By Nick Spencer
Stories about the imminent demise of Christianity of Britain tend to rely on a particular set of figures. Once upon a not too distant time, everyone called themselves Christian. By the 2001 Census, this had declined to 71 percent (in England and Wales). A decade later it was 59 percent. The polls now suggest it is below 50 percent. Go figure.
This is indeed a major trend, a real watershed. For the first time in over a thousand years, Christian is no longer the default identity for people born in these islands. But affiliation is not the whole story and may not even be the most important part of the whole story. It does measure something — personal identity, cultural sympathy — but it does not measure belief or, indeed, practice.
These factors, more difficult to measure, have fallen recently, although less precipitously. There are now, for example, fewer people in church on an average Sunday morning than there were ten years ago, but the decline has not been on the scale of affiliation. The growth of new, independent and migrant churches has off-set some of the decline in mainstream denominations.
What hasn’t declined — and seems, by available measures, to be increasing — is the level of Christian social activism. The latest report from the Christian thinktank Theos is Doing Good, and it was timed to coincide with our ten-year anniversary. While writing it, I came across various surveys, alongside data from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, which appeared to confirm the anecdotal evidence we have repeatedly encountered since 2006. More and more churches and Christian charities are getting involved in the delivery of “services” in the community. These vary hugely, from CAP debt advice centres, foodbanks, mental health programs, street pastors, homeless shelters, and refuges and asylum support, through to the slightly more mundane but still important mum-and-toddlers clubs, OAP luncheon clubs and befriending services, children and youth work, depression and anxiety counselling services, and much else besides.
This growth is encouraging, but not without peril. The so-called “Social Gospel” movement, which flourished in the United States in the early years of the 20th century, sought to embody Christian faith in social action in such a way that it would simultaneously reform society and establish the kingdom of God. It was an intelligent, impressive, authentic, and faithful movement — but one that declined and fell, in part because the gospel at its heart was eclipsed by the social activism it spawned. That way beckons further decline.
For that reason, Doing Good advocates not Christian Social Action but what it calls Christian Social Liturgy. It’s a (deliberately) awkward phrase but one that is intended to capture the complex meaning the New Testament Greek word leitourgia, from which our modern liturgy comes.
Like all words, not least complex ones from historically distant cultures, leitourgia was used in different ways and can be understood to have meant different things (the problem is further compounded by the fact that the word, although not uncommon in the ancient world, is used only six times in the New Testament). However, leitourgia has (at least) two identifiable meanings on which the phrase Christian Social Liturgy draws. In the first instance, it was used to mean a service that was obviously “religious” or sacrificial, a priestly or Levitical service that was conducted, more likely than not, within the Temple.
The word could also be used, however, in a less overtly “religious” sense to refer to the kind of charitable activity or gift or benefaction that was central to the life of the earliest Christian communities. Thus, when Paul writes in 2 Corinthians, praising that church’s members for their readiness to give and their enthusiasm for action, and commending their “service” in supplying the needs of the Lord’s people, he uses leitourgia (2 Cor. 9:12).
Sometimes, the word hovers between these two meanings, suggesting the coherence of the two meanings in a single term. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes how he is being “poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith” (Phil. 2:17), thereby framing discussion of his pastoral efforts in a sacrificial understanding.
Christian Social Liturgy is intended to convey the idea of Christian social action that isn’t an add-on to the “real” business of saving souls, but a simultaneous loving of God and neighbour, an open, unapologetic, authentic, and maybe even distinctive way of loving others in the light of God’s love.
Doing Good opens with an example of this, overheard almost by accident on BBC Radio 4. In a recent phone-in programme dedicated to “Debt and Mental Health,” a desperate, 68-year old woman called in. Her situation was, in her words, “horrendous”: her husband with longstanding paranoid schizophrenia had, without her knowledge, accumulated over £20,000 of debt to pay for his gambling addiction. He didn’t work, and they were now afraid to answer the phone or open the post, the result being not only poverty and fear but a painfully broken marriage.
The independent money-saving expert who was offering advice, and had no brief to promote Christianity, told her that she was beyond the normal debt counselling services. “I would say that the right organisation for you is a wonderful organisation called CAP U.K., which is Christians Against Poverty,” he said.
“You don’t have to be a Christian,” he reassured her. Christianity was what inspired them, “why they do it,” not who they do it for or to.
CAP U.K. was different from other debt counsellors, he went on. “They come to the house, give you many more hours and they also do emotional counselling to do with the debt counselling. … I think you could do with someone who comes around, makes you a cup of tea, holds your hands, talks through this, and gets the money sorted out at the same time. … I hear wonderful things about people who’ve been to them.”
This was Christian Social Liturgy in practice: pastoral and professional, expert and — yes — evangelistic, though not in the popular sense of soapbox and megaphone but in the true sense of honestly communicating the love of God.
There are plenty of other examples of this kind of thing going on in the U.K., a few of which are mentioned in the report. This, we argue, will be the shape of British Christianity over coming decades — smaller (in the sense of fewer people calling themselves Christian) but more engaged, more activist.
Significant questions and challenges remain. Christians still need encouragement to see love of God and neighbor as a seamless garment, both intrinsic parts of the prayer “your kingdom come.” Others need reassurance that authentic and distinctive Christian Social Liturgy can be unapologetically evangelistic without being abusive or somehow unethical. Work needs to be done to explore what this “liturgical” approach to social action might look like in any number of fields in which it is not obvious. And careful ethical and legal lines need to be drawn to help these various partners — churches, statutory bodies, public — negotiate a relationship that might have been familiar once upon the time but is less so now.
Nevertheless, the indications are strong and in some ways encouraging, and there are good reasons to believe that the reports of British Christianity’s death have been greatly exaggerated — or perhaps that reports of its death have ignored the fainter rumours of its resurrection.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. The report Doing Good can be purchased (for £5) or downloaded for free at theosthinktank.co.uk.