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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Secular Church

ne weltlijch Kjoakj

Canterbury Cathedral, UK
    The Economist Newspaper’s anonymous Bagehot (bă zjᵊt) column for 10-16 December chooses to focus its intellectual lens on the Church of England.  What does the Church of England have to do with economics and finance?  Bagehot’s answer is simple – too much and too little.

     What does the Church of England have to do with Mennonites and Anabaptists?  Actually, not a whole lot – The reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were not good for English Anabaptists or for Dutch reformers living in their realm.  Like the Lutherans on the Continent, the English monarchs, as heads of the new Anglican Church, persecuted the Anabaptists on the grounds that they were too radical and a threat to the peace.
    But Bagehot has something else in mind entirely – he or she is focused on the relevancy of the traditional English church to an increasingly secular English society.  Bagehot quotes the British Social Attitudes Survey in that only 20% of English refer to themselves as Church of England – only half of those who identified as such under Margaret Thatcher.  Half of England apparently now identifies with no religion at all.  Where then does the Church maintain its relevancy and influence?
   Mennonite demography is by its nature a loosely termed phrase.  There is no official Mennonite Attitudes Survey.  In that Mennonites have long been divided by questions of ethnicity versus religion and who makes up the gemeinde (gә mīndә), there is little agreement as to how many Mennonites there are to survey. 
Urban Mennonite church in Amsterdam, Neth
    Much of the increase in American “Mennonite” churches has been due to the conversion of non-ethnic Mennonites to Anabaptism rather than birthrates.  In as much as only membership numbers are currently reported or tracked in North America, there is no way to estimate how many ethnic Mennonites actually attend church or feel religious, nor any reason to believe that ethnic Anabaptists are more or less religiously affiliated than their non-Mennonite neighbours.  In Canada, various polls indicate that only about 20% of Canadians attend weekly religious services.  Christians in the United States seem to be in a stronger position – 40% of Americans reportedly attend weekly services.  Unlike Britain, 80% of Americans still purportedly feel that they are part of the larger religious structure.  Though Bagehot does intuit that based on the ability of the Church of England to impact social debate and generate effective headlines, religious numbers are possibly much higher in the UK as well. 
    In both the Mennonite and English instances, we find a growing population of secular ethnic citizens who are yet often strongly influenced by the traditional religious structures with which they no longer officially identify.
    Church attendance would be the only realistic measure of the active Mennonite cultural identity.  So amongst Mennonites, even if we go with the higher estimates of 40%, of North American Mennonites remaining in the church context, we are still looking at a rapidly increasing proportion of Mennonites who are secular.  Amish retention rates have been loosely estimated to be about 80%.  Bagehot’s relevance then becomes an examination into the role and place of the traditional Mennonite religious superstructure to a rapidly secularizing Mennonite social identity and a secular Amish identity that is growing less rapidly yet increasing numerically.
    Note:  Mennonite demographics are notoriously difficult to estimate – these numbers are meant to be taken very loosely, to note possible trends, not the results of scientific estimates.
    Why is this important?  According to Bagehot, in England, despite Britain’s status as an overwhelmingly secular nation, people are beginning to search for something beyond “shopping for stuff” and “groping for something more profound.”  To Bagehot, an indicator of this new spiritual longing is the popularity of Christmas carols and Christmas performances in 2011.
    Writes Bagehot, “The evidence that the Church of England is returning to the centre of public life is ambiguous.  True, religious music is popular.  In some places that shows a yearning for faith.  But if cathedrals are increasingly popular, it is in part because they are anonymous, …  there is no danger of being asked to visit a sick parishioner afterwards,” (Bagehot).  But then Bagehot notes the catch, “Business is also booming for commercial carol concerts in non-church settings, where a mince pie and nostalgia are as much the lure as harking the singing of herald angels,” (ibid).  For Mennonites, substitute verenika suppers at the Co-op in Winkler or volunteering for the Schmeckfest celebrations in the United States over attending services.  Part of Bagehot’s spiritual longing might in fact be merely the desire for belonging and community in general – a secularized, ritualized spiritual experience.
    The upshot of Bagehot’s article is that the Church of England has refashioned itself as the social conscience of the secular nation – but in fact, holds only tenuous ties to the nation as a whole.  There is a place and a need for moral confidence, for ethical direction, and even for a sense of belonging.  Bagehot seems to support ecclesiastical efforts in all of these areas.  Yet somewhat conservatively, Bagehot nostalgically seems to be asking for something more – for a bit faith, some theological leanings, some talk about religion – a bit more church.
    Admittedly, writing for the Economist, Bagehot also has an ulterior agenda.  He or she is in fact seemingly questioning the Anglican Church’s newfound role as spokesperson for the oppressed – or what is in Bagehot’s parlance, the Welfare State.  Bagehot would be assumed to be against such an agenda and might in fact be insinuating that the church ought to mind its own business and be a bit more cooperative with conservative financial interests that are trying to save the nation’s economy (ie become more pertinent by becoming more marginalized).
"The City" London's Financial Dist
    I offer two observations.  First, that Bagehot admits that the financial sector impacts the church and that these impacts have an ethical dimension.  The Church and the City, as the financial district of central London is termed, influence and speak to each other.  Bagehot notes but does not say that often the City and the Church are in conflict over the ethics and perspectives of a given event (the City seeks to the save the nation’s economy, the Church is more concerned about the nation’s souls).  He or she is at the same telling the church to be relevant yet at the same time to back off where it is not concerned.  Indeed Bagehot pulls out the big guns – quoting Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s where she opined that “church-going is not about wanting ‘social reforms and benefits’ but about spiritual redemption and, indeed, God,” (ibid).  Bagehot warns “If the church cannot offer a message more spiky and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail…” (ibid).
St Pauls Cathedral, London
    Yet, being that voice of spiritual perception and moral clarity is exactly what the church is attempting to do.  Bagehot notes that in the 1940s, the Church of England withdrew from its charitable operations in education, hospital services, relief work and other social endeavors and turned these operations over to the state.  Where once the church was dominant and able to direct the social consciences, and pocketbooks, of the nation as a whole, private charity did in fact prove to be a realistic and effective social option.  Today, it would not be realistic to expect the 20% or so of English who attend church to maintain all of these social services on their own.  Nor would it be fair to do so.  The church is left with only its power to convict and to speak to the people.  The power of the purse is now elsewhere.
    Mennonite institutions are facing similar crises – their burden to extend their client bases and ability to raise funds is falling on a smaller and smaller proportion of Mennonites, both ethnic and religious.  While an argument might be made that only those with specific values in accord with the organization’s aims should participate – it is a rather shallow, short-sighted argument.  As with many Jewish or other ethnic-religious organizations, the traditional social service extensions of the historic church or gemeinde-identity need to and should find ways to reach out to and include greater numbers of the Mennonite diaspora – especially organizations such as the MCC which arguably operates under a cultural rather than strictly religious identity. 
    One might add that such organizations might also beware that they do not define themselves out of a support base by incorporating unrealistic political or ethical demands on the populations they represent or turn to for funding.  Does an a retirement home really have to adopt an official position on gay marriage?  Is it essential that a community clinic support abortion-type services which it does not offer anyway?
    In a way, this is what Bagehot is warning against – telling the church of England to speak its mind but to not get overly partisan.  The Church must often strive to represent the nation, community or gemeinde as a whole – making allowance for differing ethical perspectives while fostering an inclusive dialogue as to what proper ethics might include – a tenuous, but necessary position.  Realistically, the church must now succeed at this while depending on the full support of a rapidly decreasing or secularizing membership pool.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
    While the church must be effective in its traditional spiritual roles and must be inclusive of varying political and ethical roles, it must also know where to put up a stand – and do so as a larger, more inclusive social institution, not just the spokespiece of a dwindling minority congregation.
    The Church of England speaks for 20% of the nation – yet speaks to all English citizens.  The English church has a cultural impact greater than its membership and the English church indeed carries a cultural heritage burden (perhaps privilege?) that is currently disproportionate to its actual numbers. 
    While many Mennonite Churches (both on the right and the left) would gladly focus only on the active membership of similarly-minded individuals, as an historic and ethnic organization also, it holds a larger authority and bears a greater burden than just that it would chose to accept or who choose to accept it.  Despite a reputation for banning and shunning members in the past (an often exaggerated occurrence), Anabaptist churches have historically been rather responsible in this regard, yet a growing Fundamentalism on both sides threatens to marginalize both the church’s witness and the communities to which it naturally owes reciprocal obligations – and it must learn to do so from a position of weakness.  While a Mennonite may or may not choose to attend a Mennonite or Brethren church, one is less convinced that a Mennonite church still has the authority to strip an individual of their cultural identity or to ignore the church’s obligation to minister to that individual.
    My second observation is that this obligation does indeed go both ways.  As Bagehot points out, the church turned over its social services to the state.  Bagehot fails to define how, with a declining membership, the church could have done otherwise – in fact, it seems fortunate that the church voluntarily took these steps while it was relatively strong.  Bagehot’s failing is compounded in that no explanation is given as to why it is right for the church to carry on these activities and presumably for the active membership to voluntarily contribute to these causes, and yet it would then be wrong to compel each individual to help meet these same needs through a compulsory and presumably fair,  public tax burden.  The justice of a social program lies in its effectiveness and need not on whether or not it is voluntary or compulsory (in Evangelical Mennonite circles, such giving is understood to be compulsory anyway, even if it can only be enforced by God).  If Bagehot is already contributing his or her fair share, he or she should be happy that others are doing likewise.  If Bagehot wishes to contribute more, there is normally provision for that option as well.  Neither Bagehot nor Margaret Thatcher seem to have a lot of room to complain.
    Back to the Mennonites – the various Anabaptist groups have always been known for their generosity.  While we have been called penny pinchers (or stretchers) and would often rather save a few cents eating an overly ripe banana over paying more for one in its prime, I have never known a Mennonite or Amish who stinted on their charity.  Incorporating ethnic Mennonites into the long-term structures of charitable Mennonite fundraising and organizations along with their religious kin is a way to recognize both a ministerial obligation and the chance to share the burden more equitably.  A church must minister to the needs of an aging matriarch in the congregation, regardless of her children’s membership status.  It then makes sense to welcome them into the fundraising obligation as well. 
    A typical Mennonite matter that will not make sense to many non-Anabaptists, is the argument that the Lord will provide both the service opportunity and the resources to meet it without the church-community looking to expand its role in either regard.
Samaritan Woman at the Well
    This is a good, traditional and faithful answer.  Yet Christ seems to speak directly to the mutual obligations of the ethnic spiritual community and its innate inclusiveness in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well and in his inclusive reaching out to Zaccheus, Mary, Cornelius and Nicodemus – all ethnic kin (even the Samaritans) and representative of those who made practical secular decisions in contrast to maintaining acceptable spiritual identities.  Christ ministered to them and expected them to support his ministry as well.
    Bagehot quotes retired Church of England Lord Harries, “If you love your neighbour, you must have a view on policies that affect his welfare,” (ibid).  Just as the English church must accommodate both Thatcher and Harries, the Mennonite church must also learn to “mind its traditional spiritual role” to the religious membership, while speaking for and creating a sense of cultural belonging to the increasingly secular and non-member Anabaptist diaspora in the church’s secondary role as traditional culture bearer and cultural conscience.

  • Bagehot, "God in austerity Britain," The Economist Newspaper, V 401 no 8763, 10-16 Dec 2011, p 63.

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