Monday, September 19, 2011

How Churches Got to be the Way they are :-)

by Gavin White (London: SCM Press), 1990.

I bought this little (120 pp.) book when in London on a preaching/seminar-trip. If you thought church history was boring, this will cure you. It's a popular history of the church/es in the West and the USSR in the last couple of hundred years. Its style is racy and humorous (a tongue-in-cheek send-up of religious functionaries who took themselves too seriously, reminiscent of 1066 and All That). Essentially, White (lecturer in the Dept of Church History, University of Glasgow) offers lots of things you always thought you never wanted to know about the history of various Christian

Some rough notes I jotted for edification - and a chuckle: 

* In the eighteenth century the Deists reduced religion to morality and God to a building society... but David Livingstone lectured Africans 'on the works of God in creation and providence', beginning with 'the goodness of God in giving iron ore', which those people extracted and used.

* The Evangelicals came to the fore at the end of the 18th century, and a key word for them was 'surprise'. They believed in surprises (everyone else believed in a set pattern of causes and effects). One of them, William Wilberforce, was on the board of about forty companies. Another - Hannah More - wrote a tract about a shepherd's contentment while living in poverty: two million copies were distributed in a single year when England had but nine million people...

* The eighteenth century believed in a God who did everything at the creation, the Evangelicals in a God who did everything on the cross...

* There was political pressure to reform the Church of England and sweep away all that was not useful, which meant most of it.

* John Henry Newman, a delicate soul, was of extreme evangelical background, but had little sense of the Church of England, and when he turned from that body he might equally well have become Roman Catholic, as he did, or Plymouth Brethren, as his brother did. Newman was the principle writer of the Tracts from which the Tractarians got their name, though Isaac Williams and Robert Wilberforce actually produced the most thoughtful ones. (Newman was certainly sensitive, but if his early days as a Roman Catholic were unhappy, they were probably no more unhappy than his days as an Anglican. The truth of the matter was that nobody knew what to do with him).

* There were 54,000 English Roman Catholics in 1780, but by 1840 there were 450,000, which was 2.8% of the population; and by that date there were 420,000 Irish-born in England, of whom the vast majority were Catholic.

* Methodists, says Eli Halevy, the distinguished French historian, gave English workers and peasants an ideology which led them to work and not agitate, thus preventing an English Revolution like the French one. (Dissenters could join the Church of England by using Methodism as a transit lounge). In due course Methodists were blamed for having condemned millions to factory slavery. John Wesley was a ferocious opponent of Calvinism, though it is not considered polite to mention this today. A later Methodist, Jabez Bunting, a mysterious man who was a gifted administrator, made Methodists honorary members of the establishment.

* Weber's thesis (Protestants create wealth better than Catholics or others do) is on shaky ground these days. The earliest states to engage in industrial development were not so much united in religious outlook asunited in having coal, iron and waterpower. But Weber was right when he affirmed that beliefs influence behaviour.

* Up in Scotland J.McLeod Campbell and a number of other ministers were removed from their churches for teaching that salvation was offered for all.

* A famous Evangelical was Thomas Chalmers, minister of Kilmany in Fife, lecturer in chemistry and writer on political economy and astronomy and just about everything else. He became a professor in St. Andrews of moral philosophy which he also happened to know, and later at Edinburgh, of divinity. He also invented a new way of washing his hands but, alas, that perished with him...

* United Presbyterians were embarrassed by having to try ministers for rejecting election as set forth in the Westminster Confession when nobody actually believed it any more, and in 1879 they called it 'necessarily imperfect'...

* The Irish have always been law-abiding; their problem has been deciding with which law they should abide. In the end all Irish have more in common with one another than with anyone else. The Irish think more. They may not think better, but they think more. If in modern Scottish history the
Evangelicals were being driven out of the church, in Ireland the Evangelicals were able to drive the others out.

* America has produced only one original theologian, Jonathan Edwards...

* In 1893 the Canadian Anglicans took the title 'archbishop' and notified the Archbishop of Canterbury on what he described as a half-sheet of foreign notepaper. It took him two years to accept what had been done. But the Anglican Communion is largely symbolic, and has resisted all attempts to turn it into something practical...

* Had famine struck a generation earlier the world might have been filled with Irish sceptics, rather than Irish Catholic zealots; eg. the attempt to build a new Ireland in the Southern Hemisphere, with Cardinal Cullen of Dublin putting his nephews and family friends into Australian bishoprics five at a time. In all denominations the need for colonial clergy was met by lowering standards. Irish overseas priests were trained at All Hallows, and these were often the men who would not have been accepted at Maynooth for work in Ireland itself; their uncouth manners were to offend even the laity in roughest Australia. Presbyterians were recruited in Scotland and Ireland, though a few of the Scots sent to Canada turned out to seek nothing but a free passage, and two proved to be imposters and not ministers at all. Overseas nations sometimes excelled the British in some disciplines, but they did not do so in theology.

* E.R.Norman's conclusion is that 'each generation of Christians offers up in each age what they judge most to convey the presence of Christ. A lot of what is transient gets caught up in the process...'

* Darwin and Creation. Whether by accident or design, the universe is there. But whether it is there by accident or design has always mattered. If the world was made by accident, then it was suggested that God did not care enough about people to make them, but just took them on when they happened to appear... The first giraffes stretched their necks to reach the high branches of trees, and later giraffes were born with pre-stretched necks, though the process did not seem to work backwards by giraffes in zoos having baby giraffes with pre-shrunk necks suitable for eating out of buckets...

* The founding fathers of Fundamentalism published pamphlets called The Fundamentals early in this century: three of the essays accepted evolution, though two did not. A constant complaint against teaching evolution in the schools has been that it is not proven fact, but only a theory. But if it was normal to think of science as fact in the past, it is not so now. Since Max Planck and Einstein there has been a new approach to physics, which has treated the theories as useful guides to reality, rather than actual laws. Furthermore, Max Born has argued for the instability of matter, saying that 'stability and life are incompatible.'

* Missionaries went to Africa and Asia with cultural baggage; nobody goes anywhere without cultural baggage, and Christianity can no more live without a culture than bacteria in a laboratory can live without a culture. Missionaries divided on doctrinal grounds before they were out of sight of the British coast. In the 1840s it was discovered that most missions were undertaken by unofficial societies. It was also discovered that Christ's promise at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel was made to his disciples collectively, and not to a missionary sub-committee. David Livingstone was not a typical missionary. He believed that God showed his benevolence in long rivers which allowed trade and civilization, and he found it hard to believe in the existence of waterfalls which denied the benevolence of God, so he imagined rivers to be longer than they really were...

* In one generation the numbers of African Christians have grown from twenty-five to a hundred million, which is perhaps the most significant fact in all modern church history. In other places the Christian presence was established in a specific decade, after which the shutters came down and future growth proved impossible. And in some countries many years of missionary work had no effect at all.

* The spread of Pentecostalism has been erratic. Nobody knows why it has been successful in South Africa but scarcely elsewhere in Africa. Nobody knows why it flourishes in parts of Latin America, but not in most of Asia. The gift of tongues is not given to every Pentecostalist, and the desperate attempts to keep it alive suggest that it may be declining. It is something which most world religions seem to produce for periods in their history. Does the emphasis of the charismatics on their own happiness justify accusations of self- indulgence? The classic Pentecostalists, after three-quarters of a century have done virtually nothing in works of mercy...

* It would be wrong to think that the [communist] Soviet leadership saw themselves as engaged in a battle with Christianity. Christians tend to think that only Christians suffered, and Jews tend to think that only Jews suffered, and so on. But everybody suffered. Christians, Jews, Muslims, peasants, workers, geneticists, economists, until eventually Stalin devoted himself to killing off the old Bolsheviks. Before 1959 there were about twenty thousand churches open in the Soviet Union, with about thirty million regular worshippers: mostly the uneducated masses and the intellectuals, but not those in between, which is utterly contrary to the experience of the churches in the West. Skilled workers and clerks and managers, who are the backbone of church life in Britain or America tend to be moved to activism rather than contemplation, and find the Orthodox liturgy boring and meaningless. They are more likely to feel at home with the Baptists, if they are attracted to religion at all.

* Is persecution good for the church? Does it lead to growth? Does the blood of the martyrs become the seed of the church? The answer to this question must be a resounding no. Mild and temporary persecution may lead to a feeling of community amongst Christians, but real persecution, in any age, leads to division, denial of Christianity, and mutual suspicion amongst Christians.

* In 1942 William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, said that the ecumenical nature of the church was 'the great new fact of our time'. Divisions in the church have always existed, and there have always been occasions when it has been necessary for somebody, somewhere, to leave and set up a rival body. Yet in time the reasons for the divisions become less pressing, or are overcome by new developments, and it is possible to put back together the fragments of an earlier age.

* Rome is conservative and slow, but Roman Catholicism is not: it has a tendency to go to extremes... It cannot be coincidental that the infallibility of the Pope and the infallibility of Scripture were defined at about the same time in quite different places and circumstances. If Vatican Two at least did some of what it was supposed to do, Vatican One did not. It was side-tracked on to the subject of infallibility. (The final vote, on 18 July 1870 occurred in a thunderstorm, which could be argued to mean divine approval or divine disapproval according to taste). The infallibility which meant so much to so many was only used once, to declare the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary to heaven, which was hardly a vital question. Infallibility may never be used again. Nobody wants infallibility anymore, with or without The Times at breakfast. Vatican Two produced a chapter praising the Virgin Mary but adding, 'no creature could ever be counted equal with the incarnate Word and Redeemer'. There could only be one Mediator. This disappointed many devout Catholics, but in the years to come devotion to Mary became more restrained quite apart from the results of the Council.

* Churches in this [20th] century have been declining, and they have finally admitted this even if they have not understood it. Result: a whole string of campaigns to correct whatever has been going wrong. It has usually been assumed that what has gone wrong has been inside the church and so it can be corrected by more faith, more new-fashioned theology, more old-fashioned theology, more good works, or whatever it is that will make the church irresistible to modern people. Behind this thinking is the notion that people outside the church are without free will. They are robots,  ready to march into church when somebody presses the right button at mission control. And it is only a matter of finding the right button. Henry Scott Holland put it this way in 1914 when the Bishop of Zanzibar wrote a pamphlet asking where the church stood. Scott Holland said that it did not stand at all, but 'moves and pushes and slides and staggers and falls and gets up again, and stumbles on and presses forward and falls into the right position after all.'

That is (Gavin White's version of) church history!

Rowland Croucher

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