A reader has pointed out to me that the United Church of Canada (the equivalent of the Uniting Church here in Australia) is no better. But before I point out what's happening in that church I'd like to set out a theory of what's going wrong in a number of Christian churches.
The theory goes like this. A church that is functioning well is going to create a religious culture through which its members will come to a sense of communion with the divine. But there are Christian churches now which are either abandoning or compromising this function.
What they are increasingly focusing on is the idea of bringing meaning or purpose to their members' lives through involvement in a series of causes, such as environmentalism, the Palestinians, Aborigines or refugees.
It is no coincidence that this aligns these churches very closely with liberalism. There are a lot of liberals who like to believe that they have a "deep social conscience" which means that they support the marginalised and dispossessed. It's likely that Western liberals were influenced by Christianity in this, as it is a part of Christianity to be concerned for "the least amongst you". It's possible that liberals secularised this aspect of Christianity and ran with it. And now this secularised liberal ethos is making its way back into the churches from which it most likely originated, albeit as part of a larger and more integrated religious view of things.
What does it mean when churches go with a secularised "cause" based approach rather than the more traditional "religious culture" one? Here's one significant problem. A religious culture was one of the forces protecting against anomie; it was significant in bringing a sense of a moral universe to the individual, of the goods of family life, of the sacred purpose of social roles and social hierarchies, of a higher purpose of art and culture. It helped, in other words, to protect against the dissolving of society and social roles and relationships and identities.
So the more that the churches abandon the traditional function, the more likely it is that anomie will increase, which then means that cause based satisfaction will have to be ramped up even more to compensate for this.
And here's another unfortunate consequence. Because there is so little difference between the secular liberal ideal of "social conscience" and the new church focus on "social justice" or "cause" based satisfaction, then there is little to prevent members of the churches from drifting away into the secular liberal mainstream. Why go to church if you can get the same thing in your daily secular programming?
Which brings me back to the United Church of Canada. The process of abandoning a religious culture in favour of a secular cause based one seems to have gone further in this church than elsewhere (though even in suburban Catholic parishes here in Melbourne the process has gone some way). There are parishes of the United Church which have adopted what they call "post-theism"; they continue to talk in a vague way about spirituality but they no longer have religious beliefs:
It’s community prayer time at West Hill United, and a microphone is being passed from hand to hand between the pews. Overhead, colourful streamers resembling a rainbow dangle wistfully, nearly concealing a cross on the wall beyond. A few of the 50 or more people packed into the church on a November Sunday seem to bare all during this time: one offers a prayer for the quashed federal climate change bill, and another remembers a neighbour who has hurt her ankle. A woman stands up to share her battle with depression and reveals she’s been going through a dark stage in her life. “I just ask that I be kept in your thoughts and prayers,” she says, her voice fragile but clear in the Scarborough, Ont., sanctuary.
She wasn’t asking for God’s strength or for a miracle. West Hill identifies itself as a post-theistic congregation, one that does not believe in a supernatural being or an interventionist, capital “G” God, but rather in the sacredness inherent in leading a life of justice and love. And so the woman’s plea was met with “May love abound,” a blessing spoken in unison by the people around her.
Post-theism has quietly emerged in individual United Church ministries across Canada that desire a sense of intellectual satisfaction and nurturing and inspiration in their spiritual lives, qualities they say the traditional format fails to offer. Post-theistic churches use the Bible sparingly, acknowledging its contents as myth — or don’t reference it at all. Many write their own music, use contemporary songs to convey their values or change the lyrics to familiar tunes. Prayers aren’t addressed to God, but to the community and its innate sacredness.
West Hill’s shift to post-theistic worship began in 2001 when the Board decided to gradually shed the word “God,” says Rev. Gretta Vosper, the minister of West Hill and author of With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe. “In the United Church, we’re very strong about praying for guidance, praying for strength, praying for courage, and if you take that idea of an interventionist God . . . away, nothing has really changed,” she says. “You’re still asking for strength, except it’s not coming from some supernatural source. It comes from the community that you gather with.”
Note the emphasis on "leading a life of justice and love". I'll write more about this later, but if there is a theological heresy in the modern Christian churches it comes from a non-traditional understanding of the concept of caritas, i.e. the virtue of love or charity.
A Protestant historian has made the following criticism of the United Church:
It is that reluctance to define doctrinal belief, while at the same time putting an emphasis on social causes, that is making the United Church indistinguishable from many activist secular groups, said Kevin Flatt, a Protestant historian who has studied the United Church for years.
“The main question is, What are the characteristics a religious group needs to have in order to hold on to members and maintain its relevance in our society?” said Prof. Flatt, who teaches at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ont. “There have been lots of studies that show a religious group has to have a very clear and shared identity and there are boundaries around the group that makes them distinct from the general culture. In the United Church, those lines have blurred.
“What is this organization bringing to the table that doesn’t already exist from a secular perspective? There are many people concerned about the environment who have no belief in God. If you are essentially not bringing anything that’s different, there’s a risk you will be perceived as redundant and groups who are redundant lose members.”
The data on United Church membership seems to back him up: