Wednesday, 26th February 2014
RUSI, 61 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET
Devolve or decline? The Future of Global Churches
“The picture is not as bleak as we might think,” said Christopher Landau – but his hope that historic churches could retain a unity based on central authority was doubted by other speakers at the second Westminster Faith Debate of this year.
The topic for discussion was a timely one – whether the global churches like the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion can retain their historical centralised authority in a time of declining membership in Europe and increasing challenges to traditional teachings. What can be done to ensure continuing unity within and between churches – or should we abandon the ideal of unity altogether?
Debating the issue were Allan Anderson, Professor of Mission and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham; Kirsteen Kim, Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Leeds Trinity University; Christopher Landau, a Church of England curate and former BBC World Service religious affairs correspondent; and Paul Vallely, a writer and lecturer on issues of ethics, religion and international development, and author of a recent biography of Pope Francis. The debate was chaired by Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Lancaster, and Charles Clarke, former Labour Home Secretary.
The doubt about unity was cast by Kim and Anderson, who argued that Christianity since the 1980s hasn’t just shifted southwards, it has changed. In the 1970s 57% of Christians lived in Europe and North America, now only 35% do. And the new churches are different in structure and organisation. Kim pointed out that 16% of Christians now belong to independent churches, and Anderson noted that about a quarter of all Christians now belong to some form of Pentecostalism – including charismatic Christians within traditional churches.
Even global Protestant churches have developed radically different structures from colonial ones – flat and conciliar is replacing linear and hierarchical. Newer churches tend to be more localised and indigenised, with many decisions being made at the local level, often by laypeople.
This image of growth and vitality contrasts with Christianity’s decline in the West. For Kim, attempting to maintain centralised authority in the face of such huge changes is no longer sustainable. Woodhead gave the example of the divisions over women leadership and same-sex marriage in the Anglican Communion – described as a “dysfunctional family” – which will only increase if decentralisation of authority and decision-making do not occur. In Anderson’s words, “historic churches will be forced to devolve or they will continue to decline.”
For Vallely, however, surrendering organisational unity can lead to extreme individualism and even theological relativism: “Change is essential, anarchy is not.” Vallely argued that Pope Francis is showing how reform can be implemented within the traditional structure of the Catholic Church – he pointed to the recent appointment of mainly non-Europeans as Cardinals, the balancing of liberal and conservative viewpoints, and the survey of the laity on the Church’s teaching on the family.
Landau had similarly optimistic views about the Anglican “middle way” between Pentecostal “freedom” and Catholic “order.” The Anglican Communion may still be able to escape its current divisions by learning to agree to disagree with greater mutual respect. Landau suggested that the Church of England could learn from past precedents in which it had allowed freedom of conscience and local solutions to divisive matters – citing the 1888 Lambeth Conference decision to devolve decisions on the baptism of wives of polygamists.
As for the ideal of greater unity between churches, Kim stressed the need for realism about the political factors which have driven successful unifications. For example, in pre-War Japan and Korea, and in China under Communism, churches were forced together; and in India Christians voluntarily came together under external pressure from Hindus. Such considerations made her “suspicious” of movements to achieve greater unity – she argued that Christianity has been polycentric from the very start, and that its scriptures are reflective of this.
As for the danger of abuse in decentralised and more unregulated forms of Christianity, Anderson spoke frankly of his fears that the widespread emphasis on prosperity can lead to abuses of power in devolved churches – there are fewer mechanisms to hold church leaders to account. But Kim argued that some strains in the Prosperity Gospel could be a force for community and economic development, as in South Korea. She objected to those who enjoy material goods criticising the poor for seeking financial betterment in the context of their religion.
Charles Clarke closed the debate by suggesting we should distinguish three types of unity: unity of values and conduct, unity of teaching, and unity of organisation. If unity cannot be maintained on the doctrinal level, perhaps it can be found at the level of conduct and ethos. As Landau put it, “Can I look my Ugandan brothers in the eye and say ‘You too are a child of God’?”