Paul Richardson offers some reflections on Christianity in modern

As a natural rebel growing up in a non-Christian home I found myself attracted to the Christian faith. At school I was required to attend Anglican worship of a definite Evangelical flavour. That drew me to Anglo-Catholicism. As a priest and bishop I have spent a large part of my ministry in Australia and England working in churches where a liberal establishment has been in control. If I am honest, I have to admit that this has been a factor keeping me in the traditionalist camp. Only in Papua New Guinea have I failed to rebel but how could one rebel against a church that was not only lively and crammed full of talented and eccentric people but was also managing to preach the gospel with credibility and power as well as to provide education and health services to people who needed them?

As bad as it seems

I indulge in these few words of autobiography to explain why the widespread hostility to Christian belief in the media and among large sections of the elite described by Cristina Odone (see New Directions, January, 2004) has made little impact on me. The picture is just as bad as she paints it. Her comments are true not only of Britain, but of France and a number of other European countries as well.

The head-scarf may offend France’s secularist susceptibilities but Catholics and people suffering with the painful consequences of Parkinson’s disease have to endure a comedian called Laurent Gerra offering a tasteless imitation of Pope John Paul II on national radio. Gerra mimics the pontiff with a croaking voice full of phelgm and spittle and portrays him raving on the brink of dementia.

In Britain the BBC has apologized to Tony Blair for the way the government was misrepresented by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme. No apology has been offered to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor who was subjected to inaccurate attacks on the same programme.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph after the Hutton Report was published, the newspaper’s former editor described the BBC as the enemy of ‘conservative culture in Britain’. Among the items Charles Moore included under that heading were organized religion and marriage.

Favoured minorities

A whole swathe of minority groups are treated with extraordinary respect by the BBC. As Lord Taverne pointed out in a letter to The Financial Times, anti-vivisectionists who represent a very small proportion of the population were given equal time with reputable scientists to argue the rights and wrongs of experiments on primates after the decision of Cambridge University not to proceed with a laboratory promoting neurological research because of threats by terrorists. As Lord Taverne also pointed out, Dr Andrew Wakefield’s doubtful diagnosis of eight cases was given equal prominence to evidence derived from 6 million cases taken from around the world in the dispute about use of the rubella vaccine.

According to the latest census there are more than 35,000,000 people in Britain ready to identify themselves as Christians. Less than 8,000,000 claim no religious belief. With just over one and a half million Muslims as well as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and a host of other faiths, pluralism is a fact of life in contemporary Britain although Christians remain very much in the majority. In such a situation you would expect Christian festivals to receive public recognition together with the festivals of other major religions such as Eids, Diwali, or Hannukah. The reality is that determined secularists use the excuse of pluralism to support a ban on recognition of all religious feasts. If they cannot quite get away with that, they at least try to make sure that Christian observances are overlooked. Every Christmas we have such stories as the attempt by Birmingham City Council to rename the festival ‘Winterval’ or last year’s reports of a library in Buckinghamshire banning a notice of a carol service. It is important not to exaggerate such incidents; they are still fairly isolated examples of intolerance; but there is danger they could mark the start of a trend. Guardian columnists who plead for a ‘Christ-free Christmas’ only encourage fogies in the Spectator to complain that their children are well versed at school in stories about Mohammed, Rama, and Sita but are taught nothing about Christianity.

Establishment or Count-culture

It used to be that whereas the Catholic Church in Spain, France, or Italy provoked the hostility, the Church of England could slumber in peace, secure in the knowledge that the predominant emotion felt towards religion in Britain was apathy. If things really are changing and the gloves are off in a battle between belief and unbelief, this need be no bad thing so long as Christians are ready to argue their case. This is where my worries start. The Church of England has been used to seeing itself for so long as part of the establishment that I am not sure it can adjust to viewing itself as a member of the counter culture. It was said of Cardinal Home that his great achievement was to take the Catholic Church into the establishment. In the present climate this could be the kiss of death for an institution that could once draw strength from the fact that it was regarded as an alien presence in the land.

All too often the leadership of the churches is drawn from the managerial classes, from the ranks of those whose instinct is to conform and work through established procedures rather than challenge the ruling elites with uncomfortable questions or alternative points of view.

There has been a dumbing down in the churches as theology and philosophy have had to take second place to such practical disciplines as counselling or pastoral studies. How often does a theological topic figure on the agenda of a clergy chapter? Professor Keith Ward (a philosopher as well as a theologian) bravely took on Richard Dawkins in a public debate in Oxford. How many bishops could follow his example? We are fortunate to have an Archbishop of Canterbury who commands widespread respect and who has demonstrated his readiness to confront the secular elite but if a small Welsh diocese had not been prepared to take him as bishop it is unlikely he would be where he is now.

It will be argued (with some justice) that prophets and theologians are not always good at the humdrum business of running a diocese. The answer is to follow the advice of the Church of England’s recent report ‘Mission-shaped church’ and set bishops free from their administrative overload to develop a more apostolic role.

A Keynesian perspective

There is a passage in Robert Skidelshy’s Life of Keynes where he quotes from a diary the young Maynard kept at Cambridge. In November, 1899, Keynes sat and squirmed for twenty-five minutes during a sermon. The preacher was an archdeacon but ‘You must have guessed it’, he wrote. ‘I think that he can preach almost badly enough to be a bishop’. Four months later he recorded a ‘revolting performance’. ‘They ought to make him an archdeacon at once’, Keynes commented about the unfortunate preacher. ‘He has got all the qualifications.’

Keynes finally lost his faith at Cambridge though, as Skidelsky makes clear, he was not without religious interests. He followed TS Eliot’s pilgrimage to Christian belief with special attention and was buried as an Anglican. The institutional church never seems to have captured his imagination or convinced him it had something worthwhile to say. Sadly, since his day the standard of preaching in the Church of England has declined rather than improved.

There are real dangers for a church attempting to survive in a hostile environment if Christians lack the will or the ability to ‘give an account of the hope that is in them’. But the dangers are probably much greater for churches that live in an apparently friendly situation where worldly values and ideas are able to infiltrate their ranks without Christians even being aware of the fact. This is the case in the USA.

Churchy worldliness

As the Presidential election gathers steam, the press is full of reports of the importance of religion in American life. Even Howard Dean knew he was lost without some protestation of faith. In the event he did himself a great deal of harm when, in an interview designed to underline the importance of religion in his life, he placed the Book of Job in the New Testament. George W Bush takes comfort from the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 17 per cent of Americans who are Evangelicals look set to vote for him.

But discerning secularists in America are not really worried about the apparent strength of Christianity in their national life. They know that the churches survive and flourish in their country by reflecting rather than by resisting changes in the general culture.

This is an old argument about American religion that has been revived and applied to present developments by Professor Alan Wolfe. In his new book The Transformation of American Religion he assures his readers that they do not even need to worry about the dreaded fundamentalists. In the end they will adapt and accept gay rights just as they have adapted and learned to live with dancing and divorce. Today’s Evangelicalism, he reports, has lost its doctrinal edge; its main thrust is therapeutic, helping people overcome stress and to learn to love themselves. Emphasize doctrine or standards of sexual morality and you will not attract new members to your church. You may even lose existing members and in a competitive world like the world of American religion that is fatal.

In Wolfe’s words ‘Evangelical churches lack doctrine because they want to attract new members. Mainline churches lack doctrine because they want to hang on to those declining numbers of members they have.’

Theological low tide

Another scholar of American religion, Nancy Ammerman, has commented on the low level of interest in theology and doctrine among American Christians. She divides believers into three categories: those who emphasize social justice; those who try to lead a good life and do good to others (‘golden rule Christians’); and the born again Evangelicals. She regards the golden rule Christians as by far the majority among the middle class and argues that they are even strong in Evangelical denominations as well as in the mainline churches.

The US, concludes Wolfe, lacks traditionalists. As he tells us, ‘Even voters attracted to the Republican Party because they believe divorce rates are too high and pornography too easily available sustain, through their religious practices, a culture that continually upsets the old in favour of the new.’

Healthy hostility

In many ways it is a healthier situation for the churches to face open hostility as they do in Britain than to be infiltrated by secular values as appears to be the case in the US. As David Martin and a score of other sociologists have informed us, churches and other religious organizations flourish when they represent counter-cultural values and offer an alternative view of seeing the world to the one embraced in the wider society. But to succeed in this way they have to speak with conviction and know what they are about. It is far from obvious that churches in Britain are ready to stand up and be counted in the way that Cristina Odone advises.

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.