Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Christianity and Christendom

While in England I have been talking with my friend Andy, who I went to graduate school with at Regent College. He lives in a communal house in London with Christian friends that are about the same age. Andy commented about how rare it is to find Christians in Britain, as evident in the fact that very few people attend church. This issue is particularly problematic when trying to find someone to date. The low turnout in British churches is, of course, an issue that I am familiar with, having lived in Scotland for over two years. Britons are also well aware of the statistics of the declining church, a subject documented in such books as Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain

One of the aspects of my conversation with Andy that I found interesting was his reference to "Christians" in Britain. He uses this general term, rather than referring to evangelicals, Pentecostals, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. He does not differentiate between the denominations, or even between Catholics and Protestants. If you willing attend church and declare yourself a follower of Christ, then you are a Christian, regardless of the various nuances of your belief system.

What he described reminded me of the time before Constantine's reign when there was a minority of Christians in the Roman Empire. Obviously, Christians in Britain are not physically persecuted in the same way as some of the earliest Christians, but one would certainly not be popular today for saying that he or she is a Christian in Britain. Whereas in America, we bicker over whether a person should be dunked or sprinkled, be able to speak in tongues, and if women can become ministers, in Britain a person is often happy to find people who are simply willing to admit that they are believers.

Our discussion then turned to the question of whether Christendom was good for Christianity. This question was debated all the way back to the time of Constantine, who made Christianity the most popular religion in the empire. Indeed, a person wanted to become a Christian at the time of Constantine in order to get ahead in life, at least politically. When Constantine favored Christianity, waves of people joined churches largely to affiliate with a religion that had become dominant, almost overnight. Some, in protest to this tide change, moved into the desert to live an ascetic life. These monks saw Christianity as now corrupted by the state and so wanted to purge themselves of the mixture of materialism, politics, and apathy that seemed to accompany the mobs of people now professing the same faith.

There is something to be said about banding together as a faithful minority. A Christian living in Britain must make a conscious decision to move in a countercultural direction. Because there is very little in the way of social benefit to declaring oneself a believer in Britain, people who congregate at churches seem to have a firmer commitment to their faith (though, not always). By contrast, in Christendom America, there are hordes of people who attend church but do not seem to have the same kind of appreciation for Christianity as the minority groups of westerners in Europe.

All of this discussion is pushing me toward offering a class next spring on Global Christianity in which we would look at the history of Christianity in the West and non-western world. Perhaps I would use some of Philip Jenkins's books since he will be giving a lecture at UTC in February.

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