R D Kernohan
I'm never sure whether to be amused or offended when fellow journalists, whether of a broadsheet or tabloid denomination, report that someone has 'entered the Church'. By that they usually mean that a salesperson or nuclear physicist, sometimes even a lawyer, a plumber, or another journalist, has been called and accepted into that important minority of believers ordained to ministries of word and sacrament.
It seems pedantic to complain, in face of the colloquial usage, that such decisions don't mark an entry into the Church but flow from experience within it. But sometimes pedantry can become a point of principle; and in this matter two important principles are involved and often neglected, as I am sure they will be in the premature obituaries of the Church which will be written to accompany the nomination of the next Archbishop of Canterbury and the gathering of another anxious and possibly fractious General Assembly of the Kirk.
The first principle, which ought also to be remembered in speculations that get into print whenever an elderly Pope catches a cold, is that the Church as an institution is much more than any hierarchy within it, whether wearing ornate vestments or sober suits of elders. The second is that the institutional Church, visible in worship, inspiration, divisions, follies, good works, growth in much of the world, and apparent decay in Europe, is not the whole substance of the Church.
To say that isn't to decry the institutional Church, to which I've given a few unburied talents and some occasional eccentricities. It was instituted by its only head, though its subsequently contrived structures and history bear many marks and scars left by human fallibility. But I've never been happy singing the hymn which, after correctly identifying the Church's one foundation, slips in the line about being 'by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed'.
It's not that old and new heresies don't flourish or that schisms aren't real, though some of the most distressing are now within the main denominations and not between them. But it's surely hard for any Christian to reject the probability that schisms sometimes serve God's purposes, and impossible to deny that persecutors and prosecutors of heretics have often got things all wrong, whether in burning Hus, hounding Luther, or simply pursuing John McLeod Campbell with the awful rigour of which Presbyterian legalism is capable. Even Anglicans, smug about their range of 'churchmanship', forced Wesley to create a new Methodist church he didn't want.
The irony is that some of the best guidance for contemporary problems of heresies and schisms comes from the great Calvinist Westminster confession which brought such problems for McLeod Campbell and which now weighs so lightly on ministers and elders of the Kirk. For that confession of faith, timebound in some political and ecumenical statements and unduly harsh on some doctrinal ones, offers a vital distinction between the fallible, visible Church (outside which it saw no 'ordinary' possibility of salvation), and the invisible one whose membership roll, still beyond the reach of hackers, is kept in heaven.
That distinction should ease the pain that Christians feel, in greatly varying degrees, over the failure of ecumenical schemes for 'organic unity'. It should console those distressed that modern Europe is more enthusiastic about visiting Vanity Fair (now fully open on Sundays) than going to church. It helps resolve the perplexity felt by many traditional Christians in Europe's 'mainstream' denominations who are reassured by the Church's vigour in other continents but worried that so much new growth takes Pentecostal, ultra-Evangelical, and independent forms. And it should soothe the nerves of those inclined to indignation, like John Cameron in a recent eloquent tirade in the Scottish Review (25 April), at the mingled bias and naiveté displayed by Kirk committees, and cardinals for that matter, when they play politics.
For the Church, though an institution that must organise, is ultimately a community not only of present believers but of those Christians who went before them or will come after them. However, that neat definition scarcely conceals difficulties stemming from it. How do you settle the nature of the organisation, and whom do you reckon as within that community?
Two recent events illustrate the practical problems, and the way they will extend beyond anything achieved as historic Christian denominations huddle together for comfort and support in a world of several faiths and much infidelity. One was the death of my friend Archie Mackenzie, a retired ambassador who was the most significant Scottish disciple of Frank Buchman, American Lutheran founder of the movement (so detested by many politicians and journalists whose opinions or lifestyles it challenged) which has been successively styled the Oxford Group, Moral Re-Armament, and now Initiatives of Change.
I knew Archie both as a humbly devoted Christian of the Kirk and as an expert on foreign affairs – he was one of the last survivors of the conferences which created the United Nations and had been a major influence (as 'assistant' to Edward Heath) in drafting the influential Brandt Report on world development. He also introduced me to MRA, without ever getting me fully programmed into it, and to some of its paradoxes. For him and others, Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, it was expressing faith in action but there were times, especially at its world conferences in Switzerland, when I wondered if it was transcending rather than expressing Christianity. It wasn't so much that it drew supporters and inquirers from other religions and none, for its inter-faith co-operation was constructive and illuminating, but that it seemed unintentionally to contrast a genuine religious fervour of its own with the formality of much Christian worship.
On Sundays the Christians (some of them) trooped off to their separate Swiss mountain chapels and no doubt the Muslims had a prayer-room: but it was in the conference hall, where never a prayer was audibly uttered nor hymn and sermon heard, that people seemed to be confronting conscience, offering confession, finding things in common, and (one might say) encountering God. It all had an intensity of shared experience absent from the polite formality of inter-faith and even inter-denominational dialogues.
The other event is the emergence of the Mormon Mitt Romney as Republican candidate for the American presidency. Buchmanism forces orthodox Christians to confront the prpblems of assorted believers and others sharing moral absolutes, crises of conscience, and religious disciplines – for religion literally means following a rule. Mormons pose a different problem, clear to anyone who uses the actual name of their community – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They think they are the Church, purified and restored. And in a few months a latter-day saint may be the most powerful of the powers that be and which (according to Saint Paul) are ordained of God. Mormonism confronts orthodox Christians, even more acutely than Jehovah's Witnesses or independent African churches do, with problems of discovering shared faith when tradition dictates that you shun heresy. Mormons profess to be biblical Christians and have the Gospel sacraments but also have doctrines that seem strange and alien to 'mainstream' Christians, whether conservative or liberal. They also have their supplement to canonical scripture or third Testament or whatever one chooses to call the Book of Mormon.
What is most evident about that strange book is that its inspiration comes in the language of the King James Bible. And, in encounters with American Mormonism and its individual members, their cultural affinities with early American Protestantism, rich in work-ethic and moral commitment, are often more evident than the great gulf between Reformed and Mormon theology or any historical legacy of the polygamy or 'plural marriage' which (apart from some dissidents) they abandoned in 1904.
I've had a soft spot for Mormons since one of them drove me from Salt Lake City through the mountains, in the most torrential rain I've ever seen, to hear their great choir sing Brahms's 'German Requiem' at Brigham Young University. Another, professing himself a liberal Mormon, rewarded me with a Coke after an exhausting lecture at the University of Utah, and a third, who must have been ultra-liberal, shared the whisky that curiosity induced me to buy in a Utah State liquor store. I was also allowed an abstemious audience with their then church president, a Caithness-descended McKay.
I summon up such scraps of memory not for their own sake but because the peculiar relationship which orthodox Christians, and especially Protestants, have with the Mormons may indicate a wider problem which the 'visible' or institutional Church is likely to have in different parts of the world with what, in no derogatory sense, I call 'sects'. All the signs are that mainstream Protestant Christian denominations will continue to lose support and influence in their traditional homelands and that religious revival there and Christian growth elsewhere will often pass them by.
In China, for example, where estimates of Christian adherence vary widely from the official churches' claim of 30 million to questionable estimates of beyond 100 million, the one certainty is that a very high proportion belong to unrecognised independent groups, and house-churches. And when the Pope visited Latin America's biggest country, even the Vatican's publicity machine acknowledged that a priority in Brazil was to assert the Roman Church's traditional claims in face of widespread growth of evangelical and Pentecostal churches as well as sects inspired by indigenous and African influences.
I don't speculate on how far such tendencies may cause turbulence within other parts of the Roman or even the Orthodox Church but suggest they won't only pose problems for Protestants. I've no dogmas for coping with them but I've never forgotten the words of a black South African theologian when I asked how he viewed independent African churches, which it may now be more politically correct to call African-initiated. 'They are heretics,' he said, 'but our brothers in Christ'. That approach, updated with some sisterly inclusive language, may have to guide Christians in other continents too.
It's against this world background that the unsympathetic and often ill--informed media will record the turbulence which confronts the Church of England, whichever less than ideal prelate succeeds the intellectual but awkward and uncomfortable Dr Williams; and against which most of Scotland will remain unshaken and unstirred even if the Kirk is rent asunder at the next General Assembly or two. Neither national Church will actually face liquidation, not even bankruptcy, while the Church of Rome will continue to get undue benefit from the panoply of the papacy and undue publicity from the sexual problems of a minority of its compulsorily celibate priests.
The institutional, visible Church will appear to decline. The state of the invisible Church will, quite literally, be immeasurable. But there is some evidence that one line in a hymn may have got it right: 'Soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase'.
R D Kernohan is a writer and broadcaster