Secular versions of Christianity must face the return of Christ
The root of the crisis in the Western church is different views on the reality of God and his plans for the cosmos.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
1 Thessalonians 4:13
The secular worldview is not the same as atheism. The object of faith, a divine being, is seen by the atheist as a dangerous myth. By contrast, secularism does not necessarily deny the existence of God, or gods, but re-interprets the idea of the divine and the spiritual in human terms. Secularism can see value in faith: it provides people with emotional support; it motivates them to help the disadvantaged and serve their communities. The secularist might not regard belief in the existence of God as necessarily harmful, and is more interested in the psychology of faith, and whether it has a positive or negative effect according to what the secularist thinks is “good”.
It's not difficult to see, then, how secular thinking can infiltrate the church. If faith is seen only from the perspective of human feelings and activities, then religion and the church is not threatening to the secular worldview and its projects. In fact the church and its message can be reinterpreted to support common concerns: protecting the environment, promoting visibility and care of minorities, ensuring equitable distribution of resources and so on. The presence of the church building and regular services of worship form part of an important bedrock of continuity and stability in communities; they provide a sense of peace and psychological uplift; they can help to build friendships and a sense of well-being. Because religion, spirituality and faith are a matter of personal opinion, this will result in a variety of views, but the institution of the church can help people with these diverse feelings to live together in peace.
This is a view of Christian faith which just looks at the perspective of visible benefits it might give churchgoers and local communities. The question of whether the God of the bible actually exists objectively, outside human consciousness, does not need to be addressed. Much of the recent debates on sexuality in General Synod and other meetings have taken place with this background. Participants have said: “I am a member of the church; I feel this, and I think this”, and these testimonies have been accorded great weight. When other participants have urged a shift in perspective to look at what God thinks, according to his revealed will in Scripture, this has been viewed as simply another opinion, explainable by personal feelings or membership of a particular group.
So, the recent Synod vote to permit blessings of same sex couples (see below for details and comment) should not be seen as a shocking, but single-instance, single-issue departure from orthodoxy, which can perhaps be reversed by legal procedures or changes in leadership personnel. Rather it is part of an entrenched pattern; another outworking, along with many other examples, of the institution operating from a default secular, instead of biblical, worldview. Presbyterian leader Matthew Roberts reminds us to see the problem in the Western church as essentially two separate religions in the same institution. If orthodox Anglicans focus on the ‘tree’ of secularism in general, rather than a particular fruit (eg a decision by the Church of England leadership in February 2023) this will help us in our task of recovering and bearing witness to a fully-orbed understanding of reality as set out in the Scriptures and our Anglican formularies.
The meeting of the first Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) in 2008 was a watershed moment in church history. Anglican leaders from around the world came together to reaffirm a biblical understanding of Christian faith, to re-commit to mission and evangelism based on the gospel of Christ according to Scripture, and to reject secularised versions of Christianity. The Jerusalem Declaration is a condensed expression of this shared faith. The final clause is certainly a challenge to the secular worldview:
We rejoice at the prospect of Jesus’ coming again in glory, and while we await this final event of history, we praise him for the way he builds up his church through his Spirit by miraculously changing lives.
Based on the consistent teaching of Jesus and the apostles, “the anticipation of the return of Jesus has been the centrepiece of Christian hope since the very beginning” (Being Faithful, p68). To meet face to face with our Saviour, to know that suffering is ended, to rest and be rewarded for our labours for the Kingdom, to experience God’s perfect reign and justice and peace, will be a time of inexpressible joy. But in the present, reflecting on the return of Christ motivates us to godly living, and to support the Great Commission, to make disciples of Christ throughout the world.
We can easily become discouraged by our own sin and the apparent success of evil in the world and even in the church. We cannot do it on our own; we need God’s grace continually. And he provides this by his Holy Spirit, sustaining his faithful people in their walk with him as they await the final Day. In particular, we are encouraged by answers to prayer, to testimonies of God “miraculously changing lives”, and through news from around the world of the growth of God’s church.
Keeping in mind the future return of Christ, and the present miracle of the real, faithful, spiritual (rather than institutional) Church, is an important antidote to secularism. But this is not pietism, retreating to an otherworldly ‘churchianity’ which has nothing to say to, and no impact on, the hard material world of politics, economics, struggles with day to day cost of living and concerns for our children’s future. A biblical worldview means that we participate in these things, with faith, seeing and doing things God’s way, enduring, being salt and light, pointing to Christ as the cosmic judge before whom we must all give account, and the Saviour who longs to include many more in his Kingdom before he returns.