Jonathan Lloyd mourns the passing of his liberal youth the wonderful decency of the first generation lapsed and the sad disappointment of the second generation
Once I was a liberal, for I caught the dream; now I am no longer, for I have learned this dream is impossible. Despite the aggressive certainties of those who pass for liberals now, I have never lost a certain yearning for the gentler days when I was young. Yes, we were amazingly conceited and selfish, but there was a charm and an optimism that is still attractive. What went wrong?
In the rapidly expanding cities of the nineteenth century and their accompanying social chaos, the churches offered a moral order, an education, a discipline that was immensely attractive. When hard work and moral commitment were valued, church-going was seen as a positive, socially useful activity. Who were the good guys then? Those who went to church three times every Sunday, and put into practice what they had learned there.
Open and generous
Times change. In a highly educated, highly regulated age, there is less immediate need for personal social morality, and strong discipline; in a time of great mobility and an increased diversity of
culture, the social virtue is now tolerance. When the government does so much more to look after people, in their unemployment, educational need, old age and sickness, there is little call for those Victorian values.
Who are the good guys now? No longer the churchgoers, but the lapsed. The lapsed are those who know the Christian story, who were taught the Christian virtues, who were educated under Christian discipline, but who no longer carry the excess baggage of the Christian Church, the narrowness, the hypocrisy, the disapproval. Good, moral people, who are nevertheless utterly relaxed about divorce, abortion, gays, and so on; who will not preach at you, who are not uptight, who do not believe impossible things, who are not guilty by association of all the historical sins of the Church.
Many of my friends
Sadly, it is rather more subtle than non-churchgoers suppose. I would be happy, churchgoer though I am, to say that it is the First Generation Tapsed who win the prize for being, in general terms, the nicest guys. People brought up in Christian homes, who went regularly to church, became servers, joined the choir, went to a church school, who were brought up in other words within the Body of Christ, with every expectation that they would remain.
But that was the late twentieth century, so of course they did not remain. They were modern and liberal and moved to another town, and lapsed, and perhaps only ever went to church for weddings and when back with parents at Christmas. Many of my friends have been exactly like this, and they are good people -better than me. And then they have children.
They have children, and face the terrible question. How do you bring up your own children, when you yourself have left the Church? ‘By bringing them up as Christians,’ is the generally quite confident reply. It ought to work, and it is all done with genuine conviction and the best of intentions. This is surely why church schools are so hugely popular, why parents will tell if nec-
it cannot be passed on secondhand, it must be lived
essary lie after lie in order to get their children accepted. The understanding is there and the commitment is real – Christian education matters. And no doubt such children will have been brought to church for baptism. They are Christians but don’t have to go to church to prove it.
The next generation
God’s grace is freely given, and God-be-praised there are exceptions, but in general terms we can see that this wonderful, logical, well-intentioned scheme does not work. The Second Generation Lapsed do not live up to their parents’ expectations. The Christian faith, even reduced only to its moral content, cannot merely be taught. It must also be learned, as though it were real, as though it were true (and this includes the theo-
__________________ logical bits), within the Body of Christ.
It cannot be passed on second-hand; it must be lived.
The First Generation Lapsed can look back, and without undue conceit say, ‘We are better than our parents’ generation -more tolerant, liberal, broad-minded, and with wider moral concerns for animals, for the environment, for third world poverty, and so on. Why should I return with my child? Why should I bring her back into the narrow confines of a declining church?’
How sad. It makes such clear and well-meaning sense that it ought to be right. It ought to be the case that the teachings of the gracious Galilean, the anti-establishment Son of Man, as mediated in the gospels, can be understood and taken to heart without any need for the Body of Christ, the Church. And yet somehow it isn’t. My friends’ children, nice as many of them are, have not lived up to these aspirations: they are not the generous, tolerant versions of Christians that their parents were; they are rather ordinary, moderately decent, utterly non-aspirational secularists.
if it could be done, then the liberal dream could be realized. It would be possible to live the Christian life without reference to the Church. You may say that this can happen already, that there are many good people who never darken the door of a church. Of course there are. God’s grace is freely given, and he does not need his Church to pour out his gifts on whom he will. But this is not the liberal dream – the gratuitous outpouring of grace.
No, rather, it is that ordinary folk – like you and me if you wish – full of good intentions, committed, open and generous, could pass on what we had received from the Church without having to return and be part of it, that we could bring up our children as Christians without crushing them under the weight of that ancient institution. We know that the historic Church is imperfect, inward-looking, obsessed with trivializing detail, burdened with out-of-date moral commands; we know that we would be tainted with its inevitable inadequacies.
So we dreamt that by our own efforts, and in the simplicity of our own homes, we could pass on the fullness of the Christian Gospel, the love and faith and hope, but with none of the baggage. But it did not happen. But it did not happen.