|sThe Myths of Christianity -
The End of Religion
By contrast, the Anglican Communion, which might with wise and
courageous leadership, emerge as the first truly post-modern church, seems
to be caught in a state of transitional futility in which pre-modern,
modern and post-modern elements all contend with each other. The
particular tragedy of the Anglican Church is that a truly post-modern
structure of dispersed and plural governance was emerging, which is now
under severe attack from strong pre-modern elements in the communion that
are forcing a timid leadership to row back towards increasing
centralisation and ethical and doctrinal control.
Protestant churches with fewer international elements to harmonise
should, in theory, find the transition towards appropriate ecclesiastical
versions of post-modernity easier to manage. In practice, this does not
seem to be happening, mainly because most of them are heavily invested in
a theory of human relationships that is wildly at variance with the way
most people are now choosing to live.
So the crisis in the churches is not simply a matter of managing
painful elements of change in a dynamic situation. Like an ancient galleon
that has spent ages at sea, Christianity is encrusted with customs and
attitudes acquired in its voyage through the centuries and it is making
the tragic mistake of confusing the accidents of theological and cultural
history with eternal truth.
Callum G Brown in his book The Death of Christian Britain claims
that the single most important element in the free-fall in church
attendance in Britain is the churches resistance to the feminist
revolution . The classical sociological account of the decline of
religious observance in Britain was what was called "secularisation
theory". The idea was that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution
gave birth to a new kind of consciousness that was inimical to religion
and began the process of its dissolution.
While there is clearly something in secularisation theory, Brown
challenges many of its essential elements.
One of the elements of secularisation theory was that the Industrial
Revolution alienated the working classes from Christianity. Brown
dismisses that claim and shows that the working class in Britain was
profoundly involved in various forms of evangelical religion. The boom
time of working class religion in Britain was the mid-1950s, of which the
success of Bill Graham's crusades in 1954 was more a symptom than a cause.
What Brown calls the background discourse of this period was the
evangelical economy of salvation and, to use another of his terms, it was
highly gendered discourse.
This where I find his narrative convincing, because it exactly mirrors
my own theological experience. Traditional Christianity was based upon
very rigid gender roles. Women were subordinated to men as far as
leadership went, but were viewed as spiritually superior to them and sent
by God to restrain and civilize them. All of this was based upon a
particular reading of scripture as well as on a particular stage of social
evolution, and it still lies behind the nostalgia that characterises the
debate about the family in Britain and the USA.
When Christian feminists started challenging these stereotypes,
traditionalists argued against them by claiming that changes in gender
roles would undermine the whole biblical system and nothing would remain
During the debate on the ordination of women I remember arguing against
the traditionalists on the grounds that they were exaggerating the effect
that ordaining women would have. This was not a revolution, I argued. It
was a tiny adjustment of the dial of history to accommodate changes in
relations between women and men. The doctrine of ministry would not be
affected by admitting women. It would only be widened slightly. Everything
would go on as before, except that there would now be women with dog
collars on. We would get used to the change, as we did when women doctors
started wearing stethoscopes round their necks. After a few months we
would think nothing of it.
Not so, argued the traditionalists. Make this change and with time the
whole edifice would fall. Historic Catholic Christianity is all of a
piece, a minutely articulated whole, and if you take out one piece of the
structure the whole thing will gradually fall apart because there will be
nothing to stop the process continuing. Question an element as central as
this and you substitute human judgement for divinely revealed truth and
the whole edifice will collapse like a pack of cards.
They said the right thing for the wrong reason but their prediction is
gradually coming true, and it is one of the main elements in Brown's
revisionist theory of church decline. He says that the feminist revolution
that contributed most to the decline of traditional Christianity in
Britain. In a remarkably short period after 1963 the whole edifice started
to crumble, except for a few defensive redoubts that still guard the old
tradition with increasing desperation.
What finished off Christianity in Britain was not the slow creep of
secularism but the swift success of the women's movement. That is Brown's
central claim. He is well aware of the way the experience of the United
States appears to contradict his thesis, but his response is instructive:
The way of viewing religion and religious decline in Britain offered
in this book should have wider applicability. It may help to explain the
near contemporaneous secularisation of Norway, Sweden, Australia and
perhaps New Zealand, and should help to account for the rapid
secularisation of much of Catholic Europe since the 1970s.
Critically, it may help to explain the North American anomaly.
Throughout secularisation studies from the 1950s to the 1990s, the
United States and Canada have seemed difficult to fit into the British
model of religious decline. A supposedly obvious "secular" society of
the twentieth century has sustained high levels of churchgoing and
church adherence. Debate on this has gripped American sociologists of
religion for decades without apparent resolution.
Perhaps the answer lies in seeing the same discursive challenge as
Britain experienced emerging in North America in the 1960s, but
then not triumphing. A discursive conflict is still under way in
North America. The Moral Majority and the evangelical fight back has
been sustained in public rhetoric in a way not seen in Europe. North
American television nightly circulates the traditional evangelical
narrative of conversionism � and a discursive battle has raged since the
1960s. Secular post-hippy culture of environmentalism, feminism and
freedom for sexuality co-exists beside a still-vigorous evangelical
rhetoric and which home and family, motherhood and apple pie are
sustaining the protocols of gendered religious identity. Piety and
femininity are still actively enthralled to each other, holding
secularisation in check. In Foucaldian terms, North America may be
experiencing an overlap of epistemes (of modernity and post-modernity)
The fundamental issue for Christianity in this debate is not whether
you are more comfortable with the traditional evangelical vision of gender
identity than with the post-modern feminist interpretation, but whether it
is right to claim the former as exclusively Christian.
We all have preferences in life and sometimes we are more comfortable
with the way things were than with the way things are. Some people like to
be old fashioned, some people absolutely au courant. Sometimes we
even twist back on ourselves and establish a retro-look, in which
we give a contemporary spin to a previous model of something, whether in
clothing or furnishing. Post-modernism is so plural it can even find a
place for yesterday or for last century in its interior design.
Society is full of interesting survivals of this sort, including groups
who exist to restore various European monarchies. In Scotland there are
groups that plan for the return of the House of Stuart to a renewed
Scottish monarchy. They gather from time to time in out-of-the-way
buildings, dramatically swathed in tartan cloaks, to plan the return of
the king from over the water (though a genetic descendant of the Stuarts
is probably an elderly Portuguese wine exporter).
There is no harm in this. It's a Scottish version of the re-enactment
of the shoot-out between the Earp brothers and the Clancies at the OK
Corral. It's all part of the heritage business and our endearing nostalgia
for extinct culture and their artifacts.
The big question for the churches is whether they are so identified
with the values of a previous culture that they are incapable of adapting
to its successor. The culture wars of North America, in which Christianity
is identified not only with a particular version of gender relationships
but with a hatred of sexual minorities and many contemporary human
freedoms, is a prospect that dismays Christians who are perfectly at ease
in the new culture of post-modernity.
One can prefer a particular culture without being blind to its defects.
Every way of ordering society has its shadow side and post-modernity is no
exception. The issue is not whether it is imperfect but whether any other
way, including the one associated with religious conservatism, would be
A deeper issue is whether it makes sense for Christianity to identify
previous cultural arrangements exclusively with the mind of God.
Out-of-date systems are no more likely to be perfect than up-to-date
systems. The decisive element in the situation is that up-to-date is where
most of us are, for better or for worse, and there is a lot to be said for
accepting rather than running from where we are.
The fact is that we now see the human struggle to claim meaning and
value for our lives as an enterprise of many approaches, many answers. I
would suggest that there is likely to be something of value in that very
More negatively, the presence of many systems is a good bulwark against
the tendency to abuse that is found in societies where single systems
dominate. Single systems always become arrogant.
So the relativising effect of the presence of other accounts of the
human adventure tempers the absolutizing tendency of single systems or the
endless contention that characterises societies with two dominant systems.
Voltaire understood this:
� if you have two religions in your land, the two will cut each
other's throats; but if you have thirty religions, they will dwell in
Voltaire expresses the best value of post-modernity in that quotation.