchstones.
Oddly, it is a conservative-leaning Jewish columnist, Melanie Phillips (formerly more leftist and a writer for the Guardian) who articulates a lot of themses more in keeping with biblical Christianity.
It will be interesting to see how the growing African churches take on the challenge to educate their young, and whether there will be any real outreach to Muslims.

Anonymous said...

I spent the month of September in the UK at St. Deinoil's Library and discovered exactly the same sort of disinterest in the goings on in America that you describe. I was surprised by that at first, but after a bit found that it allowed me to disengage from the whole mess as well.