I was talking a little while ago with a friend who has a senior role in an American Mennonite Conference. We had a long discussion when I said that in Britain we were ahead on the Post-Christendom curve but what’s UK today will be US tomorrow. Britain is the oldest industrialized country in the world. I don’t think it’s a surprise that so many of these trends (the breakdown of community too) have their origins here. Whether the decline virus is 100% communicable is another question. If I were being hopeful I would say that before the curve reaches the vibrant churches of the global south we might have learned a thing or two about being Christians without Constantine.
We could picture the current state of affairs in this way: the UK church is in the front carriage of a train that has already been pulled over the precipice into catastrophic decline by the runaway engine of secular rationalism; the church in the US is not far behind, and anyone leaning out of the window will see what is coming; but the global church is still some way back, thoroughly enjoying the ride.
On the whole, I think I share Phil’s hope that a chastened and reconstructed Western church will have something useful to teach the global church as it approaches—in its turn—the post-Christendom precipice. This is what I so like about the Amahoro Africa movement, which, with support from people like Brian McLaren, is helping to nurture a much more just, honest and holistic vision for the church in post-colonial Africa. But there are some obvious problems with this model.
First, it’s difficult not to hear anti-imperialist alarm bells ringing as soon as we suggest that the Western church has something to teach the global church, no matter how traumatized, chastened and humbled we may have been by our hair-raising ride over the edge.
Secondly, it’s not at all clear that history always runs in straight lines. On the face of it, you’d think that the cultural forces which have dragged the Western European church into decline are so strong that the American church and the global churches are bound to follow sooner or later. But the contexts are very different, and we should probably not just assume that everything is coupled to the engine of secular rationalism like carriages in a train. As Phil suggests, the decline virus may not be 100% communicable—or the American and global churches may, in different ways and to varying degrees, have been immunized against it by the tragic experience of the European church. But we are wrecking the metaphor here…
Following on from that point, thirdly, we have to consider the possibility that the global church will survive and thrive simply by disconnecting itself from the forces of secular rationalism and pursuing a way of uncritical faith, in defiance of the intellectual and theological difficulties that so beset the Western churches. That’s what’s believed where I worship. Who knows?