Session 3:Our Mission Field: Post Christendom
By the end of this session you should be able to:
Critically analyse and reflect upon the impact of the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom upon our missional engagement in contemporary Britain.
Demonstrate an understanding of some of the reasons for this shift, and to be able to consider what response the local church can have in this context.
Begin with a time of prayer asking God to teach you new things about the mission to which we are all called and the part God wants you to play in this.
Britain has, for most of our modern history, been a “Christian country”. The “Christian” worldview was a major influencing factor in what people believed about themselves and the world, how they chose to behave and their perception of morality. Arguably this is not the case in contemporary Britain.
In this session we’re going to be exploring whether this is the case, and if it is, what should we do about it?
Part 1: Christendom?
The debate surrounding “Christendom” can be seen in the debate regarding the 26 bishops who sit in House of Lords. Click the photo to read the article that accompanies the photo from the BBC website.
Are we still a Christian country?
Is the message of Christianity still relevant to the average person on the street?
Should the Church still have a role in the governance of our country?
The question of the “secularisation” of our nation (which we’ll look at next time…) is a key part of this debate about bishops sitting in the House of Lords… but there is also the question of whether it is still appropriate to have religious leaders as a part of our system of governance. The fact that we are asking this question is arguably evidence of the decline of “Christendom”.
Christendom is the term used to describe the cultural context where the Christian worldview was the social norm. Some characteristics of how this was expressed in Britain and Western Europe are:
The Church of England as the state religion
No (or little) freedom of religion
Political power was divinely authenticated (ie the Divine Right of Kings, titles such as Holy Roman Emperor or Defender of the Faith)
Division of the world along religious lines, ie Christendom and “heathendom”, and wars in the name of the Church (ie the crusades)
An assumption that all citizens were Christian (except Jews, who often faced persecution and discrimination). There is still evidence of this assumption in the way that baptism is referred to in the Canons of the Church of England
Acceptability of conversion of “heathens” by military or political force
Infant baptism was seen as necessary to be accepted into “normal” society (eg the persecution of the Anabaptists*
Church doctrine being imposed via civil law (eg adultery being illegal, also the practice of sending girls to Madgalene laundries in Ireland for being pregnant outside of wedlock)*
Church attendance mandatory under law (eg Recusancy laws under Elizabeth I*
*More information on these can be found in the Resources section if you want to explore deeper.
At that time Christianity and the Church held a unique position of authority in society. This is not the case anymore. We can see that there has been a paradigm shift in our culture. What has led us to this point? What changed?
Before moving on to the next section try to think of some reasons why you think that the authority of the Church, and the influence of Christianity has declined.
Do you think that there are any crossovers with the material on the shift from Modernity to Post-Modernity which we looked at in our last session?
Did any of the characteristics of Christendom lead to its downfall?
Make a note of your responses in your learning journal to bring to the Study Day for discussion.
Part 2: Cultural (Im)plausability
In our increasingly Post-Modern society the influence and perceived authority of institutions (such as the Church) has declined. Christendom, and the Church, is perceived by many to be a corrupt, decadent, outdated institutional relic of a former age.
Some factors, which are part of the legacy of Christendom, do not cast the institution of the Church in a good light, and these have contributed to the decline of the influence of the Church and of Christendom:
the part in which the Church played in the wars of crusade which are a key source of the ongoing political and social instability in the Middle East
the vast (property based) wealth being held by an organisation which claims to exist to serve the poor
the reluctance of the Church to embrace changes in perceptions of gender equality
The Church is no longer perceived to be relevant in people’s lives. Non-Christians, particularly younger people, may have an interest in “spirituality”; but they see Christians as being bound up in the “Christendom” of the past. Christians are perceived to be more interested in spoiling people’s fun or telling people what to do than they are in exploring questions of spirituality or working to improve the world through social action.
To further compound this issue of perceived irrelevance the Church appears to not fully have come to terms with the decline of Christendom. The Canons of the Church of England still point to a time when membership of church and state were synonymous. The Church of England appears to be seeking to hold on to a form of “special status”, when the majority in society simply see it as one “option among many” for people who might be interested in “being religious”.
Events and occasions which were formerly integral roles for the church to play in people’s lives are no longer solely “church” based.
In the past there were major events in peoples lives within which the Church took a key part, namely baptisms, weddings and funerals. Weddings and funerals are no longer the sole reserve of the Church. Civil weddings now far outnumber church weddings, and the number of non-religious funerals increases year on year. And the number of people choosing to have their children baptised has significantly declined in recent decades.
While some privileges of Christendom remain (ie the membership of bishops in the House of Lords) the church is becoming increasingly less relevant to people in our society. As our culture has changed and developed, the church appears to have not “kept up” with the pace of change.
The influence of Christianity formerly held a key position in the centre of our society and culture, now Christianity has moved to the margins.
Christians are no longer a majority group, but rather a minority. To be a Christian in Britain used to be a comfortable position, to be a citizen in a society where our worldview shaped and governed the world around us. Now we have become more like sojourners, exiles in a culture which doesn’t feel like home. Christians enjoyed significant privileges in Christendom… now to be a Christian is to be a member of one “interest group” among many in an increasingly pluralistic society.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? Is the decline of Christendom actually something which can benefit the Church?
Under Christendom the Christian message became one of control. The Church sought to exert influence and control over society using the tools of politics and even force. Now, free of the shackles which Christendom had become, we can embrace a more Christ-like engagement with the world through acting as witnesses to the Gospel through word and action.
The dominant focus of the Church in Christendom became fixed upon maintaining the perceived “Christian status-quo” in our society. The decline of Christendom could be seen to be an opportunity to realign our priorities and reevaluate what it means to partake in God’s mission for a new age, free from the pressure to maintain an inherited “status-quo”. In Christendom the Church appeared to have embraced a modernist perception of itself as needing to be an “institution”, in Post-Christendom we are being pushed to rediscover what it means to be a “movement” once again.
While we have lost some formerly held privileges and positions of influence and we may even lose others in future, the decline of Christendom may actually be the best thing for the Church in seeking to be faithful followers of Christ. Some would argue that by embracing Christendom the Church lost its way, the decline of Christendom would mean that the Church has an opportunity to find it again.
In your local context do you see any evidence of the decline of Christendom and a decline in the influence which the Church had upon peoples lives?
How has the life of your local parish church and other local church communities changed over the past 50-100 years?
If you can access accurate past and present data regarding church attendance and/or occasional offices this could provide an interesting view.
What can you find in old parish magazines, publications or from other sources to compare what sort of activities were seen to be important in the life of the church in the past compared to today?
(As with last session it might be helpful to look into some local history and talk to older people who may have witnessed more of this decline in their lifetimes. Also it could be useful to discuss the relevance of the church in people’s lives with younger people, try and get something of their perception and experience of this.)
Make a list of where you see elements of the decline of Christendom and other significant changes in the life of your local church community over the past few decades.
Do any elements the decline of Christendom and the decline of the influence of the Church expressed in your local context provide challenges or opportunities for your church community as you seek to engage with God’s Mission?
Again, make notes of what you find in your journal ready to bring to the Study Day for discussion.
Spotlight on Doctrine
Arguably the decline of Christendom has been a significant source of challenge for the church because for centuries we have focused more upon the internal ordering of the institution of the church than we have focused upon engagement with God’s mission. we have taken our place at the centre of our society for granted, and have lost sight of our need to actively engage in God’s mission.
How much is our theology bound up within our ecclesiology (things to do with the church) at the expense of exploring God’s missiology? How closely is our understanding of our faith bound up within our beliefs regarding how the institution of the church should function, at the expense of seeking where God is calling us to act and partake in God’s mission?
Spotlight on Spirituality
Approximately what proportion of their time is dedicated to institutional administration, and what proportion of their time is given over to pastoral care and spiritual engagement? Talk to your local parish priest or church leader. to see if your estimation is correct. Reflect upon the content of this conversation in relation to what you have been exploring in this session.
What has been the most significant thing you have learned from this session? What has been the most challenging thing?
Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you love all of your creation. May we not become so caught up in matters of the Church that we fail to act on matters of mission. May we always be seeking ways to reflect your love to world as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen
To Do in Church This Week
Look at the words of the hymns / songs you sing this week in church. How many of them speak of the time of Christendom and how many of post-Christendom. What are the implications of this for mission?
Share some of what you have found on the discussion board in the Forum.