16 December 2010
Clinging to Christendom
The Church of England has a lesson for the Church in America
“look beyond the pomp and what you actually see is a group of men clinging to the royal skirts while their institution falls to pieces.” - Cole Martin, The Church of England must relinquish its association with power and pomp
A friend of mine recently tagged this article in the Guardian by Cole Moreton, who describes how the Church of England continues to, as he writes, rather desperately cling to its historic privileged position in English culture, despite the fact that it no longer has the same resources, nor the same place in the public consciousness or popular culture that it once did.
This is extremely instructive for the Church in America too.
The de facto national church in America has been the mainline Protestant church, which, until recently, has enjoyed a privileged place in American culture. Today, we too are dealing with fewer resources. We no longer a privileged place in culture. This is symbolized by the repeal of blue laws and sports programming on Sunday mornings - the end of our non-compete clause with culture - but it reflects a deeper and harder reality that our society finds organized religion problematic and the church is much less relevant to their daily lives. (Stanley Hauerwas has a great article about this called America’s God is Dying.)
This is a new reality and, to be honest, I don’t have a problem with it. Maybe its because I never experienced that privilege in my ministry, so I don’t know what I’m missing. Mostly, its because I think the church must be able to stand on its own - and that the message of Jesus does.
In the face of this cultural and civic displacement, uncertainty about the future, lower attendance and fewer resources, the church is experiencing a lot of fear and grief. It longs for better times. It’s instinct, a very natural one, is to return to the time when things were better and, thus, reclaim the church’s privileged position. It is clinging to Christendom.
Christendom is the "informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the West." It began when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and lasted, at least in America, until the fall of American civic religion. That’s around 1600 years.
Breaking news: its over.
It would be a terrible mistake and waste of time, energy and resources trying to recapture Christendom. For, in our desperate attempts to try to recapture the past, we will lose the future.
Moreton ends his article on a somewhat hopeful, if cutting, note for the Church of England and for us:
“However, there may yet be salvation of the Church of England in the big society: if it can accept that it no longer deserves special privileges but is just another group of believers doing their best. If its leaders are really serious about learning from those good-hearted people who already open up churches as rural post offices, arts centres and refuges. If it rolls out ideas like those across the country and once more demonstrates its duty of care by doing things people actually want and need. But most of all, if the bishops put away the gilded robes at last – and finally end their long love affair with royalty, with power and with pomp.”
If we can begin to let go of privilege (and isn't that the way of Jesus?) and embrace the future with the same urgency that we cling to the past, then we will discover - and together, help create - a new day.