distorted cathedral wall

What makes churches fail? So asks Andrew Brown in an article on the continuing threats of schism over same-sex marriage. This time it is the Church of Nigeria which is winding us up, though to be fair its concern about climate change comes before same-sex marriage, which is more than can be said of most British churches.

In this article I argue that opposition to same-sex partnerships functions as a substitute Christian content, occupying a space which would otherwise have been embarrassingly empty.

Christian distinctiveness

The established European churches sit on a barbed-wire fence. Historically many have developed as the spiritual arm of society and its governments. Today most of society and most governments have no need for a spiritual arm, thank you very much.

This leaves church leaders with a choice between two games. The establishment game is to insist that the country remains Christian, with Christian values to be proclaimed by church leaders. The anti-establishment game is to deplore the lack of Christian standards and seek to promote them. There is truth in both games. To oppose same-sex partnerships is to play the establishment game in most of Africa but the anti-establishment game in Europe and North America.

To oppose the establishment you need to explain what is wrong with it, what superior standards you offer, and why they matter. The logical order would be: first you commit yourself to your standards, then you observe that the society around you doesn’t share them, then you get together with likeminded people to campaign about them.

Clearly this is not what has been happening. Until around 20 years ago nobody thought to define Christianity by its opposition to same-sex partnerships. The process has worked in reverse.

In my university work I often saw this reverse process at work with young students. Whether they have a genuine conversion experience or are simply persuaded to take the spiritual dimension of life more seriously, they are not likely to adopt a new sense of Christian identity unless they feel it matters. The easiest way to provide this sense of mattering is to focus on one contentious controversy.

Note the implication: that being a Christian does not stand on its own as something that matters. Christians feel that it ought to matter, and anti-gay campaigning comes to the rescue as a reason why it matters.

In other words, instead of starting with the standards Christians believe in, and seeking to promote them because we believe in them, we start with Christianity, feel it ought to have distinctive standards, and pick on something to fill the vacuum.

The campaign against same-sex partnerships then has to carry the weight of being the main difference between Christians and non-Christians. Clearly this is to ask far too much of it.

The vacuum

The underlying problem is the existence of the vacuum. Why is it there at all?

It suits many people to imagine that we all know what Christianity stands for. It has suited generations of ecumenists trying to break down barriers between denominations. It suits conservative evangelicals convinced that true Christians accept the literal truth of the Bible. It suits anyone trying to raise money for the local church roof.

In practice what people mean by Christianity, if they know what they mean, varies immensely. Churchgoers recite creeds and sing hymns, but the words rarely express what they care about. They find meaning in their churchgoing, often spiritual meaning, but if they try to express it they may find they have said the wrong thing.

One of the games I like to play with church leaders is that, whenever someone refers to ‘the Gospel’ or ‘the Christian message’ or ‘the message of Jesus’ I ask them what that message is. Usually they have to stop and think; the words come easily but the meaning doesn’t. The answers I hear are either disputed (like substitutionary atonement) or too vague to be meaningful (like love).

I know how I would like to fill the vacuum. To me, the point of churches and their services is to set our lives within their proper context. To affirm and reflect on who we are, who made us, for what purpose, and how therefore we should live. To do so repeatedly, so that we do eventually relate well to the point of our lives and our ultimate Cause. To be a follower of Jesus is to share his vision of how that works in practice. But in this post I focus on the need to recognise that the vacuum is there in the first place. It is the presence of the vacuum which has enabled the campaign against same-sex partnerships to occupy the space so easily.

What makes churches fail?

What makes churches fail? Usually, uncertainty about what they are for. The change that is needed would be a bit like the change in the Labour Party from Ed Miliband’s leadership to Jeremy Corbyn’s. Like the Labour Party, the churches believe we can offer society a better alternative than the current paradigm. Like the Labour Party we cannot agree on what this better alternative is. So we look for a issue on which we can unite. When we have found it, we tell ourselves that this is what Christianity stands for.

Maybe we need to sit much more lightly to our churches for a generation or two. Maybe we need to forget about unity, forget about asking which beliefs or actions are Christian. Instead maybe we need to admit, openly and honestly, how much we don’t know and how much we disagree.

Churches need to become safe spaces where we can share with each other how we conceive of the point of life, and what really matters to us – without any warnings of wrong answers, any threats of exclusion, any appeals to stop talking and get on with raising money for the roof. Over time, when we have done our talking and listening long enough, it should become clear which bits of Christianity can be allowed to disappear into the history books and which bits are too valuable to lose.

We need to rediscover what our churches are for. Then, we shall have reason to make sure they do not fail.