Monday, January 24, 2005

Church from the margins

One of my meetings last week was with a group from a church who are having a weekend away at which I'm speaking.

One or two of them are very excited about Stuart Murray-Williams' Post-Christendom - an excellent examination of why we've ended up where we have. They would like me to explore what it means to be and do church from the margins.

So I've started thinking and will post random thoughts from time to time - if anyone wants to challenge or add to my thinking, I'd be grateful.

One thing that has struck me is a paradox of marginality that means the church now is in a similar position to the position it was in when it first started. Let me explain (if I can).

Although church going in Britain has become a minority activity and the Christian story has become one among many stories vying for our attention (and one that doesn't get taken seriously by the media), the church as an institution still has a central role in British life and culture. For example, 70% of brits describe themselves as Christian. For example, bishops sit in the house of Lords, the Christian view on moral issues is still heard if not listened to and the media still reports on what's happening within the church.

Furthermore, churches - by virtue of their history and recognisable buildings (see previous post!) - have a place in most communities around Britain. Many are centres of excellence in the provision of childcare, welfare work, educational activities and youth work. Many people who do not share our faith, regard the presence of the church locally as a key generator of social capital.

So although Christian faith is an activity increasingly pushed to the margins of our culture, church and Christian teaching still has a place at the centre of public life.

This paradox (if that's what it is) is mirrored in the early history of Christianity as recorded in Acts. The first Christians were a sect within second temple Judaism. So they shared a heritage, common values and traditions and especially common scriptures with the dominant culture around them. They were thus able to get a hearing for their new take on this history because they spoke the language of those around them - I don't mean aramaic and greek but shared perceptions of the world.

How much is this true of us? I came across a group of Americans last week who were over studying Shakespeare as part of a drama course. What they were finding interesting and challenging was the fact that in order to appreciate the bard, they needed to draw from the well of Christian faith and teaching that had nourished him. I wonder how many brits have made a similar discovery. Much of our culture and tradition is incomprehensible without an understanding of Christianity.

Indeed as John Gray - professor of European Thought at LSE and not a Christian - points out, the dominant secular humanist culture of the west is a pale, misguided and therefore dangerous dilution of the Christian faith. Everything good in it - human rights, protection of individual freedom, community values, etc - comes from Christianity; everything bad in it - a belief in ethical progress and the ultimate triumph of our values in the world and thus universal human happiness - is derived from Christian eschatology stripped of the controls and faith in God that kept purveyors of such beliefs slightly more humble in previous generations.

What might all this mean for a church that is increasingly marginalised but which still has the key to the origin of many of the values we hold dear in Western culture? Answers on a postcard, please...

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