The Shift into Post-Christendom

The Shift into Post-Christendom October 5, 2012

Earlier this year, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and, thereby, formerly the tutelary head of the Anglican communion world-wide, shocked me. Then, I was further shocked by the discovery that I should have not been shocked in the first place…that I was, in fact, one of a fairly limited number of folk who were even surprised by what Lord Carey did.

What Lord Carey did, acting from his position as former Archbishop, was to file a written statement to the European Court of Human Rights charging that British courts had begun to persecute Christians and “drive them underground” by failing to protect Christians who were excluded or removed from some forms of employment because of their beliefs and/or were being “vilified by state bodies” and/or “were left in fear of arrest for expressing their views.” *

All of that triggered first in me that lovely reaction known as chauvinistic denial. That is, I immediately thought, “Well, the UK is not the USA,” which was about as uninformed and unattractive a reaction as I could have come up with, even if I had taken time to think about it. Obviously, no two countries are ever the same. More than that, Christianity is hardly the province of any given political state or social culture. It is a sui generis…a thing unto itself; and we who are Christian always belong to any temporal structures by a remove of at least one.

But after I recovered from the mental gymnastics involved in such self-correction, I realized that actually what I had just experienced was my first, up-front, in-my-face encounter with the very real truth that we in latinized Christianity now live both in a post-Christendom world and as confessing parts of a post-Constantinian Christianity. That perception led me back to a very fine book that I had pondered over some several weeks ago.

Of all the books that have been published in religion this year, one of the ones I have admired most is Lloyd Pietersen’s Reading the Bible After Christendom. Not least among its many virtues is the fact that it enjoys a very muscular foreword by Walter Brueggemann. That alone would be worth the price of admission. But what I also had been struck by…and am now even more informed and persuaded by…is Pietersen’s inclusion and explication of two lists.** The first is a list of the presentations of Constantinian Christianity and culture, and the second is a much shorter list of the presentations of the shifts away from it. Those two, respectively, are:

PRESENTATIONS OF THE SHIFT TO CHRISTENDOM ***

        • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state, or empire.
        • Movement of the church from the margins to the center of society.
        • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
        • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth.
        • The development of a “sacral society,” corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and political power was divinely authenticated.
        • The definition of “orthodoxy” as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
        • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (though normally Old Testament morality was applied).
        • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
        • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism.
        • A hierarchical ecclesiastical system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
        • A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and relegation of laity to a largely passive role.
        • Two-tier ethics, with higher standards of discipleship (“evangelical counsels”) expected of clergy and those in religious orders.
        • Sunday as an official holiday and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance.
        • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law court to encourage truth telling.
        • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
        • Increased wealth of the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
        • Division of the globe in “Christendom” and “heathendom” and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
        • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
        • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

PRESENTATIONS OF THE SHIFT INTO POST-CHRISTENDOM****
      • The Christian story and churches have moved from the center to the margins.
      • Christians are now a minority.
      • Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.
      • Christians no longer enjoy automatic privileges but find themselves as one community among many in a plural society.
      • The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence only through faithful witness to the Christian story and its implications.
      • The emphasis is now no longer on maintaining the status quo but on mission in an contested environment.
      • Churches can no longer operate mainly in institutional mode, but must learn to operate once again as part of a movement.

The reason I mention all of this just now is, of course, that 28 October 2012 will be the 1700th anniversary of Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. I can not, for the life and soul of me, think of a better way to observe that anniversary than to spend some time pondering  carefully and prayerfully the implications of those two Murray/Pietersen lists and, in particular, of our place on the latter one.

_______________

*  As reported in The Guardian, 13 April 2012. Full coverage is available on the net at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/14/christians-persecuted-archbishop-canterbury

**  Taken from Stuart Murray’s  Post-Christendom: Church and Missions in a Strange New World [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004, pp 83-84] as reproduced by Lloyd Pietersen in Reading the Bible After Christendom [Herald Press, 2012]

***  Pietersen, pp 23-25

**** Pietersen, pp 25-26

 


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