24 MARCH 1967, Page 10

An Easter sermon


The need for ecumenism springs neither from inclination nor Christian charity but from the stark reality of the crisis threatening the con- tinued existence of the Christian religion. The Christian Church is neither a society of mystics, an ethical philosophy, a burial club, nor a social doctrine. It is that boldest of gambles, a historical religion. It has been institutional from the first. But its institutionalism is grounded in its assertion of the existence of a historical person, and the authenticity of the teaching attributed to him, of his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, and of the assertion that on the third day after his public execution he rose again to found an institution which, in one form or another, has endured till now.

If this is not true, the Churches can survive neither by improving their image, nor by getting together with one another, nor by preaching an acceptable political creed. The apparatus of Christianity is far too complicated to be in- teresting to the preseni-day generation if it is founded on a lie. However charming the myth, if it be a myth, the Churches have only one respectable course of action, to go into volun- tary liquidation. No doubt out of the assets a post-Christian ethic might be constructed, owing something to New Testament and to Old amongst other sources. But, of traditional Christianity as such, nothing would remain, and to pretend that what survived was in any sense Christianity would be pure self-deception. The Church was founded on the empty tomb. If there was no tomb, or if the tomb was not empty, nothing remains but a memory.

There are three distinct factors—related but separate—which face the Church with the stark alternative of reassertion or a winding-up petition: the philosophic, the historical, and the pragmatic. Philosophically, the whole con- ception of a divine providence and creation has become less credible to a generation with- out particular philosophical training, whose general climate is influenced more by the visible accuracy of the predictions of empirical science than by a priori considerations of any kind. Historically, the events described by the gospels seem too improbable for the dubious evidences provided by the documents on which they are based. Pragmatically, the various asser- tions of the traditional creeds being wholly, or almost wholly, incapable of verification, it seems more and more absurd to ascribe to their acceptance the importance hitherto attached to them as conditions of salvation.

From the first, the Protestant Churches billowed and swayed in the wind. For a time, despite Loisy and others, the venerable, but monolithic, structure of the papal obedience claimed to be immune from the general dis- order. But in truth no ecclesiastical fabric is unaffected. Today Rome herself shakes and rumbles, displaying huge fissures and terrifying jets of steam under the stress of her internal pressures, like some ecclesiastical volcano, a spectacle all the more awe-inspiring for her previous rigidity, and as impressive even to those who do not dwell within the shadow of her walls as to those who do.

For the plain fact is, not that people no longer wish to believe, but that a growing majority cannot; and the remaining faithful, not themselves immune from doubt, but denied direct vision, dwell in the discipline of darkness, in faith, but without certainty. They are driven towards one another in the current of ecumenism, not because the divisions which separate them are less important or simpler of solution, but for the sheer need of companion- ship; not so much for the scandal of their former want of charity for one another, but from the absolute necessity of common action in the face of a common and compelling need.

To say that the modern generation has lost its capacity for faith does not mean to say that it regards its want of it as other than a disaster. 'Does a bird, deprived of wings, stay earthbound willingly?' We would all believe in Father Christmas if we could, and, even when we cannot, our parents remain alike the guarantee, and the symbol, of security. But, with God eliminated and Christ not risen, we are of all men the most miserable. For those who have never had the gospel, the loneliness of the dark, frightening as it is, does not appear as an intolerable deprivation. But, for those who have had the Christian hope and lost it, to pagan pessimism is added the positive anguish of bereavement. Without that, some kind of adjustment, some recapture of Stoic virtue, or Epicurean tolerance, is imaginable. To the post-Christians, however, despair is the only emotion consistent with normal sensi- tivity. Hope for them has at last flitted from Pandora's box.

Thus ecumenism really consists less in dialogue than in conscious cooperation. The Churches must realise that what is at stake is not their popularity but their very existence. The various halfway houses, the demythologi- sation of Christianity, the 'not out there but within me' schools of theology, have already had their day before they could achieve much currency. Nor is it any longer possible to fortify the Latin quarter of the Eternal City and pre- tend that it is the whole new Jerusalem. The Churches must cooperate in restating their grounds of belief. If the new spiritual experi-

ence generated by this operation leads to a greater ecclestastical unity, so much the better. If not, nothing has been lost. The old aguments are just as divisive as ever before and, if re- stated in their old language, can only achieve the same result as before. But a new philosophi- cal statement, a new historical argumentation, could well produce a realisation that many of the old arguments derive from false philo- sophical or critical positions, sometimes shared between the disputants.

It is this simple truth that Auberon Waugh did not understand in his 'Christmas Sermon' (SPECTATOR, 23 December 1966). Granted that the sixteenth century disputes were correctly stated, there is no option for the twentieth cen- tury Christian man to go on storming the old positions and defending the old 'fortresses of the Reformation in a sort of eternal purgatory, never quite successful and never wholly van- quished, while the enemy at the gate, armed with more modern weapons, saps and tunnels the very foundations of faith, preparing a nuclear explosion which will blow the whole thing sky-high. How can you go on arguing about transubstantiation when you no longer accept the distinction between substance and accidents which informed, if it did not start, the controversy? How can you go on fighting about justification by faith and works when the whole psychology of human cognition and action is so infinitely more sophisticated than that which literal arguments about scriptural texts really seem to imply? But, even this is not the point. Granted that papal infallibility is still a serious stumbling-block (as are many other issues), can one really devote one's spiritual lifetime to attacking or defending it when the whole basis of belief in a supernatural world is in question, and the kind of disputation that shocked our fathers at the time of Tract XC and Vatican I seem as remote from present-day reality as the fancies of Gnosticism?

If the Churches would get down to a little honest philosophy and history to persuade the earnest inquirers that there are grounds for religious belief of any kind, that Mr Allegro is not merely wrong but historically illiterate in claiming that Jesus never existed, or existed about 150 BC, that there are grounds, respect- able though not of course compulsive, for lielieving the broad historical accuracy of the Gospel, that the mysterious figure whom Chris- tians revere as man and God did teach that the merciful are blessed, did heal the sick, did rise again in the sight of his bewildered *Rowers, did intend to start a church, or, a's we should now incline to put it, a' move- ment, institutional in its character from the first, they might not obliterate their differences, but they would at least secure the continuity of their own existence.

The Church is faced with the biggest chal- lenge to its existence since the days of Nero. It is a rare privilege to own Church member- ship at such time. Christians may, if they will, comfort themselves with the reflection that if they fail it can only be because what they have always said about Jesus of Nazareth and his following is false, and that if it is not false in the end they cannot fail. But that they should preoccupy themselves with the ridiculous minuet of their traditional disputations invites the comment of Alexander in Baluchistan, when informed of a traditional battle between Athen- ian and Spartan hoplites: 1327pIxokivotaxie —a battle between frogs and mice.