One of the Jarring differences I've noticed between England and New Zealand in the few weeks I've been here, has been the far greater advance of Secularism as a universal understanding of the ordering of Society over here.
'God' it seems, has been all but wiped from the Horizon of public life.
Folk I talked to ahead of flying out will know I was already alert to this. [But then Encounter is always different from 'knowing the facts' as theologically alert people should know.]
This difference has Encountered Me firstly, in the context of schools. Whilst in England I was part of a very helpful programme for teaching Bible stories called 'Open the Book'. The demand from local schools for this was overwhelming at times and those I worked with, neither of them church schools, had nothing but praise for the scheme and the church members who freely gave of their time to participate - indeed one school came to church each term for an 'OtB Special'. Contrast that with the situation here where I am told that the few remaining doors to school are being progressively and rapidly closed to any form of explicit Christian faith.
This was brought home in the starkest terms when I heard of the proposed appointment of a school 'chaplain', who is not allowed to take assemblies, teach RE or speak of God. Whilst I see that the appointment of a school chaplain in such a secular context is not to be sniffed at, it is still an example of the eradication of 'God'.
I do not for a moment think that this will not happen back in the UK, there have been lots of signs of this for a long while, but it has happened far more rapidly here. Not least because Christendom really Happened in Britain rather than being imported on its last legs. Like a flower inadvertently carried across the tropics in a shipping container, it was never going to take root in the soil of Aotearoa and so as Modernism's grip has closed vice-like on our souls - Christendom is compost - or 'Custard' as I believe we say over here.
[Indeed Roots and History are topics well worth reflecting further on in this regard, especially in a society where at times the History Curriculum is dominated, as I learnt today, by the 80's and 90's and goes back only a little over a hundred years in total. (And Yes, I do mean the 1980's and 1990's. . . - more of that another time perhaps)]
So whither the churches in this Saeculum - or should that be wither?
How Have we been responding?
Perhaps the central element of the churches response to these changes in the Old Country has been to try and adapt to the changing circumstances by being Relevant. But rather bluntly, this puts me in mind of the story of the French 'Revolutionary' sat at a sidewalk cafe - who sees the Mob rush by and declares 'there go my people, I am their leader - I must follow them!!' There is much talk about the Revolutionary message we bear as Christians but our action as the church often seems to mimic our deluded ami.
This 'Quest for Relevance' seems to go back to the 1960's, at least in England - [those who argue there are elements of it before the Reformation are not to be dismissed, but time doesn't allow] - and two images sum it up for me.
One is the search for a new, more Accessible prayer book [For folk who think Contemporary liturgy and services is The Answer, a look at the timeline for church attendance and the beginning of the moves away from 1662 might perhaps call this into question, along with progressive changes to liturgy which have accompanied the accelerating decline]
The second a Black and White photo I remember seeing, of an elderly cleric in a cassock and collar 'getting down' at a disco amongst a group of clearly half bemused and half disinterested 'young people'. OUCH - brief pause to recover my composure . . .
This quest for Relevance has had one underlying and oft unexamined guiding theme throughout - that as Christians 'we're all about people - people is what we are about - we're people centered' . So people centered that our Contemporary songs are 'All about Me, Jesus' For a Very Painful reminder of this - Click Here.
In other words in our search for relevance in an age where God is wiped from wider consciousness our response has been to do the same, to put the Human at the centre of all things and effectively removing Him from the centre, keeping 'God' out of it.
The great Message of Christianity in This age contrary to those that have gone before is 'You're OK and indeed you can be even Better!' [This came home to me Very sharply listening to someone trying to sum up the Distinctive Ethos of a church school. I've been associated with several over the years and have heard this tune replayed over and over again these past years - 'we as Christians have a unique understanding of the amazing potential of human beings' ]
A Key element of the Christian message is 'Actually we are Not OK!' and this whole bloody Dying on a Cross thing is a sign that God cares enough to do something about it - The Love of God is not a warm acceptance blanket - but a fiery determination not to let our self centredness have the last world in a World he is literally Passionate about.
The horrible irony is this - we as Christians are often accused by our noisy detractors of being deluded, that this whole God business is nonsense, in an age when We have largely given up on this whole God business!
What is more in doing so, we are Truly deluded, for a moment's attention to the news, to our neighbourhoods and indeed to our hearts tell us we are Not OK, that we need Saving from and for the Sake of the World.
In a world where people look around and ask, 'who on Earth can get us out of this?' We seem to have forgotten who we are, the people of God. We have forgotten the deepest stories of our faith - our roots, that our Life is a Gift of God and Only makes any sense at all when understood in His light. That Human only has any meaning at all Precisely because God says so - our lives only have Dignity because of God, and we Know this because he deigns to come to us and address us and tells us to stand up and face him.
Without God we have no sense of what it is to be human, without the trascendent, the imminent collapses in on itself and All is reduced to Nothing.
At the beginning of most services in the historic denominations we are reminded of this week by week - we hear the words 'Our Lord, Jesus Christ said, the First Commandment is this, the Lord our God is the only Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. . . .' Yes, I know there is a second part, but as in all orders the second follows the first, without the first there is no second. And having reminded ourselves that our focus should be on God we turn to Him in confession - to agree that we are not OK.
In the wonderful words of Hosea (6:4) we acknowledge our love for God is like the morning dew, that goes away early - but as the prophet goes on later, when our love for God Is like the morning mist - it is We who disappear like the morning dew (13:3). God doesn't disappear - we do and that is the story of our age that when the human is centre the human disappears - witness the C20.
Week by week we hear that our Life comes only from God - we acknowledge we have forgotten that. It is Only in this turn to God and Not in the turn to the World that the Church can become a beacon of Light.
This is why I feel privileged to come and serve under a Bishop, Kelvin Wright who recognises that without Prayer we are without Hope - that only in returning to God does the church have a future and through the future of the Church, the World has Hope.
In this Age - Prayer is a counter cultural activity as much as anything - it speaks of a people whose lives are Other directed, rather than self centered - however self centered our praying may be at times - when we pray we acknowledge that we are not God and our hope is in Him, not ourselves.
Looking out at the Church and the World, we have a crying need for this Other direction. For it is only when we are Other directed that we can truly begin the hard business of obeying the second command and Loving our Neighbour as ourselves, for the sake of the World and the greater Glory of God..