Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom – my own reflections
Having given two posts over to a summary of Stuart’s book, I now want to offer some of my own reflections on the subject, interacting with some of his arguments and applying them to my own situation.
Are the ecumenical creeds adequate statements of faith?
I’m personally intrigued by Stuart’s insight that Christendom emerged at a very formative time theologically for the early church – the time of the ecumenical councils. The Council of Nicea (which produced the first draft of the Nicene Creed) was presided over by Constantine, an unbaptised emperor who wanted a unified religion for his empire. But as Stuart reflects, the historical Jesus would have been a very uncomfortable figure for a powerful empire to swallow! His teaching about loving your enemies, about not storing up treasure for yourself on earth, about caring for the poor and needy, about the greatest among you being your servant – all of this and more besides would have been a real challenge to the empire. And so, as Stuart records, as Christendom began to take hold there was an increased emphasis on the worship of the majestic Christ and a decreased emphasis on actually following his counter-cultural life and teachings. This is exemplified in the Creeds – Nicene and Apostles’ – which have absolutely no mention of his life and teaching at all – they go straight from his birth to his death.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to abandon the Nicene Creed, but on the other hand I do have new questions about the adequacy of these creeds: are there vital things that they miss out? ‘Jesus is Lord’, the earliest creed, was simpler and more direct – it claimed things for Jesus, not just our worship and belief, but also our absolute obedience above all other authorities. The practice of discipleship is every bit as fundamental to the church as belief in the divinity of Christ.
Isn’t it funny how we’ve made some things non-negotiable as Christians? To most Christians, Sunday churchgoing has become a non-negotiable – all Christians should come to church on Sundays, that’s how you tell they are Christians (even though in our modern society our attendance is often more sporadic than it used to be). But caring for the poor and needy, or living a simple life without storing up for yourself treasures on earth, have not become non-negotiable – even though they are commands of Jesus. Churchgoing you must do if you want the church to consider you a good Christian, but following Jesus has become optional. In things like confirmation instruction we put far more time and energy into teaching doctrines about Jesus and his church than we do into actually talking about the way of life he taught us.
I don’t know enough detail about the history to be able to test the historical accuracy of Stuart’s statements about the development of hierarchy. His point of view seems to be that the church hierarchy developed along the same lines as the civic administration of the empire. The sharp division of clergy and laity, the emphasizing of clerical role through titles, ornate robes, liturgical roles etc. would all go along with this.
The New Testament of course does have roles (pastor, apostle, prophet, evangelist), but the fundamental concept is the priesthood of all believers and the equipping of all God’s people for the work of ministry. There is no hard and fast distinction between clergy and laity – all Christians are the laos (people) of God, and all are called (kleros) to serve him in ministry.
By coincidence (if there is such a thing!), this past two Sundays I have worshipped at two Anglican churches in which no robes or clerical collars are worn, and in which no clergy titles are used. Also ‘lay people’ (so-called) share in the leadership of worship with no distinction of title or dress being made between them and ‘clergy’, only the bare minimum of role distinction being made in order to make it a legal Anglican service.
I like this. I want to go further with it, not because it tickles my fancy, but because I think it’s biblical Christianity.
I’ve grown up with the experience of Sunday as a state-sanctioned day of rest, but this has been eroding throughout my lifetime and will probably continue to erode for the rest of my life. Sunday will be a working day like any other day by the time I retire – I’m fairly sure of this.
There’s a part of this that I think it is legitimate to mourn. God has created us as beings who need rest, and the concept of one day off in seven to rest and recreate is a good one. And we Christians need to speak prophetically about this, given the mad rush of our society into longer and longer working hours. Balance is important.
But state support of the Christian holy day is a Christendom thing that the early Christians did not enjoy. They got up early on the Lord’s Day and worshipped together before the working day began. This took determination and commitment on their part. I have to live and teach the same determination and commitment.
Buildings, congregations, wealth.
Massive and ornate church buildings date from the time of Constantine; they are not an obvious part of the New Testament which does not require Christians to have a church building to meet in at all. In fact, as the early Christians met in houses, everything essential to New Testament Christian worship must be doable in a living room! Furthermore, the diversion of massive amounts of cash for the building and maintenance of these structures is surely a departure from the teachings of the revolutionary Christ who told us to sell our possessions and give to the poor and needy. To those who say ‘But this is a way of honoring the Lord’, the answer surely is ‘The Lord we read about in the New Testament doesn’t want to be honoured in this way; he wants to be honoured and loved by honouring and loving ‘the least of these my brethren’.
What Christendom vestiges still continue in my own context? I can think of the following:
- Many Canadians still have the idea that ‘Canada is a Christian country’. This is especially the case in the context of discussions about immigration and about immigrants being open about their own religious traditions and practices. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Christendom crowd that when the first European settlers moved to Turtle Island (as First Nations people call North America), we newcomers were very strong in imposing our own religious traditions and practices on the local inhabitants! Now the shoe is on the other foot!
- As a ‘priest’, I am still called on to provide religious ceremonies for the population at large – ceremonies which imply that those who take part in them are Christians and church members. This includes infant baptism of people who are not regular members of our church community or (as far as I can see) followers of Jesus; weddings for people who have no intention of becoming a part of our congregation, and funerals for people who had no faith at all. I am not saying that we ought not to minister to people who are not Christians or churchgoers; rather, that our ministry should take the form of evangelism and works of mercy and love, not ceremonies that assume faith and membership, where there is no real faith and membership. What is the New Testament justification for officiating at weddings and funerals of non-Christian people?
- Church people continue to assume that their neighbours are all potential churchgoers, and that if ‘we want our church to grow’, all we have to do is build a nice church building and be welcoming of people who drop in to try us out. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to us that the vast majority have absolutely no interest in trying us out and will never be evangelized unless we take the initiative and go to them.
- As Stuart points out, a lot of Anglican churches have flags and military paraphernalia in them – though not as many as in Europe or the USA. Certainly the vast majority of Christian denominations in Canada endorse the just war theory.
- The church continues to enjoy tax privileges based on the assumption that giving to support churches is ‘charitable giving’.
Practical steps we might consider trying.
- De-emphasising the church building. In Christendom it was seen as ‘the house of God’, needing to be kept ‘holy’ for worship, and religious activities were imprisoned within its walls. Today a lot of time and money still goes into buildings. But perhaps it’s time to step back from that. Two of my own personal preferences would be: (a) replacing the pews with chairs so that we can use the worship space for more than just Sunday worship, and (b) moving meetings and groups out of the building and into homes or cafés – including vestry, committee meetings, Bible studies and so on, and especially finding alternative venues for ‘Christian Basics’.
- Long-term, relational evangelism. Christian people need to learn multiple ways of sharing the gospel with their non-Christian friends in a conversational, non-confrontational way. We need to emphasise ‘going’ to share the gospel rather than waiting for people to come to us. This means that every member must be equipped to be a witness.
- More experimentation around inquirers’ courses, including things like ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ and groups in which people’s questions set the agenda, and in which conversation is the main tool, not formal presentation.
- A strong emphasis on the teaching and example of Jesus and the counter-cultural nature of his Way – openly and unapologetically inviting people into a lifestyle which contravenes dominant social values. This will include, as a community, practical caring for the poor and needy and finding more and more ways to live that out.
- Being willing to experiment with forms of outreach and worship, challenging the requirement of uniformity that Anglicanism still promotes, constantly being on the lookout for things that work in our context and are also faithful to the Gospel.
- Continued experimentation with dialogue sermons, including starting with questions, ending with questions, asking for questions, taking questions seriously. Perhaps allowing people to submit written topics and questions to be considered in sermons.
- Going as far as we possibly can in the direction of multi-voiced worship. Stressing not just lay-readers but others being up front and leading. Having a churchwarden or vestry member do the announcement time. Getting as many different people as possible involved in music, reading, praying etc.
- Exploring conflict-resolution and teaching and practicing Matthew 18:15-20 (look it up!).