I find that few things are more humbling, as a teacher, than being forced to go ‘back to basics’: you’re trying to explain an idea or concept and – despite your best efforts – the looks of confusion and incomprehension remain. You realise at this moment that it is pointless to continue re-wording, revising or clarifying your explanation – the weaknesses in understanding are much more foundational, and you need to return to the fundamental premise or first principle of your topic, without which nothing further makes sense. The lesson plan is ditched and you need to think on your feet. In my experience the ensuing process is often unexpectedly fruitful for the teacher: returning to the starting point of your knowledge can prompt you to see the whole topic in a new light. This might involve re-discovering what originally fascinated or perplexed you, and being startled that what has over time become dull and prosaic now strikes you afresh as radically strange, complex and exciting. In short, the experience can lead to something of an epiphany.
Of course, this experience is not confined to classroom teaching. Last Sunday (Pentecost) I was taken by surprise when a curious member of my family, who is not a church-goer, asked me a simple question: ‘What is the Holy Spirit?’. My reply, which sought to sketch out a Trinitarian theology in layman’s terms, produced only confusion and incomprehension. I soon realised that this was the wrong question to be answering; for a meaningful conversation to develop I would need to go ‘back to basics’, and start with the question ‘What is a Christian?’ And so I did. I set aside some time to write an answer to this question for an imagined interlocutor who knows none of the stories or vocabulary of the Christian faith – indeed, for whom the word ‘faith’ itself produces little recognition. The experience was extraordinary. In my writing I discovered afresh the outlandish ‘strangeness’ of Christian faith when explained systematically. It felt simultaneously familiar and radically unfamiliar. Indeed, it sounded so odd that I felt embarrassed at the prospect of sharing it with friends and family. And yet I still believed it with my whole heart.
For me, the true epiphany was the thought which followed on from this: could it be that the crucial task of the Church in our time is to rediscover the ‘strangeness’ of Christianity? The Church of England is currently facing up to a profound existential crisis, prompted by the sustained – and possibly terminal – decline of church-going in recent decades. The ‘Reform and Renewal’ programme currently proposed to meet this crisis is couched in the calm, dispassionate language of institutional decision-making, but I cannot help but suspect that a dominant motivation is fear. Indeed, as someone contemplating a lifetime of ministry in the Church, I am myself conscious of the fear which the prospect of decline instinctively provokes: am I setting myself up, I wonder, for an unstable career in a dying, demoralised institution, forever on the back foot as churches and congregation disappear around me and the Church progressively loses its influence in the public sphere?
Confronted afresh by the ‘strangeness’ of Christianity, however, I begin to see the prospect of ‘decline’ in a new light. As I consider the ongoing wrestling with mystery which characterises my life of Christian faith, I am sceptical that a majority of those in historic Christendom have ever orientated their lives in faithful response to the call of Jesus Christ. The Christian life is hard – it is, after all, the way of the cross – and the testimony of history would seem to indicate that ‘Christian’ has been for many Western people down the ages (perhaps even for many churchgoers) more a marker of identity than a description of their lived inner reality. Could it be therefore that the collapse of Christendom provides the opportunity for the revival of the strange, distinctive witness of the Church? Could it be that, shorn of its cultural dominance, architectural presence and political influence, the Church of England is freed to refocus on what truly matters most: hospitality, fellowship, prayer and worship? I was struck by the Revd Sam Wells’ sermon observation at St Martin-in-the-Fields on the Fourth Sunday of Easter that ‘the critical mass of the sorted and normal no longer assumes church is part of what it means to be sorted and normal’. When our Christian identity loses its comforting sense of security for us, I wonder whether we will find a renewed security in fellowship with God and one another, embracing our new-found freedom to live as salt and light in the world?
Of course, I do not want the Church to decline numerically. I desire to see more and more people finding the peace and healing that comes through knowing God in Jesus Christ. But if, as seems likely, the Church does continue to decline, our hope in Christ – the one who reminds us always not to be afraid – can be undiminished. We will still gather to break bread with glad and generous hearts, rejoicing afresh in the strangeness of God, whose loving reality is both mysteriously immanent and radically unknown. And perhaps we will then pray with renewed confidence: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love’.
Andrew Bennison was at Trinity College Oxford and now teaches history. He blogs at Musings on Mystery and describes himself thus: “History teacher, Christian, identical twin, London-dweller and countryside-lover (among other things). This blog is my attempt to share my experience of the mystery of God, and to create a space for generous conversations.”