It is often said that we are witnessing the end of Christendom; the end, that is, of the long period in which, in Britain and the west, the Christian church enjoyed a high degree of religious, social and political power and influence. For centuries Britain saw itself as a Christian country in which Christianity was the dominant intellectual and moral voice and there was wide participation in Christian rituals. The church, especially the Church of England, was at the heart of the social and political establishment in both law and in influence. The vestiges of this dispensation remain, as illustrated, for example, in the church’s continuing participation in the British legislature and the relationship between ecclesiastical and civil law. But the substance is going or gone: an inevitable consequence of a situation in which only about 6% of the population now regularly attend church (1).
It is not clear what has caused this change. (It is tempting to attribute the change to secularisation, but there is evidence that it is organised Christianity that has declined, not religious conviction as such.) But we can speculate about some of the factors that may be at work:
• Disillusionment with organised religion for its perceived hypocrisy and abuse of power
• A more general rejection of what is seen as the unaccountable and stifling power of institutions
• The widespread desire for freedom, especially over choices about belief and lifestyle
• The sexual revolution, especially the liberation of women and the recognition of gay relationships (The church has tended to resist this revolution and the associated desire for freedom in lifestyles. According to Callum Brown (2) the traditional conceptions of family life and the role of women were at the centre of the narrative that sustained the church through the 19th and early-mid 20th centuries – so it is not just that the church is out of step, seen as resisting the pursuit of freedom, but that a major plank in its platform has been removed.)
Now, so far, maybe, so unremarkable. I am assuming that most of this is not really news. It is more important and useful perhaps, to ask: “how should the church respond”? And yet, this is an almost impossible question to answer. The “paradigm shift” taking place (by this term, I refer to a major change in the basic assumptions and practices which shape society) is so profound that it is almost bound to require new models of doing and being church to produce an adequate response. By definition, i.e. because we cannot expect the future to be like the past and therefore have an inadequate frame of reference, we can hardly know what these are. We will have to discover them by thinking, praying and talking about them over time and by experiment. It is clear to me though, for both theological and organisational reasons, that this will need to involve a re-exploration of the church’s core identity (the way it understands, expresses and embodies gospel faith). It will require an exploration not only of the nature, outlook and needs of the society taking shape around us but a willingness to listen to what the world around us has to tell us about our faith and practice. In other words, it is not just a matter of making ourselves more “relevant” it is about hearing what God is saying to us through what is happening in the world around us and in the story of our “decline”. We need to engage in a dialogue between our tradition and the voices, needs and facts of the world in which we are set and see what emerges. We should do so confident that the decline of institutional Christianity as we know it is not the end of God and trust in the Spirit to lead us into what may well prove a more authentic expression of the Christian faith. It is worth considering that there is plenty about Christendom to regret as well as plenty to remember with gratitude (3).
What this will look like, as I say, I don’t know. The form and structures we know might change radically, or not. But I do expect the church of the future to have some of the following features if it is to meet the challenge of the times and rebuild trust with the wider community.
• A new emphasis on grace. The church will do things gratuitously, for no reason other than to demonstrate and witness to the love of God
• The church will talk more about the life and teaching of Jesus, especially the radical insights of the Sermon on the Mount
• The church will recover the sense of being a movement with a purpose in the world, rather than a club for the religious
• Participation in the church’s life will be unconditional, but people will be drawn into joining the movement and finding the God behind it: discipleship will be nurtured by the sacramental life of the church but orientated towards the world
• The movement will be based on the missio dei: we will be people of the Kingdom, looking for its realisation, looking outward, aiming to be God’s people in the world, with an interest in and concern for all that God has made
• The church will be at once an authentic sign of the Kingdom and a community with loose and porous boundaries in which all are welcome
• The church will emphasise public theology and an associated practice: that is, it will work with many partners of all faiths and none, for the good of human society and the care of creation, without needing to seek power or dominance in the relationship. But it will do so on the basis of a clear theological position and sense of discipleship and vocation
• The church will be humble: willing to learn, seeking to serve, repenting of the abuses of power sometimes characteristic of the past, aware of fallibility and sinfulness, happy to respect and live with pluralism as one voice among many
• The church will be confident: trusting in God, empowered by the Spirit, inspired by Christ, unapologetic about its faith, orthodox, but questioning in thought and practice
• The church will be contextual, finding ways of being and doing church that emerge from a constructive dialogue between the tradition and the place
• The church will no longer be seen as the domain of the sacred and the world of the secular, but both will be the place of God’s creative and redemptive activity with the church a sign of the essential unity of the world under God.
What I have described are the features of a strong and yet thoughtful faith that is both realistic about the world and affirming of its potential and its value to God; more capable of addressing the concerns and needs of 21st century people yet clear and distinctive in its Christian faith. What would you add, change or take away?
1. See Religion and Change in Modern Britain by Woodhead and Catto, 2012
2.Brown, C. (2001) The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization, 1800-2000. London, Routledge.
3. See Stuart Murray’s Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World, 2nd edition, 2018