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Will the Future Have a Church?

Wednesday September 20 2017

The Very Rev Dr James Simpson believes church history is a powerful reminder that the Kirk’s apparent death spiral could once again become a rising phoenix.

In a television play, two battle-weary nuns were having a bad day. “Let us face it,” said one, “Neither we nor God are up to it any more.”

Some church members today are equally discouraged. What chance, they ask, does the church have against the onslaught of an aggressive secular media which consistently trivialises the Church’s message, ridicules traditional religious beliefs, and caricatures Christian standards of decency as the hang-up of obsessive prudes?

A devilish voice whispers: “Why don’t you admit the tide of secularism is too strong? Why not just accept that we are living in a self-centred, materialistic, cruel and cynical world, a world where Christianity’s days are numbered, where church membership will continue to decline, and that there is nothing we can do about it?”

The early Christians had even greater justification for being discouraged. The mailed fist of the Roman Empire was set on destroying the early church. Some who had embraced the new faith were beginning to wonder if it was too high a price to pay. Others wondered if in such a vast sea of paganism, the future would have a church. Some were tempted to throw in the towel before round one was over.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews was concerned to put new heart into his readers, to rally battle-weary troops. He takes them into a picture gallery and shows them portraits of the great heroes of the past, heroes like Abraham, the original frontiersman, heading into an unknown future, enduring, ‘as seeing him who is invisible’. Then he adds: “Time would fail me to tell of Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David and Samuel who through faith conquered kingdoms.”

Come now into another picture gallery containing the portraits of St Ninian and St Columba. 1600 years ago, Ninian established his church at Whithorn in the South of Scotland. 100 years later the odds against Columba making any real Christian impact on Scotland were immense, for throughout the Scottish mainland the pagan Druid religion was strong. The story of Columba’s journey from Iona to Craig Phadric near Inverness to meet the king of the Picts is a moving one. Although we are not told whether King Brude ever became a professing Christian, we know he adopted Columba as his ‘soul-friend’, and gave him permission to travel anywhere he wanted, and to build a monastic settlement on Iona.

Come now into a more modern picture gallery, one containing portraits of such heroes of the faith as Bonhoeffer, Barth and Neimoller who produced the famous Barmen Declaration, a call to Christians to resist the claims of the Nazis. They were well aware that their Declaration could well be the last words they would ever write.

In this modern picture gallery there would also be the portrait of Father Huddleston who, in his fight against apartheid in South Africa, endured as seeing a God who is blind to the colour of people’s skins. What a transforming influence he exerted on many, including a young black man called Desmond Tutu, who was later to play a major role in South Africa’s history.

In this gallery of modern saints there would also be the portrait of Martin Luther King, the voice of the voiceless in America. Though vilified and imprisoned, he persevered, believing that one on God’s side is a majority.

Though we live in difficult days for the Church, I believe they could also be days of opportunity. The church has things to say that no one else can say, things essential to a proper understanding of the meaning of our existence.

We need a renewed confidence in the message of the resurrection. The resurrection has been a recurring experience in the life of the church. How often when people have thought that Christ and His church were finished, His cause done for, there was a resurrection.

St Francis of Assisi, Luther, John Knox and the Wesleys helped God resurrect the ailing churches of their day, helped bring about significant changes. They renewed the faith of the decades that followed. As a result of their commitment, dying embers sprang to life.

The struggle for a more just and caring world has been going on for a long time, sometimes with victories, sometimes with setbacks. Confronted as we are today with a flood of secularism, we are called to enter into the struggle, to be a dynamic Christian minority.

Like the saints in all ages, we are called to ‘keep our eyes fixed on Jesus’, to share with others the faith and values of the master mind of the centuries. I believe we are also called to reshape our church operations and structures, to let some of them die in the faith and hope that God will once again sow seeds of resurrection.

This is an abridged version of an article from September's Life and Work. Subscribe or download a single issue here.