Volume 4 Number 1
The Churches' Real Crisis
01 January 1991

Their real crisis is a moral crisis, and a crisis of faith. It is far harder to tackle, for it is a crisis of self-confidence, which includes the confidence to admit things we got wrong.

Editing and managing church publications, I discovered that there's nothing quite like a crisis to help the sales. `Crisis in the Kirk' was the best promotion line I ever found among the Scots, but it usually meant cash crisis. And despite their reputation the readers dug deeper into their pockets, handbags and sporrans.

But the cash crises in the churches of the West are the easiest for them to overcome. We know that when it comes to the crunch Canterbury Cathedral won't be allowed to crumble, York Minster will stay gloriously restored, and all Europe's skill will prevent St Mark's being washed into the Venetian lagoon.

Most Western churches will manage to pay or sustain all the full-time clergy they can recruit. At a pinch still to be felt, they can draw on great reserves of laymen and women to back up the ordained ministry.

Their real crisis is a moral crisis, and a crisis of faith. It is far harder to tackle, for it is a crisis of self-confidence, which includes the confidence to admit things we got wrong.

The Western churches want to be `relevant'. They recognize that their main problem is not with hostility but with apathy. They say they `must listen to what the people are saying'. I put the quotes round the two commonest cliches. But in listening so much they can find themselves stammering spiritually when they need to speak. In trying to relate convincingly to the secular they risk being secularized themselves. And in seeking to be so contemporary they may even miss the signs of the times.

Power underestimated
This happened spectacularly and embarrassingly in face of Eastern Europe's political revolution with moral and spiritual dimensions. It has even happened in the churches' grudging response to new hope in South Africa. In both cases leading Christians were taken by surprise, not least because they underestimated the power of the things they ought to believe in. The power of faith. The power of hope. The power of love.

On South Africa the churches in Europe and the USA often seem to lag behind politicians and church leaders on the spot, some with much to forgive, all with something to repent of. The new hope in that country is not getting the encouragement it should from the rest of the world.

But the West's greatest failure to see the signs of the times was over Eastern Europe. The vital lapse wasn't in predicting the sequence of events. Who could? Some of the dramatic changes that gathered force in 1989 were, in the short run, as unpredictable as, in the long run, they were inevitable. One vital failure was in underestimating and undervaluing the powers of endurance, resilience, and forgiveness that survived among Christians and others inspired by spiritual and moral strength. Another was the failure to see how the moral and economic failures of communism went together.

It wasn't the international departments of Western churches, or the ecumenical organizations in Geneva, that read the signs of the times. The World Council of Churches pretended not to know about Solzhenitsyn. Even the Vatican often played matters ultra-cautiously, for example in its dealings with the communist Hungarian Government over Cardinal Mindszenty. It was left to independent groups like Keston College in Britain, and to inspired individuals , like its founder Michael Bourdeaux, to gather the evidence of spiritual survival and coming revival.

Now both Eastern and Western Europe may address themselves to wrong priorities, and their churches may lack the moral authority to try to set them right. In the East the churches which embody precommunist national traditions need to ensure that spirituality counts for more than nationality. Eastern Europe has also to beware of exchanging an unsuccessful brand of materialism for one which confuses the good life with having lots of goods and a good time. The East European churches are also so natural a focus for nationalism that they must take the lead in heading off the clashes of rival and reemerging nationalisms. But some of their leaders would be better placed to preach if they had collaborated less earnestly with the old regimes.

Survived persecution
The West European churches often seem to see their duty as preaching a mildly socialist approach to the distribution of capitalist wealth and lobbying for secular causes, from Scottish self-government to relaxation of immigration controls. They might be better studying what kind of religion survived decades of persecution, and why. Even the most conformist churches preserved a sense of the infinite and eternal that much of the West has lost. The need to recover it, within political democracy and a thriving market economy, poses the real crisis for the churches.

Europe, which so often has drawn the rest of the world into its quarrels, has a wonderful chance to make a new beginning. It needs to be alert to the true signs of the times. Freedom has to go with restraint, responsibility and repentance. The greatest of these may be repentance.

Since retiring as editor of the Church of Scotland's principal journal, `Life and Work', Bob Kernohan has been completing a book on `The Protestant future'.

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