The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

Constructing Christendom 3: Reconstruction?

Romanesque Basilica Sant'Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)
Romanesque Basilica Sant’Ambrogio, Milan (my photo)

In my first post on this topic, I talked a bit about what we mean by Christendom and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Last post, I talked about the role played by the papacy in developing and spreading culture and unity throughout the arising kingdoms that took Rome’s place, bringing us from Pope Leo I (r. 440-461) to Pope Leo III and Charlemagne at the latters coronation in the year 800.

Most of the next 1000 years I’ll skip, okay? Suffice it to say, as mentioned in the first post, the Church as an institution along with many individual Christians was a powerful force in the intellectual, political, cultural, social, legal, artistic, military (etc, etc) life of Europe. For good or ill.

Today it is not.

What I will not talk about, which may disappoint, is the cultural fragmentation that has coincided with the decline of ecclesiastical power in the West. The two may well be linked; I’m not really a cultural analyst, more of a classical philologist/historian who plays around in theology. I would say, however, that we do live in troubling times, when the visual arts are incomprehensible blobs, blots, and belches, music is mostly either vapid pop or void ‘art’, poetry has missed the part where words mean things, modern novels have forgotten what a story is, art cinema is so dull, and so forth.

I also leave it up for others who wish to discuss any possible moral degradation. This is a story that is unequivocally linked to the fall of Christendom, but is a symptom. We cannot legislate morality. If any sort of ‘Christendom’ is worth reconstructing (a point up for debate), I think maybe we begin with disciples.

No, sorry.

With Jesus.

What, then, do I mean by the fall of Christendom?

I first heard the term ‘Christendom’ in old books about the Crusades when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s. I had this vision of all of Christian Europe standing firm against the oncoming, oppressive infidels, who were apparently some people group called ‘Turks’ and by religion ‘Moslems.’

I first heard of how we are living after Christendom from my father’s preaching in the late 90s. He put it simply, that most people aren’t really Christians anymore. Charles Alexander, one of his fellow Anglican priests from the Diocese of Calgary, once put it that we are clearly living in a post-Christian age — at least 35 years ago people could tell you which church they weren’t going to!

That is to say, not only do we have fewer people who truly believe and live the Gospel, we have fewer people who even identify as nominally Christian. To be Christian is no longer to hold any power in our culture. Our churches, as I have seen in Edinburgh, are empty(ing).

Some people are living in fear as a result. They miss ‘the good ol’ days’ when Christians, and evangelical or possibly Roman Catholic Christians, had the power. When they could say, ‘Down with this sort of thing,’ and people would listen.

I don’t know if we’ll ever have ‘good ol’ days’ again.

Could that be a good thing?

New evangelization

What should actually trouble us isn’t the marginalisation of the Church. That is inevitable if no one’s going to our churches or believing the version of the gospel that is publicly pandered to the populace. We should be concerned about salvation and souls.

The Roman Church calls this the New Evangelization. Postmodern, post-Christian, un-Christian Europe and North America have turned their backs on the Church. Even in countries like Cyprus, where almost everyone turns up at a church on Sunday morning, people are not seeking to become Jesusy. They don’t go to their priests for spiritual comfort or advice — they go to the big New Age conventions for that.

When we look to those Great Popes (Leo I and Gregory I) and late antique/early mediaeval saints like St Caesarius of Arles or St Augustine of Canterbury or St Martin of Tours or St Cuthbert or St Aidan or St Columba or St Boniface we see not just people out to mould culture into their vision of what Catholic culture should look like (as the abovelinked post to St Caesarius discusses) but people who want to see their neighbours and the peoples of distant lands find Jesus and then follow him.

I also believe that simple evangelism as I was taught or imagined when younger is not enough. Tracts are not enough. I once wanted to be a door-to-door preacher (no joke) in my zeal to make sure people heard about Jesus — not enough. That guy yelling on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh — not enough. What does Christ call his Apostles to do?

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19, NKJV)

A disciple is a lifelong student of Jesus, an apprentice is his school of life and love. We are to be being conformed to the likeness of his image, and to be helping our neighbours do likewise.

Charles Alexander, in the same series of talks where he noted that 35 years ago people at least knew which church they didn’t go to, called us to be prophets to the culture around, that we need to be a radical church for a radical age.

Cultural transformation

I have a distinct feeling that more Christians = more Christian culture.

But we need, as a Church, to be willing to foster the artists in our midst. We need to let them produce fantastic art that sometimes maybe doesn’t talk about Jesus at all. The Truth will shine through, don’t worry.

We also need to help make real disciples who are in positions of power. Not power-hungry hypocrites who have all the Jesusy slogans but lack Jesusy character. Nay! Men and women of Jesusy character in places of power is a good thing.

But we’ve been saying this for decades. But the effect of Christians on public policy and our efforts to keep people in church and hooked on Jesus have been failing.

So I could be wrong.

How do you think we could transform culture into something where orthodox Christianity is at least visible and taken seriously?