A very illuminating article has come up from an American point of view – The De-Churching Of America by Red Dreher. Though his emphasis is on his own country, many of his observations reflect the situation in England with the present directions taken by the Church of England. He also mentions the plight of France’s rotting church buildings, increasingly slated for demolition by those public authorities not prepared to continue financing their upkeep.
On reading this article, it occurs to me that Christianity, whether Protestant or Catholic, has depended for too long on bourgeois social conformity and ultimately on the old Latin saying Cuius Rex eius religio – your religious beliefs and practices are not determined by any objective truth but by whoever is running the country you’re living in. If that standard changes, you change with it.
What does it all mean to us? Some will threaten us saying that if we leave civil Christian orthodoxy, we will end up on the radical left or the alternative right. What about the option of being oneself and going a different way, and – by the way – rediscovering Christianity as Christ looking after the little ones and marginalised. Healthy people don’t need the doctor, only when something is wrong and you want to put it right.
My impression of America has always been mixed. It used to be the individual’s dream, like the Transcendentalism about which I have written. Now, the analogy seems to be the anthill and the ants – as with European city dwellers commuting to “bullshit” jobs. If I were a layman in America, which church would I go to? Probably one that would be hundreds of miles away from my home.
Perhaps it is the Rex who is deciding everything. I talk not of President Trump but simply of social conformity. What is happening in America is what happened in Europe, Canada and Australia decades ago. We have contented ourselves for too long with a caricature of Christian culture that we no longer bother to seek something more authentic or which speaks to our inmost being.
Many things will depend on how committed we are to politics and the current polarisation between “right” and “left”, seemingly leading in the minds of some pundits to a second civil war, or whether we decide to be independent from it all even if we conform outwardly to continue to enjoy the advantages of modern consumer capitalism for as long as it lasts. For us, it will depend on whether we still have the money to spend on it.
There are alternatives to being left or right wing militants. Just go away and find a new life in the margins – and you will find others in the margins. I have again been reading about the modern equivalent of hippie communities and folk living in boats. Expressed ideas are often angry and stereotyped, but some are profound and express a message for the future.
Being marginal and unafraid of it is a “sign of contradiction”, a boat being rowed against the current. It might not get very far, no further than the first Christians before the Peace of Constantine when the temptation of becoming establishment was finally swallowed. The moment of success was the failure of what made Christianity true and good. I always return to the quote of St Jerome I found in a book by Soloviev: Ecclesia persecutionibus crevit; post quam ad christianos principes venit, potentia quidem et divitiis maior, sed virtutibus minor facta est (The Church firstly languished under persecution. After this, she turned to Christian rulers who gave her wealth and power, but she thereby grew weaker in virtue). That is the root of the problem, yet Christianity based on personal dignity and spiritual freedom could not last. Christ himself, in temporal terms, did not last very long. The clergy of Jerusalem got the Romans to execute him like a common criminal and his resurrection and ascension were only clear to a few. Outside Christianity, only Flavius Joseph wrote anything significant about Christ. Slender underpinnings indeed.
The thinking of the old Worker Priests and Fr Guy Gilbert among others was not far off, when they didn’t convert everything into political ideology using disembowelled Christian terminology. However, such a mission has no room for traditional Christian culture like organ and choral music, beautiful churches and art. I myself am attached to such things, but they are not enough to get people back into medieval and Victorian church buildings and foot the bill for their upkeep. Administrators in the Church of England and in French Roman Catholicism know that the “game is up”. It’s over and has been for a long time.
We will live long enough to see cathedrals become museums or secular buildings for cultural or business purposes. Churches can no lo longer be maintained, unless they are very small and within the abilities of people who do up houses to work on. The church of the future is no bigger than a garage of a garden shed or a room in someone’s house. My article of yesterday showed the extreme reduction of a place of worship to a corner of a tent on a camp site or on a rock on the beach. The place of worship will follow the number of worshippers from a priest alone to a couple of stubborn souls (where two or three…).
Perhaps, Christianity can be instilled in family life from parents to children – in some cases. It all depends how dependent the parents are on the consumer capitalist world that woos them with lots of stuff and gadgets (which I have to use myself to work in the services industry). Here comes the “Benedict Option” of getting families into alternative societies and intentional communities. Such communities do exist, but most are opposed to any kind of “dogmatism” or institutional church getting its claws in. Perhaps a priest has himself to live alternatively and grow into the community – and that was the essence of priests who were stigmatised in the 1950’s for being too radical and progressive. They just saw the limits of the institutional Church – and the way its discredited itself for hob-nobbing with the Nazis in the early 1940’s. The scars are still there in France! Reading Bonhöffer will clarify many things for us.
What is the “new” Christianity. Simply going to the New Testament and the examples of light shone in the darkness through individual persons (saints) and monasteries. Here are there, there were parishes and dioceses that shone by their love of Christ rather than by the standards of worldly success. We in the margins of society have to rebuild Christian culture through writing, art, and simply by spending time with other marginal folk without trying to sell anything.
I can only get a feeling about Dreher’s Benedict Option. He is an American and I am European. The perspectives are different. Alternative communities or any kind of alternative living is just like the mainstream – you have to have money. Some ways of life need less money than others, and less dependency on The System (The Pit) or whatever you want to call it. There always has to be some compromise. You just have to balance your accounts and make sure that you have the time and space to live a life worth living.
The key will be the greatest independence from the System, and the ability to become ourselves and decide on our priorities. Some will decide to live in intentional communities (as pawns in a cult or buying into some form of cooperative at market prices), or live alone or in families and meet up from time to time, like in the case with nomadic people on the sea or on land.
Is Christianity a marketable commodity to be sold, imposed by persuasion? I don’t think so. It seems to be something to be found and rediscovered when we are dissatisfied by the record of some other religions and ideologies. A part of this blog is one of offering seeds to others – free of charge and with no advantage to myself trying to live life as a priest and an ordinary guy.