Behold, I make all things new

 

I have recently become a post-evangelical.

I don't know what a post-evangelical is, exactly. There have been a number of pieces in the Saturday Guardian but I never get to the end of them. Perhaps it's sort of committed to the core values of evangelicalism, without any longer believing in evangelism, or possibly even in the evangel. New Evangelicalism, as it were.

My potted biography (or 'testimony' as evangelical biographies are known: 'describe your life before, your conversion to and your experience of Christianity in not more than two minutes without hesitation, deviation, or using the expression 'Personal Saviour' more than seventeen times') is as follows. I was brought up by Christian parents in a church which was long on the Love of Jesus but very short on doctrine, or at any rate, on telling you what doctrines they believed. If you asked them what was meant by the expression 'Son of God' or 'Christ died for our sins' let alone 'the Holy Trinity' they simply wouldn't tell you. Maybe it was a mystery religion on the sly.

When I started University I discovered, to my great surprise that perfectly ordinary members of the Christian Union were prepared to give straight and coherent answers to these sorts of questions. They had a 'doctrinal basis' or statement of faith which managed to whittle Christianity down to nine propositions. One of them was 'the infallibility of Scripture as originally given, insofar as it is correctly interpreted', which rather cleverly commits you to absolutely nothing at all.

The actual Christian faith could, on this view, be reduced to Four points (I pride myself that I put it rather better than the near-canonical 'Steps to God' tract, but the gist is the same):

1:   God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
2:   You are a sinner.
3:   Jesus died to bridge the gulf between you and God created by your sin
4:   You must, by an act of will, cross the bridge that he has built—that is to say, have faith—in order to get back to God. When you do that, everything else will start to come right.

Huge numbers of evangelical sermons turned out to be pretexts for the reiteratation of these four points. Sermons for children managed to draw them out of the story of David and Goliath, Jonah and the Unfeasibly Large Haddock, and, on a bad day, Mr Grumpy. To many Christian Unionists, mentioning any other subject—talking about a Secondary Theological Matter, let alone a Social Issue was to stray from the point. The point being, of course, to explain the Four Points to as many people as possible and thus Save Souls.

And the Four Points approach does seem to have a great deal to recommend it. It's simple; it's coherent; it has content; and would be recognised as Christianity by pretty every Christian from St Paul down to...well, me. I want to run screaming from the gross over-simplification; I might prefer a different form of words: but ultimately, the Four Points are what I believe.

Or, more precisely, what I believe in is the great Myth of which the Four Points are an unpacking. The story of God-on-the-cross; of the God who sacrificed himself; of the God who sorted his creation out by accepting the worst that it could throw at him.

So, on Sunday morning, the hymn board says that we are going to sing what is actually one of the better modern hymns or 'choruses' as they are euphemistically known:

'Father godeye wonder how I
Managed to exist without the
Knowledge of your parenthood
And your loving care
But now I am your son I am a
Dopted in your familyand
I can never be alonecos
Fathergod you're there beside me..."

Before singing it, the Pastor felt the need to explain that:

1: God is a father to us all of course we don't all have good memories of our fathers but many of us do and God is still father to us even if we don't and

2: It applies to mothers as well.

Oh, and the word 'son' in line 5 had been changed to 'child'.

It struck me that if we are that uncomfortable about the imagery of the song, then maybe we just ought to stop singing it altogether.

And then we sang Wide, Wide as the Ocean. With, the Pastor said without hint of irony, the actions. This entailed grown ups flailing their arms around to indicate that Jesus love is 'deep, deep as the deepest sea' and pointing to themselves to indicate that 'I though so unworthy still am a child of his care.'

I react badly to this sort of thing: I don't think I much cared for childishness when I was a child. By the third repetition (with actions) I was looking around the building for escape routes.

For whose benefit was this being done? For the children in the congregation, of whom there were about three? For adults who associate church with cosey nostalgia? Or were there—I am as tolerant as the next man—people in the congregation for whom singing nursey rhymes 'with actions' was a genuinely spiritual experience?

At any rate, something crystalised for me: the ritual of singing this song—and by extension, most of what goes on in churches—has nothing whatsoever to do with the Story that I wanted to celebrate. That is to say, with Christianity. I've come out of more than one service in the last decade thinking. 'Well, that was very nice. But I'd rather have had something religious.'

For I suppose 25 years the Churches have been 'modernising'—and god knows, no-one is asking for a return tio Latin chants and turgid liturgy. But modernizing means that more and more, churches have been put in a stranglehold by the Gimmick Service. It is de rigour to be made to pull crackers in Church on Christmas morning. I have seen clergymen put on wellington boots and eat their breakfast in front of the congregation in the name of Visual Aids, and overhead projectors are obligatory. There is also a weird phenomenon called the Dramasketch which is like theatre, only with worse costumes and no rehearsal.

All of these things can be done well: the Riding Lights Theatre Group attached to Saint Michael Le Belfry in York, were first rate actors who, at their best, could have been said to be performing enacted worship, liturgical drama. On Good Friday 1988 I recall a congregation promenading around the York Minster, watching modern mystery plays being performed in various locations, and then going onto the green outside for a re-enactment of the Crucifixion. This was a powerful retelling of The Story done really well, by people who really believed it. But clergymen increasingly see merit in doing something a bit strange in their church simply 'to get the kids in'. The kids don't come. Did we ever really believe that the thrill of seeing a few of the deacons reading from embarassingly banal scripts with tea-towels around their heads was going to provide a serious rival to Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys (10.15 Sunday ITV) or The Magical Adventures of Quasimodo (10.00 Sunday BBC 1)? But they carry on doing it anyway. Church as light entertainment.

As a result, we grown ups are left with churches that contain no ritual, no ceremony, no reverence, no awe, no respect. I swear I have seen children brushing up the crumbs from the communion table and eating them after the service.

There are periodic panics about the 'unchurched', about children growing up with no knowledge of the Bible. If the evangelical churches—the ones who are still, on paper at any rate, committed to fully fledged undiluted Cupitt-free Christianity—successfully drive away thinking adults and at the same time fail to communicate any message worth hearing to the two or three children in the congregation then it is hard to see where any revival is going to come from.

For my part, I am going to find some way to celebrate—be awe-struck by, to participate in—the great Story by to which I was converted by the Christian Union. I have started to think previously unthinkable thoughts. I wondered about skipping church and instead, buying some candles, a C.D. of Gregorian chants and creating my own Sacred Space in my flat. I wondered about learning some kind of meditation. I thought of becoming a Catholic, a Quaker, or (worst of all) an Anglican. Maybe I'll just go to the park and try to think holy thoughts.

In practice, if I get up in time, I will go to church as normal and get nothing out of it. I feel guilty when I don't. At heart, I am still an Old Evangelical.

 

 

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