Potiphar12's Blog
An Octogenarian in the modern world

WE CAN’T PAY THE RENT

Welcoming mail at my new home included the parish magazine. (Church of England). It offered the above headline, referring to the problem of many parishes, including my old one. The institution can’t attract sufficient adherents to get the money it needs to meet its commitments  – in this case the ‘parish share’ required by the diocese.

Why not? I think the root cause is that the organisation can find no way to bridge the gap between the loyal, traditional supporters and younger people to whom the fairy story aspects of Christianity are unacceptable. There are not enough people so inspired by this religion that they want to pay to support it. Crudely, it is all about the cost/benefit equation. For those who believe that membership will gain them entry to a splendid afterlife, the benefit is colossal and a heavy cost is justified. For those who don’t have that belief, is there any serious benefit? The preachers say little on this subject.

I find this distressing, for the messages of Christianity are valid at any time and the form in which they were expressed at one moment in history does not make later interpretations invalid. The great unknown is whether there does or does not exist some conscious entity named as God by Christians and differently by other faiths. If such an entity exists, then it is intellectually superior to us and communication is bound to be limited – as is communication between humans and animals. Human understanding is conditioned by the time and culture in which one lives, and supposing that God wants to communicate, he has to use messages that a generation can understand. It seems nonsense to venerate only the form that was used two thousand years ago.

I remain in The Church of England, and call myself a Christian, but would not bet on existing in a consciously similar form in an afterlife. So why do I stay? I have two reasons. One – Christianity seems to me the best available way of envisaging a higher morality and seeking to imitate it. The doctrine hangs together better than the alternatives. Two – Humans inspired by Christianity have produced things of astonishing beauty. You see the buildings, and hear the music and take part in the rituals, and feel that there must be some truth behind it all. Surely it can’t all be a confidence trick! It is acting upon humans to inspire them. It is true that many decisions about what the church should say and do have been made, historically, by powerful ecclesiastics for self-serving reasons. But imperfections do not prevent the faith being the best available. Is it all true? Nobody knows what truth is, so one should make the best of an approximation.

How can the church engage with the sceptical people of today? By providing an open dialogue about Christianity appears to mean, and discarding the attitude that “We have the answer. Here it is.” At present there is little attempt to discuss with laymen questions like “In what sense to you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God? What do you really mean by the words?”  “What do you mean by Son?” If you don’t believe in the Virgin Birth then in that sense he was NOT the Son of God. If you believe that we are all Sons of God then he WAS, and perhaps more worthy of the title because of the life he lived. He made (the gospels claim) statements like “I and The Father are One” and He who has seen me has seen The Father”. Perhaps the meaning was “I behave the way God behaves. So follow me!”

“Do you believe in The Resurrection?” Many people who take pride in being scientists DON’T. It is a story without evidence or corroboration. But the meaning of the story makes excellent sense. Sin is inescapable and forgiveness can’t be earned by human effort. But it can be obtained – not earned – by repentance and by accepting it as a gift. The Christian story emphasises the seriousness of sin, the incompetence of man, and the generosity of whatever person or power forgives. In that sense I DO believe the story. It enables a person to continue the task of living well despite the certainty of numerous failures.

I think the clergy are still too keen to teach and preach the faith rather than explore it. They should ask people, young and old, to think about the great issues of life, the world, and everything, relating their response constructively to what is being said to them. I think Christianity could cope with such open debate, and gain from it.

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