Judgement and Consequences for the Western Church

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

One of my favourite moments in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the appearance in the entry for 1066 that the French are God’s judgement on the English for their sins. Obviously, the reference is to William the Bastard and the Norman conquest, but I still chuckle at the idea of all the French being God’s judgement on all the English for their sins.

Many Christians today are unlikely to see such events of secular politics in terms of spiritual failures. Those who are sophisticated enough will hopefully reject such thinking because we think along the lines of St Augustine’s City of God, where he delineates the reality that good things and bad things happen to pagans and Christians alike.

Nevertheless, my thoughts have meandered down that way tonight, provoked by starting into the chapter about Eusebius in Frances M. Young’s From Nicaea to Chalcedon (2nd ed.). As soon as Young hit Eusebius’s own living through the Diocletianic Persecution of 303-313, I recalled his account of the martyrs of Palestine and what he attributed this persecution to.

Eusebius believed that the final, and worst, persecution by the Roman government of the Christians was the result of the Christians becoming prosperous, worldly, soft — so God delivered them up to the Romans. As with so much in Eusebius, this is partly a matter of pointing to his own day, in effect: Just because things are nice with Constantine doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. Remember Diocletian. Do not become worldly or sinful.

What’s interesting is that the causal link between God using the persecution as discipline/punishment/judgement of the Church was that the problems God pinpointed were specifically those of the church.

Whether or not we can follow Eusebius in this is not the point. In my smarter moments, I follow Augustine. But sometimes I wonder. Either way, Eusebius’ focus is different from those Christians today who see God’s judgement upon the world in secular affairs.

These Christians say that COVID-19 or natural disasters or the 2008 recession or anything going wrong is the result of God’s judgement on the West for turning its back on Him, that it is the result of gay marriage or abortion or transgenderism or Hollywood or not supporting Israel or something being done largely by those outside the Church.

Consider a different scenario, instead. Rather than blaming the world out there for its problems, consider the world in the church. Let’s consider the hemorrhaging faith of Canadians. Let’s consider the not-completely-unreal possibility of soft totalitarianism. Let’s consider what a friend of mine calls “pseudo-nationalist racist populism.” These things are all sources of danger for people who choose to stand publicly for the historic Christian faith, dangers coming from both the right and the left.

And my thesis is simply this: If they are not the judgement of God on us for our own faithlessness, our own worldliness, our own sin — they are the perfectly natural historical consequence.

It may not be persecution. It may not be guided by providence as discipline.

But it may still be our own damn fault. (Literally.)

Christianity must change or die (right?)

Up front: I am not a supporter of J.S. Spong, nor have I read his Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Nonetheless, it’s a catchy title for a blog post.

The Tron Kirk: Empty (now a market, actually)

A few years ago, I wrote a post filled with images of local Edinburgh churches now abandoned or converted into cafés, flats, theatres, office space, events venues, etc. As most people in Scotland are aware, the statistics for the church in Scotland are not so hot — last year we learned that 52% of Scotland’s population in the ranks of the religious ‘nones’ and 66% almost never attend services. I do not have the numbers handy, but the latest census data showed Edinburgh (if I remember correctly) the most secular city in the nation.

Not that England and Wales are necessarily doing much better on this sceptred isle — 48.5% of them are religious ‘nones’. In January of last year, only 760,000 of England’s population were regular attendees of the Church of England. 53 million people live in England.

Now, I’ll admit that perhaps things aren’t so dire in the USA as we like to think, but they aren’t exactly a ‘Christian nation’, either — 51% go to church or another worship between once a month and multiple times per week. Given that the same study gives 49% as the statistic of those who never go, obviously the data include other religious groups, which is fine if ‘religiosity’ is what you’re gauging. According to a Pew survey of 2013, only 37% attend weekly or more. And, according to a study a friend referenced in a sermon a decade ago, average attendance in real, live numbers, was 80.

This figure of 80 has stuck in my mind, and came home to me this evening as I was reading some research a friend and colleague has done into Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church. Setting aside any theological concerns, Osteen’s church has around 50,000 members, and his big, traditional evangelistic rallies have had about 2,000,000 people come through them. Many of them would have been Christians, of course, just like at the old Billy Graham Crusades, or in enrollment on the Alpha Course. This is not to mention the millions and potential billions who can encounter Pastor Osteen on the Internet; his is one of the most popular YouTube channels out there.

Before moving to more thoughts, don’t worry — my homeland of Canada is surpassing the USA. As of 2012, only 27% of us were regular church attenders.

How does it work that so many people attend evangelistic events and listen to YouTube sermons, yet the numbers of professing Christians is decreasing across the Anglophone northern hemisphere? (I mean, I’ve not taken Ireland into account, but I doubt they’re much better.)

According to one of the many sites I’ve linked in the above, some people find it hard to get to church. Other people find the people at church or the preaching or the music or the décor distasteful, I’m pretty sure. I know I often do. But if we’re truly converted to Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we be seeking a community of people whom we can at least put up with and worship with and be encouraged by? Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit at work in us enable us to get over bad preaching, bad Bible translations, hymns with modified words, hymns with weird tunes, badly-tuned pianos, socially-awkward greeters at the door, socially-inept coffee hours? I mean, Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.

Being with people who also love Him should trump all the subjective realities of going to church.

And for a lot of us, it does.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I enjoyed the sun by the Union Canal and had our first barbecue of the season with a friend from church. She noted that here in the West, Christianity is dying. We live our comfortable lives, have good jobs, go to church, lead morally upright lives, own a lot of stuff, buy a lot of stuff, and die, comfortable with the knowledge that faith in Jesus means we are ‘saved’. But we are not making more Christians.

When I commented that it seems like the theologically conservative churches of Edinburgh are growing — Morningside Baptist (now called Central), Charlotte Chapel, Elim Church, our own St Columba’s and its two church plants, and more, she noted that the only ones that seem to grow through evangelism are the Pentecostals; the evangelicals (such as we Wee Frees) just have a lot of babies.

Fun fact: At St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, when the time for the kids to leave occurs, about half the sanctuary is emptied, mostly by the kids plus a few volunteers.

She may be onto something.

I do not know what I think, though.

More zeal in more of us? Deeper spiritual lives along with more zeal? Training our whole congregations in the theology and practice of evangelism? Richer theology in our thought lives (this hasn’t helped the Anglo-Catholics)? A greater number of outreach events?

I really do not know. How do you reach a world that actually simply seems not to care anymore? And how do you equip and energise the saints in a culture that is so polite and careful and inward that talking ‘religion’ with friends, colleagues, and strangers is a social no-go?

Empty Churches

When we first moved to the beautiful city of Edinburgh, one of the first churches we encountered was St. John’s “Tollbooth” Highland Kirk. Except, actually, we didn’t. Instead, we met the Hub, a cafe, art space, event venue, and headquarters for the Edinburgh Festival.

The Hub's doors

Since then, we have seen many “empty” churches. Some are actually empty, such as the Tron Kirk:

The Tron Kirk: Empty

or that church on Lauriston Place:

The Paint-peeling Door of an Empty Church

Others have found second lives as nightclubs such as Sin:

Note: Not my photo of Sin Nightclub

or as theatres, such as the Bedlam Theatre:

Note: Not my photo of the Bedlam Theatre

or as street-health clinics:

Church reborn as hospice

or as the brass-rubbing centre:

Me at the Brass Rubbing Centre, formerly Trinity College Chapel

or as beautiful venues, such as the Mansfield Traquair Centre:

The Mansfield Traquair Centre, Chancel

St. John’s Highland Kirk is probably the highest spire in the city, in part due to its location on the same hill as the Castle — it’s the spire to the left of Edinburgh Castle if a friend ever sends you a postcard. Yet it and the Tron Church are not churches anymore, and they are two out of the three notable spires in this view:

The Royal Mile

The explanation for the abandonment of two of the Royal Mile’s churches is the fact that the Old Town of Edinburgh, which boasted 52 400 people in the late 1800’s has but 4000 residents today. Most of its space is shops, restaurants/bars, and offices with the odd tourist attraction thrown in for good measure.

Thus, St. Giles’ (the “crown spire” visible between St. John’s and the Tron Kirk) together with Carubber’s Church, Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal, and Canongate Kirk along the Royal Mile are able to serve the Old Town, along with St. Columba’s Free Church and St. Columba’s by the Castle Scottish Episcopal on Johnson Terrace, St. Augustine’s United on George IV Bridge, and Greyfriars Kirk. There is also St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church down on Cowgate.

That’s a lot of churches for the Old Town.

Yet if you tally the worshippers on any given Sunday in the churches of Edinburgh’s Old Town, I doubt you will get anything near 4000 congregants assembled.

The dome of West Register House, Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square, home of a beautiful old parish kirk that is now West Register Office, along with the rest of the New Town, has suffered a similar fate as the Old Town. People just don’t live there anymore. The churches have very few congregants, although Charlotte Baptist Chapel is able to pack ’em in like sardines.

Another cause of un-kirking in this city is the death or amalgamation of some denominations. This was the case for Mansfield Place Catholic Apostolic Church, now the Mansfield Traquair Centre. The Catholic Apostolics thought the Second Coming was due in the 1920’s, so they made no plans for succession for their Apostles. By the 1950’s, Mansfield Place Church was closed.

When the bulk of the Free Church of Scotland reunited with the Church of Scotland, the Free Church’s “High Kirk” become the library at New College, which means that students of New College get to study amidst some lovely stained glass!

However, when we recall my statement that even with so many churches in the Old Town, the 4000 inhabitants still don’t fill them, we return to the main cause of un-kirking, and it is that people are no longer warming or filling pews.

Mansfield Traquair Centre Wall Painting

At a certain level, this makes Phoebe Traquair’s angel cry.

People’s butts keeping pews warm as they did ever since they put the first pews in European churches in the centuries following the Reformation is not really what Christianity is about. Getting lots of people into your church doesn’t mean a thing in some ways.

Yet those butts warming those pews are human butts. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to become one of them. They are the butts of people who are beloved of God so much that He chose to die for them. They are the butts of people who need to hear and know the message of the greatness of the glory of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

At least if they are at kirk each Sunday, they stand a chance of hearing this message and being transformed by it.

The un-kirking of Edinburgh and Europe is a phenomenon that, I understand, has been going on since at some point in the 1960’s. People just stopped going to church. Fewer and fewer people go to church every year. Even in the USA, which is imagined by many to be a “Christian” nation, the average Sunday attendance in 2005 was 80 persons — the megachurches are not offsetting the exodus.

My friend Rick, pastor of an international, multicultural, “evangelical” church in Cyprus, says that the European church has entered a phase of exile. Our mission and ministry have different needs than ministry in places where the church is exploding in size, as in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Our churches are dwindling, and people need the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t need David Wilkersons per se in Europe. But we do need people who are willing to invest in these cities and the people who populate them. People willing to walk past the empty spires and remember the One Whose Cross is raised high above.

People who are willing to love their unkirked friends to the bitter end.

People who are willing to live across from drunks and junkies and love them ceaselessly and endlessly.

People who are willing to truly befriend atheists and agnostics and take them seriously as people, not projects, not simply arguments with bodies.

We need Columbas and Ninians. (Too many reservations to want another Knox, really.)