Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is the worm turning?

There is a piece on today's BBC website in which Tony Blair, Britain's former Prime Minister, admits that his Christian faith is hugely important to him, that when traveling he always sought a church in which to worship on Sundays, but that he kept quiet about it when he was in office because people might think him "a nutter." The program in which he says this is to be aired later this evening, and if I can stay awake until then, I will watch it!

In that one comment Blair summed up the way the British have been enculturated over several generations to assume that a forthright affirmation of Christian faith by anyone, whether they have influence or not, is a somewhat screw loose kind of thing. Richard Dawkins, whose book about God's apparent non-existence was ironically on the Christmas-buys shelf at Borders in Cambridge the other day when I was in there, plugs into that mentality and represents it at the elite end of the spectrum.

This notion that Britain and Europe have shed every last vestige of their Christian heritage is accepted all over the place as the right way of interpreting the facts, but I would suggest that folks should be a little more cautious before drawing such conclusions.

When I was meeting in London this last week, a contact close to the hub of things, told me that actually there are now more churchgoers in the Cabinet that an any time in probably more than a century. While that doesn't prove anything it is certainly worth pondering. In addition, there is regular creative contact between 10 Downing Street and Lambeth Palace, just across the River Thames, and it ought to be remembered that the present Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a Preacher's Kid who affirms many of the lessons he learned growing up in a Presbyterian manse.

It isn't only in secular Britain that this is happening. When I made my one trip to Australia more than twenty years ago there was a book going the rounds at that time entitled, "Can God Survive in Australia?" With the phenomenon of churches like Hillsong, it is clear that God is surviving, and now the Australians have elected a Prime Minister who makes no secret of his Christian profession. Is the worm turning, and could such a thing happen in other places in the secularized West?

The United States is unique in the openness of its prominent leaders to faith, but most of the rest of the western world is embarrassed when Presidents, senators, members of Congress, or governors talk freely about such things. The chattering classes here see such overt religiosity as gauche, naive, simplistic, reflecting an unthinking childishness that is altogether irrelevant in today's complex and increasingly troublesome world. They wonder what is wrong with such people, which illustrates the anxieties of Tony Blair, and his concern to his faith be under wraps for fear that he would be considered weak in the head -- and therefore unfit to govern.

Meanwhile, if the statistics are to be taken seriously Christian (and Jewish) religious observance in Britain continues to bump along the bottom. The question is how should such figures be interpreted, and should they be allowed to stand alone without prodding or questions being asked of them? Could it be that higher levels of Christian observance by those in political leadership here and elsewhere in the world are merely straws in the wind of something larger that is happening, or are they mere coincidences that mean little? Perhaps it is too soon to answer such a question, but a few years hence we may have a better perspective on a whole array of realities -- and this could suggest that it is the line pushed by the popular media that is amiss.

I have been guilty of over-optimism regarding all sorts of issues and concerns in the past, so it is necessary to keep that side of myself in check. However, as I re-acclimate to the British environment there are other factors that I see. Certainly, there is an undercurrent of distrust of organized religion, but I find myself asking fundamental questions about whether this means that faith itself has been flushed down the toilet.

One of the things that has impressed me is the potential long-term impact of Alpha. While well over two million people have attended an Alpha Course in the UK since 1993, and while Alpha may not be growing as fast as perhaps it once was, there is certainly no evidence of it fading away. Living and working as I do in the heart of one of Britain's healthiest theological colleges there is plenty of evidence that we are seeing some of the fruit of Alpha coming through our doors.

Just as in earlier generations there was a bubble of candidates seeking ordination several years after a Billy Graham Crusade had been held in Britain (some of my contemporaries at seminary came to Christ through Graham), today there is this steady surge coming from the ranks of those whose lives have been touched by Christ through Alpha. Last year, for example, and no one seems to have a clear explanation for it, there was a significant and unexpected increase in those seeking ordination.

A quarter of the British population knows about Alpha, and one person in thirty has attended Alpha, which would suggest that something has to be going on -- and will continue for a while. When I was first ordained the Diocese of London was the fastest shrinking when it came to church attendance, now it is seeing healthy growth in membership and average Sunday attendance. Alpha seems to have been one of the causes of this, together with a diocesan bishop who is willing to think strategically and use tools like Alpha to improve the health of his diocese.

If Alpha is a work of God, then we can expect some kind of long-term impact in altered lives, enriched families, and strengthened moral values. It takes only a relatively small critical mass to experience a transforming faith for that to filter through into wider society. I am not suggesting that Alpha is the one and only reason for spiritual advance, but it is certainly evidence that something is going on, which belies a wooden interpretation of the statistics which might lead us to think God is permanently on the back burner in Britain.

I suspect that Alpha has received the kind of response that it has because of a lot more than clever marketing and Nicky Gumbel's way with words and winning smile. I suspect that Alpha is one of several things that has touched a deep chord of longing in the British heart and psyche. In America, especially the American South, there is a general assumption within the wider culture that life is about a lot more than being a consumer, but that assumption is nowhere near as strong here. This leaves people fishing around for something more.

In Britain you see people living from one self-indulgence to the next. Right now it is Jingle Bells time, but as soon as that is over the television will be shouting to people to start booking their holidays -- a time when sun-starved Brits can turn themselves into sweaty lobsters in Florida, the Mediterranean, or some more exotic spot, convincing themselves that they are having lots and lots of fun, and this is what life is about. And so the cycle continues. I sense that a small but growing number are stopping and asking themselves whether life is about more than this. It only takes so many to do so before the pendulum starts swinging.

Furthermore, I have also found myself in conversations about the Christian faith since being here, where ordinary secular folks are trying to make sense of it in light of the Islam that they see around them. I don't think many native British people find Islam particularly attractive, but I sense that although it is hidden at the moment there are growing numbers asking how Christ stacks up when compared to Mohammad. Such popular comparative religion is probably at an early stages, but I sense we will hear more about it in the years to come.

Then there is this other fascinating phenomenon of Christian in-migration to the UK. We hear an awful lot about Muslims flocking here, as they are, but it could very well be that even more overt Christians are finding their way to these shores. 600,000-700,000 Poles have revitalized the Roman Catholic church in this land, and many of those who have come from Africa or Asia are themselves strongly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. While the ethnic variety of Britain is far greater than it was thirty years ago when I left this country, within this new diversity are followers of Christ who in the years to come will have a lot to say and do here.

Maybe I am a Pollyanna, but maybe also a worm is turning. Certainly, it can no longer be assumed that Europe is speeding inexorably down a secular highway, although the voice of those who have no religious belief will be loud and strong. Neither can it be assumed that Christianity has lost all its dynamic and spine in the face of secularism and other faiths moving onto its turf. Something seems to be happening here. The Christian church has been written off far too many times in the past and then has popped back for me to want to do such a thing now.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Culture of Possibility or Culture of Scarcity?

Portrait of Handley Moule, First Principal of Ridley Hall and later Bishop of Durham. This hangs in the Ridley dining hall

Since the beginning of September I have been attempting to get under the skin of the institution within which I now minister so that I can serve it better. I have wanted to know where it came from, what makes it tick, what is its institutional DNA, and so forth. I guess that as I have been discovering things I have been asking a lot of why questions.

I struggle for words because it is hard to describe what it is like to return to your homeland as a stranger. While much that is going on around you is very familiar, you see it through very different eyes and ask some startlingly different questions of the reality. This is what has been happening to me as I have dug into getting to grips with Ridley Hall. From this has come a whole series of interesting thoughts about the nature of Britain itself since the latter part of Victoria's reign.

Ridley is the result of a huge surge of self-confidence and generosity in this country in the 1870s and 1880s. Given the spiritual awakening that had occurred a generation earlier I would have to suggest that it was probably part of the knock-on effect of that. One of the things I learned from the great missionary statesman, Max Warren, was that we should never disconnect actions that demonstrate the advance of the Gospel from God's initiative -- especially those initiatives that had an extraordinary focus and intensity like awakenings, renewals, revivals.

Neither was Ridley Hall the only thing that happened during this period. Essentially the same networks of people were establishing and Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, simultaneously, and colossal sums of money were raised not only for these two ventures but all sorts of other godly activities, social care, public education, and so on, and so on.

Britain was at that time riding high in the world, and while some of that confidence was the product of Gospel incentive and its accompanying empowerment, some was the outcome of the wealth and influence that had been accumulating. A can-do mentality seemed to prevail, and in the years that followed Ridley's founding, for example, significant amounts of money by the standard of any age were raised to enlarge and improve the college's facilities.

Everywhere you look in Britain you find buildings and institutions from that time. Great investments were being made in what was believed to be the nation's robust future, and it was often the Christian faith that was a major driving force behind this movement. But that era of philanthropy and expansiveness evaporated within a few decades. I have little doubt that there was some kind of relationship between the ebbing of generosity and the ebbing of the Christian faith.

The Twentieth Century was also a period during which Britain received what might be described as a treble whammy. It began with World War One which, as we have been hearing today, Remembrance Sunday, decimated the flower of a generation. The brightest and best of British, French, German, and other nations' manhood gave their lives in the bloodbath that was the Western Front. It is impossible to assess just how much spiritual and psychological damage that war did to the capacity of the nations involved to think well of themselves.

There followed first the Great Depression and then a mere twenty years after the first World War had ended a second, the war in which my father fought -- and many of his contemporaries died. Winston Churchill knew as he entered that conflict for what he described as "Christian civilization," that even if Britain was on the winning side it would be impoverished. By 1945, the year in which I was born, there were few fortunes left to fund philanthropy, and the church itself had been deeply wounded by the course of events together with its own loss of spiritual and theological nerve.

During World War Two the government had taken control of almost every aspect of life so that everything possible could be directed at the business of winning the conflict against Hitler and his dreams of world domination. When the war ended that sense of the government being the one who gathered and then divided out the goodies was embedded in the national psyche. It didn't help that the nation was penniless, its empire was dribbling away, and the people were weary from the slog that the Twentieth Century had to that point been to them.

It was sometime during that first half of the last century that the culture of possibility which had accompanied plenty gave way to a culture of scarcity which would rather fight to protect just a tiny portion of what it already had, rather than losing everything altogether. The habits of such a dependent culture do not disappear readily, and Brits are still far readier, even if they constantly moan about it, to allow the state to eavesdrop and intrude upon its life than is healthy. This is one of the areas where I realize how differently I now see things than when I first left these shores.

Yet Britain has little excuse these days to plead poverty and continue hiding from the challenges by wallowing in this culture of scarcity. This is a wealthy country, one of the richest in the world. While there are certainly pockets of need and disadvantage (some of them quite large), the vast majority of the population are more prosperous than ever before: why else would a large portion of the European population and half of Africa and Asia want to migrate here?

Something that is required now is for a larger portion of the British to relearn the grace of possibility-thinking, and the philanthropy that goes with it. Christians need to learn it just as much as the general population, and I wonder whether part of the weakness of the faith here is that we still tend to give God a tip rather than at least a tithe. That is not to say that money would solve all the problems, but didn't someone once say that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also?

I have been wondering (my line of thought following a suggestion in Philip Jenkins' book, God's Continent, that I reviewed a couple of months ago), whether the arrival of a dynamic Islam on these shores might actually be a blessing in disguise because its presence forces the native population to think seriously about God, faith, morals, values, and so forth. What a challenge for the Gospel Britain is today. We here could well be on the front line of something big. The question is will we rise to the challenge?

What is required is a vision and an imagination that is huge, as big as the Lord God himself. Such a vision and imagination would has such Kingdom implications that we would all stand back in amazement and astonishment.