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?

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Episcopal (papal and otherwise) retirements as opportunities

The big news of last week was not that I was in Florence, as it turns out. Rather, the big news was that the Bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) announced his resignation, effective 28 February. This comes only a few months after the retirement of his fellow academic-turned-bishop Rowan Williams. Both of these are moments of opportunity for the historic Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.

Will they take these opportunities?

Both men have been alternately loved and hated by those of whom they were to be the spiritual leaders. Both are writers of academic theology that many find deeply powerful and strong, even when they disagree. Both have left behind churches divided by ‘liberal/progressive’ movements in a declining West and a burgeoning ‘conservative/traditional’ movement in the Global South.

Anglicanism in its home countries has lost its way in many respects. Obsessed at times with issues of sexual ethics, not dealing with proper, outright heresy, losing sight of the Gospel many times in many places with declining numbers that different routes of ‘relevant’ are being touted as the solution — whether it is jettisoning the BCP or liturgy altogether or having a U2charist or putting left-wing art on the sides of the churches or reciting ‘alternative creeds’ or turning church buildings into community centres or adding a rock band to the liturgy … and so forth.

Will Welby be able to hold together the vast, spinning network of ideologies that is the Anglican Communion, or will the final ruptures come about in his episcopate? We shall see.

Roman Catholicism has, under B16, has introduced a needed update of the Missal that was sadly unintelligible in many parts, but also engaged in a proactive campaign of Bible accessibility and translation for the masses at the Masses. The New Evangelisation has continued. But there are still the paedophilia scandals, the emptying churches, the awkward 1970s music at ‘modern’ Masses, potential money-laundering scandals in the Vatican — plus a litany of Protestant concerns still unaddressed satisfactorily since the 1500s.

Both communions, that is, have issues. And so new leadership is always a moment of hopefulness and concern.

Let us pray for Justin Welby when he takes on his new role. And let us pray for the conclave when they meet to elect a new Bishop of Rome at the end of this month — whether you think the Pope is the Anti-Christ or not, the Church of Rome needs your prayers!

May both communions rediscover, far and wide, the dangerous and glorious Gospel of God’s dramatic rescue of the human race through His incarnate Son, Jesus. And may they worship him righteously. And may they, fuelled by His worship, bring that dangerous and glorious Gospel to a lost and dying world that greatly needs it!

May God grant wisdom to the new bishops, then. And may the New Evangelization focus primarily on Gospel and Jesus and only secondarily  missals and liturgies and culture wars.