the death of Christian Britain

Death of Christian BritainI read Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain this week. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting anything particularly interesting – I was reading it for study, not for fun. You know the story: the Enlightenment, Darwin, the world wars, the end of Empire, the 1960s. After all that British Christianity dies a death of many cuts.

He got my attention when he argued that this story, the one I expected, is pretty much an invention of the 1950s and 1960s and that Britain actually went secular around the very same time as these stories were being spun.

How British Christianity got to the state it is in the year 2000 is currently understood almost universally in terms of the theory of long-term secularisation which was developed academically initially by sociologists, but since the 1950s has been adopted in whole or in part almost universally by historians. The theory of secularisation posits that relgion is naturally ‘at home’ in pre-industrial and rural environments and that it declines in industrial and urban environments. The rise of modernity from the eighteenth century… destroyed both the community foundations of the church and the psychological foundations of a universal religious world-view. Secularisation, it is traditionally argued, was the handmaiden of modernisation, pluralisation, urbanisation and Enlightenment rationality… For most investigative scholars of social history and sociology, British industrial society was already ‘secular’ before it had hardly begun.

In the 1950s and 1960s…British people re-imagined themselves in ways no longer Christian – a ‘moral turn’ which abruptly undermined vritually all of the protocols of moral identity. Ironcially , it was at this very moment that social science reached the height of its influence in church affairs and in academe. Secularisation theory became the universally accepted way of understanding the decline of religion as something of the past – of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The 1960s viewed itself as the end of secularisation. But by listening to the people themselves, this book suggests that it was actually the beginning.

Brown reaches this conclusion because his approach is different to the social scientists’. Instead of counting things – bums on seats, Sunday School enrolments, confirmations, ordinations (he claims this is a shallow Enlightenment way of understanding religion) – he looks to what people were saying and thinking, how people framed themselves and their society in Christian terms. He finds that Britain was Christian until the 1960s

What changed?

This was the other surprise. He says women.

Women were the bulwark to popular support for organised Christianity between 1800 and 1960s, and it was they who broke their relationship to Christian piety in the 1960s and thereby caused secularisation.

Brown takes us back to the nineteenth century and traces discourses of  evangelical femininity and piety.

One of the great mythic transformations of the early nineteenth century was the feminisation of angels. Until the 1790s, British art and prose portrayed the angel as masculine, or at most, bisexual – characteristically muscular, strong and even displaying male genitalia, and a free divine spirit inhabiting the chasms of sky and space. But by the early Victorian period, angels were virtuously feminine in form and increasingly shown in domestic confinement, were no longer free to fly. Women had become divine, but an angel now confined to the house.

17th Century Angel

17th Century Angels

19th Century Angel

19th Century Angels

In the Middle ages and early moden period, the way for women to model Christian virtue was to act ‘masculine’. ‘Icons of female piety, such as martyrs and ascetics, had been represented as ‘masculine,’ while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were regarded as dangerous and polluting to piety’. Women were considered prone to superstition. From the 1500s, he explains, ‘a wife’s feminity was a threat to piety and household, and a husband established his moral status by controlling her’.

But around 1800, as the re-imagining of angels reflects, religion became a feminine attribute and masculinity the antithesis of religiosity. Women, now, were to control the immoral ‘masculine’ tendencies of men. Women were the cornerstone of the evangelical scheme for moral revolution – their moral and domestic qualities would sanctify the home  and thus the nation as a whole. He does, of course, address ‘muscular Christianity’ as an ‘attempt to redefine manhood’, concluding that it never managed to change the dominant negative discourse on male religiosity.

Whereas in the nineteenth century, pious women were believed to have a positive moral and converting influence on men through providing a happy home, by the twentieth the happy home became the ends in itself.

The artefacts of male temptation – drink, betting and pre-marital sex – were no longer the problem: it was the discontented rather than immoral manhood which the woman had to combat in the home, and to do this she had to make the home an unremittingly happy place…

Women were no longer being required by discourse to challenge men into submission to a pious domesticity, but to provide a contented domesticity for them.

Femininity, your identity as a woman, was so tied to Christianity and morality that, though men had been gradually leaving churches and Christianity for a while, this was not really an option for women.

From early in the twentieth century, there is plenty of evidence…of men disavowing churchgoing, and even rejecting Christianity. But for women, this type of personal journey away from religion was extremely difficult and comparatively rare before the 1950s. It was difficulty because a woman could not just ‘drop’ religion as a man could; her respectability as a woman, wife and mother, wether she liked it or not, was founded on religion whether she went to church or not.

Women were pious and piety was feminine. British Christianity itself rested on a domestic ‘Christian’ womanhood.

the 1960s

You can see where this is going. Everything changed in the 1960s.

The 1960s was a key decade in ending ‘the Enlightenment project’ and modernity. In its place, the era of postmodernity started to mature. Structural ‘realities’ of social class eroded, and there was a repudiation of self-evident ‘truths’ (concerning the role of women, the veracity of Christianity, the structure of social and moral authority)…

Just as environmentalism and the anti-nuclear movement started to challenge science in the sixties, so post-structuralism and feminism would come within a decade or so to challenge social science.

But the immediate victim was Christianity, challenged most influentially by second-wave feminism and the recrafting of femininity.

We know what happened. Women find new ways of being women – strong and invincible.  Women started finding their identity in work, rather than home. They secularised their identity. Women pointed out the double standards, the freedom men enjoyed and the restrictions they endured. Women stopped going to church. They had had enough.

The keys to understanding secularisation in Britain are the simultaneous de-pietisation of femininity and the de-feminisation of piety from the 1960s.

Before 1800, Christian peity had been a ‘he’. From 1800 to 1960, it had been a ‘she’. After 1960 it became nothing in gendered terms. More than this, the eradication of gendered piety signalled the decentring of Christianity – its authority and its cultural significance.

Brown isn’t sure if this is what happened in Australia and New Zealand, but it seems likely. North America was a bit different, he argues. Over there, the discursive challenged has emerged but not triumphed – there is still a conflict underway.

concluding thoughts

I have never quite understood the evangelical reaction to second wave feminism, the complete disdain for a movement which, as I understand it, was mostly a good thing. Of all things to hate, why feminism? Why not consumerism or materialism or something else? Equal pay, equal rights, equal respect, equal opportunities and equal moral standards – justice – all seem perfectly compatible with Christian belief to me (I would even say they originate in Christianity). But, if feminism was the blow which took out Christian Britain (and Christian Australia?), then I understand the gut reaction to all things feminist and the zeal of the current complimentarian movement.

A better response to this experience, I believe, is not to try and turn back the tide and restore femininities and masculinities to what we imagine they once were (whether you find ‘Biblical’ gender roles in the 1950s, 1800s or 1730s). As we have seen, pinning certain virtues onto one gender or another is a dangerous path: it ends up excluding some and burdening others. Righteousness is neither masculine nor feminine, it’s for all Christians, women and men (as is submission, gentleness, patience etc. etc.).

Instead, we need to think about what might be other ideas and identities we have put our faith in and called ‘Christianity.’ The reconstruction of femininity in the 1960s, I believe, was a good thing. The problem was that Christians had allowed their faith to be so attached to a culture of moral, domestic, idolatrous femininity that when this was challenged and abandoned, Christianity no longer made sense. What beliefs or identities other than ‘follower of Jesus’ are we relying upon today that, were they to be challenged or swept away, would risk bringing Christianity down with them?

What do you think of Brown’s analysis? I’d love to hear what people who were actually there for the 60s think. What other identities or ideas do we risk pinning our faith on now?



Happy Friday readers!

On the Church of England and women Bishops (or the lack thereof)

Sarah Coakley Has the Church of England Finally Lost its Reason?

John Milbank Unrepresentative laity: the Women Bishops Debacle

And, like a breath of fresh air, there was Tom Wright Women Bishops: It’s about the Bible not Fake ideas of Progress.

Michael Bird, John Dickson and Katherine Keller are releasing ebooks on women and ministry on Christmas Day – Merry Christmas readers!

On the news of 2012

Joshua Keating Stories you missed in 2012

On Apologetics

Brian Le Port Educating the Local Church Part VI – Avoiding Quick and Easy Apologetics. It’s worth checking out his whole series on educating the local church.

On church in Australia

The National Church Life Survey results are out. ABC Radio National did this story on the results.

  • 60% of church attenders are women (no surprises there)
  • the average church attender is a baby boomer (unless you’re pentecostal, they’re heaps younger)
  • 34% of church attenders have higher education (much higher than the national average)

On thunderstorms and Coldplay

I was given a free ticket to see Coldplay last week, but the electrical storm passing by was the most stunning part for me.

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runaway metaphors

I’m fluent in Christianese. That means I know to pepper my speech with holy metaphors. You know – vines, growing, planting, salt & light, fruitfulness.

Holy as they sound, I think we need to watch our metaphors in case they run away.

(speaking of Christianese, please don’t use fellowship as a verb – ‘we fellowshipped together’ – unless you also enjoy ‘friendshipping’ and ‘membershipping’. Sorry. rant.)

turtlesOf course it’s metaphors all the way down. All language – text or sound – is a representation or symbol for something else. The word ‘dog’ actually has nothing to do with those four-legged friends apart from our consensus to use it as a symbol. It’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can understand anything of God through human language. Communication really is a miracle.

I’m talking about metaphors in the more naive sense – just a figure of speech or word or phrase which is not literally applicable: ‘love is a rose’, ‘I am an island’, ‘my heart will go on.’

There are Biblical ones that we know are obviously metaphors – ‘stiff-necked’, ‘circumcised hearts’. They haven’t made it into Christianese and we know they’re metaphors.

But some have become so entrenched that they’ve lost their status as metaphors and become our only word for the concept; we forget they ever were metaphors (words such as ‘pastor’, ‘hypocrite’, ‘hell/gehenna’). This means the words can escape and take on whole new meanings other than what they had in their Biblical context. We lose the explanatory power which the metaphor was supposed to bring in the first place and get left with a fuzzy idea.

Here’s a list:

pastor/shepherd, deacon/servant, flock, body, head (of the wife or the ‘body’), lamb, hell, the prize, the crown, the good fight, salt and light, double edged sword, God’s hands, God’s heart, hypocrite/actor, living sacrifice, spot or blemish, filthy rags, dead works, weaker brother, tongues, rock, (sinking) sand, God’s instrument, God’s vessel,

to spur on, wash in the blood, finish the race, fall away, stumble, open one’s heart, soften one’s heart, harden one’s heart, backslide, be on fire, pay the price, pay the debt, count the cost, draw near, enter the throne room, abide, sow a seed, plant a church, grow disciples, feed on the Word, live in harmony, come to Christ, turn back, come home, put out a fleece, carry a cross, bear one another’s burdens

redeemed, born again, anointed, called, fruitful, lost, found, knit together, lukewarm…

Most of these I’m pretty comfortable with. But for many, I’m not exactly sure what they mean. And I’m not  sure that when we use them in our Bible-speak Christianese (make that NIV 1984-speak? Newspeak anyone?) that we use them in the same way they’re used in the Bible. Do we fill them with our own meanings?

Here’s some holy-sounding mixed metaphors for you to ponder:

Merciful Lord we come here to your table…Even though we are not worthy to eat the crumbs from under your table…

Was the Canaanite woman really saying she was too sinful to share the Lord’s Supper in Matt 15? Does it matter if we’ve taken the metaphor out of context?

When we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home…

Far from what or who? Here the prodigal son meets the Jew/Gentile unity of Ephesians 2. It kind of works, but it’s out of context. Is that ok? Is it clear what it’s about?

It’s so easy to sound Biblical, but actually to be unclear on our meaning when we use metaphors out of context. Not to mention when non-Christians share with us they’ve got no way of understanding an out-of-context metaphor (‘will they not say that you are out of your minds?’). Or am I being pedantic? Perhaps a metaphor is best if we want to imply multiple valid meanings.


There were others phrases I wasn’t sure whether to put on the list of metaphors or not.

Living and active. Jesus (the Word of God) really is literally living and active. But the Bible isn’t literally living. Do you think it’s a metaphor or not?

Dying to sin and being alive in Christ. Jesus did literally die and was made alive. Are we literally dead to sin and now alive, or is that a metaphor?

There were a few which I thought were metaphors at first, but then on greater reflection, I decided that they’re the reality and previous experience has been a metaphor.

Bride of Christ. When Paul says that ‘one flesh’ is actually about Christ and the Church, perhaps he’s saying that marriage is a metaphor, a symbol and the Church’s union with Christ is the real deal.

Children of God. When we call Christians ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and God our ‘Father’ are we using metaphors? I don’t think so. Instead, the earthly family is the metaphor which points to the reality of our heavenly family.

Jesus’ death as a sacrifice of atonement. Jesus wasn’t literally sacrificed on an altar. But perhaps it’s better to think of the sacrificial system as a metaphor pointing to the real sacrifice

What do you think? Any metaphors I missed? Do you think any metaphors on my list are actually literal? Got any good examples of mixed Biblical metaphors or Christianese?

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flags, church, war & hauerwas

I was a little uncomfortable at church on Sunday.

Partly, because it was 34 degrees and humid. We have no air-conditioning.

Partly, it was the two Australian flags hung prominently on the wall at the front of the church, framing our normal banner of the dove, cross and orb – representing the Trinity. It was Remembrance Day. Were we honouring the flag? Showing our respect? Why was it there? And why next to God?

There’s been a lot of good done in the name of the Australian flag and the Union Jack it bares. But also a lot of evil. Cronulla, Nauru, Dresden, Gallipoli… Yes, there has also been a lot of evil done in God’s name. But Jesus preached ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘love your enemies’ and then actually did it – he died for his enemies. The Australian flag, on the other hand, I’m not even really sure what it stands for.

We prayed on Sunday, thanking God for the ‘sacrifices’ people made so that we could enjoy the ‘freedom’ and ‘lifestyle’ we have today.

The historian in me cringed. I thought of those who were sent to war unwillingly, who we ‘sacrificed’ in Vietnam or Papua New Guinea; the 16 million including thousands of young Australians who died in the first World War, and for what?; the Aboriginal soldiers who on returning from the Second World War found they couldn’t vote or even join the RSL with their mates – what sort of ‘freedom’ or ‘lifestyle’ was that?

But the theologian in me also cringed. Whose sacrifice brought peace and freedom?

Stanley Hauerwas has written a brilliant piece, Sacrificed on the Altar of the Nation, on the the Church and war. He argues that the Church is the alternative to the reality of the world, the Church is the alternative to war.

[Pacifists] do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe that a sacrifice has already been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war…

If the Civil War teaches us anything, it makes clear what happens when Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world. As a result, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.

If a people do not exist that continually make Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter-church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have. That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war.

poppyWar is the world’s sacrificial system, he argues, it’s an alternative saviour. Peace is in the church.

Ephesians 2 – For [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

Remember the wars and the people who suffered, but I think we can put away the flags. Thank God for the peace he has given us, not through wars, but in Jesus.

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talking transgender

We need to talk about transgender identities. We evangelicals, that is.

There’s been a few things in the media lately which have got me thinking.

Last week on Kitchen Cabinet on the ABC, Senator Louise Pratt chatted with Annabel Crabb and the rest of Australia about her relationship with her partner. She and her partner were in a lesbian relationship. That was, until her partner started making comments like ‘I think I’d look great with a beard.’ Her partner transitioned and is now a man. The two of them could legally marry now, but have chosen not to, ‘I won’t get married until everyone can,’ she said. Pratt explained that what’s important to her is the person she loves, not his sex, so transitioning was no big deal.

Kitchen Cabinet


Then there’s also been My Transsexual Summer. This is a reality series which follows the journeys  of seven people as they transition. ‘Each of the seven is trying to live in a society that routinely misunderstands them, regularly mocks them, all to frequently assaults them, just because they are different,’ says the website. What I watched I found really helpful, I learned a lot and couldn’t help but empathise with those on the show.

Sam and Evan

Tonight I’ll be watching Sam and Evan: From Girls to Men. Sam and Evan are in the process of transitioning from female to male and identify as a male gay couple. They are 17 and 20 years old.

Last month there was I am Claire: My Transgender Spiritual Diary on Radio National. Claire was a youth-worker in the Anglican Church for 15 years. She explained, ‘I live two separate lives,’ one as a man and one as Claire. She had been married as a man for some 20 years before realising a female identity as Claire. Her wife showed incredible understanding, ‘I’m going to love you as a girl and as a guy’ she said. But it was not an easy journey at all, especially as a Christian. She tells a beautiful story:

He [the Baptist Minister] sat down with me in a room and he said, ‘Close your eyes.’ I was 30 at the time, and I hadn’t told anyone about my transgendered condition, except the counsellors. And he said to me, ‘Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself at your worst, most shameful embarrassing moment,’ which I did, I had my eyes closed thinking about me at my worst. And what I imagined was me dressed up as a girl because I thought that was so bad.

And he said, ‘Imagine in that scenario Jesus comes into your imagination and looks at you, whatever it is you’re doing. What does Jesus say, what does he think?’ And I imagined Jesus coming into my mind and looking at me as a girl and just looking at me and hating me and thinking, ‘You make me sick, aren’t you supposed to be like a church youth worker, like a minister, and look at you, you’re disgusting.’ And all this then came out of Jesus. And he said, ‘Say something back to him.’ And in my mind I just said to Jesus, ‘Go away, I don’t want you around. Come back when I’m being good.’

And then he said, ‘Now what does Jesus say back to you?’ And this went on for a couple of minutes, he actually got me having a conversation with Jesus at my most embarrassing, shameful moment. And at the end of that, which went for maybe a minute or two, it wasn’t long, I just imagined Jesus wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘I don’t care, I love you anyway.’ And I just bawled my eyes out. I’d never felt that was okay. And to have Jesus say that was okay, this God that was so angry at me just love me, I was a wreck, I sobbed for about 20 minutes, I was uncontrollable.

And then I said to the minister at the end of that, I said, ‘If God was like that, that would be the best God. I’d love to believe in a God like that.’ And he said, ‘Well, he is like that.’

My point in sharing three examples in the media is just that transgender identity is not some obscure ‘lifestyle’. No. We have transgender people from all walks of life on the TV, on the radio, in our communities, in our churches. I’m concerned that if we evangelicals have a poor understanding of transgender issues, we’ll fail terribly at welcoming and including people who identify as transgender.

Yet I’m not aware of any evangelical framework to understand transgender experiences, identities and transitioning. Most of what I know is gleaned from the internet, academics, TV and friends. Not from Christians.

You may have seen ‘the genderbread person’ meme:gender5There’s also this one:

gender10These are quite comprehensive explanations of a worldview, clearly communicated for the general public. Yet evangelicals hardly engage with any of this (or else it hasn’t yet trickled down from the theologians to the likes of people in churches like me). It’s like we’re transgender illiterate. Are we ignoring it? Putting it in the ‘too hard’ basket?

These extracts are all I’ve really seen from an evangelical attempt to understand transgender issues theologically. They’ll give you a taste of some of the diversity of views, but also of how much more thinking needs to be done. [Note – these extracts are not my views – some people may find them offensive]

Kevin Vanhoozer in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” pp192-197

Perhaps the greatest challenge to biblical thinking and living posed by transsexualism is not the political one but the ontological. At the heart of the matter is a frontal assault on the very idea of the “naturally given” as opposed to the “culturally graven.” In particular, the notion that human sexuality is dimorphic (consisting of two forms male and female) is ripe for reconstruction. An increasing number of thinkings from different disciplines contend that the male-female binary division is neither a fact of life nor a wholly arbitarty development, but the produce of a non-necessary social constsutrction.

…Thanks to new medical techniques some are able to “choose” their sex. This new technology, when combined with a social constructivism that sees identity and roles as social creations only, provides considerable grist for the mill-to-power, to the illusion that we are our own creators: “I think (male/female), therefore I am (male/female).” Ironically enough, the very material procedures of medicine serve the very idealist project of making the “outer” body conform to one’s true “inner” self. This is not, however, how the Bible scripts the self.

We do not have to become materialists to insist that the body is integral to who we are. Human beings are psychosomatic unities. The person – what makes me “me” – is not located in one “part” only (e.g., the body, the soul). It follows that one’s personhood cannot be divorced from one’s sex. A little lower than the angels, human beings are not abstract but embodied souls and ensouled bodies…In short, it is embodied persons, not mere bodies, who are male or female.

One’s true self is not, therefore hovering above or within one’s body. At the limit, the idea that we are men trapped in women’s bodies or women trapped in men’s bodies collapses the distinction between sex and gender and flirts with a gnostic, even docetic, disregard for bodily reality….

It is not hard to see the transgender liberation movement as transgression: an overt rebellion against the binary divide between male and female bodies and behaviour…

[In] God’s good creation: “male and female he created them”…To be male or female is not for us to decide…It is the producer’s call.

William Webb in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” pp 211-212

While I agree with Vanhoozer’s conclusions in the transexuality exampled, I hope that upon reflection we might all incorporate a softer and more broken tone…

Social-scientific studies reveal with certainty a vast array of broken-world environmental factors that influence sexual preferences. While from a Christian perspective we may view these genetic and/or environmental factors as part of a fallen world, they are, nonetheless, important mitigating circumstances. They offer a lens of compassion and empathy through which we, as broken people ourselves, should view others who are at least in part impacted by this fallen world, whether they are aware of that theological category or not.

Mark L Strauss in “Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology” p.286

Although I affirm Vanhoozer’s conclusion that transsexuality is a distortion of God’s intention for human sexuality, I find some of his arguments less than convincing. When asserting that human beings are psychosomatic unities, Vanhoozer writes that one’s personhood cannot be divorced from one’s sex and that it is not possible to separate the question “who are you?” from “what sex are you?” While this is generally true, how do we deal theologically with hermaphrodites (also called androgynes), whose gender is ambiguous or who have both male and female genitalia? Are they any less persons because of their ambiguous sexuality?

We can certainly account for such abnormalities theologically by appealing to the fallen state of creation, and most theologicans would likely agree that such confusion of biological sex would justify corrective surgery. but what about those whose sexual confusion is psychological, or part psychological and part physical, as in the case of an effeminate man, who is convinced he is a woman? If plastic surgery is justified to correct the detrimental spychological effects of say, a cleft palate, what is the argument against surgery to “correct” the detimental psychological effects of confused sexualit?

Vanhoozer argues that the transgender liberation movement is “an overt rebellion against the binary divide between male and female bodies and behaviour.” But many biologists, psychologists and medical doctors would deny that such a strict binary divide always exists – either in bodies or (especially) in behaviour. Vanhoozer concludes that “in the final analysis, human creativity is unable to alter the created order,” Yet theologians uniformly affirm the use of human creativity to correct the effects of a fallen creation. we protect against natural disasters and fight against the ravages of disease, famine and war…It seems to me a more robust theological engagement will be necessary to answer this challenge.

Like Strauss, I’m also hoping for ‘more robust theological engagement’, and probably more robust social engagement too!

We need it, because as long as evangelicals are confused on whether gender-transitioning is ‘rebellion’ or creative restoration, we’ll be rubbish at including and welcoming transgender people.

I think love compels us to think a bit harder, engage seriously and prayerfully with queer literature and to listen closely to transgender people.

Most of all, we need to make sure that nothing we do gets between people, whatever their sexuality and gender identity, and knowing Jesus. It would be tragic if we were the barrier.

What do you think? Are evangelicals illiterate on transgender issues? Is there a dialogue or a literature I may have missed?

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