Blackadder Goes Forth did a good job of satirising the already well discredited rhetoric of “one more push”. But while I hate to start the new year on a cynical note, or indeed by sticking pencils up my nose, I wonder whether I hear echoes of it in church initiatives and episcopal speeches.
There are several available (broad-brush stroke) diagnoses of the relationship between our church and society. Some seem drawn from an uncritical reading of the deuteronomistic history as if Job had never been written nor the Messiah crucified. Others, including the work of respected historians like Callum Brown, see secularisation as an abrupt and recent development.
The corollary of the second, and often seemingly the first also, is that transformation, revival, the re-sacralization of society can all be achieved with short-term strategies, prayer, good leadership and a right and proper confidence in the gospel. These are the attitudes that leave me hearing the rhetoric of “one more push”. While I would love to sign up to the idea, I simply don’t see things that way, and I don’t think its just my innate pessimism which makes me say “Wibble”.
On the other hand I do see some long term trajectories and transformations in patterns of thought, technological change, and social organisation which have contributed over several centuries to bringing us where we are now. Some of those changes have been inspired by Christians, not least the Protestant Reformation. Some might be contested, although I think there is merit in the view that modern science was built initially on a Christian bedrock of understanding the world as creation. Other intellectual trends have been decidedly anti-Christian, and often, particularly, more deliberately anti-catholic.
I don’t want to make this solely about intellectual trajectories: arguably social and technological change is more significant for the wider culture: from the growth of the guilds changing the economy of the late mediaeval city to the rise of the nation state, from the invention of printing to the globalised world of the internet, from the expansion of the world in 1492 to the incomprehensible vastness of a 13.7 billion year old cosmos; all these and many more shape a long-term context.
Nor do I want to pin the blame on a moment of “fall”, as Radical Orthodoxy does for poor Duns Scotus. Identifying single underlying causes for blame is another route to identifying a quick fix for revival. Although I’m no sociological expert nor any great intellect, I read the history of intellectual and social change as far more complex, interlocking and unintentional in its development
I find myself, then, at the start of the new year, worried among other things at the hopes and expectation being heaped on our new archbishop, as though he will help us the find the right strategy for that “one more push”. I think that short-term hope is an illusion, and that Justin Welby must resist the illusion of initiatives. The challenge for the church is a long-term one for which we need to lay down some building blocks for a more distant future.
For me that means encouraging at least some of the conversations I suggested 6 months ago. But I think it also means giving thought to how we can develop sustainable communities for the practice of prayer, worship and charity that resist the myths of the autonomous individual and her less intellectual companion the modern consumer. And I think it means nurturing and developing people in all walks of life and intellectual endeavour, who can give us the confidence that all truth is God’s truth, and lay the foundations for a future and more God-shaped intellectual climate to grow and flourish.