Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Christendom and Thereafter

Recently I completed re-reading the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch. They are novels of the Church of England set between the 1930s and the 1060s although some of them are remembered by their narrators from the 70s and 80s.

The main character in each novel reflects the thinking of some major C of E figure. Glittering Images (1987) reflects the thinking of Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham 1920-1939; Glamorous Powers (1988), W. R. Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s 1911-1934; Ultimate Prizes (1989), Charles Raven, Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge, 1932-1950; Scandalous Risks (1990), John Robinson, Suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, 1959-1969; Mystical Paths (1992), Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury 1961-1974 and Christopher Bryant, member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, 1935-1985; and Absolute Truths (1994), Reginald Somerset Ward, Anglican Priest and Spiritual Director, 1881-1962 and Austin Farrer, Warden of Keble College, Oxford, 1960-1968.

This was the Church of England in which I came to own my faith and reading these novels again I’m stuck by a number of things: I don’t particularly like any of the characters in these books; I find myself with growing sympathy for them as their various stories unfold; the major ways in which clergy tend to ‘act out’, namely alcohol abuse, financial misconduct and sexual misconduct are all represented; the language of psychology and spirituality are related closely to each other; the paranormal or psychic phenomena are taken seriously within the Christian tradition of mysticism; the evangelical wing or party of the Church bears little resemblance to the triumphalism of that group that we are seeing in the Church today; there is no sense of the mission or purpose of the Church discussed or reflected.

These are novels of Christendom, quite as much as the Barchester novels of Trollope. They reflect a Church whose interests are the same as the State, --a state of affairs that is beginning to break down with John Robinson’s Honest to God, published in 1963.

Wikipedia defines post Christendom as follows: Post Christian, post-Christian or postChristian is a term used to describe a personal world view, ideology, religious movement or society that is no longer rooted in the language and assumptions of Christianity, though it had previously been in an environment of ubiquitous Christianity (i.e., Christendom). Thus defined, a post-Christian world is one where Christianity is no longer the dominant civil religion, but one that has, gradually over extended periods of time, assumed values, culture, and worldviews that are not necessarily Christian (and further may not necessarily reflect any world religion's standpoint). This situation applies to much of Europe, in particular in Central and Northern Europe, where no more than half of the residents in those lands profess belief in a monotheistically-conceived deity.

Susan Howatch sees and paints a picture over the course of six novels of the interweaving of three strands or parties within Anglicanism: Anglo Catholic, Broad Middle and Evangelical or Mystical, Modernist Liberal and Conservative. She also rather gloomily predicts that by 200 the Evangelicals will hold power and that will not be good for the church. One of her major characters says, while reflecting on the ministry of one of his sons who has ‘gone into the Church’: “He is certainly a conservative, as I am, but he seems to think that anyone who subscribes to the Middle Way nowadays is shying away from what he calls the big issues. The big issues seem to be all about fighting. Apparently we have to fight the sloth and indifference of secular society, fight the decadence and idolatry of Anglo-Catholicism, and fight every one of the radical-liberal heresies. Naturally the Anglo-Catholics and the liberals don’t like this militant stance at all and want to fight back. I foresee that by the 1980s the Church factions will be completely polarized and that by the 1990s the Church of England will be torn apart by open war. “(Absolute Truths p.567)

In some ways this polarization has occurred but is much deeper than an inter-Anglican conflict. It is manifest on the American political stage and the international religious/political stage with all manner of factions seeking to take advantage of the end of a predominant world view in the West and seeking to impose their vision on everyone else.

I’m thinking about what the proper role of the Church is in such a context and where we can here the genuine proclamation of the gospel. As we begin to discern answers, so that will shape our parish planning for the future of our mission and the work we are given to do.

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