It’s an old question, and someone kindly send me a link by e-mail to Fr Guy Winfrey’s blog and its article under this very same title – Is Christianity Dying?. Fr Winfrey is an Orthodox priest, but speaks of Christianity in general without regard to denomination or particular tradition. I link to his article because I find a ring of truth.
We get all kinds of answers to this question, depending what people believe in or don’t believe in. Very often, conservative American Christians denounce the very culture and “money is everything” by which they live – have to live in order to stay where they are. Then they advocate what they call “masculine” and “muscular” Christianity, a kind of religion that operates like an extreme right-wing political ideology. Yet, Americans have only known un-established (as opposed to dis-established) religion and freedom of religion, and therefore without the temporal authority they need to enforce their “orthodoxy” in the manner of the Papacy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a European (or rather an English expatriate), I see through this piece of cant immediately. However, I won’t go into an anti-American diatribe, since I know that only a proportion of Americans think that way, and most are decent honest folk like over this side of the pond.
In Europe, the problem of dying Christianity is much more acute, and we know that Fascism and other “integralist” ideologies have done more harm than good to the standing of the Church in most people’s minds.
We who are Christians search for the first signs of a new spring, the continuing of old traditions like Christmas and Easter, greetings like Grüss Gott in Catholic parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and so forth.
It is sure that the institutional Church is partly to blame for its “irrelevance”, but we live in a culture where money is everything and we exist to consume and become ever more addicted to money. The system is made that way. Whether it is a plan of a great conspiracy or just the end result of modernity, and perhaps the end of history, it is the paroxysm of the industrial revolution and the alienation of man from his roots, culture and traditional values. From this come the radical change of moral values, the denaturing of marriage and the family – itself subjected to the requirements of the consumer society and the money mill (the more you have the more you need), and then perversions in human sexuality and the “culture of death” as Pope John Paul II coined it. The Church institutions have not been above the “sleaze”, but those who criticise the Church for paedophilia and love of money often have worse skeletons in their closets themselves!
The longer I live in our consumer and throw-away world, the more I can feel that Christianity is suffocated and unliveable. It is not by accident that there are still vocations to monasteries and various forms of religious communities for clerics and lay people. But, how do we reject the very world that sustains us, giving us comfort, a feeling of security, doctors when we get sick, money to buy the attractive things shown to us through advertising and marketing? How do we go about it? How can churches become “relevant” to that kind of “culture”? They can’t without renouncing Christianity in some way.
Most of us will not escape “The Pit”, because the wrench would be too painful. It might be possible for some to make some kind of compromise by “simple living”, but that is much more difficult in deed than in word. What kind of churches encourage this kind of lifestyle, when they are addicted to money for their crumbling buildings? There was something very hopeful in nineteenth-century Anglo Catholicism – eschewing the rich bourgeois classes of the Establishment and the idea of bringing beauty and holiness to the poor. The message of the slum priests was a Christian understanding of simplicity and poverty like St Francis of Assisi. Nowadays, the working classes and marginal people are alienated from churches and their “smug orthodoxies” – and many former working and country people are part of the “money is everything” and consumer world.
Total radicalism is an illusion, and some measure of compromise is the only way. We have to have money, but we can work damned hard at reducing our need and addiction for it and other people’s need for ours. I see a need for us to become marginal people to be Christians, at least the prophetic type. How far are we prepared to go?
Many of us in an “establishment” kind of life may baulk at the sight of hippies, or the current equivalent, groups of men and women on motorcycles, “bums” and all sorts – but they seem to be the modern equivalent of the kinds of people to whom Christ stretched out his hand to draw them higher. The so-called “dregs” of society may be immoral and unworthy for most of us, but perhaps less impervious to grace than company directors, bankers and politicians.
I see Christianity living on at the edges, as motorcycle people study the Summa Theologica and dropouts are the philosophers of life. In the USA, there is a higher proportion, better defined, of marginal people – and it is easier to discern their spiritual aspirations. As for churches and institutions, they will last the longest in the cities as they support the “successful”. But for how long? This is the way my reflections are going. Fr Winfrey’s article is very interesting and may enable many of us to be more “honest to God” in our own lives and understanding of what Christianity is really all about.