Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Religion on the Level: #4
Richard Holloway

What is the use of the Church?

The title of this lecture is, "What is the use of the Church?" If we happen to be members of a particular Ch
ristian denomination we'll almost certainly apply the question to that body; so there will be as many answers as there are churches; and that brings us up against our first real issue.

The Church (in spite of the claims that individual churches may make about themselves) is a plural reality and was so from the beginning. The Church is not and never really has been a single identifiable system with one set of distinguishing characteristics. One classic way of talking about this is to point out that speaking sociologically, "church" by definition means plurality and inclusiveness whereas "sect" means singularity and exclusiveness.

It is an inescapable human fact that some people want only to belong to groups of the like-minded, or sects, however tiny. Indeed, the perfect sect is probably a solitary individual with no one around to disturb his absolute sense that he alone is right. Most people recognise that there are many competing answers to the problems that obsess us and the issues that occupy us, so they instinctively organise themselves into  larger groupings that allow diversity and the winnowing effect of controversy on their struggle with truth, and we call these systems churches or assemblies.

So far I am not using the distinction in a particularly religious way. It fits many institutions. You will sometimes hear politicians describe their party as a "broad church" because it represents a wide range of views in contrast with, for example, some of the tiny political sects on the edges of politics in this country. But the church/sect typology is a useful place to begin to think about the dynamics of the Christian Church.

Until fairly recently, I used to live opposite a living example of the sect dynamic. When I was a priest in Edinburgh in the Seventies, I lived a few yards from Princes Street. At the foot of the Mound, next to the Royal Scottish Academy, we have a sort of Speakers' Corner and I used to spend a few minutes looking on and listening in during my Sunday afternoon walk, when most of the action took place.

One man fascinated me. He was virulently anti-Roman Catholic and spent his time proving that the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Like many soap-box obsessives he was a brilliant debater. When handling hecklers he was quick with historic facts and illustrations, all proving how evil Rome was and how unbiblical were its most characteristic doctrines.

I used to wonder what kind of life he led, this man who was so clearly obsessed with the institution he hated. What did he do the rest of the week, I used to wonder? Did he spend all his time studying the material put out by those dismal Protestant Protection societies with their endless conspiracy theories, or did he lead an otherwise normal life in the bosom of a happy family?

I got the answer a few years ago when I moved into the flat I live in  now. I noticed that he lived with a large dog in a basement in the crescent opposite. Several times a day I would pass him in the street with his dog, walking swiftly, head down. He lived alone, spoke to no one, seemed to be visited by no one. On my way to the early morning Eucharist at the Cathedral I would pass his lonely figure.

It was a triumph when I got him to return my good morning greeting with a grunt although there was never any eye contact. He has moved on now, I think. I certainly have not seen him for months. For me, he encapsulated the almost psychotic imperative of the sect mentality, ending up on his own, hidden away in an anonymous basement flat, nursing God knows what fantasies about the dangers that swarmed above his head.

The main characteristic of the sect and the sectarian mind is fear, whether of pollution or ultimate damnation. Most of us know that there are many weird people out there with strange opinions, but we are usually undisturbed by their monomania unless they manage to take over some institution that is important to us and drive it in their own direction.

It is, in Yeats' phrase, the worst who are filled with passionate intensity while the rest of us are enjoying our ordinary lives. Many obsessive sectarians are probably also psychotic, but I do not want to trespass into the area of mental health tonight except to point out that at the root of much religious sectarianism is a kind of ultimate fear.

Religious anxiety goes back a very long way and is probably behind the ancient sacrifice system with its detailed placation of angry gods. The sacrifice system is itself almost extinct, though William Dalrymple found remnants of it in Eastern Orthodoxy during his travels in the Middle East when researching his book From the Holy Mount.

The language of placation, however, is very much a part of the Christian tradition still. George Mackay Brown gives us an entertaining example in his book An Orkney Tapestry.

"We'd do weel to pray," said a North Ronaldsay fisherman to his crew as another huge wave broke
over them. It had been a fine day when they
launched the boat. Then the sudden gale got up.
Willag was a Kirk elder. The skipper told him to
start praying. Spindrift lashed in and over.

"O Lord", said Willag, "Thou art just, thou art
wonderful, thou art merciful, great are thy
works. Thou art mighty."

Willag faltered in his litany of praise. The boat
wallowed through a huge trough.

"Butter him up", cried the skipper, "butter him up." [1]

It is easy to figure out the connections between the sometimes overblown language of praise and worship in the Christian liturgy and ancient styles of address of the sort that is now applied only to the Queen in Britain.

The presence of sectarian anxiety has a less straightforward background but I would like to suggest one possible explanation for its survival in Christianity. We'll encounter this anxiety increasingly as we get to the end of this, the last year of the second millennium and the newspapers are already providing us with interesting examples.

For instance, the Israeli government has already deported some members of a Christian sect that had gone to the Holy Land to wait for the end of the world. They are quite clear about the cataclysmic side-effects that will accompany the end, such as passenger planes plunging to earth because some pilots, members of the elect, will be caught up by God into the Rapture that will precede the end, while the rejected passengers plunge to a fiery death below.

You can see how the anxiety about the millennium bug in our computers plays right into this kind of religious paranoia. The Scottish newspapers published an article recently about a family from England that has moved to a house on a remote hilltop in the highlands to wait for the end of the world because they want to be as far away as possible from Heathrow when all those planes start dropping from the sky.

Behind this anxiety there lies an ancient human response to oppression, called Apocalyptic.

There is a lot of apocalyptic material in the Bible because the people in Palestine, existing as they did in the narrow corridor of land between opposing empires experienced great oppression in their turbulent history. The social and political system of biblical times was a complex domination system that required for its maintenance not only a peasant class, poised permanently between poverty and destitution, but an expendable class who were totally outside the system and lived in the margins and shadows of society.

Apocalyptic is the projection onto the future of the longings of beaten  people. God will come and smite their oppressors with a sword and establish a reign of peace and justice on earth. If you know the Old Testament you will already be hearing some of these great passages in your head. Apocalyptic was one of the great themes present in Israel in the days of Jesus, and it protagonists contributed an important strand to the complex religious situation of the time.

John the Baptist probably belonged to this tradition. His baptism was an act of preparation for the great cleansing that was to come, when the land would be purified with fire. It is also pretty certain that Jesus went through an apocalyptic phase. We know that he was baptised by John in the Jordan, but his work took a radically different turn.

He moved from an eschatology of supernatural intervention to an eschatology of challenge and discovery. The longed-for dispensation would not come as a sudden visitation from above, as though the new society was to be magically substituted for the old one, but was already there, latent in human relationships of love and justice, and was realised by living intentionally in its presence. 

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