We have grown so used to tales of gloom and doom about the future of the church that when someone brings us some good news the impulse is to disbelieve it. Surely, we think, they can’t all be wrong, all those learned scholars who predicted the imminent extinction of Christianity.
“The Britain of the new millennium is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die,” said Callum Brown in “The Death of Christian Britain,” the phrase resonating uncomfortably with the lived experience of many church-going Christians.
We have, it is true, suffered hard losses. Churches are emptier than they were. Young people are harder to influence, and old shapes of church do not compel the allegiance that once they did. There are areas of the country where there is a missionary need as great as that which faced Ninian, Columba and Augustine with his feet of snow.
But there are two things we should not have forgotten, if we ever did. First, death is nothing very terrible, after the Resurrection. There may very well be a stirring of new life (and since John Henry Newman is to be beatified on Sunday, let us borrow one of his resounding phrases and call it a “second spring”).
But recovery is patchy, at best, and there are many places where it is not yet to be seen, and where faithful Christians work hard and see no return for their work. For them, the death of their work is still more probable than its revival.
But if the church dies in its present form, it will be reborn in a new one. We will grieve for what is lost, but not as those who have no hope.
Because second, the church is a spiritual reality, not a merely temporal one. Anyone with the barest knowledge of history knows that it has survived terrible blows before, and periods where it appears to be a wasteland as far as any real interior life is concerned.
And if the Pope’s visit does nothing else for us Baptists, let it at least remind us, in his person, of the length and depth of our Christian tradition. It has endured 2,000 years, and against the background of 2,000 years the travails of a few short decades barely register.
Furthermore, we take a very partial view of things if we look only at the church in our own country. Elsewhere, Christianity is thriving. We are still reeling under the shocks of modernity, but we will learn to cope – to ride the storm – in the knowledge that Christ is its master, as he is the master of all things.
Arthur Hugh Clough was a very minor Victorian poet, though not as minor as many. His most famous poem is worth quoting here:
Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been, things remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back through creeks and inlets making
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward, look, the land is bright!
There is in our own churches enough experience of life and growth to convince us, if we need convincing, that we live in exciting times, when the Spirit is working powerfully in the lives of believers and in the world.
Whether the immediate future is one of growth, no one can say with any certainty. But we know that fidelity, rather than success, is the criterion by which we will be judged; and that success may look rather different from an eternal perspective than it does from our own.