5 MAY 1961, Page 12

The Churches

No Short Cut

By MONICA FURLONG IF there are still Christians who are not sure of the value of ecumenicalism (as opposed to those who are not sure what the word means) then a look at the British Council of Churches is extremely reassuring. It works at its function of promoting Christian unity with remarkable intelligence and good humour and has a quality or balance about its thinking which is often tragically lacking from the reasoning of the frag- mented Church. Ballasted on the one side by moderate ritualism and on the other by moderate enthusiasm (using the word in its technical re- ligious sense), it is designed to sail on unsinkably through formidable theological battles, gunning away at bigotry in a most heartening manner. And just because conflict and controversy are half the point of its existence, its thinking is apt to be of the costly and useful kind, a comfortable distance away either from religious platitudes or from the kind of publicity-conscious remarks which make the Church look like a branch of Show Biz.

The reason that 1 am suddenly so lavish with compliments is that I have, just read a very fine pamphlet published by the Council, written by Canon T. R. Milford, which describes the course of a series of discussions among highly intelligent Christians of various denominations about their responsibilities in the nuclear age. I should ex- plain that normally I am painfully allergic to pamphlets however well-meaning, and moreover when anyone asks me how as a Christian I can reconcile my conscience to bombing little children and old ladies I start throwing orna- ments about the room • and screaming execra- tions. Also this particular pamphlet has a cover so ugly that it positively invites what politicians call 'the total destruction of civilisation as we know it.' (Are there kinds of civilisation that we don't know about, and if we don't know about them should we notice if they disap- peared?) What held me patient through forty- four pages, however, was partly the extraordinary sense of balance which I have already noted as the hallmark. of the Council's artefacts, partly the readiness to attempt an answer to one of my favourite questions. What is the Church, and what use is it?

Canon Milford divides society into the few and the many. In the case of the controversy over nuclear weapons which was the hub of the discussions, it is the marchers and demonstrators who are the few, the lumpish rest of us who are the many, and this pattern is one which has perpetually recurred throughout human history. The many are those who provide the stability and continuity of our lives; the few those who inaugurate the changes and sponsor the reforms, thus inspiring the ridicule and in some cases the acceptance of their contemporaries. It is, sug- gests Canon Milford, the dialectic between the two groups which keeps mankind healthy, saving us' from the lunacy of cranks on the one hand and the dullness of diehards on the other.

In the first three centuries of the Church's history Christians formed a particularly remark- able few, profoundly unworldly, savagely per- secuted, surprisingly pervasive. From the time of the conversion of Constantine onwards the few became engulfed by the many and the all-or- nothing, do-or-die quality which radiated so attractively from the adolescent Church became tamed by, the timidity and lack of imagination of the many. It is this divided ancestry between the foolish and the wise which complicates the Church's witness today, particularly in regard to war, and nobody but a fool stuck far out on a limb of fewness now expects her to see the chiaroscuro of war in sharp black and white. The temptation of oversimplifying the problems merely to give some relief from the bombard- ment of contradictions and conflicts is intensely powerful when it comes to nuclear war, but, says Canon Milford, 'Christians, like everyone else, are committed to the tiresome process of accom- modation and compromise and the balance of rights and duties. There is no short cut by ignoring our obligations to those who are far off or to those who are near.'

Well, all right, though the temptations of that line of thought prowl busily too. But it is clear that nowadays Christians are confined neither among the many nor the few and attempts within the Church to press everybody into one of these categories are certain not to succeed. So that it remains to be seen in what the peculiar flavour and influence of the Church lies if she is neither to be found perpetually in front with the visionaries nor providing divine authority for pickling the status quo. For Christians are not to be found specially among the intellectual, the liberal-minded or the brave, and, as Canon Milford is honest enough to say, 'the attitudes and decisions of Christians may be as irrational and prejudiced as anyone's, or even more so; for inherited prejudice and the influence of the group may be given divine sanction and become immune to criticism.' But it need not be so, for 'Christian decision in the proper sense occurs when the will of God is brought to bear on a particular situation, and the individual Christian by himself or acting with others, can be, and should be, the agent through which this happens. . . . That is what he is there for.'

It is, then, the destiny of Christianity to transcend the divisions between the many and the few as much as the innumerable other divi- sions of class and intellect and race and country and to become welded into the unity which Milford called 'the People of God.' That is, a dedicated people, living for purposes not of their own choosing, purposes not confined to life in this world, but to be worked out in this world as the place of their present obedience. This people have their place in this world, and serious dealings with their neighbours in this world, but the ultimate reference points by which they are directed and judged are "out of this world" and that is what makes their obedience and disobedience so important.' By contrast, an Aldermaston march sounds like a picnic.