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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The Church

The Christian Church is the most powerful organisation the world has ever known. It has lasted for two millennia, survived internal and external catastrophe, and earned the ongoing loyalty of billions of devotees.

And yet the vast majority of those who belong to the Church seldom, if ever, reflect on what it is to which they belong. They have little or no awareness of the deep historical roots which lie beneath the present day facades of everyday Church life.

Meanwhile, parts of the once great tree which is supported and fed by those roots appear to be wilting. Some say this is a temporary thing, brought on by a drought of faith. Others say that the Church is wilting because it is dying of old age. If we want a healthy, growing tree, they say, we have to start again by planting a new seed. The essence of the tree will stay the same, but it will be better suited to a radically changed environment.

By far the largest section of the worldwide Church tree is the Roman Catholic branch. It accounts for about a billion Christian adherents. The remaining 600 million or so are split between some 50 smaller churches. Of the total of about 1.7 billion adherents only about a fifth at the most can be said to be staunch supporters [1]. In effect, about one in four people on earth today regard themselves as deriving their identity in part from a Christian heritage.

It's a fair bet that most Christians think that the Church was founded by Jesus of Nazareth. However, very few Christian scholars today think the evidence supports this conclusion. Nothing in the historical record of what Jesus said and did to indicates that he set out to found a religious organisation. 

They are almost unanimous that the Church grew from an initial small group of disciples in and around Galilee in Palestine. As the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung puts it:

The New Testament itself does not begin by laying down a doctrine of the Church which has then to be worked out in practice; it starts with the Church as reality, and reflection upon it comes later. [2]

The first Christians were in fact Hebrews who regarded themselves as disciples of another Hebrew they believed was the long-awaited Messiah (Christ in Greek) predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures.

By the fourth century the Church had become the official religion of a declining Roman Empire. Over the next thousand years Christianity grew to be the ruling religion of the West. Then, as European power spread worldwide in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church established itself in tandem with the secular agencies in every part of the globe.

A powerful factor affecting the persistence of the Church through thick and thin has been the teaching that it is invincible. This is based on the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is portrayed addressing his disciples. He says of Peter that "You are the rock upon which I will build my church" and continues:

... and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. [3]

As it turns out, this passage is almost certainly the work of the editor of the Gospel. It is not an accurate reflection of what Jesus actually said. But because this teaching about the Church was formulated long before history as we know it today was invented, it became the received wisdom of the Church.

Behind this improbable claim, however, lies an even more deeply-rooted assumption. It is that the invincibility of the Church derives from other than the natural order. God sustains and protects the institution as the instrument of divine purposes on earth. If that is true, then the Church has access to a type and quality of information and strength not available to those whose perceptions are limited to the non-supernatural.

Because the Church claims access to absolute truth and eternal power, it is also able to claim an unalterable continuity over the vast reaches of historical time. In other words, its form and essence are coterminous. You can't have one without the other. No matter how much the externals of the Church change, there remains an unalterable essence which is not subject to the time and tides of history. Historical research can be applied to the accidents of the Church, but not to its everlasting, underlying essential form.

Hans Kung and others suggest that this assumption is mistaken. Kung writes:

We can only glimpse the real Church if we see the essence of the Church as existing in its historical form, rather than as existing beyond and above it. [2]

In other words, insomuch as the Church does display a certain continuity, that continuity is founded in its history, not in its ability to access the supernatural for special knowledge or guidance. Its essence can remain the same regardless of its form.

However, if the essence of the Church derives from its past and not from the supernatural, an important corollary follows, one which is consistently shied away from by most churches. It is that the Church is a human organisation, no more, no less. Its various forms over time are the result of human choice, not divine influence. And it is as much subject to decay and death as any other organisation.

Burton Mack has written about Jesus and the Church in this light. He suggests that we move away from an inspirational interpretation of the origins of the Church towards a sociological interpretation. The mixture of myth and history of the early Church recounted in the Acts of the Apostles overlays a development process shared with all other organisations.

He asks how the Church might appear to us if we think of it as resulting from the same tides and currents which have formed every other organisation in history. That is, he proposes that the Church be recognised for what it is - the creation of those who sought to promote the Church's holy alliance with God. Not that this creation was in any way dishonest:

... much of what strikes us moderns as fantastic about the early Christian myths was actually quite in keeping with the worldviews of the ancients ... such things as the cosmos penetrated by divine powers ... divine appearances, revelations ... miracles, magic and cults of the divine presence. [4]

Dishonest or not, the Church's mythmaking has given birth to negative features based on its claim to absolute truth and invincibility. Its members have thought themselves justified in behaving in ways which can no longer be reconciled with the Jesus of history:

  • Anti-Semitism   The culture of Roman Empire into which the first Christians emerged validated itself in part by referring back to a golden past. The ew Christianity could not do the same because its origins were patently too recent. It had to search out ancient origins if it was to make its way.

    These origins were found in the Hebrew Scriptures - a process consolidated by Paul within two decades of the death of Jesus. The Scriptures were no longer to be construed only as the story of the Hebrew nation. Instead they had to be read differently. The hidden meanings behind the text could now be explained by the "New Israel" who had identified the real Messiah.

    In the process of re-reading the Hebrew Scriptures (long before the New Testament was created) the Church evolved a deep-seated antipathy to the Jews. What we today call anti-Semitism can be seen in embryonic form in the Gospel of Matthew and in more developed form in the Gospel of John. It develops into a substantial body of anti-Jewish work in the various writings of the Christian Fathers in the first four centuries.

    And, as we know all-too-well today, it flowered later into the poisonous blooms of genocidal pogroms and death camps of many European nations. Tragically, the virus of anti-Semitism has even been passed on through contact with Europeans to some groups in Africa.

  • Persecution   The same conviction of divine inspiration, access to absolute truth, and ultimate invincibility demanded that everyone within the Church's ranks keep in step with the dictates of a divinely-inspired hierarchy. Anyone who did not, either by promoting false teachings or by immoral behaviour, was to be disciplined.

    Persecution of dissenters could be bloody - witness the many thousands, perhaps millions, who were put to the sword over the centuries in Europe. Orthodoxy required recantation of false belief under threat of hellfire and damnation. And recantation was usually achieved, if not by persuasion, then by torture. The demented reasoning and self-righteousness of the European Inquisition in its many forms remains a terrible stain on the Church's character.

    So strong was the Church's drive to control dissenting views that persecution was inevitably extended to all competing ways of discerning the human-divine relationship. Muslims and others could expect no mercy. In the massacres of the Crusades they received none.

    Far worse to the believer's untrained mind was, however, the threat of expulsion from the Church. To be excommunicated was to be cast not into mere physical, temporal suffering, but into the eternal fires of hell. Only a few could face this ultimate sanction. None could face it with complete equanimity.

    Persecution of unbelief continues to this day. Excommunication is still a viable threat to some - though the extremes of the past are no longer tolerated in the secular West.

  • Cultural pollution   An early myth created by the Church was essential to its later expansion, first through the Roman Empire and later into the whole of Europe and then the world.

    This was the supposed instruction by Jesus to "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them ... and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28.19-20; Luke 24.47).

    Until the modern era, it was to be expected that cultures which were Christianised would willy-nilly be dominated by their new masters. The decline and eventual destruction of the Saxon culture by Norman invaders of England in the 11th century witnesses to the ruthlessness which Christian conquerors of the time could and did impose their will.

    But the degree of cultural difference between conquerors and conquered were then comparatively small. Much greater were the changes imposed by sophisticated Western invaders of the 19th century on their new subjects in Africa and Asia. 

    The result of missionary work in comparatively simple cultures turns out, with hindsight, to have been profoundly polluting. The Church suffers to this day from the indignant reactions of those who wish to restore the integrity of their traditional ways. The backlash from those seeking to rediscover their cultural heritage may yet turn out to be profoundly painful to the Church at large.

  • Bigotry   Mission in the sense of convincing others to repent, change and adopt a Christian way of life, is predicated on the belief that the only ultimate truth is Christian.

    This has given birth to offspring of dubious character.

    First, all other religions are to be tolerated - but preferably dismissed - as at best misguided. Their adherents are, if at all possible and sometimes by any means, to be convinced of the genuine truth contained in Christian orthodoxy.

    Second, the scientific and analytical foundations of secular society are to be tolerated, for they bring undeniable benefits when correctly pursued. But the true Christian will put aside worldly wisdom when it clashes with the wisdom of God as preached by the Church. Roman Catholic demands to banish birth control are a good example.

    The claim to absolute truth clashes with the way the modern era regards the world. There has been a fundamental shift towards a sceptical outlook on the problems of life. Truth is something which shifts and changes according to human perceptions and understanding. It is never absolute.

    This way of construing the world naturally regards the Church's claims as bigotry - with considerable justice. The result is a developing alienation between the Church and the very cultures which gave it birth.

The same unshakeable conviction of God-given wisdom and moral rectitude has, of course, powered as much good as bad. Yet despite the many positives of Christianity, the Church in the West appears now to be in steep decline. Only in those parts of the world not yet deeply affected by secular norms does it grow apace. 

But if history has any lessons to teach, the Church will eventually whither there also. Wherever the thought patterns of analytical rationality prevail at the heart of a culture, the Church is likely to decline and perhaps die. As a secular outlook on life takes hold, the mythical structures of Christian thinking will tend to fade away.

It is fitting, therefore, to ask questions about the Church of the future. Can it survive as a meaningful influence? Is the Church necessarily incompatible with a scientific, secular culture? Will a new tree rise from ancient roots, or must a new seed be planted?

Bishop John Spong suspects that the fundamental propositions which have driven the Church over two millennia are no longer intact. That is, the very roots are diseased. A new tree must arise from the earth. He thinks that

... the symbols of a Church in radical transition are present, waiting to be observed and interpreted ... the forms the Church assumed in the past inevitably must die. Those forms and their defenders simply cannot evolve fast enough  to prevent institutional, ecclesiastical death from becoming a reality. [5]

What he and others don't recognise is that unless the Church admits that it is an organisation just like any other, it is likely to sink into eventual obscurity as an unimportant cultic curiosity.

Charles Handy puts in perspective the the Church's organisational nature as bearer of the essence of Jesus :

Organizations, of course, are not objects. They are micro-societies. Those who lead them have to understand the needs and motivations of the people in them. Rulers can only rule effectively with the consent of those whom they govern, which means that they have to think about power and the sources of power, about the constituencies and factions they can rely on and about the techniques of communication and persuasion, in other words - politics. [6]

The irony is that this is already how most churches operate behind the scenes. That is, de facto the Church is already in practice light years away from the doctrines and myths it espouses. And yet - and this is a double irony - it maintains power and authority, structures, rules and procedures better fitted to a long-gone social model. Its form has lost touch with its essence.

To put the issue another way: No organisation can survive for long if it is at odds with its environment. Losing touch with the world around spells organisational death. An organisation dedicated to peace tends to fail if there is no war or other violent conflict. No business can continue if its products or services are not wanted. Similarly, a faith which answers needs of a bygone age can only become irrelevant.

Why should the Church be any different? 

Some will point out the remarkable endurance of the Church as proof that its supra-organisational nature helps it to survive any and all vicissitudes. I suggest that this may have been largely true in the past when Christian citizens saw little essential difference between the culture they lived in and the Church. Indeed, from Constantine onwards until the late Middle Ages, there would have been no distinction between Church and State. It is only today that it has become normative to separate Church and State. In the United States of America, for example, the separation is laid down by that country's constitution.

An implication of the Church as an organisation whose form follows its essence, is that it must be able potentially to relate to people regardless of their culture. As an organisation it should be one thing in the Congo River valley and another in the East End of London. Amongst nomads a church building is nonsensical. And amongst drug dependent teenagers in a city slum a bishop who insists on doctrinal purity is in the end worse than useless.

The question now arises, "What is common to the Church regardless of the organisational form it takes? What is its essence?"

Hans Kung attempts to distinguish between the essence of the Church and its form. They are not identical, he says.

The essence and the form of the Church should not be equated, but must be recognised and distinguished. Even if the distinction between essence and form is a conceptual one, it is none the less necessary. [2]

It is that essence which is currently at the centre of the fierce debates which disturb the self-satisfied slumber of orthodox Christians in the parish pews. 

On one side are those determined to preserve the traditional essence of the orthodox faithful  at all costs. On the other are exiles from the traditional Church who maintain that only by stripping away age-old accretions will the original essence lived out by Jesus be re-discovered and adequately lived out.

Time will tell which is correct.
[1] See the estimates at
[2] The Church, Burns & Oates, 1967
[3] Matthew 16.18
[4] The Christian Myth, Continuum, 2001
[5] Why the Church Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[6] Understanding Organisations, Penguin, 1999

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