Predictions about the Future of Christianity

Two interesting links have been sent out this week by Dr William Tighe, one to the future of Christianity being conservative Evangelical – Atheism is doomed: the contraceptive Pill is secularism’s cyanide tablet.The other is Why Millennials Long for Liturgy. I have found them intriguing as I tend to take an interest in predictions and conjectures about what Christianity might look like in ten years or so, a time scale in which most of us who are not too old reasonably expect to be still alive.

When I have written on this subject, the reactions often tell me that I am too pessimistic and that we should be more upbeat about prospects in the future. Perhaps, and in any case we should be positive and affirmative, since experience has often shown that we often get what we “want”. This is one difference between Americans and Europeans, with the British being somewhat apart.

The prediction of the victory of Evangelical Christianity seems as simplist as hearing Mayor of Brescello Peppone from one of the Don Camillo films expounding on Marxism and the fight of the proletariat against capitalism and the black clerical reaction. At least this is how it strikes me.

The devil in this story is liberalised sexual ethics and the white knight in shining armour is the conservative Evangelical. It’s all about large families of children suitably indoctrinated to outnumber atheists and baby boomer liberals. The ideology sounds just about as hollow as the stuff you probably still get in North Korea, not that I have ever been there! This ideology opposes the older one consisting of saying that when people become comfortable in life, the belief and values of Christianity go out of the window. According to this article, the victors won’t be Muslims but conservative Evangelicals of the American variety.

The alternative to the conservative ideology would be liberal religious people embracing atheism. The idea seems cogent, since this is what seems to have happened. The article says it clearly

Fundamentalists are largely immune to their [those of the atheists] attacks, and become only stronger as the more committed members of the established churches head their way. Those religions that survive will become more conservative.

We hear the same about traditionalist and conservative Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church becoming “smaller but more committed” as the atheist Left attacks it is lifted straight out of the old musings of Cardinal Ratzinger. The interesting thing about this article is that it is not an apologia for the American Tea Party and the kind of politicians who would send troublesome children to the electric chair, but a view of a similar movement occurring in English Conservatism.

Naturally, Christians can only condemn abortion because it is the taking of innocent human life, however tragic the circumstances usually are. But from there to affirming that Christianity will win out by having conservative families have lots of babies lacks credibility. Most of the children of clergy and other devout Christians I have known have taken other directions in life.

Evangelicalism? I have a brief brush with it in the 1970’s as I would go, after having sung Evensong in our Parish Church choir, to where my sister attending a Fellowship service at our town’s other Anglican parish, an Evangelical one. On getting married, my sister became a Baptist, and I attended a service in their church last February a day or two before my mother’s funeral. See Sunday Evening Worship with the Baptists. They are good people, but like many religious communities, they can suffer from the fermentum pharisaeorum, the leaven of the Pharisees, self-righteousness and intolerance.

Evangelical Christianity is growing in many parts of the world, including England, but I don’t think the liberals and atheists have any more to fear from it than the Muslims.

The other article brought to my attention affirmed the idea of large numbers of “millennials” being drawn to liturgical Christianity like traditional Catholicism, Orthodoxy or high-church Anglicanism. I myself am one who was initially attracted to Catholicism (I mean generic Catholicism) by church buildings, choral and organ music and by the liturgy – once I had discovered it in the Milner-White legacy at York Minster. How many others of my age were also interested in such things. There were about 400 boys in my school, and daily and Sunday chapel were compulsory. At school, we had Prayer Book Evensong and optional Series II Communion, rather simple and middle-of-the-road. The incense and processions were down the road at the Minster for things like the Epiphany Procession and the Feast of St Peter, and they were joint services organised with our school choir and the Minster choir. In short, all 400 of us got a good exposure to these ceremonies and regular services, heard the Word, but yet few of us would remain interested in “church”.

I am very sure that most of those 400 young men, a few of which have already died, were not attracted either to the liturgical wealth of York Minster or even to the Evangelical services over the road at St Michael-le-Belfry. A few boys were interested in introducing guitars and the “modern style” for some of our services. I don’t remember many boys being attracted all of a sudden to Christianity because the music was sometimes a little more “catchy”.

This other article advances the idea that post-moderns are yearning for “meaning” through rich liturgy and ceremonial. Some young people were joining Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox communities. In the 1970’s a few of us did, but most did not. The weakness of this article would seem be that of extrapolating from a tiny minority of young people who did get interested in the liturgy and its aesthetics. But so many others say the same thing. There are remarkable examples of the most unlikely and culturally marginal people being attracted to Catholicism, like the band of bikers with long hair and leather jackets in America reading St Thomas Aquinas and becoming Catholics. Things do happen, but it is far from being a general movement. Many of us are attracted by beauty, but only a few are.

The story of someone’s passage from the barest version of American Protestantism to Anglo-Catholicism is moving and impressive, but this is the case of individual people. One thing that shook me to the quick in the traditionalist Roman Catholic world was that most people were not attracted by the beauty of the liturgy even though they were attending the old liturgy – but by religious and political conservatism. There is quite a lot in common between French traditionalists or intégristes and American fundamentalists.

I dare say that if more traditional liturgies were available, a greater cross-section of society would discover what they offer. Most traditional liturgy groups advance this notion of large numbers of young people being attracted by the old rites. Certainly, many young adults are bowled over by what they discover. Are the numbers so high? There are striking events like thousands of young people on the Chartres Pilgrimage each Pentecost, closely associated with scouting and the Benedictine abbeys being filled with young men. That is undeniable. The notion that any young people are attracted to traditional liturgies is something that deeply disturbs some of the old liturgical “dinosaurs” of the church establishments.

Here in France, some of the old Charismatic communities slowly evolved into a more monastic spirituality as they “re-ritualised” the new liturgy. There are quite a few articles on the Internet showing this idea that young people are returning to the older forms of liturgical Christianity.

I think a lot of study needs to be done on making the distinction between those attracted by the liturgy and the contemplative dimension of Christianity, on one hand, and those who are more motivated by politics and the anti-liberal reaction. I am at a loss to find objectivity in this matter, and would appreciate comments.

From a certain point of view, it would look as if the future belongs to conservatism, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-liberalism, intolerance and even fanaticism in some cases. It looks to be a dark prospect, if the far-right is the only alternative to the dying relics of socialism, capitalism and the many things we fear. I would be very sceptical about liturgical Christianity becoming a mass movement, dominated by political ideology and force rather than a discreet leaven of discovery and spiritual growth.

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3 Responses to Predictions about the Future of Christianity

  1. Neil Hailstone says:

    There is certainly something going on out there with regard to Conservative Evangelicals. In Iceland last month over 1,000 people officially left the Lutheran Church and if my memory serves me 436 new registrations were enrolled as Independent. There are only some 320,000 inhabitants and at any given time some 10% are away living and working in Norway to set these figures in context. As I understand it the state registers church affiliation in Iceland. Independent refers in practice to Evangelical. The Lutheran Church in that country exhibits doctrinal and moral incoherence and the numbers of people attending have declined rapidly in recent years.

    I read this with interest on an Icelandic news site because it coincides with what I was seeing in New Zealand when visiting my son last Autumn. The Anglican church there is in free fall, the RC’s are reasonably stable but there is clearly a significant growth in Independent Evangelical congregations. Not only do these advertise in the free newspaper in Wellington, the capital, but you see large numbers of people emerging from their venues when driving through parts of the city. We are all aware of the current growth of Independent Evangelical churches in the UK.

    I have to say that there are features of this type of Evangelical faith which concern me. As a Catholic Christian there will always be questions I cannot answer and some uncertainties.

    I am wary both in faith and politics of authoritarian leaders claiming with absolute conviction that they have every last answer to everything. I can understand human beings having the desire for absolute certainty and therefore looking up to such people but surely for most of us this type of faith is not, and will not, be the way forward.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, I think your final words “dominated by political ideology and force rather than a discreet leaven of discovery and spiritual growth” sum up the intrinsic contradiction at the heart of the first thesis, namely, that traditional liturgical Christianity will triumph because its devotees will outpopulate their enemies. [This argument conjures up the image of those creatures who spawn thousands of eggs in the expectation that, on statistical probability, a few will survive the first 24 hours, which is probably a truer outcome than the usual hope of such advocates that 16 children will mean 16 new permanent disciples.]

    Closed communities which provide an intense and longterm formation from childhood will probably tend to self-sustain, but at what cost? You see, Jesus appeared to call people to individually convert, to embrace the kingdom out of will and love. It is this metanoia that plays a central role in a healthy, spiritual Christianity. When making babies becomes a religious strategy rather than the fruit of unitive love, I can’t help feeling a key point of Christianity has been lost. Both zealous puritanical and socially-engineering atheists and zealous puritanical and socially-engineering Christians seem very similar to me. Perhaps this is what happens when religion is taken too seriously.

  3. ed pacht says:

    I am wary both in faith and politics of authoritarian leaders claiming with absolute conviction that they have every last answer to everything. I can understand human beings having the desire for absolute certainty and therefore looking up to such people but surely for most of us this type of faith is not, and will not, be the way forward.

    Neil Hailstone hits it on the head with this. Ultimately I see little difference in thought process between Fundamentalists, rigid Traditionalists, Liberals of the sort who make war on conservatives, or even, for that matter, the New Atheists, all of whom hubritically think they have every last answer, and do everything in their power to eliminate the Incomprehensible and Mystery.

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