Friday, August 23, 2013


A friend of mine, a religious sceptic, asked me  a while back if I think the Church will survive.            The problem with the question – he had in mind, I think, the dispute within the Church of England about women bishops: today, of course, it would be Same-Sex Marriage – is that by the word ’church’ he and I mean completely different things.            The question, in fact, is a bit like asking if God will survive.  If God is real, then the question is not worth asking.  If God is not real, then the question becomes not one of truth but of utility: is the ideaof God useful enough – socially, morally, politically – for the idea to survive?The same then applies to the Church.  Is the Church divine or human in its origin?  Is it the mystical bride of Christ, or is it a human institution: unquestionably useful in the past, but less definitely so now? Perhaps a few analogies would be helpful at this point.In the film El Cid the Cid is fatally wounded by an arrow, but to announce the fact would be to demoralise the Spanish army and encourage the Moors.  He is therefore strapped up dead onto his horse and rides out at as usual at the head of the army and to victory.            This solution, of course, is limited to the duration of the battle.  At some stage, someone apart from the perpetrators is going to realise the reality.  That is the great problem of promoting the idea of God, even if you yourself believe it to be untrue.  What happens when those you have duped also cease to believe?            In Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats, we have the line – one of my favourite in poetry – ‘He became his admirers’.            With this instance, there is no question of pretence.  Yeats unquestionably existed.  Through his poetry he can, in a sense, still survive.  But that is only if there are supporters to keep publishing his poems and to persuade people of the value of reading them.  Yeats can now do nothing for himself; without others, he is dead.            This is exactly, I think, the point made by Nietzsche about the death of God: the only difference being that the existence of Yeats is a matter of fact, and the existence of God is a matter of opinion.  Nietzsche’s God, it would be truer to say, is the equivalent not of Yeats, but of his poetry.  God and the poems are each a mental construct, kept alive by the efforts of admirers.  If people cease to be admirers, if they stop thinking about God or the poetry, then God and the poems die.              In Peter Pan, any time that a child says, “I don’t believe in fairies” then a fairy drops dead. This is a slightly different instance.  Unlike Nietzsche’s God, fairies are deemed to exist.  Unlike Yeats, they are still alive: until an expression of scepticism.   But they cannot survive on their own; they need the efforts of believers to keep them going.            Compare this with the situation of oxygen.  Suppose I say that – because I can’t see it – I don’t believe in it.  Oxygen, however, will continue to exist: its survival does not depend on its visibility or on my state of belief about it.            Which of theses instances best represent the survival of the Church? Let us return to my friend’s conception: a Victorian Gothic building, table manners, King’s College Choir on TV at Christmas.  He bears the Church no ill will; he probably even has a sneaking fondness for it.  He would compare it to the hansom cab: the best form of transport in its day, but now superseded by the taxi and appropriate only to the Museum of Transport..  Anything the Church once did can now be done better by the secular state: state education and state medicine, the Civil Service, social workers, psychiatrists.            And so on.  And I agree with him.  If its works are the sum of what the Church is, then the Church has no future.To all this, the believer can only say that outcome is being confused with essence. It’s like going to the National Gallery so that you can eat in the restaurant.  Or going to Macdonalds so you can check out the art work.  Or going to a party so you can meet the other guests and ignore the host.“...and the gates of death will not close on it.” (Matthew 16:18).  The most straightforward answer is that the Church will survive, however precariously, because Christ promised it would. And Christ is God. And God keeps promises.  But that is an answer to satisfy only those who accept the divinity of Christ.              But what, exactly, is meant by the Church?   Perhaps the difficult parable of the sheep and the goats is helpful here.   Some of the sheep, you will remember, are puzzled to be among the saved, and some of the goats are equally puzzled not to be.              The situation of the goats may be explained by St Augustine’s idea of the visible and invisible church.  Not all within the church are genuine believers, but God can see what human eyes cannot.              The sheep situation can be explained by the theologian Karl Rahner’s extension of the invisible – ie genuine - church to the whole human race.  Among those who have never had the opportunity to hear about Christ there are invisible Christians, saved by grace.              I like that thought myself, contentious though it is.  The ‘Church’ as I would thus define it is the collective  body of those who have, knowingly or unknowingly, responded to Christ, and which undertakes some – although by no means all – of God’s work in the world.  Within the specific geographical context of England, there are members of this church within the Church of England, but also outside it; and members of the Church of England who are not of this church.                That, I suppose, is the best answer I can give.  The Church of England may or may not survive, but the Church in England will.  Because it has Christ’s promise. 


The Gate of Death found inside the Vatican | News that matters
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Nile – At The Gates Of Sethu | Hellbound
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The gate of death
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Railroad from the 'Gate of Death'. - Photo by JON H | Viator
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