Friday, September 7, 2018

The Churches' desperate search for relevance

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, September 6.)

The Venerable Dr Peter Carrell was recently announced as the new Bishop-elect of the Anglican diocese of Christchurch. A statement said the Venerable Dr Carrell (churchmen do love their titles) was humbled by the confidence the Anglican community had shown in him and excited by the road ahead.

“With respect to Christchurch city,” he was quoted as saying, “I look forward to working co-operatively with Mayor Lianne Dalziel and the city council on matters of mutual interest and concern, especially challenges facing our city around homelessness, poverty and climate change.”

Of God and salvation, which some Christians still quaintly regard as being at the core of their faith, there was no mention. There was, however, a brief reference to the need for long-term healing of spiritual and mental health crises in the community.

In the same week, Morning Report ran a story about the director of the Anglican Advocacy Unit calling for stricter rules to control deceitful and manipulative property managers. Nothing about saving souls there, either.

Meanwhile, in the Vatican, Pope Francis was addressing business leaders on the need to stop the world’s oceans filling up with plastic waste.

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the Pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

I had to read that last bit two or three times before I figured out what he was saying (or at least, what I think he was saying). But hey, at least God got a look in.

Now I’m no Bible-bashing, repent-or-burn-in-Hell evangelist – far from it. The only time I go near a church is to attend funerals, which I do far too often.

But the examples above strike me as evidence of the mainstream Churches desperately searching for relevance in an increasingly secular world, and of deluding themselves that they will find it by pushing fashionable political barrows.

Another example was the statement distributed to New Zealand Catholics by their bishops prior to the 2017 election. Predictably, it adopted voguish soft-Left positions on taxation, affordable housing and “caring for our planet”.

If I were Catholic, the presumption that I needed the bishops’ guidance on who to vote for would have irritated me even more than the pious platitudes.

But it’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans who have fallen into the trap of taking activist political positions. Even the Salvation Army, for decades a citadel of robust, practical Christianity and evangelisation, seems to have been politicised.

Its social justice advocates are regular fixtures on Radio New Zealand. I reckon the RNZ newsroom has Major Campbell Roberts, the Sallies’ director of social policy, on speed-dial.

Some will say it’s the duty of the Churches to speak out on issues such as climate change, inequality, racism, homelessness, immigration, LGBTQ rights, multiculturalism – and yes, plastic waste too.

Fair enough, but that seems to be all they speak out on. In doing so, they often give the impression they’re currying favour with the activist Left.

The striking emphasis on secular issues in ecclesiastical pronouncements also suggests that Church leaders have decided that since God isn’t getting punters into the pews anymore, they need to try something different.

Maybe they called in the marketing gurus, who suggested they change their branding to something more in tune with a public that has turned away from religion – something that conspicuously signals virtue and compassion, even if it doesn’t come up with solutions. 

Certainly the statistics look bad for the mainstream Churches. Between 2001 and 2013, the proportion of New Zealanders claiming no religious belief rose from 30 to 42 per cent.

It’s fair to say this has coincided with a collapse of the Churches’ moral authority – in Catholicism’s case, largely due to its scandalous record on sexual abuse. Just look at the way the formerly compliant Catholic Irish have taken the phone off the hook.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the Churches need to understand that they’re competing in a very crowded sector. In pursuing political causes, they risk being just another lot of voices amid the clamour from a vast and ever-proliferating body of strident advocacy groups demanding that the politicians do something.

To put it in marketing terms, they risk losing their vital point of difference – namely, saving souls.

I’m sure most of the people who still faithfully go to church on Sundays, along with the priests and vicars who minister to them, are concerned with more transcendent matters than plastic waste and evil property managers, important though such things are.

So why do Church leaders so often resort to hand-wringing political advocacy? Is it an admission that God just doesn’t cut it anymore? Have the Churches given Him up as a lost cause? It sometimes looks that way.


macdoctor said...

The "social gospel" - the preoccupation with creating a utopia on earth, to the exclusion of seeking the lost, has been with us for centuries. Christian have a strong sense of social responsibility, of course, but is underpinned by the primary commandment of Jesus - go into the world and make disciples of all nations.

Unfortunately, the mainstream churches tend to be hierarchical and such a structure attracts power-seekers and busybodies. These folk like social concerns because they are then seen to be "doing something" (just like politicians). They are dangerously attracted to the Marxist "social gospel". The Anglicans and Catholics are the most affected by this. Sadly, most of their congregations are scratching their heads and wondering why their leaders are spouting garbage. Few buy into what they are saying on their behalf.

James said...

There is a big debate going on in churches right now about whether or not 'social justice' should be pursued by churches as part of their Christian mission.

My view (as an evangelical, conservative, Protestant) is that they absolutely should not, as it offers worldly solutions to the world's problems - and that path is destined to failure. For an excellent summary of why the pursuit of social justice is actually counter to the teachings, this declaration sums it up the best:

It is very much from and within an American context (especially with the focus on race), but it applies universally. And when people like the Archbishop of Canterbury proposes very political solutions to problems of poverty and the economy, he only alienates people (Christians and non-Christian alike) who hold different political opinions. Here he is proposing hiking taxes to somehow help the poor:

A Christian can and should be concerned about his brothers and sisters, and for their wellbeing. He should do all he can to improve the condition of his brothers and sisters. This does not necessarily translate into proposing left-wing political viewpoints, and you are right that Churches would do well to essentially stick to their knitting.

This satirical article sums it up well:

hughvane said...

You (KdF) should read the article about the Blenheim Anglican Vicar, and two of his junior clergy, who have resigned because of the Anglican church's headlong rush into accepting same-sex marriages Whether or not one agrees with his/their viewpoint, it is enlightening, heartening even, to read his words about adhering to Biblical principles. Not one hint of being socially popular, which so many traditional church leaders seem desperately to feel the need to do.

Ruaridh said...

As one who tried and for a while bought into various strands of Christianity- from the relaxed (except about you know what) Anglicans to the happy clappers - finally finding solace in disbelief, may I respectfully endorse James’ very thoughtful observations.

Ruaridh said...

Hugh Vane’s reference to a headlong rush by the Anglican Church into a degree of acceptance of same sex marriages does not seem to comport with the reported facts. Rightly or wrongly, my impression from what has been reported is that, rather than a rush, there has been endless hand wringing redolent of the interminable debate (now falling away thank goodness) about women joining the clergy. None of it, or so it seems to me, has much to do with what I believe Karl identified as the proper work of a Christian church.