Ageing congregation

A few days ago I put up a post responding to the statistics in the Church Times about patterns of churchgoing. I was quite struck by the comments, which not only offered fresh insights but confirmed the statistics: religious people think for themselves regardless of what church leaders teach.

The thinking is going in a particular direction. Last year we celebrated 50 years of John Robinson’s Honest to God. Those who in 1963 welcomed his approach were rebelling against the official doctrines of the churches; now, even regular churchgoers, far from rebelling against them, just ignore them. The question is: what are we going to replace them with?

Tess’ ‘coffee-fueled group hug’ probably describes the current state of many local churches; but if that’s all they are, they won’t last. It’s all too easy to see why dogmatic ‘conservatives’, whether evangelical or catholic, see them as ripe for a takeover. How can churches develop a positive, engaging faith which doesn’t just revert to the old, unconvincing dogmas?

My account of how we got to our present state is here. To summarise, most mainstream western churches, Catholic and Protestant alike, became more dogmatic in the nineteenth century in response to the rise of atheism. Christian teaching was redefined so that it was separate from, and transcended, observable scientific evidence about the physical world. It became:

  1. dogmatic; if you want to belong to our church you have to assent to our unverifiable statements of faith, and
  2. reactionary; to belong to our church is to defy modern secular ways of understanding reality.

This version of Christianity lost credibility in the 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, most churches reaffirmed the dogmas while the majority of the population stopped going to church. I’m thinking primarily of England but I think the pattern is more widespread.

If this is an acceptable summary, the main plot is the rise and decline of dogmatism. If it reached its peak around 100 years ago, it was revived in reaction against 1960s liberalism but now really does need replacing with something else. The sub-plot is the rise and decline of atheism. It was at its most popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and this added fuel to the revived dogmatism of the 1970s.

From this perspective the findings of the social surveys are what we would expect. There are still some  churchgoers whose main concern is to divest themselves of oppressive dogmas. It remains a significant theme in liberal theology; my comment on it is here.  However most people believe in something. They are not sure what it is, but they do not philosophise about whether, and in what sense, it exists. On the contrary many feel a desire to relate to that something and express the relationship, whether in churches or elsewhere.

This seems to me an excellent basis upon which to develop a new movement in the history of Christianity. Assuming that the dogmatic 19th-century phase has now come to an end, if Christianity is to have a future we are now at the beginning of something new. If so, then the comments on my earlier blog post indicate how to proceed. After divesting ourselves of the dogmas we no longer believe, we ask ourselves what remains that we do believe. And then, why this residue of belief matters. By exploring what this residue means and implies, we can build up a shared discourse and common themes.

The future character of Christianity will probably be formed by discourses of this type, even if institutional church leaders claim the lion’s share of the credit. It may sound pretty bare and basic, as though a completely new religion is being created out of the spiritual feelings of the present generation. However I do not think it needs to work out like that.

Firstly, by dispensing with the traditional dogmas and starting with a sense that we relate to a something greater than us, which we cannot define, we are well within traditional Christian teaching. Every adequate account of God accepts that God is greater than our understanding; otherwise it would not be what Christians mean by God. To this extent the dogmatic phase was misleading, in that it gave a false impression that church leaders know the answers.

Secondly, if we start not with inherited dogmas but with our own spiritual awareness, we ensure that our own religious understanding is meaningful to us – but we do not need to stop there. We can still draw on the Christian tradition to help us respond to, and enrich, the spiritual awareness that comes most easily to us. It is one thing to say that in the post-dogmatic age we no longer feel obliged to believe inherited doctrines; we do not need to go to the other extreme of thinking we have to make everything up from scratch. Many features of the tradition will prove helpful and important.

I think the psychological order must be: first we are open, honest and unapologetic about what is no longer meaningful to us; and once we have achieved that, we can then move on to being open, honest and unapologetic about what we do find meaningful.

For most of us this will not be a matter of the individual logically thinking through which statements he or she assents to. Only a minority of us function like that. Contrary to what many of the Reformers believed, seeking Christian truth is not necessary for every individual. Characteristically there is a creative interplay between believing, relating and expressing. This interplay produces thinking, articulating, doubting, valuing, caring, ritualising and practical outworking.

Nevertheless the search for true belief should be part of every Christian community. What is needed now is to move beyond the ‘coffee-fueled group hug’. It is easy enough to understand how it comes about: some people have had such bad experiences of pressure to believe that they need plenty of permission to disbelieve before they will be ready for something more positive. Others, however, find themselves unimpressed by a choice between a liberalism that doesn’t seem to believe anything and a dogmatism which demands assent to the incredible.

I therefore think liberals who are not ‘convalescing’ need to develop more positive accounts of liberal Christianity. There is a vacuum there, waiting to be filled. I hope it will be characterised by that interplay of believing, relating and expressing which produces lively churches.