Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Can historic global churches maintain central authority or must they devolve?

On Wednesday 26 February 2014 I was asked to participate in one of the Westminster Faith Debate in Whitehall on the subject above. Presiding were Charles Clarke, Home Secretary in Tony Blair's government, and Linda Woodhead, Professor in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. I sat next to Charles Clarke on the stage and next to him was a large bust of Winston Churchill. One wonders if he would have approved. An edited version of the debate will be podcast next week, but this was my introductory talk:

    1.  The Changing Demography of Christianity

Despite the secularisation of the western world during the last century and its effects, there has been a worldwide Christian resurgence, especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Since World War II, Christianity has become one of the principle religions of the global South. Regions that were once outside the main orbit of Christianity have become major centres of Christian impact, while Europe, once the religion’s heartland, is in noticeable recession. The strongholds of Christianity are no longer Rome and Canterbury, but Lagos, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Manila and Seoul. In 1900 some 90% of Christians lived in Europe and North America, by 1970 this had dropped to 57%. Today only 35% of Christians live in Europe and North America, and two thirds of all Christians live in the global South. Soon, more than half of the Christians in the world will be Africans and Latin Americans, and Christianity is still expanding rapidly in Asian countries, especially China. These massive cultural and geographical shifts and realignments have enormous implications.

     2.  The Changing Character of Christianity

But it is not only the numbers that have shifted; it is also the character of Christianity that has changed. With these shifts have come massive cross-cultural patterns of religious encounter, affecting a great variety and diversity of Christianities, bringing about structural changes, variations of liturgies, theological views and ecclesiastical traditions, ideas of authority and leadership patterns, processes of indigenization producing new religious art, music, hymns, songs, and prayers—all these have fundamentally altered the face of Christianity today. In addition, at least a quarter of the world’s Christians are thought to belong to some version of Pentecostalism, including Charismatic renewals in Catholic, Anglican and Protestant churches, and this proportion is much higher outside the western world. This is because Christians in the South live in a spiritual universe that is not dichotomised; and they can with one breath speak about political, social or economic liberation, and liberation from supernatural evil forces. Some of this language sounds strange and sometimes offensive to western ears. The majority of Christians are also conservative in doctrine and behaviour, allowing the anti-gay laws in Uganda, Nigeria and Zimbabwe to receive widespread approval by a range of churches. We have witnessed the tensions in the worldwide Anglican Communion over similar issues, with these conservative forces led by the primate of the world’s largest Anglican church in Nigeria.

     3.  Networks of Churches and World Communions

Protestantism has a history of schisms, and these have continued into the twenty-first century. There are thousands of Christian denominations worldwide today. It is in the nature of Protestantism to schism because of the focus on the authority of the local church. But there are also ‘world communions’ of major Protestant denominations including Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists and Reformed. These communions are usually networks of independent churches that are predominated by churches from the South. Many of the new megachurches in the world are Charismatic, and are run by particularly gifted individuals. Notwithstanding the real dangers that their individualism and fierce independence brings, these churches often network together in ways that are non-hierarchical and decentralised. Just as the world has recoiled from colonialism, there is increasing opposition and resentment against any sort of ecclesiastical control from the North. The Anglican Communion is holding itself together precariously. The new Pope Francis, the first ever pope from outside Europe although with the familiar Italian ancestry, has breathed new life into the Catholic Church. But if Catholicism is to avoid increasing decline the Curia will need to decentralise further and give more independence to the various cardinals and archbishops in the global South. The latest appointment of cardinals has signalled Francis’ willingness to do this, with nine of the sixteen new voting cardinals from Latin America (5), Asia (2) and Africa (2). This bodes well for the future and one wonders whether there will ever be a European pope again.

So, my answer to the debate question is therefore for me a no-brainer. Whether we like it or not, the historic churches will be forced to devolve or they will continue to decline.