The Vanishing Vicar

By Ken Baker (a.k.a. The Soapboxer)

(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)

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In his book After Christendom, Stuart Murray defines ‘post-Christendom’ as ‘the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence’.

Here are Stuart’s seven points of transition that mark the shift from Christendom to a post-Christendom culture:

From the centre to margins In Christendom, the Christian story and the churches were central but in post-Christendom these are marginal.

From majority to minority In Christendom, “Christians” comprised the (often overwhelming) majority but in post-Christendom, we are a minority.

From settlers to sojourners In Christendom, Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.

From privilege to plurality In Christendom, Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.

From control to witness In Christendom, churches could exert control over society but in post-Christendom, we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.

From maintenance to mission In Christendom, the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo but in post-Christendom, it is on mission within a contested environment.

From institution to movement In Christendom, churches operated mainly in institutional mode but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.

So, what is the legacy of Christendom with which we are left? Some might think it largely positive - charity work, schools, hospitals and so forth – but in Ireland, much of that is tainted with corruption and unhappy memories. Consequently, many celebrate the passing of the Institutional Church, with the grim bitterness of - as someone said to me - “some things can’t be forgiven.”

And this is the vital point. This is what makes post-Christendom in Ireland so different from the UK (the two countries in which I have spent my life).

In the UK, it’s all tied up with the fake nostalgia of Vicar of Dibley days, and the sub-text xenophobia of Daily Mail headlines. The church’s privileged status in society meant it had a vested interest in the status quo. This in turn, meant that the church was aligned, or was perceived to be aligned, with the establishment.

In Ireland, that was also true, but the situation is rawer, more serious here. And yet (I believe) there’s a greater opportunity for God’s “something new.” What I mean by that is that the collapse has been so catastrophic, the scandals so shameful and pervasive, that there can be no going back.

Because the demolition creates the possibility of a whole new build, we are not pessimistic. There are signs of life. Many churches are healthy. There’s a gutsy commitment to church planting across all the different tribes of evangelicalism. There are hundreds of new expressions of the kingdom of God across our small nation. There are new networks springing up, connecting, re-connecting and pointing to signs of kingdom life all over the place.

There are hundreds of new expressions of the kingdom of God across our small nation.

It’s just that everything will look different from here on out. Mission will take its rightful place as the rationale of everything the church does, (rather than being a kind of adjunct activity for the weird few). The church itself will be unrecognisable with an emphasis on informality, food and friendship. The input of paid clergy will be reduced and any clergy/laity split will seem, frankly, bizarre.

In fact, when I read those seven points of transition above, I realise just how much our situation now is like that of the first century, when the church of Christ did most of its growing.

Or, maybe the situation in, say, 2040 will resemble the godless place that St Patrick once visited long ago, at the very edge of the known world.

But why should I fear the future? God’s Word is being proclaimed. The gospel is still the power of God for salvation. “The Lord’s arm is not too short that it cannot save.” The Holy Spirit is alive and well and Jesus said, “I will build my church.”

And He will.
 

Ken Baker is a writer and pastor living in Bandon, County Cork.