Two contributors present brief
essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes
independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a
Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of
the traditional Church.
Can the Church Die?
Liberal theologians claim the Church is
dying. Its demise is attributed to the influence of Enlightenment
rationalism on an archaic, anachronistic, ridged, bureaucratic
organization that has failed to keep touch with modernity and the world
of modern science.
How can a rational person admit to the verity of things such as the
Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the Son of God? It is all nonsense -
so goes the argument. For this reason "thinking people" are leaving the
Church in droves, particularly in Europe. In this context I am reminded
of the words of Mark Twain following reports of his death: "The reports
of my death are greatly exaggerated." I wonder if the gloomy reports of
the death of the Church are not similarly premature.
As a regular visitor to Europe over the past fifty years, I am
familiar with the apparent lack of interest in state-sponsored churches.
I have attended services in major cathedrals when the officiants and
choir outnumbered the congregation of worshipers. In contrast my church
in the United States is vibrant and thriving. I regularly sit with my
fellow parishioners (mostly well-educated professionals) and recite the
Apostles� Creed, offer prayers and participate in all the mysterious
ceremonies without any sense of betraying my rational self.
These experiences cause me to question the soundness of the
proposition that the Church is dying because it lacks a sound rational
basis. I submit that if religion is turned into a purely rational
process it is no longer religion. Could it be that rationality has
poisoned religion by robbing it of its fundamental mysterious character?
Many people (even "thinking people") need thoughts and aspirations
beyond the rational/material world in which to anchor their sense of
meaningfulness in life. To claim no reality beyond materialism or to say
that human kind is just one of the animals that dissolve into
nothingness at death, is to destroy a source of reassurance and comfort
for living in the material world.
Could it be that to the degree religion is reduced to a purely
rational affair, to that degree potential adherents will turn away
because that form of religion cannot offer the mysterious experience
State sponsorship of religion surely plays a significant role in the
decline of churches, particularly in European countries. Faith cannot be
forced or extorted. State sponsorship creates such an attitude among its
citizens. Furthermore, behavior of the clerical hierarchy has to be
affected by the insulation afforded by the state. This insulation is not
only financial but, more importantly, parishioners are insulated from
participating in a meaningful way in church affairs.
Given the effects of rationalism and the heavy hand of state
sponsorship, it could be that religious disaffection is as much a
problem of spiritual deprivation as it is of an apparent gap in
The organized Church will probably have ups and downs in its
influence in modern society. However, I am convinced the passion for
religious experience is a fundamental faculty of the human psyche and
will never abate no matter how thoroughly the material universe is
Jesus is reputed to have said, "And so I tell you, Peter: you are a
rock, and on this foundation I will build my church. Not even death will
ever be able to overcome it" (Matthew 16.18). Christians have
subsequently interpreted the passage as predicting that the Church will
not disappear like other human organisations.
To make sense of the Church, I divide it artificially into two
aspects. The first is Church as institution; the second is Church as
As an institution, the Church has already died several times. The
Church we know today differs from the Church which preceded it as one
generation differs from another. Today, the world-wide (or "catholic")
Church is not a single institution but many thousands of fragments.
Their vision is limited; their membership is limited; and their thought
and imagination appears stunted. They exist mainly to reinforce the
conviction of their members that they are right with God. This is Church
for Church's sake. Richard Holloway suggests of this Church that it
� has the impossible task � to preserve the memory of one whose
mission was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power and its
ethic of expedience, even at the cost of his own death.
This conglomerate can and will die, whereas the Church as people will
not. That is, the person and message of Jesus has proved so fundamental
that he is certain to be preserved by free Christians, with or without
Church as institution. He is fundamental to humanity because he serves
some of the deepest needs of ordinary people living ordinary lives.
So as the Church in one form ossifies and decays - as it has in
Europe and will elsewhere, perhaps terminally - so the Church in another
form spills over into God's world, once more invigorating and giving
meaning to human lives.
But note well - death comes in many forms. An apparently vibrant,
stable Church community may attract numbers to its activities. It may be
feted as a so-called mega-church. It may be that it is nevertheless
among the living dead because what it is and does is too comfortable,
too dogmatic, too exclusive. It may be that it has jettisoned Jesus for
the sake of right doctrine, or a cultural tradition, or a view on
sexuality, or a correct structure of authority. It may be that those
faithful to Jesus must flee it if they are to remain Christian.
Let me put the matter another way. God belongs to everyone. Just as
our wonderful planet is so richly varied in its expression of God, so
also do different people respond to God in a vast array of ways.
It is Jesus alone who sets Christians apart from all those others who
valiantly love and loyally venerate their creator. It is Jesus, not the
Church, who calls out some to be his surrogates in the world.
A secular Church, bound helpless by tradition, by money and property,
by mean little pseudo-Christian doctrines, has little or nothing in
common with Jesus, even though it worships both him and God. This Church
may metamorphose as its circumstances change. It may last for centuries.
But it will die - indeed, it is already dead.
The Church which exists for others will live. It will do so in many
ways and forms, a multi-coloured cloud of butterflies fluttering freely
over the face of the earth, delicate but indestructible, pollinating
living plants to new life.