Saturday, October 22, 2005


I love the names of the Dissenter religions of the mid-1600s.

Ranters, Barrowers, Diggers, Muggletonians. Levellers, Seekers, Familists, Adamites. And mustn’t forget Quakers too.

Doing all this digging, levelling, seeking, ranting, barrowing, quaking and muggletonying to shake off the burden of old religion. Their job in history was to wrest control of Christendom from a medieval papacy, a secular Church of England, and a rabidly rigid Calvinism. And their role was not to go nicely, but to ride rough over entrenched ideologies.

It must have been a noisy and messy time, the past clashing with the future, and like all “future shock” stories, the old trying to beat back the new, with the new tossing its seeds out to wherever there was fertile ground. Arrests and torture, thundering sermons, great loud smacking of bibles, pamphlets in the streets. Ah, what it takes to draw down the establishment!

Religion follows a sort of historical evolution, and there are these periods of mass extinction or die-offs, like the 1500s and 1600s. And I think we’re in another one right now.

Modern Christianity is a confused mess, isn’t it? Nobody really knows what to do with it. Go back, go forward. Allow the new ideas, squash them instantly. Act in unity, take bold steps alone. Be political, shun politics.

And nobody under 40 is going anymore.

Last year, while I occasionally attended a United Church, it occurred to me what an anachronism “church” is. Here I was in a church next to a university theology school. Many of the congregation had PhD and MA degrees, and some of them were theology profs. Yet we still were arranged in the same seating plan developed back when the man-at-the-front was the only person who could read. Why did these PhDs and profs not speak? Why did they just sit silent, speaking only the rote words they were allowed, in the chantlike intonation of congregations? How could a thinking person not hate this?

Of course, the choir was also at the front, in their blue robes, singing lovely hymns in Latin to the accompaniment of that ancient instrument of torture, the church organ, then a solo in the coloratura soprano range after the sermon. We got to sing too, and that was part of the fun.

And I suspect this is what protestant church has turned into -- a show. A Sunday-morning inspirational performance for the elderly. The goal is to keep people coming, keep them watching, donating, hoping that something will change soon, hanging on out of fear of the emptiness that might replace it. And now, for the next part of our show…

Why is it still this way? Where is the evolution, the radical shoots that are supposed to rise up as traditional church dies off?

Surely not fundamentalism! Yes, there's their hip music scene, their Truth-R-Us clergy, their clever marketing and growth (in the US, though, not elsewhere!). But it strikes me as a frantic effort to prop up a dying thing, to make it look alive, what Thomas Carlysle called “our spasmodic efforts to believe that we believe.”

Besides, fundamentalism has George Bush and the neocons’ support. And any religious persuasion that has their support – well.

Quakers, then? New Agers? Or some kind of religious fusion – Wiccan Native, or Scientific Bahai, or Buddhist Judaism? Or formless religion, nameless spirituality?

I'm taking suggestions.


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