THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 129
(Archived material may be found at tonycrosscolumn.org.uk)
In this article I want to do two things: to speculate on the discernible signs for the future arising from the great homosexuality/biblical authority debate, and secondly, to discern the demographic changes for Christians in the next fifty years. These two subject are, of course, inextricably linked but I will treat each separately first, and finally bring them together for a few final comments.
Firstly, then what are the signs ahead for the great homosexuality debate?
Lets start with one fact that has become abundantly clear: conservative evangelical Christians are not in the foreseeable future going to agree to accept homosexual acts as acceptable to Christians. Firstly we need some definitions.
In this article I include in the term evangelicals all Christian fundamentalists, and indeed all Christians who insist on an inerrant bible. The term may include some charismatic evangelicals, although I think that most of them would believe in the primacy of the Spirit and would prefer to follow wherever the Spirit leads. Perhaps the most important characteristic of conservative evangelicals is their rigidity. This shows itself in a rigid insistence of the rectitude of their opinions about the bible and doctrine (and the consequent error of other Christians) - something very evident in the present dispute. For the purposes of this article I would define ‘homosexual acts’ as genital intimacy of one sort or another between people of the same sex. In other words intimacy that goes beyond just holding hands or kissing.
The issue of homosexuality, important though it is, has uncovered a much deeper fissure of division between Christians - a gap that has been there for centuries. This is the issue of biblical authority and it has been opened up by the homosexuality debate. A slow rumble of disagreement has developed into a raging battle that presently splits the churches down the middle. We can say for sure that it is not going to be resolved to a point where evangelicals accept homosexuality in the lifetime of anyone living. Lets be very clear about this: now that the disagreement has broken into the open, things are never going to be the same again - we are at yet another clear turning point in the history of the worldwide church.
The homosexuality debate is inextricably linked with the parallel argument about biblical authority. Here there is a vast range of very different opinions. At one extreme are those who take the bible very literally and who consider that all the words of the bible should be taken at face value and lived by. That literalistic viewpoint is not in my opinion acceptable, especially in the light of increased understanding of the bible and the nature and extent of knowledge generally. However, for reasons that will become apparent later in this article, when we look at demographic changes that lie ahead, I think that there will always be some who will take this extreme view of the scriptures. Millions of Christians worldwide will continue to take this view for the foreseeable future.
To sum up so far - I think that millions of Christians are going to follow the conservative evangelical path both as regards homosexuality and as regards their attitude to the bible. One follows from the other.
In support of what I have suggested above, consider for a moment that a huge percentage of the population of the world is going to remain in poverty and homelessness with a lack of even basic education for probably most of this century. Certainly, for the next fifty years I can see no prospect of a significant dent in the condition of the poorest in the world. The preoccupations of the various nations with their own standard of living, and the competition between them for more and more resources, will militate against any really effective solution for the poorest of the world. Add in to this mix the fact of global warming - a fact, whatever the cause - and the dire effect it is going to have upon hundreds of millions of people across the world. I just cannot see the numbers of disadvantaged and illiterate people diminishing in the next fifty years, indeed it must be set to grow significantly.
One result that is likely is that Christianity will continue to spread - the conditions will continue to be ripe for a religion such as Christianity to be embraced by the poor and displaced throughout the less developed world. It is happening in China today. It is what is has already happened and is still happening in Africa. We see it also in South America. Christianity is a religion that is readily embraced by the poor and dispossessed - in the coming decades we may well see it spread even more widely in its most basic form. When we see a reliance on a literal interpretation of what is on the pages of the bible - surely most attractive to those with little education - we are in a situation where conservative evangelicalism thrives.
You may think that this is a very pessimistic reading of the future. I would maintain that it is realistic. I see the United Nations as the only realistic way forward - such philanthropy cannot be left to ‘rich’ nations like Britain or America - the task is too great and their record to date has not been very impressive. The record of the United Nations, which is perhaps the one hope we have for the future policing of the world and the alleviation of suffering caused by famine, is not an inspiring one either!
Let us now turn to the second subject I raised in my first paragraph: the demographic changes that lie ahead.
There have been some very interesting studies done on this subject. I would recommend ‘The next Christendom’ by Philip Jenkins and ‘Faith and Politics after Christendom’ by Jonathan Bartley. From these and other studies it is clear that a huge shift is taking place which will profoundly affect the character and future of the Christian Churches.
Until now white Western Europeans have held sway in the world councils - particularly in Christianity. But this has already changed drastically, as evidenced by the rise of what has been termed ‘the Global South’ in the Anglican schism, and the process is set to continue at an accelerating pace over the coming decades.
It has been described as a shifting of the world wide centre of gravity of the Christian Churches from the present point (somewhere just south of the Mediterranean) to the middle of Africa. This shift is because of the huge growth in the African, Chinese, Asian and South American Churches. While numbers in the Western churches are static or declining, those in these areas are growing - often at phenomenal rates. This means that numerically, within fifty years the Western Christians will be a tiny minority on the stage of world Christianity - and consequently in the worldwide councils of the churches. The influence of the West is waning whilst that of the others is growing.
This swing - which is no longer just a prediction but a certainty - is hugely important.
When taken in conjunction with the fact that the vast majority of new Christians in the next fifty years will be living at subsistence level and mostly brought into Christianity under conservative evangelical teaching, one can deduce that it is highly probable that homosexuality will be more condemned and suppressed by the Christians in most countries of the world than it is at present.
In the light of all these possible developments one can envisage a comparatively small Western Church community (including the USA) which is mainly liberal in outlook. That community will probably be seen as unacceptable by the rest of the Christian family across the world who will be conservative evangelical in outlook - just as the Episcopal Church in the USA is unacceptable to some African Christians today.
This second section therefore may be summarised in this way: less well educated African, Asian and South American populations of Christians will swing the major opinion of Christians worldwide against the liberal attitude presently accepted by many in the West.
Let us now combine the two opinions expressed above and see where they lead us.
The intractability of the attitude of conservative evangelicals towards homosexuality will be strengthened by vastly increased numbers of disadvantaged and illiterate new Christians in the less developed world. As a consequence of their reduced numerical importance, the influence of the Western Churches will be greatly diminished as the divide between liberal and conservative deepens. And this situation will continue for many decades - indeed, until education spreads throughout the less developed world and the bible is begun to be seen in a different light - as still the prime, indeed only authority for the Christian church, but not a book to be followed slavishly and literally.
In effect I am suggesting that the Western Churches have reached a balanced view about the bible not only after extensive education of its peoples but also by the maturing wisdom of centuries of experimenting with Christian ideas and concepts. After all this time the bible still remains the one authority for the Christian - without the bible where would any of us be? But along with the bible we have learned what it means to mix in both tradition - the gathered wisdom of past generations of Christians - and our own reasoning faculty.
The developing world countries may tread the same path in the years to come. First comes the excitement of a new faith, then the slow working out of what it means in all sorts of circumstances and with all sorts of people. In time it is necessary to integrate the Christian beliefs and ethic with all sorts of new knowledge and discoveries - both personally and in the life of the nation. A simple trusting faith in the inerrancy of the written word, just as it comes off the page, is replaced by mature insight and wisdom about the inner meaning of what Christ came to tell us and show us. In time we arrive at a settled acceptance of the core meaning of the gospel, and we learn to be flexible on all subjects around the edges. But it takes many, many decades, even with the increased communication and accelerated learning possible today.
Before trying to pull together the ideas I have been suggesting in this article I want to make two provisos.
The first proviso concerns what has been going on these past years in the Anglican Communion. There have been huge disagreements - but that is nothing new in Christianity or even in the Anglican Church. The endless discussions and meetings have not been about which side is right. It was apparent early on that neither side would budge from their entrenched position. The real argument has been about each group accepting those other Christians with whom they disagree, on a tolerant and inclusive basis. In other words it has been quite simply about accepting disagreement among brother Christians in these matters.
The final result - not quite achieved yet but we are very near - is that one side will not tolerate the other being in the same church. It is a total breakdown of fellowship. It is one side saying that they will have nothing to do with the other because they think they are wrong about this and that.
From time to time I have read plaintive articles that complain that such an attitude is not ‘Anglican’. That it is against the inclusiveness of a Broad Church that has been the history of the Anglican church over the centuries.
And such views are, in my opinion, correct. What we have is a militant form of evangelicalism that runs counter to the inclusiveness that has been the glory (and the bane) of the Anglican Church.
If - and it is a big ‘if’ - the emerging churches in the less developed world can catch hold of the truth that inclusive toleration of other Christians is a fundamental - then it could be that the future for Christianity will be brighter.
The second proviso concerns the rate at which Christians in the less developed countries can gain the wisdom that came with centuries of experimentation in the West. The Holy Spirit may have all sorts of plans for the future - no doubt making use of our technical advances. We just don’t know what lies ahead. Very few people foresaw the development of the world wide web. The Internet is a potent force for education throughout the world. The advent of really cheap computers in the poor areas could speed up the process of discovering that biblical literalism is an outworn garment.
Now let me sum up all I have been trying to say.
The world is a changing - fast. Western Christians will soon be a tiny minority on the Christian stage. A biblical fundamentalism is at the heart of much (but not all!) evangelism and therefore we must expect the many new Christians in the less developed countries to go through a long spell of fundamentalism. When, eventually, a more enlightened view of the bible prevails - as it is bound to - it may be many decades down the road. In the meantime the liberal Christians are going to have to hold onto their faith and continue to offer an inclusive Christianity, mirroring the attitude of their founder and Saviour. What matters is not numbers but being in accord with the Holy Spirit.