Shaping the Future Shaping the Future: an Anglican perspective
Graham James Albert Einstein once said “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough”. So he might think this essay – and all others in this volume – a vain enterprise. Mapping the future has always been a precarious business. By its nature the future is unpredictable. I discovered a telling example of this some years ago.
In early 1993 our family had moved to a new home. I had to take up an old carpet in the dining room. Beneath it I found newspapers instead of underfelt. They were perfectly preserved. One was a copy of The Times from the end of 1979. I quickly abandoned domestic chores and started reading an article by William Pfaff describing what he thought would happen in the 1980’s. The headline was “What will happen when Russia’s old men go”. He was writing in the age of Brezhnev and when President Carter was still in the White House. More than fifty American hostages had been held for nearly a year in Iran. The United States seemed weak. Soviet power appeared impregnable. So it’s perhaps not surprising that William Pfaff’s predictions were wrong in almost every particular. It seemed unthinkable that the coming decade would be one in which Soviet power would crumble and the Iron Curtain would fall, leaving America as the single great super power. The Islamic revolution in Iran was little understood and the impact of the new Polish Pope scarcely seemed worth mentioning. This article written at the end of the 70’s seemed to inhabit a different world than the one I lived in when I read it in 1993.
Newspaper articles are quickly forgotten unless they are kept under carpets, so no one usually assesses how wrong they often are. It’s a warning to this writer and all contributors to this volume not to claim too much or to think the future is simply going to be a continuation of the present. Bernard Levin once said “The future is not what it was”. It never is. What happens today and tomorrow reshapes the future but we don’t usually know how. The future in Iraq won’t be what it was as a result of the events of the past year, but only the foolish would have great confidence in saying what it will be.
What of the future of religion, more particularly for the Church of England and the Anglican communion? Looking back on that article by William Pfaff, it was noticeable that religion wasn’t expected to be a major player on the world scene in the 1980’s. Yet in Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and in South America the impact of religion upon public and political life was considerable and sometimes revolutionary – and in many parts of the world remains so. The United States of America continues to be a society with high religious observance. Yet that’s not so here. The commentators fall over themselves to predict the demise of the Church of England in the not too distant future. An editorial in The Times said “The Church of England is now in serious peril and that peril becomes every hour more imminent”. When was that said? 2nd October 1832. It’s not a new story. But it is common place to think that church going in England (and the rest of the United Kingdom) will continue to decline, that the Church will become even more marginal to people’s lives and that secular values will triumph. That would be no loss, say people like the scientist Richard Dawkins, since he believes Christianity both dangerous and an affront to the scientific mind. It’s time we grew up, he says, and left infantile religion behind.
Yet there’s another side to the story. This isn’t a society that has lost interest in the spiritual side of life. Everyone seemed surprised when 72 per cent of the UK population described themselves as “Christian” in the latest census. There’s nothing fashionable or even socially conventional about counting yourself in nowadays, so it suggests a deeper instinctive loyalty than most people imagine. Around 40 per cent of the population goes to church at Christmas. The Church of England has traditionally only counted communicants on Christmas Day itself whereas huge congregations are often found at Christingle services, Carol services and nativity celebrations a day or two before hand. We seem bad at week by week church going but surprisingly good at celebrating festivals. Then there’s the interest in Celtic spirituality, crystals, and all the varied expressions of that vague movement we call New Age. This adds to an open and developing spiritual scene. Meditation is in vogue. Retreat centres, Christian and Buddhist, are hugely popular. Religious communities have big numbers of visitors. Cathedrals are places of growth and vitality in Christian life, even though they are the most emphatic expressions of organised religion. It is a puzzle. If organised religion and the Church of England in particular is on the way out, why are cathedrals so popular?
Looking to the future, we could go even further down the road of spiritual consumerism taking whatever elements of our different traditions appeal to us. Is there anything wrong with that? If religion helps, comforts and supports people in their lives, then surely it has value? Up to a point. But the Christian tradition as lived out within the Church of England makes truth claims. It isn’t simply about what is true for us. The God in whom we believe is true for everyone. Faith isn’t about feelings. It’s about the mind and the spirit responding to the truth about God.
The Church of England has always believed the truth about God is found in scripture, tradition and reason. This three pronged approach is under threat both within and beyond the Church. I believe, though, all three elements are needed in the future.
The scriptures are those authoritative writings in the Old and New Testaments which form not simply a history of faith but which the Church has declared to be a sure means of exploring what God has done in Jesus Christ. We don’t begin our search for God from nowhere. Others have searched and found him before us.
We live in an age suspicious of authority in general and particularly sceptical about written texts from the past governing life now. One reaction within the Church to this tendency in wider society is to make the scriptures even more authoritative. That’s the way of fundamentalism and literalism. It’s the wrong answer. It’s like conserving a building so that it never changes: eventually the building seems lifeless, so well protected it has no living power. The answer isn’t to jettison the scriptures but to treasure them more fully and keep them in dialogue with life. In John’s Gospel Jesus is recorded as saying that “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14.26). Word and Spirit. We need both.
The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is regarded as the birthday of the Church. It’s when the first believers were given the power to preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection. Spiritual energy has flowed through the Church since those early days. The Church – as the people who make up Christ’s body in the world today – isn’t an institution but a community. The Church has weak and fallible people within it. It is bound to. They are the only raw material that God has. Yet for all its failings the Church is a world-wide community in which there are no barriers of age, race, gender or nationality. It’s also a living community across space and time. The Church isn’t a community which simply consists of those who are living now. The Church is that community across space and time in which the scriptures are read and understood. Any family or community has a tradition. We don’t reinvent ourselves every day.
Nor do we believe the impossible and the irrational. The Church of England believes the human mind is a gift from God. The divine mind is beyond our understanding, but belief in God isn’t superstitious or a fantasy. Even so, the Church of England says that reason on its own isn’t enough. It can imprison us simply within the thinking of our own time. We need to give authority to the experience of people in the past. When we live as members of a community that embraces a much bigger world than our own, we are enlarged in mind and spirit as well.
None of this is fashionable within the Church let alone beyond it. The search for novelty, the stress on individual rather than corporate experience, a general impatience with tradition and the past: all affect religion too. Yet a future which ignores accumulated human wisdom and focuses only on the new or personally attractive will soon become unscientific and amoral as well as irreligious.
We tend to think that the age in which we live is quite unlike any that has gone before. I think there are similarities between life in Europe now and life in Europe as long ago as the eighth century. Outwardly things have changed a lot, but that was a time when a good deal of the Christian tradition in Europe seemed to have been lost, for the Roman Empire had long ago crumbled. The Church began to engage in a new mission to people who seemed to have lost or only half-remembered the faith. Among the great missionaries of the eighth century was Boniface. He was born at Crediton in Devon but is much better known in Germany where his missionary labours are still remembered and honoured. Back in 716 Pope Gregory II gave Boniface a quite remarkable charge for his work in Germany. He said “You are to instruct the people in the service of God’s Kingdom by persuading them to accept the truth in the name of Christ. You will imbue them with the Old and New Testaments in a spirit always of love and moderation, and in a manner of argument appropriate to their comprehension”. Persuasion, love and moderation. They are not qualities that have ceased to be relevant. In a world that’s often sceptical, war-like and extreme they are now the radical option. In the context of a faith rooted in scripture, reason and tradition, let’s give them another try.