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.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who has been active for more than 25 years in church government in a variety of Christian denominations as a result of attending international churches in various countries in Asia, I consider myself a Christian and no longer use any denominational qualification. I have been enriched by denominational exposure and have worked with those of other denominations to promote good churches in different cities, usually within some denominational framework that has opened its doors to non-denominational members. In this, I have been blessed by different perspectives, understandings and practices, and by different racial and geographical practitioners. Most have wanted to spread the Good News and be part of a welcoming and supportive church. I have also had to learn to respect host denominational preserves. In all this, my conclusion was that the international churches ( ie churches that actively welcome and cater to expatriate as well as local congregations) have much to teach the national churches. Our denominational debate has broadened understanding and deepened study but always in the context of loving one's neighbour and not judging one's fellow Christians. I do not have to subscribe to every theological belief to share worship and fellowship with other Christians and we can celebrate the 95%+ that we agree on without being riven by the areas of disagreement. We can respect each other's beliefs and particular concerns. Nevertheless, I have seen denominational defensiveness and heard assertions that should never be uttered by any follower of Christ, whatever their denomination. I have also experienced inter-denominational initiatives that have provided much-needed relief for particular segments of society, which have only strengthened the experience of how much we share in Christ. To me, that must be the way forward. I was Vice Chairman of an Anglican welfare society, and we got into hot water with the bishop because we arranged a relief project that the Methodists agreed to perpetuate. The bishop felt we were playing for the other side but we felt we were playing for God! Subsequently I came to appreciate the Presbyterian form of church government but even that had its downsides. With Christianity under threat in Europe, the way forward must surely be to broaden the cooperation and collaboration of "the faithful" across all denominations locally and build the church communities that serve the local community and each other, with input from all who are willing. I really do not think St Peter is going to care which church T-shirt we are wearing when we arrive at the Pearly Gates but what we have professed. As a Christian, I am thrilled by Pope Francis' initiatives. As a Christian, I understand the position of the two sides of the debate over homosexuality and have sympathy for both. I could worship with both without endorsing their particular view. I was much struck by Roger Scruton's appreciation of the Church of England in his book "Our Church" and his summation that after hundreds of years of war and bloody conflict, the Church of England concluded that when kindness and conviction conflict, kindness must win. I wholly subscribe to that view and believe that inter-denominational cooperation and collaboration will do far more to progress the Kingdom than any eloquent defence of doctrine, however true. There must be more than a surrender of power from the European centre. There must be a joyful embrace of inter-denominational collaboration and projects and a demonstration that all denominations are merely teams in a championship, with the goal not a cup but a universal crown.