Oh holy blight: Western Christianity is committing suicide
Church leaders chase relevance at the expense of God, while Christians blame falling numbers on everything but themselves
There’s nowhere more relevant to the modern world than Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. This Episcopal church advertises yoga and is totally non-judgmental (there’s a photo on its website of a man dressed as a nun), and I bet a fun time was had by all at last week’s Global Climate Action Summit Multi-Faith Service.
You can watch a video online: down the aisle come clerics, musicians and men on stilts dressed as trees. Notice though, as the camera pans out, that the congregation is a bit thin at the back. And old. It’s in desperate need of some new sap.
The wider Episcopal Church is facing extinction: just 500,000 attend its services on a Sunday, which an internal report calls a “profound and shocking decline”. Its sister church in England isn’t doing much better. The latest figures suggest that Church of England affiliation has halved since 2002 and that only 2% of young people call themselves Anglican. This is despite the church spending decades chasing cultural relevance.
At the weekend there was a discussion on Times Select about whether or not God has a gender. “I don’t want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he,” said the Right Reverend Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester, because that might alienate people. The reverend doesn’t need to worry because no one is listening.
Those of us who are Christian (I’m a Catholic and we have the same problems as the Protestants) blame our falling numbers on everything but ourselves, from immigration to the Internet. The truth is that Western Christianity isn’t dying out from natural causes or murder; it’s committing suicide.
Like many agonies, you can blame it on the 1960s. The experiences of world war and nuclear threat seemed to necessitate a rethink in the way Christians acted: to preach less, listen more. Protestants and Catholics tried to meet people halfway, to talk to them in their own language. This could have been a marvellous project; humility and meekness are inherently Christian virtues.
The crucifixion turned weakness into a strength, say the gospels, offering Jesus as a sacrifice for the whole of mankind. And, yes, it’s good to talk to the other faiths and, of course, social justice is a divine calling. At some point, however, dialogue turned into deference and socialism became the only face many bishops were comfortable showing the world.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s recent speech to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) was a case in point. The gig economy, he said, is an “ancient evil” – and he may well be right.
An archbishop has a duty to say it as he sees it, to articulate a preference for the poor. But if he imagined for one moment that his speech would win a single convert to Anglicanism, he was mistaken.
All that happens when priests confirm the beliefs of left-wing atheists is that the audience says thank you very much and goes on being atheist, because they’re not being challenged, they’re being validated. Indeed, so much of what mainstream Christians now offer is a validation of Western society, a kind of a “thumbs up, well done”, which is stupid because unless you bring up God in a conversation, non-believers certainly won’t.
If trying to be relevant to a shallow popular culture worked, church attendance would have risen since the 60s or even stayed the same. It’s plummeted. And the few who do still loyally show up to communion aren’t there to talk about zero-hour contracts. That’s God’s time.
You hear this said by the laity a lot, among younger clergy, too. The ones who stubbornly cling to the nostrums of the 60s are the greying church leadership, who are reminiscent of the establishment “blob” that conservatives complain dominates education: good people, absolutely, but men and women who see themselves as curators of a faith rather than its evangelists, and who have become rather comfortable with underperformance.
Just like a teacher who discourages pupils from applying to Oxford (“success will spoil you”), there are clerics who subconsciously see decline as a kind of grace. They prefer a Christianity that is weak, not in the sense of bloodied and bruised by combat, but weak as in submissive. They love the church but, my God, they are smothering it. They have transformed a faith that only extended as far as it did through preaching and martyrdom into something anxious and introspective, excessively concerned with gender pronouns and saving the redwood tree.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a debate about left versus right in church politics; there’s room for both. No, it’s about whether the church talks chiefly about man or about God. Whether Christians have a distinct message at all. Why should non-believers care? The answer to that question explains why Christians persist against the odds.
Churches need to be strong for when people decide they do need them – in moments of celebration, more often in commiseration. Faith helps us deal with life and death, and Communion, for all its wounds, remains a repository of culture and ethics. Remember: it is beauty and kindness that keep us from sliding into barbarism.
– © The Daily Telegraph