Off the back of a conversation I had recently I’ve been prompted to explore what a positive vision of what the future could look like in my own context. This is in response to the fact that it was felt that the general diagnosis of the future doesn’t look great from the perspective of an orthodox Christian in the UK. Yet it’s often after arguing as such that someone like me will frequently stop with no vision of a way forward. What follows isn’t perfect but a stab at an answer:
In the UK there is a combination of widespread ignorance concerning the faith, a broader absence concerning shared narratives, and within the church a sense of the collapse of historic institutions both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Related to all of this there has been a historically low value ascribed to Christian formation, it’s been felt if we can get either converts or our children to believe that is all that is necessary. This functionalist view has left many believers ill equipped to navigate through life and negotiate the tensions exposed when orthodox Christian beliefs run contrary to new cultural norms, and the beliefs espoused by both individuals and institutions outside the faith.
All of the above is made more complex by the fact that the UK is not just a pagan society but a post-Christian pagan society. It’s values are in many ways distortions of Christian values which makes discerning the distinctions between the two all the more difficult. Particularly given the nation still has an established church which has, being most generous, mixed success in this area.
What follows is my attempt to give the broad outlines of an approach that would be conducive to the long term health of the Church in the UK. Not just to survive but to begin to grow again.
- Confession of Wrongs
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.Revelation 2:5, To the Angel of the Church of Ephesus
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying:
‘Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?’
Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.Jonah 3:3-10
I genuinely believe in the Church of the English Reformation and what it stood for. Yet when I look over the course of the years and centuries there are things I find deeply troubling. I think the English Church has been a force for good in the world and yet it is not without sin. Before we do anything we need to acknowledge this.
The Church also has no one to blame for the current situation but herself. Particularly in the UK given the privileges of Establishment if we could have avoided the falling away of a Christian nation the means surely existed for us to stop the rout. Whilst we acknowledge God’s providence in the current state of affairs I believe it’s hard to not understand our current situation as anything other than a process of being humbled by God for our collective sins. We love to sing about ‘Jerusalem’ but London has been closer to Babylon for a long time.
- Willingness to Differentiate
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.Romans 12:1-2
This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.Ephesians 4:17-19
The effect on the mind of the people of the visible and dramatic withdrawal of the Church from the affairs of the nation, of the deliberate recognition of two standards and ways of life, of the Church’s abandonment of all those who are not by their wholehearted profession within the fold — this is incalculable; the risks are so great that such an act can be nothing but a desperate measure. It appears to assume something which I am not yet ready to take for granted: that the division between Christians and non-Christians in this country is already, or is determined to become, so clear that it can be reduced to statistics.TS Eliot, The Idea Of A Christian Society, Lecture Three
Consider the cost of taking this radically scriptural Christianity seriously. Ask yourself which side you must join in the tense spiritual battle of our times. Compromise is not an option. A middle-of-the-road stance is not possible. Either the ground motive of the christian religion works radically in our lives or we serve other gods. If the antithesis is too radical for you, ask yourself whether a less radical Christianity is not like salt that has lost its savour. I state the antithesis as radically as I do so that we may again experience the full double-edged sharpness and power of God’s Word. You must experience the antithesis as a spiritual storm that strikes lightning into your life and that clears the sultry air.Herman Dooyeweerd, The Roots Of Western Culture. Chapter 4: Faith And Culture
The next step is a willingness to differentiate ourselves from broader society. I am massively influenced by TS Eliot’s writings on Christianity and Society and yet he was writing in a time wherein the society was, on paper, still Christian. This isn’t the case today and so even by TS Eliot’s standards and warnings about the danger of disestablishment it would meet even his conditions for it. It would be, in his words, ‘the recognition of a condition at which we have arrived.’ The danger of not doing so is the temptation for a national church to seek to be for the nation as it is found and less for Christ. To be led rather than to lead. Is this not already occuring?
Whether disestablishment happens or not, personally I think after the reign of our current Monarch Queen Elizabeth II would be perhaps most appropriate, Christians need to consciously start to disassociate themselves with broader society. This isn’t to reject the crown but to recognise that the church, whilst loyal, has failed. I am not saying this wouldn’t be deeply wounding both emotionally and materially but what is post-Christendom but exile? We cannot assume that the values, beliefs, and frameworks operating in the public sphere are ours or necessarily compatible with ours any longer.
The most difficult part of this is that we don’t have a framework, institutions or platform for propagating our own beliefs publicly. There is no clear Christian public thought being worked out. At best in the UK we tend to be reactive to the pronouncements of institutions that come from outside the Church. Conscious disassociation, however, I think is the first step. This doesn’t mean withdrawal into the metaphorical mountains but a recognition that the values and currents in society are coming from a different place than what animates us. To realise Christians should no longer be drawing their water from these particular wells.
- Solidarity Amongst Believers
Now John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.”
But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is on our side.”Luke 9:49-50
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he desired to cross to Achaia, the brethren wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him; and when he arrived, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he vigorously refuted the Jews publicly, showing from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ.Acts 18:24-28
To this test, therefore will they be submitted for proof by those churches, who, although they derive not their founder from apostles or apostolic men (as being of much later date, for they are in fact being founded daily), yet, since they agree in the same faith, they are accounted as not less apostolic because they are akin in doctrine. Then let all the heresies, when challenged to these two tests by our apostolic church, offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic.Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 32. None of the Heretics Claim Succession from the Apostles. New Churches Still Apostolic, Because Their Faith is that Which the Apostles Taught and Handed Down. The Heretics Challenged to Show Any Apostolic Credentials.
If we do disassociate ourselves from broader society and yet still operate within it the importance of making common cause with other believers becomes all the more necessary. This isn’t to say Churches must give up prior denominational affiliations but seek to be more intention about presenting a united front regarding doctrine and in sustaining one another. I believe it is imperative that British churches begin to find a common narrative to tie them together.
Ultimately I think the best possible outcome is a unity of the visible Church, I agree with HR Niebuhr that the maintenance of divisions in the Church is a sin, but that these things have layers, like an onion. Unity isn’t a binary state, it can be expressed by degree, when it comes to the visible church but if we believe we are united in Christ then movement should be made to translate this into visible expressions. Between smaller communities this should, at times manifest itself in being intentional about potentially relocating to be closer to like minded Christians.
The final aspect of this is a move towards confessional unity, an upholding of the rule of faith and a primacy on continuity of doctrine over innovation. This is so that our solidarity might not just extend across space but also time. To pronounce the unity of faith in both the Churches militant and triumphant.
- Love of Wisdom
Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.Deuteronomy 6:3-9
To know wisdom and instruction,
To perceive the words of understanding,
To receive the instruction of wisdom,
Justice, judgment, and equity;
To give prudence to the simple,
To the young man knowledge and discretion—
A wise man will hear and increase learning,
And a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and an enigma,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
But fools despise wisdom and instruction.Proverbs 1:2-7
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.Romans 1:18-20
The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they posses.C.S Lewis, The Abolition of Man
In the initial hypothesis the claim was made that many hold to a functionalist view of faith, that the believer need only believe in order to be made sufficient. In a sense this is true but it is necessary for us to love the Lord our God with not just all our heart but with all our soul and with all our strength. The decline in the Church is indicative of our failure to do precisely this.
As our culture increasingly moves away from it’s Christian moorings we are seeing an increasing number of areas where prior assumptions about how we relate to the world, our own bodies and even the bodies of others are undergoing revolutions in thought. This will and is causing great damage whilst threatening to carry away many in the church holding to a thin biblicism unmoored from the broader currents of historical Christian thought.
The Church needs to return to its belief that Christ is not just Lord over the heart of the believer but of all creation. The recognition of the value of a natural law tradition within the Church, of the proper implications and meaning of creation, the fall, and redemption, are absolutely essential in this regard.
- Posterity Minded
And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.Leviticus 25:10
Woe to those who join house to house;
They add field to field,
Till there is no place
Where they may dwell alone in the midst of the land!Isaiah 5:8
But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.Micah 4:4
Wisdom calls aloud outside;
She raises her voice in the open squares.
She cries out in the chief concourses,
At the openings of the gates in the city
She speaks her words:
“How long, you simple ones, will you love simplicity?
For scorners delight in their scorning,
And fools hate knowledge.
But whoever listens to me will dwell safely,
And will be secure, without fear of evil.”Proverbs 1:20-22, 33
Suppose it is the season for planting trees: if we do not dig, and dig deep, when else can that be planted rightly which has once been planted ill? Suppose, pray, that the Catechising is a kind of building: if we do not bind the house together by regular bonds in the building, lest some gap be found, and the building become unsound, even our former labour is of no use. But stone must follow stone by course, and corner match with corner, and by our smoothing off inequalities the building must thus rise evenly. In like manner we are bringing to you stones, as it were, of knowledge. You must hear concerning the living God, you must hear of Judgment, must hear of Christ, and of the Resurrection. And many things there are to be discussed in succession, which though now dropped one by one are afterwards to be presented in harmonious connection. But unless thou fit them together in the one whole, and remember what is first, and what is second, the builder may build, but you will find the building unsound.Cyril of Jerusalem, Protocatechesis. §11
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.C.S Lewis, The Abolition of Man
The final point is to be mindful principally of the future Church. Unless God plans otherwise Christians in the United Kingdom need to get used to being a minority and that if we are to endure need to ensure that we can engage in society without compromise. Therefore there should be special attention paid to three areas:
It is proper that a child not be left in ignorance. Education is a means to free a child from error and to instill a desire to live well, to seek virtue more than money or glory, to freely follow the will of God, or, as stated in the Collect for Peace of the Book of Common Prayer, to serve God in “perfect freedom.” God is Wisdom itself, and the liberal arts free the child to serve Christ wisely.Roberta Bayer, Davenant Institute: The Art of Protestant Learning
The head of Oftsted in the last few years has called for a ‘muscular liberalism’ in British schools as part of an effort to promote what they are calling British values. Latent within this is a technical or utilitarian vision of education wherein the government sets a curriculum best suited to mould individuals into that which may be of best use to itself and its own values.
A Christian vision of education doesn’t exist to serve a political order but wisdom itself and the natural society into which a child is born, the most basic form of which is the family. It is not ordered to technical ends. Therefore, it is integral for Christians to be able to offer their children a distinctly Christian vision of education if they seek to realise a Christian vision of society.
He kindled the fires of the sun, and the sun gives us light, not only on Sundays when we go to church, but on common days, and we have no right to use the sunlight for any purpose for which God does not give it. God made the trees, but He made too many for the timber to be used only for buildings intended for religious worship. What did He make the rest for? It is His timber. He never parts with His property in it. When we buy it we do not buy it from God; we pay Him no money for it. All that we do is to pay money to our fellow-men that we may have the right to use it in God’s service.RW Dale, The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 1. Every-Day Business A Divine Calling
A Christian vision of work acknowledges both man’s stewardship over creation and the families role as the basic unit of natural society. In order to best realise this Christians should be encouraged to find work which sets them at liberty to pursue these ends.
Particularly in this current climate we have seen people at risk of losing their employment for upholding orthodox Christian beliefs and anthropology in the public sphere. We have also witnessed companies pressuring employees to promote causes at times at odds with orthodox Christian beliefs and anthropology. This has and can lead to a chilling effect on Christianity in the workplace.
Encouraging and empowering Christians to find work, or to establish their own businesses, that minimises the likelihood for them to be subjected to such practices should be upheld as conducive to the long term public good of the Church.
Insofar as power has been entrusted to man as a creature, it is always cultural. It implies a historical calling and task of formation for which the bearer of power is responsible and of which he must give account. Power may never be used for personal advantage, as if it were a private possession. Power is the great motor of cultural development. The decisive question concerns the direction in which power is applied.Herman Dooyeweerd. The Roots of Western Culture. Chapter 3. History, Historicism, And Norms
As human beings made in the image of God we are taught through the incarnation that our forms are not incidental but constitute our very being. Christian society should thus strive to reflect this reality and therefore operate at a corresponding scale. Through contemporary technological innovations we have been brought many advantages but also an erosion of this human scale to which our Churches and our Christian society should be ordered. Christians should therefore seek to live in proximity to one another, commit to meeting frequently, live with an awareness of their relationship to the local environment, love their neighbours particularly, and shape their built environment in a way that reflects the Lordship of Christ over it. Political engagement should be predominantly focused at the local rather than national level.
Furthermore, since all men come into being through the family the encouragement and maintenance of it should be seen as a common good foundational to Christian society. Accordingly property and capital should not be sought in order to accumulate wealth but to serve the family. A Christian’s living should be associated with his labour, as it is said the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.
The expense of housing in our society drives apart communities and contributes to the individualism of our age. Churches should, therefore, consider encouraging ownership with regard to both housing and the means of production in order to ensure that these are shaped by the needs of Christian society rather than instead shaping it. Stability being a necessary component for the foundation and sustaining of new institutions over time.
These are just a few points that came to my mind – I’d be interested in your thoughts on them. Have I missed something? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Let me know.