The UK has a strange and ambivalent attitude to Christianity. As the avowedly atheist political commentator Matthew Parris has observed:
The English are wary about religion; but the English do not want to be atheists. To the English mind, atheism itself carries an unpleasant whiff of enthusiasm. To the English mind the universe is a very mysterious thing, and should be allowed to remain so.
This was backed up by Prime Minister David Cameron when he was pushed over what he believed. He identified with:
People who are racked with doubts, but sort of fundamentally believe, but don’t sort of wear it on our sleeves or make too much of it.
These two views more or less explain the dichotomy between the numbers of those who call themselves Christian (roughly 70%) and those who attend church regularly (roughly 5%). These statistics show the size of the problem and the nature of the opportunity at the same time. The English are about as excited about their religion as Tim Henman scoring a winning shot (that kind of limp fisted celebration which you just knew would never win him Wimbledon). Fortunately for the English and unfortunately for the cause of mission, they have in some churches the perfect receptacle for their lukewarm, indifferent and non-associational belief!
It is never easy to get a grip on the changes to a culture you are a part of. Historians will look back on the turn of this century (shall we say 1980-2020) as an era when the world changed more rapidly than at any previous point. The three main causes of this are the ending of the Cold War, what is often termed the ending of the long war of the twentieth century starting with the Great War in 1914 and concluding with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; the third great scientific revolution in the human race: the information revolution coming on the back of the agrarian and the industrial revolutions; and the re-emergence of religion as a feature of the global community but seen largely from Britain as a problem rather than a solution. The first two, new found political and technological freedoms, have made for an unprecedented level of globalisation which religion has taken advantage of. There is an old Chinese curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’. Historians will look back at our generation and deem these to be very interesting times.
In terms of our mission the modern western world poses several significant challenges:
1. We are hopelessly and unselfconsciously in thrall to individualism in our values and choices: I am the focal point of life. I make choices according to my own wishes. No-one else has a right to challenge this. In a sense this is one of the greatest of human freedoms because these entitlements have been attacked time and again in human history by tyrants and despots. Without protecting the individual in law and custom, basic human rights will always be under threat. We have however carelessly used this priority as a smokescreen for selfish behaviour which takes less account of others. The individual is enthroned in modern life, but the very term ‘individual’ implies autonomy, a detachment from the community we were created to live in and the responsibilities we have towards it which must inevitably restrict our choices.
2. We have developed a post-modern approach to truth which is stripping truth down to meaningless subjectivity. It’s my truth, so no-one can challenge it. This attitude, coupled with the new availability of information can lead people to think they are as expert in a field as the professional. Sometimes this transpires, but often it allows ignorant and opinionated views to pass off as truth. The idea of public truth, truth which is real and meaningful for all, is being eroded. As Oasis titled one of the albums: ‘Don’t believe the truth’.
3. We are less inclined to join. A reluctance to join public bodies, local associations and so on was first documented in the US through exhaustive research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam. He has since come to the UK to look at patterns of community involvement. Over several decades there has been a clear decline in the willingness of volunteers to come forward in their communities. This is linked to growing individualism and a sense that we do not share neighbourhoods with people we know or wish to befriend. The impact of bureaucracy and criminal records checks, however necessary, may have taken their toll also.
4. We are more suspicious of institutions. We make assumptions that public bodies hide things from us and do not have our interests at heart. They have become more impersonal despite the rhetoric of customer service. All the professions have suffered a loss of trust among the public, some of them dramatically like politicians. However, the biggest proportionate loss of trust has been reserved for clergy, which is a worrying and overlooked dimension of a broader problem and which may be linked to the child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.
5. We are becoming more illiberal as a society. This is a counter-intuitive claim because the rhetoric is of a greater acceptance of difference in race, gender and sexuality. Yet as we begin to know and trust one another less, suspicion of the ‘other’ grows. Tolerance is an overrated and somewhat empty concept. Who wants merely to be tolerated in life? GK Chesterton said that ‘tolerance is all that is left when love has run out’. As Christians we are surely called to a deeper law of love in relating one to another. The inability of communities to regulate their common life is leading to a greater authoritarianism in the conduct of public bodies and less of a sense that people can be trusted to do the right thing.
6. We live increasingly in mediated communities, relating one to another through technology rather than face to face, in niche online communities which come together for shared interests but which have no public face or tangible effect. This, more than any other change, is a generational one. I can vouch for this personally as my children grow up relating to their peers in a very different way to how I did.
7. There is a lessening of goodwill in the public arena towards Christianity as part of a growing suspicion of religion and its place in a modern society. Most of us have grown up in the established church and in a culture which has either owned Christianity or held a strong residual respect for its continued role in shaping British life. But this is breaking down, in part under the impact of newly assertive atheism and through ignorance over the historic contribution of the faith to this country’s well-being.
These are seven changes among so many that I could highlight. Living in a time of great upheaval and transition affords us the wonderful chance to re-shape the role of the Christian faith in twenty-first century Britain. For all the hand-wringing we might be inclined to, every challenge grants us an opportunity to share the Gospel with our peers, so here are some of those openings.
1. As the understanding of the Christian faith diminishes in society, people bring less baggage to their encounter with it. The problem with a society which has a residual Christian memory is that this memory acts like an inoculation against an encounter with the real thing, like a small amount of germs being injected into the human body which can easily be seen off. The less people know the fewer misconceptions they bring as they venture to meet with the God of peace and joy.
2. Although people mistrust institutions today they find personal contact meaningful and authentic. It is often said that respondents are critical of the NHS in general but when pushed on their own experience of it are more affirming and appreciative. Surveys have shown this to be true of the Church too. The same people who say they dislike the Church and don’t trust it will say they have very warm regard for the Christians they know personally. In their minds they are distinguishing between the two in ways that aren’t entirely logical but this shows the fertile ground there is for evangelism.
3. Despite the displaced communities of the internet, most people have a deeply sourced need for tangible community. We all know many people who have gone searching for this and found it in their local church. It has been shown how local communities across Britain are becoming divided along new lines, not of race and class but of age, with similar age groups gathering in particular places. The church breaks down these unjustifiable and self-limiting patterns by offering friendships across the generations which are wonderfully enriching when they occur. We are offering relationships, not religion, and this relational agenda should become more prominent in the years ahead.
4. The attacks mounted on Christianity by atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Polly Toynbee are having the perverse effect for them of making people think more seriously about God. As one wry media professional observed, seeing the bus-side slogan which said ‘there probably isn’t a God’ made him doubt that there wasn’t a God for the first time in ages! We should welcome public debate in the manner of St. Paul. It helps both to tone the arguments we have in favour of his existence which can become sloppy with misuse and encourages us to share personal experience which is a fundamental component of mission.
5. The new digital networks give us an excellent chance to get the message across today. Although there is a drawback in establishing authenticity when you are online, we should imagine more creatively the power of the internet to enrich Christian life and foster thinking about the faith. When I was asked to set up a website containing my teaching and writing three years ago I was unsure how effective it would be. I now realise through anecdotal comment that it has become one of the more fruitful dimension of my ministry. It is tempting to think of it as a sideline because it is not yet a conventional way of ministering but this is not the message I have got back from people.
We have looked so far at some rapid changes in modern culture and of the opportunities they afford us, but what now of the needs we have to meet those challenges?
1. We need a renewed confidence in the Gospel. Somewhere along the line we have become quietist and hesitant in sharing the good news, as if we must live up to Matthew Parris’ injunction not to push the English on religion because they are embarrassed by it. This feels to me like a parody of yesterday’s culture where no-one talked about such things unless they were on the verge of a breakdown. Our world is more spiritual than it used to be and our reluctance to articulate the faith may mean there is more bad spirituality out there than good (in 1950 only 7% believed in astrology but today the figure is 22%). The concept of evangelism has diminished in our lifetime. The word mission, with which I started with, is preferred because this can encompass more than the spoken word of witness. We should not allow ourselves to be caricatured as people who own the truth. We do not own the truth; we follow the Truth as he walks with us through this world. Researchers have shown how over 90% of all human communication is non-verbal which means the vast bulk of our evangelism is unspoken in the way we live. Greater awareness of this fact might sharpen our lifestyles which should not be divorced from what we believe.
2. We need a clearer outward focus in church life. Most of the priorities of the parish church are set by people whose main work in life is for the church. This can lead to a preoccupation with what is going on within the church rather than what is going on outside it. Arguably the most important words of the Anglican Eucharistic service are the final ones: ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. I have sometimes changed the wording to say: ‘go in peace to your homes and other places of work to love and serve the Lord’. The people have been empowered by the Holy Spirit and now they are sent into the world. When we think of our parish church we think of a particular location. Think for a moment now over where your fellow Christians will be in the coming week. They will be dispersed across towns, cities and counties – even further in some cases. This is the spiritual footprint of your church this week – this is where your mission will play out.
3. We need to re-engage politically. The Church has a distinguished record of active political involvement on behalf of the poor and marginalised, those who cannot speak volubly for themselves. Yet my impression is that over the last two decades the Church has become more insular and reluctant to involve itself in the public arena. This may be a product of greater wealth, of which the Church, being predominantly middle-class, has been a beneficiary. Just because we are better off does not mean that everyone is. We have lacked a coherent agenda in tackling these issues which has also impeded us. My contention is that we need a new relational agenda in the public sphere. The goal of public policy remains continued economic growth, despite the inadequacy of such a materialistic and resource hungry target. We know instinctively as Christians that what counts in life is the quality of relationships we form – with God and with one another. The Church is called to witness to this saving relationship with God. It is also called to witness to the primacy of human relationships in the outside world. What makes us strong and fulfilled as a nation are the enduring relationships we form: at home, in the neighbourhood, at work, in providing public services. The instrumentalism which governs so many relationships today (e.g. what can I get out of this person? how can I use her?) is the product of allowing market values to extend into areas they have no legitimacy in. A relational agenda is possible – take a look at the work of the Relationships Foundation nationally (www.relationshipsfoundation.org) to get a feel for what is possible – and it also gives us coherence in our public voice because it is consistent with what we believe is the true purpose of life: to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
There are many other things which could be said about our future mission in the Church – the balance between established and fresh expressions of the Church is for instance a vitally important one when engaging with a more atomised world – but I am trying to give an overview here of the principles that should govern our engagement with a nation that feels adrift and hungry for something it cannot name.