Throughout lockdown, and even a little before, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a range of different people either through this blog or other watering holes and gathering points of a sort. The people and contexts are all different but we often end up talking about our faith, what is happening in our societies and cultures and asking ourselves what does the future look like? For me this is rooted, fundamentally, in wanting to ensure I can give my family the best chance of growing in grace, retaining the faith, and advancing it amongst their neighbours.
I mention this because one of the gnawing desires I’ve had from these interactions is the very conscious realisation of my deficiencies and that whatever one does, or one believes, it is of questionable value if undertaken individually. My son, for example, will come to an age where he will be growing away from me and out into the world. Is there a Christian community that will ground him, root him, and bind him to the faith when he no longer looks to his parents? When he’s a man in his own right? Or will he be drawn off into a culture, a society, that does not know God? Nor permanent things? That distances him from God’s grace and mercy?
I can’t help but be convinced that the British Church, or maybe what I see of it, needs to greatly build up it’s connective tissue. Outside of Churches there is little that unites us when it comes to visible displays, and even then formal association between Churches seems hard to find. That which exists is often open-ended, unbounded, and hard to define. Ministers in an area might meet together occasionally but the laity of different churches seldom do. I think there’s legitimate grounds to be suspicious of the ecumenical movement but even within traditions there seems a low regard for explicitly Christian institutions. Yet this shouldn’t be so. Erasmus, the Humanist scholar, wrote of the nature of diplomacy between Christian nations:
It is easy for friendship to be made and kept between those who are linked by a common language, by the proximity of their lands, and by similarities of temperament and character. Certain nations are so different from one another in every way that it would be advisable to refrain from any contact with them rather than be linked to them even by the most binding of treaties. Others are so distant that even if they are well disposed they can be of no help. There are others, finally, who are so capricious, so insolent, such habitual breakers of treaties, that even if they are neighbours they are useless as friends.
There is a most binding and holy contract between all Christian princes, simply from the fact that they are Christians.Erasmus of Rotterdam, Education Of A Christian Prince. Chapter 8: Treaties
Erasmus is talking about nations but we could apply the same principal to households or churches. Those linked by language, proximity, temperament and character have no excuse to not seek to invest together in their future for mutual benefit. The bond between Christians superseding all others. This is a society, a bond forged of mutual affection.
As another blogger writes:
No matter how great the heart, a degree of withering is inevitable where there is no sympathy around it; no matter how great the mind, if unedified it resembles rather the block of rough marble than the finished statue. These institutions and networks are the founding places of momentous friendships, of persons of shared inclination and conviction, who, in Lewis’ phrase, discover each other there and say: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” Indeed, we may even say that these places are where great rivalries can be founded, where reactive elements may touch one another in a “controlled environment” and in their explosion create new, worthwhile compounds.Cato Minor, The Walls of Utica: A Proposal for a Citadel of the Permanent Things II: The Shadow Society
I’ve had a good number of ‘What? You too?’ moments on the internet but seeing these translate into material things is easier said than done. Like the turning of the ignition in a faulty engine I see the dashboard alight for a brief moment only to see it die again. I find myself asking what would it take for the church and its people to be willing to make concrete actions to work towards their mutual benefit? Because all seem so caught up in doing our own thing living in a manner of largely undifferentiated from those outside the Church.
Living in central London you see a wide range of different people groups. Growing up in London you realised certain areas are associated with certain ethnicities. Where I live now used to be Greek and is now split between Turkish, Eritrean and Ethiopian. The Greeks moved a little up the road nearer to a large Jewish community. All of these groups coalesce because there is an affinity, affection, and advantage to be found in conscious association. Many of these groups go further and have formalised societies where they encourage communal festivals and upholding of their shared identity. Christianity is different in that it is not tied to an ethnicity but it is similar in that a Christian should be living a manner of life distinct from the Gentile and the Church should be reflecting a way of life at odds with that of a Gentile nation.
I would go further and urge us to beware the mistake in assuming that the society we live in is neutral towards Christianity. We are either shaping the spaces we occupy or are being shaped by it. This society will continue to make claims upon the Church and will not cease in its attempts to appropriate it. This isn’t because it’s malicious, it is because every culture seeks to cultivate and realise is understanding of the good, even when that differs from what was revealed in scripture by the apostles:
As the Psalmist wrote of the idolator “Those who make them are like them; So is everyone who trusts in them.” You can say the medium is the message, you can talk about cultural liturgies, but the underlying point, whatever terminology you use, is that the Church needs to contend with competing claims in the public sphere as part of it’s long term evangelism efforts. To proclaim the good of the gospel in society to all men in all ages.
For me the treatment of Tim Farron a few years back was a wakeup call. It doesn’t matter how firmly you commit to the liberal project, it won’t be enough. Christians are not equal partners in this society. Many Christians realise this I think. Yet we shouldn’t get down about this, however, instead we do need to ask the question of what does faithfulness look like, what does flourishing look like, in this context? Are we happy with the status quo? If not what is the positive alternative? Where, in terms of geography, should we be focusing our efforts? This is what Christians should be getting together and working out. Many people might accept the first part of this premise, but I’m at a loss to explain why there hasn’t been a move to change how engage with society as a result. Are we just that individualistic? Do we have our heads in the sand?
What we need are networks of people starting these discussions, raising the profile of these questions in the churches and the minds of the laity, the people. More than that we need people willing to work out and model what a positive vision of Christian life can look like in the 21st century, for the sake of future generations, and for the sake of the Gentiles around us. Not just mediated by screens but faces, the incarnation matters and these can’t just be talking points. This is spiritual warfare, and we need to start taking back territory. We aren’t like everyone else in society, so why do we act like it? Why do we struggle to do little more than just talk about this?