I was chatting with someone recently who suddenly said, “I wish we still had Christendom. Then everyone would know what we believe”. I couldn’t work out whether to agree or recoil in horror – but I was glad he recognised the decline of Christendom, as it’s a reality that we in the church need to be able to respond to. But is it a danger (with the church no longer receiving protection from the state) or an opportunity (because the partnership with the state did as much to corrupt the church’s message as to promote it)?
The idea of Christendom seems to originate with Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the eighth century who sought to re-create his version of the Roman Empire, using Christianity as the uniting factor between nations (see here). However, I suspect that the deepest roots of Christendom lie within the old Roman Empire. The early church endured wave after wave of intense persecution until, after three hundred years, the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and subsequently (under Theodosius) Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire (see here).
One can hardly blame the early church for seeing God’s hand in this: but from such a political alliance the outcome was more likely to suit the power brokers than the prophets. When Charlemagne conquered the pagan Saxons, for example, he demanded that they all be baptised – and any that refused should be executed (see here). This was hardly an expression of the good news for the poor.
Jen and I saw an example of the close allegiance of church and state when we were in France. We were staying within the boundaries of the mediaeval kingdom of Aquitaine. It’s long since been subsumed into France, but when Richard the Lionheart was king of England at the end of the 12th century, he was much more interested in Aquitaine than the island off the north coast! We went with Jen’s mum and uncle John to visit Fontevraud, described as “one of the greatest monastic cities in Europe, and royal necropolis of the Plantagenet dynasty” (here; my italics). I can’t help thinking that this powerful fusion of church and state is the very antithesis of what Jesus himself came to represent.
Jesus had had opportunities to align himself with power in several ways: he could have honoured the Temple rulers, instead of blatantly offending them; or he could have become the political Messiah that many were expecting; or he could – at least hypothetically – have cosied up to Pilate and the Romas. Instead he chose to mix with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick and preaching the kingship of God. For this he was executed.
Therefore, I see the demise of Christendom as an opportunity, because Christendom itself was hardly a faithful representation of the Gospel. But it is hard to deny the element of danger as well: it’s not just about the loss of common values, but that the church now exists in a nation where there is markedly less protection from the state. For some, these changes are unsettling, not least because of their rapidity. But it is a reality we need to respond to, whether or not we like the changes themselves.
The post-Christendom culture comes with a diminished knowledge of the story of Jesus, which requires new ways of communicating the good news. This is the major reason why creative ways of doing ministry, such as Fresh Expressions of church (of which the Cafe church in west Worcestershire is an example), are so important. Losing the confusing and flawed Christendom narrative is beneficial in itself, but navigating the emerging cultural landscape provides plenty of fresh challenges!