NT Wright on the TEC decision to go ahead with ordaining persons in same-sex relationships

HT to First Thoughts for the link to this column from my favourite Anglican theologian. Now, if only he could apply the same thinking to the ordination of women…

The Americans Know This Will End in Schism:

Nobody has a right to be ordained: it is always a gift of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal also seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself, not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means “treating everybody the same way”, but “treating people appropriately”, which involves making distinctions between different people and situations

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58 responses to “NT Wright on the TEC decision to go ahead with ordaining persons in same-sex relationships

  1. matthias

    A very apt comment by the first commentator in the First Things blog on this issue who said that:
    “One way to solve the thorny problem of restoring Christian unity is for some of the denominations to work themselves into irrelevancy, ultimately oblivion.The Anglican Communion is making good progress toward Christian unit”

  2. matthias

    and further more we have the example of the Uniting Church here in Australia where it is predicted that it will cease by 2035 ,if the current rate of people leaving continues. Besides the older population there is also the fact that with the exception of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations and isolated Churches such as North Ringwood,the UCA us pretty much doctrinally in the same boat as the Episcopal Church .ICHABOD

  3. Tony

    Matthias,

    It seems like your saying ‘look at those poor souls drowning in the mud’ while not noticing that it’s up our necks too.

    Surely the Catholic ‘current rate of leaving’ (especially in the West) is catastrophic?

    It may that the ‘leaving numbers’ are force for unity but, I’d suggest, it’s more likely to be because it’s a boat we’re all sailing in.

    • Aw, come on, Tony. You know that Old Catholics never leave. They just stop coming!

      (Actually the rate of new comers to the Catholic Church in Australia is much, much greater than the rate of new comers to the UCA, even if the rate of non-participation of those raised in the community may be about the same. In any case, the figures – which I don’t have at my fingertips – are a hell of a lot more hopeful for us.)

      • Tony

        I’ll still stick to my general point Schütz and Matthias. Institutional religion has been on the decline — again esp in the West — since the turn of the last century (with spikes around the time of the world wars).

        As for the implied notion that ‘the kind of religion I follow is on the increase and the kind of religion I despise is on the wane’ … well, it’s all a little too convenient, self serving and anecdotal as far as I can tell.

        I was very fortunate to be in Italy recently and, as anyone would know who’s been there, the place is full of amazing churches. It seemed like every one-horse village has a church that, by Australian standards, would just about rate as a cathedral. But our experience was mixed in terms of participation. One very traditional church had a congregation which was doubled when we arrived. Another, less traditional, was packed to the rafters. And vice-versa. Same here in Australia.

        There really seems to be no sustained indication that the institutional model many of us grew up with is going to revive itself (short of another catastrophe-lead spike).

        Most of the ‘success’ stories seem to have local or particular reasons for that success, eg, a dynamic pastor or a ‘special interest’ group or a particularly strong community. None seem to point the way to a broader ‘answer’ to the malaise of institutional religion.

        • What on earth do you mean by “institutional religion”, Tony? Please define.

          • Tony

            Not sure how to interpret your tone Schütz (‘What on earth do you mean …’). Is a term like ‘institutional religion’, in the context of this conversation, in need of a definition?

            Would it help if I noted my agreement with Pere’s post, esp ‘The truth is that all varieties of religious belief and expression are challenged by the contemporary materialist climate’?

            • Yes, I think it is a term that needs some definition. It is used so commonly that one often forgets to subject it to critical analysis. Don’t forget that I work in the area of inter-religious dialogue, and get a little annoyed at the easy way that people talk about “religion” as if there is a single thing called “religion” and the actual “religions” that exist are just variations on a single theme. As if this wasn’t bad enough, to use an adjective in front of the word “religion” like “institutional” just makes me pull my hair out (I don’t have much as it is, so I would prefer to keep what I have left, if you don’t mind.)

              What I mean is this: what is an “institutional religion”? Is Buddhism an “institutional” religion? Is Islam? Is Judaism? Is Hinduism? No? Then what is? Ooooh, I get it – you mean “THE CHURCH”! So why not just say “THE CHURCH”. Why fudge by saying “institutional religion” when what you actually mean is the actual organisation which is the Christian community?

              That’s why I used that “tone”, old boy. And, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m still using it. Now it’s your turn to wipe this smirk off my face. But please don’t touch the hair, OK? (Or I will have to start pulling out my moustache, which could be very painful and not a good look.) (Presuming my moustache is a good look to start with, but, hey, I happen to like it.) (Which is why I wear it this way, but then, this isn’t about my moustache, is it?)

              • Peregrinus

                I think the need for definition works both ways, David. You’ve moved rather smoothly from Tony’s “institutional religion” to the signficantly different concept of “an institutional religion”.

                Tony can speak for himself, but I think most – all? – religious traditions have an institutional dimension, but that this is only one dimension. If I speak of “institutional Catholicism” you will understand that I am speaking of one particular aspect or dimension of Catholicism, and the same is true for other religious traditions.

                I think Tony’s point that “instititutional religion” has been on the decline for some time is a valid one – we need look only at the wide gap between religious identification and participation in religious institutions. And this seems to be true across different denominations and traditions, and also to be true for both “liberal” and “conservative” traditions within denominations. It’s not an absolutely uniform trend, but it is an overwhelming one.

                • There’s another kind of “Catholicism” other than “institutional” Catholicism? As Arthur Dent would say, this is obviously some new meaning of the word “Catholicism” I wasn’t previously aware of. There are indeed, other kinds of Christianity that are not “institutional”, but Catholicisim is, by definition, “institutional”, nicht wahr?

                  The other thing I note is that, as in the sentence “Jesus had a bit to say about the institutional religion of his day”, there is always the implication that because the type of religion in question is “institutional”, it is also therefore “pharisaical”. (No offence to the Pharisees meant – of course, I know that the real “institutional” Judaism of Jesus’ day was Saduccaical, not Pharisaical).

                  It’s the idea that what Jesus was against was the “institutional” dimension of “institutional religion”, as if he would have been happier with 2nd Temple Judaism if it were not “institutional”. This is then carried over to the Church, whose greatest sin is that it is an “institution”. But as Louise points out, Christianity is, by its very nature, institutional. After all, Jesus “instituted” it. Bit hypocritical of him if he was against “institutional religion”, no?

                  • Peregrinus

                    There’s another kind of “Catholicism” other than “institutional” Catholicism? As Arthur Dent would say, this is obviously some new meaning of the word “Catholicism” I wasn’t previously aware of. There are indeed, other kinds of Christianity that are not “institutional”, but Catholicisim is, by definition, “institutional”, nicht wahr?

                    No, not another kind of Catholicism, in the sense of there being “institutional Catholicism” and “non-institutional Catholicism”, and never the twain shall meet.

                    My point is that there are undoubtedly Catholic institutions – brick-and-mortar churches, formal organisations like parishes, dioceses, religious orders, there are structures like schools and seminaries, there are paid officials. But if you listed all of those and said right, that’s it, that’s the Catholic church, you’d be wrong – or, at least, woefully incomplete. Sure, take them away, and you don’t have anything that resembles Catholicism. But have nothing but them, and you’re missing a lot. It’s a bit like confusing the Australian state and the Australian nation. They are intimately connected, but they are not the same thing.

                    If I said, for example, that the clerical sex abuse crisis presents a particular challenge to the institutional church , I think you would understand what I meant. I would not be saying that it somehow invalidates the gospel or the sacraments; it causes us to question how religious orders, and dioceses, and the clerical culture, erred so grievously, and so widely, and for so long. In this respect the institution failed to give life to the gospel, and to observe this is a criticism of the institution, but not an attack on or rejection of Catholicism.

                    So I still maintain that “institutional Catholicism” is a meaningful and useful concept, and it does not mean the same thing as “Catholicism”. And the same observation could be made of almost any other religious tradition, though of course the relationship between the institution and the religion is not always the same as it is in Catholicism.

              • Tony

                Schütz,

                You seemed to have introduced and maintained a ‘tone’ not based on what I said but based on what you think I meant.

                You ask me for a definition of ‘institutional religion’ and make it abundantly clear that you know the answer before I give it.

                I’m more than happy to unpack and discuss what was for me a throwaway line and, given the strength of your observations and argument, make my meaning clearer if necessary or even discard the bleeping term!

                But to presume a meaning is no basis for dialogue ‘old boy’.

  4. Matthias

    Valid point Tony except i can only talk from the proddy perspective and from where i sit,i hear that the RCC-especially the charismatics , are increasing. Amongst Protestants it is pentecostals , traditional Anglicans-Low and High Church- and Baptists that seem to be increasing. For example the baptist church I have attended has grown to the point where there is discussion around where to:
    church plants? or a bigger premises.

  5. Peregrinus

    . . . Amongst Protestants it is pentecostals , traditional Anglicans-Low and High Church- and Baptists that seem to be increasing . . .

    That’s hardly likely to lead to church unity any time soon, is it? Of the four theological “currents” you see as increasing, three are either uninterested in, or actively hostile to, any kind of corporate unity.

    • Yep, that’s true, Perry. In fact, the increasing Christain populations in the world today are Pentecostal, Evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic. I do think there are real currents for unity between these four groups, but they are not the ones traditionally associated with ecumenism. It will take some time for any real authentic impulse for unity to manifest itself among them.

  6. Well, the only sort of Christianity that is increasing is the sort that stands for something – something traditionally Catholic (apparently incl. Anglo-Catholic, tho’ I doubt it’s growing), and I mean Traditionalist within the Church (and, in case of the SSPX, half-in and half-out of her); something traditionally Protestant (Low, Sydney-style Anglican, or ‘confessional’ Baptist, etc.); something new but very committed (Pentecostal)…

    Fairly obviously, some groups are liberalizing themselves out of existence: the so-called mainstream or mainline Protestants, and I am tempted to say mainstream Catholics of a modernist, doubting, dissenting hue – the sort who are reflexively anti-Roman, regard anything “conservative” as sinister and suspicious (pro-lifers, natural family planning, the Rosary, relics, Gregorian chant… anything “pre-Vatican II”), and expect women priests and other desiderata to arrive in due course once Rome finally catches up to the modern world. A pity these folk don’t realize that the Anglicans have already gone down this path, and it seems to bear little fruit; indeed, the logical progression (via, say, Spong) leads to nihilistic atheism.

    In Tasmania, for example, current practice rates among Catholics range around 7%, of whom only a quarter are under 50. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the typical confirmation class only a few are regular weekly Massgoers, and all too many are being pushed through the Catholic sheep-dip only because of grandma (the parents don’t practice) or, worse, so as to get their child into a cheap private education in a Catholic school – this is notorious here.

    It appears that within a decade there will be only 1500 at Mass Statewide, the (scattered) equivalent of three congregations, able to be served by three priests – which is lucky, given that the clergy here are fast dying off: but the problem remains not priestless, but parishionerless parishes.

    • Joshua, I think your figures may be a little off – unless your figures are more accurately obtained than mine. But there’s no doubt about it, the Archdiocese of Hobart is in a very bad way.

      Needs to be Jarretted.

    • Joshua, I’m happy to take your word for it re: the numbers, but as a matter of interest, where did you get these figures. The ones I have, while grim, are not quite as grim as this. (Although with a total Tasmanian population of 500,000 people, we’ve got an awful lot to do in evangelisation, regardless of the actual numbers!)

      Dear God, please give us a spare +Jarrett!

      BTW everyone, if you want seminarians and the joy of seeing photos like this in your diocese
      http://psallitesapienter.blogspot.com/2009/07/sicut-sagitt-in-manu-potentis.html, you know what to pray for.

  7. Matthias

    Joshua has exemplified what i was pitifully seekign to do-that it is those Christian denominations that stand for the Historic faith that are growing.
    But you are also right Peregrinus in that there is disunity,nay hostility ,where Catholic or Anglo Catholic is viewed through jaundiced eyes.
    My minister was telling me about his neighbour who is “unsaved” because he is a CATHOLIC and only goes to Church at Easter and Christmas. i told him that i knew catholics (and Lutherans for that matter) who had strong faith in Christ and who attended Mass and Confession ,as the expression of that faith. I am referring to all who blogrite here or link from their blogsites or others ie Joshua,Tony ,Peregrinus,Louise etc.

  8. Matthias

    And that of course includes you Schutz.

  9. Peregrinus

    Couple of points:

    First, church attendance rates are a convenient measure of religious commitment, but you can place too much stress on them. They’re handy because they are “external”; fairly easily measured, and easily compared. But few religious traditions put regular church attendance at the centre of the religious journey. We measure church attendance, basically, because we can’t measure faith, or hope, or charity, or prayer, or communion, or any of a dozen more significant things.

    Secondly, different traditions put different emphasis on attendance. Arguing that the (say) the Uniting Church is in a parlous condition because it has lower attendance rates than (say) the Catholics overlooks the fact that the theological tradition of the Uniting Church put rather less emphasis on weekly attendance than the Catholic tradition does. And if we choose as our criterion of health something upon which, broadly speaking, “conservative”, “traditional” varieties of Christianity place a greater emphasis, we are likely to find that, measuring by that criterion, the conservative, traditional varieties are healthier. But that’s a bit like arguing that winning lots of Olympic medals is a measure of national achievement and, by that criterion, Australia is a high-achieving nation. It’s only because Australians are sports-obsessed that we think winning lots of Olympic medals is a significant measure of national achievement in the first place.

    Thirdly, even with this advantage, sometimes the books still have to be cooked a bit. It’s an article of faith, for instance, among Sydney Anglicans that their variety of low-church Anglicanism is in a healthier condition than the wishy-washy high church liberal stuff which prevails outside NSW, and that the figures bear this out. Actually, you can slice the figures whichever way you want. Sydney Anglicans claim a rapidly-growing church attendance rate, but when you burrow down through the figures this growth is largely attributable, not to more and more people attending Anglican churches in Sydney, but to fewer and fewer Sydneysiders identifying as Anglicans. And this is not just the result of generally declining religious identification; identification with Anglicanism in Sydney is in much steeper decline than identification with Catholicism, for instance. It’s hard to see this as a healthy outcome for Sydney Anglicanism.

    I don’t want to bash Sydney Anglicanism in particular. The truth is that all varieties of religious belief and expression are challenged by the contemporary materialist climate. But the sentiment “my favoured brand of religion is doing much better than yours”, regardless of who makes the claim, is nearly always about 90% hype and wish-fulfilment, and is achieved by careful mining of the figures for one which produces the desired impression.

    • That’s probably very true, but one useful measure is the number of seminarians in a diocese and the one thing I think we can say for sure on that point is that it is the dioceses which are orthodox in teaching, which have increases in seminarians. Hobart has one, who is from somewhere in Africa, I believe.

      There is one other Tasmanian seminarian, but he has gone to another diocese and who can blame him?

      • Tony

        That’s probably very true, but one useful measure is the number of seminarians in a diocese and the one thing I think we can say for sure on that point is that it is the dioceses which are orthodox in teaching, which have increases in seminarians …

        Can we? Again, I’ve heard this many times but it always seems to be based on anecdote rather than hard data.

        It also potentially falls into the same sort of ‘wish fulfillment’ and other traps that Pere warns about in terms of attendance.

        • Wagga Wagga, Sydney, Melbourne, Lismore, Perth all have an increase in seminarians to the best of my knowledge. Their bishops are all orthodox, to the best of my knowledge.

          Brisbane has experienced an increase in seminarians as well, I believe, which would certainly seem to put my assertions to the test, but the rector of the seminary is, I believe, orthodox and has traditional practices happening such as adoration etc.

          This is the best info I have, maybe yours is better.

          • Tony

            But Louise you said this is one thing ‘I think we can say for sure’. Now your saying ‘to the best of my knowlege’.

            Who is the judge of what is orthodox? Is there some sort of official determination?

            This is nothing like hard data and illustrates my point graphically. You use imprecise terms or, at least, debatable terms, provide no varifiable numbers and your ‘surety’ is based on ‘the best of my knowledge’.

            The logical fallacy works something like this (it’s extreme to make the point, but work with me here):

            Person A: ‘All dogs are black’.
            Person B: ‘You’re wrong, my dog is brown’.
            Person A: ‘Ah, but it’s not black so it can’t be a dog’.

            I don’t have ‘better numbers’ and that is why I’m reluctant to make claims.

            • Actually, Tony, I’m really very certain of these facts, I just don’t have them right in front of me to quote you sources etc. and I will not have the time to do so. That is why I said “to the best of my knowledge.” By your methods, we could never know anything.

              Othodoxy, I’m pretty sure can be best summed up in the creed. If you keep asking questions like this Tony you’re going to get to the point of saying “how can we ever know anything at all?” Why not just skip all the following steps and get straight to the end point. That would be a lot less frustrating, for me at least.

              This is nothing like hard data and illustrates my point graphically.

              I’ve never been to New York, why the hell should I believe it exists?

              It exists. I just don’t have it to hand.

              Which terms were debateable/imprecise? “Orhtodoxy”? I’ve dealt with that, so what were the others?

              I don’t think you want to know anything, to be perfectly blunt. All you ever do is ask questions. The only reason to ask a question is to get an answer.

              • “It exists. I just don’t have it to hand.”

                The hard data, I mean.

              • Tony

                I’m not demanding anything out of the ordinary Louise. You make an assertion that you claim is ‘sure’ and, when asked for indications of that surety, you respond with ‘I’m really certain of these facts’.

                Sorry, that just doesn’t hold water and that observation doesn’t lead to the general conclusion that ‘by my methods we could never know anything’.

                The comparison with ‘New York’ is just silly — you’re not comparing apples with apples. There is nothing ambiguous about what ‘New York’ is. But your definition of what ‘orthodoxy’ is (‘… can be best summed up in the creed’) includes every diocese and bishop in Australia! I challenge you to deny that with any authoritative backing.

                Are you saying, for example, that Adelaide is unorthodox? Our Archbishop is the leader of Bishops in Australia voted (twice) by his peers. Are you suggesting that he doesn’t follow the creed?

                Again, the implied assertion that there is a causal link between ‘orthodoxy’ and seminarian numbers is a house built on sand.

  10. Since this is a Catholic blog, ecumenical but from a Catholic point of view, I should have thought it obvious that church attendance, while certainly not sufficient, is a necessary part of Christian discipleship – “sine Dominico non possumus” and all that. The early Martyrs, peerless examples of true imitators of Christ, witness to this as to much else.

    To go all touchy-feely and shift the goal-posts is to given in cravenly to relativism. One must avoid the temptation to think that “institutional” religion (do I detect a damning-with-faint-praise tone?) is and of itself a bad thing whose time is over, as proved by the large practical apostasy therefrom: it would hardly be sentire cum Ecclesia to think so.

    A much better question, and one I think the last commenters have brought up well, is the great elephant in the room – why is it that now, and indeed for some centuries past, has religious practice and belief in the West been on the wane: is material prosperity per se corrosive of religion? (I believe Our Lord made some pertinent remarks about this…) Perhaps it was foolish of the Church in her new liturgical books to delete the advice “terrena despicere”.

    • Tony

      Joshua,

      I don’t see how you extract from Pere’s post that he thinks attendance is not important. He seems to me to be saying ‘that ain’t all there is’.

      So, for example, if the local Catholic church has 100 regular attendees and, of that number, 10 are committed to more than just attendance and, next door at the local UCA church, there are 50 regular attendees with 49 of them being more committed outside of attendance, does a gross number count really tell the story?

      To go all touchy-feely and shift the goal-posts is to given in cravenly to relativism.

      What ‘goalposts’ have been shifted? Surely to just rely on a simplistic head-count is, in itself, a kind of relativism? And surely this is what Pere is alerting us to?

      A much better question … is … why is it that now, and indeed for some centuries past, has religious practice and belief in the West been on the wane: is material prosperity per se corrosive of religion?

      Just as we must ‘avoid the temptation to think that “institutional” religion is and of itself a bad thing’, we must also avoid uncritically assuming that it is good or that, it in it’s contemporary form, it is even necessary. Jesus also had a bit to ‘say’ about the ‘institutional’ religion of his time and the critique he offered didn’t just apply to his contemporaries.

      • Jesus also had a bit to ’say’ about the ‘institutional’ religion of his time and the critique he offered didn’t just apply to his contemporaries.

        In my experience of the Faith, it’s pretty easy to apply Christ’s denunciations of the Pharisees etc to persons in the Church. As for myself, I take the Lord’s words as a warning for myself not to be suckered into religiosity, as opposed to true religion.

        I think the Lord intended that the Church be institutional, given that He created it with a (fairly flat) hierarchy.

        I don’t really get what you mean by “institutional religion” either. Other people (not necessarily you, Tony) mean it as synonymous with the Catholic Church, or sometimes the Anglican Church. I have never known such an expression to refer to other religions. Or at least, not that I can recall.

        Personally, I could wish that you would be more explicit about where you stand, Tony, after all, you know that some of us are firmly in line with the traditional teaching of the Church.

        The Church is, of course, more than just an institution, it’s an organism – the body of Christ. But I think it’s pretty clear that Christ gave us a Pope and Bishops, even if they didn’t go by those names immediately. He gave them teaching authority and ultimately on this basis alone can we know such doctrines as the Trinity and the Incarnation.

        Sola Ecclesia, after all!

        • Actually, I’d really like to know which particular doctrines of the Church you disagree with and why. I think this could aid the discussion.

          • Tony

            I’d find that difficult to do without taking a few days off work Louise!

            • Why don’t you give it a go, then. Just mention the first one that pops into your head.

              • Tony

                I’ll decline Louise because 1) I simply can’t see how such a tangent would contribute to this subject and 2) It really is a big subject and I wouldn’t tackle it on a blog that’s not mine.

      • Surely to just rely on a simplistic head-count is, in itself, a kind of relativism?

        It does have the advantage of being an actual measurement, however, and therefore a fact.

        • Tony

          That doesn’t preclude it being interpreted in a relativistic way though Louise.

          I’ve seen it used in this way by, for want of better terms, liberals and conservatives alike.

          Numbers are use to bolster an argument (‘most people take no notice of the church’s rules on contraception’ or ‘most people in the US are now ‘pro-life”) and, ironically, lack of numbers are used to bolster an argument (‘the church is not in a popularity contest’ or ‘prophets are not popular’).

  11. Ceteris paribus, if more Catholics went to Mass it would be a good thing – God grant that with such attention to the duty to give worship to God would come all other needful virtues. In this, I am sure P. and you and all would agree.

    My point is that it is silly to make out that Mass attendance is completely irrelevant.

    Of course, mere numbers are not the whole story: the Catholic recusants of England were the faithful remnant, when all others were willy-nilly corralled into the false church of Henry, Edward and Elizabeth under pain of fines, imprisonment and death. Likewise, if all men went heretical, the truth would still be the truth; at Pentecost, all the nascent Church was gathered, at prayer be it noted, in but one room.

    To explain my unease – I really detest sly-sounding attempts to make what Our Lord said of the hypocrites in His days on earth fit His Church now: of course, in her sinful members she bears much criticism, and all infidelity and hypocrisy must be rooted out, but when such criticism turns to deviating from the Deposit of Faith, then reform becomes revolting – in both senses.

    Let your yes be yes and your no be no – if you think the Church has the Faith all wrong, be man and say so.

  12. Peregrinus

    Hi Joshua

    It’s not my intention to “downgrade” church attendance, just to point out that it is chosen for these purposes not for its importance, but for its ease of measurement. And, even in those traditions where it is important, there are many other things which are as important, and maybe more important, so a focus on measuring church attendance alone is distorting.

    For the record, yes, regular eucharistic participation is important in the Catholic tradition, and that appeals to me, and is one of the reasons I am a Catholic. If someone who identifies as a Catholic is not going regularly to mass, something is seriously amiss. But I deny that I am a “good Catholic” simply because I do go regularly to mass, and if I deny that about myself I am certainly not going to assume it of others. Important as mass attendance is, treating it in isolation is at best a very crude measure of the institutional health of Catholicism.

    And, as pointed out, it’s no basis at all for a comparison between a religious tradition, like Catholicism, which treats it as important and one which treats it as relatively less important.

    It’s also an extremely easy figure to misrepresent or misunderstand. I have heard it argued that “traditional Catholicism” (as in, favouring the extraordinary form) is healthy because churches which offer celebrations in the extraordinary form are full. Would that this were true! If it were, we could reinvigorate Catholicism simply by having fewer and smaller churches.

    [i]A much better question, and one I think the last commenters have brought up well, is the great elephant in the room – why is it that now, and indeed for some centuries past, has religious practice and belief in the West been on the wane . . .?[/i]

    The question you raise is an excellent one, but I think some of the assumptions need to be scrutinised. If we’re using church attendance as our measure of “religious practice and belief”, just how much do we know about its waxing and waning over the past centuries? There’s a common, if unstated, assumption that 1950s-style Irish Catholic church attendance rates are the historical norm, but I suspect the truth is that they are closer to being a historical abberration. And what we know of Irish society in the 1950s also suggests we should be wary of taking church attendance rates as necessarily an indicator of a vibrant Catholic life. The truth is that the factors which sustained high church attendances may have had more to do with social expectations and community support than they did with zeal for the Gospel.

    For what it’s worth, I think we have seen a “waning of religious belief and practice” over the past few centuries, if only because the proportion of people who profess atheism, or who profess indifference to all questions of religion, has grown from nearly no-one to a signficant chunk of the population. (Although this, of course, may partly represent greater honesty, as opposed to less belief.) But what we have seen much more of has been a change in religious belief and practice. We’ve had the Reformation, we’ve had the Enlightenment, we’ve had universal literacy, universal primary education and in due course universal secondary education. We’ve had the French revolution, the Great War, the Holocaust and many other momentous historical events. How is religious belief – and, in particular, religious belief, socially expressed – not going to be affected by all this? And I don’t know that it’s going to be particularly useful to examine the growth in atheism/indifference alone, rather that as part of this broader phenomenon.

    • I should think that weekly attendace rates is a pretty handy gauge of health or otherwise of a Church on the whole. It’s a pretty basic indicator of commitment.

      • Peregrinus

        At most, only for churches that require or expect weekly attendance as a mark of commitment. There are many which do not.

        • Maybe they do not strictly require it (although I have never met a committed non-Catholic Christian who thought it was okay for Christians not to go to Church every Sunday – after all, there is a commandment regarding the Lord’s Day). Even if that is the case, though, a person who cannot be stuffed going to Church every Sunday is not *likely* to be very committed to the most basic Christian living.

          • Peregrinus

            There is indeed a commandment regarding honouring the Sabbath, but it doesn’t say that you have to honour the Sabbath by going to church. And, in the Jewish tradition of honouring the Sabbath, synagogue attendance is of minor importance for men and of no importance at all for women.

            In other words, what you are doing here is to take a particular interpretation and application of this commandment, treating it as normative, and then asserting that people who don’t share that interpretation are not “committed to the most basic Christian living”. But this just proves my point that you’ve chosen as your measure of commitment something which is likely to show the tradition you favour a comparatively better light. If you look at the gospel passages in which Jesus is asked about how we should live, or where he spontaneously talks about this subject, weekly church attendance (or synagogue attendance) does not feature at all.

            The truth is that Christians go to church not because the scriptures tell them to, but because they want to, and the regard it as important and beneficial. If you meet a Christian who doesn’t share this view, and sees church attendance as being of lesser importance, you’re perfectly entitled to say “I disagee with you”. But it could come across as arrogant to say that they aren’t committed to “the most basic Christian living” without first taking the trouble to enquire how, and in what way, they manifest their love of God and their neighbour; how do they come to the help of widows and orphans and keep themselves uncontaminated by the world; how do they feed the hungry, heal the sick and visit the imprisoned. If the evidence of scripture is anything to go by, these things are at least as “basic” to Christian living as finding three-quarters of an hour every Sunday morning to go to church.

            • I could be wrong, but I have a very strong suspicion that St Paul would disagree with you.

              • Peregrinus

                If all you can come up with is your own “very strong suspicion”, Louise, aren’t you really confirming my suggestion that the choice of regular church attendance as a measure of commitment appropriate to all religious traditions simply reflects the fact that it’s an appropriate measure of commitment for your preferred religious tradition?

                This is a little like arguing that Christianity must be on its last legs because the great bulk of Christians freely eat pork and shellfish.

                The only way you can measure commitment to any religious tradition is by looking at the behaviour which that religious tradition demands. This means that regular church attendance is only a useful measure and comparator of commitment as between those traditions which place equal stress of the importance of regular church attendance. The fact that you may have a “strong suspicion” that St Paul regarded weekly church attendance as a basic indicator of commitment is unimportant, if other religious traditions do not share this suspicion. (You will realise that for these purposes the issues of whether your strong suspicion is objectively correct is irrelevant; if a particular religious tradition attaches less importance to churchgoing that you do, then churchgoing is not a useful measure of the strength of that tradition.)

  13. FWIW, I would agree that it would be foolish to assume all was right in the ’50’s – after all, look at what came next! – and indeed it seems that much churchgoing was but keeping up appearances, rather than deep commitment, given how it was soon enough dropt.

    I will also admit that Trad Mass circles tend to be rather on the small side…

    Certainly, I, too, would hate anyone to think I was a “good Catholic” for going to church: no, I’m a sinner, much in need of all the help I can get – that’s one big reason why I go to church (though I hope that love of God comes first as my motive).

    As a wise Dominican told me, If you lose your Faith, the last thing you should do is stop saying your prayers and going to church – that’s when you need to pray and go to Mass!

    Another thing I learned from the O.P.’s: apparently, someone did a survey estimating the French population in the 13th C., and, from records and surviving church buildings, worked out the approximate capacity of the churches then: he came up with the surprising answer (which was also true in Protestant London in Christopher Wren’s time and later) that attendance at church must have been very low, low as in at modern levels, because there would not have been room for the people to fit otherwise…

    Chrysostom and others regularly berated their congregations for being lax, tardy, and unfrequent in receiving the Sacraments. It is perhaps not too jaundiced to repeat that the Church of the Martyrs was more fervent than the Great Church when all came in after the Empire went Christian…

    Indeed, the smaller the group, the more likely the members are to assemble and worship – the opposite also being true…

    However, on to my own question!

    There have been all manner of terrible events in history: the Thirty Years’ War in Germany was certainly comparable to WWI and WWII in ferocity and loss of life, for example.

    Yes, growth in what was once extremely rare – atheism – is of especial interest (though I observe a private atheism combined with fulfilment of superstition and public cult was common in the Roman Empire). It is, after all, still very rare in the majority of the world.

    Why should education make atheists? Perhaps it is the inculcation of scepticism since the Enlightenment (I term I detest) that is at fault.

  14. I also recall from somewhere the way the first missionaries to some parts of Brazil were utterly stumped when faced with tribes who were practically atheist – the very idea was completely astonishing to their would-be evangelists!

    I have only read reference to this, but it is the only case I’m aware of that speaks of an ancient culture that is not explicitly religious.

    Did anyone see the ABC report on reincarnate lamas in Bhutan last night? I have a soft spot for Buddhism, strangely enough. It struck me that, mutatis mutandis, the high rates of religious practice were comparable to England five centuries ago – replacing the prayer wheels and meditation rituals with Rosaries and Masses. What is odd today is that the West is NOT like Bhutan.

    Perhaps societal cultural dislocation is to blame… what the French call anomie.

    Ideas?

  15. Peregrinus

    Hi Joshua

    I don’t think education does necessarily promote atheism. What it can do is to undermine superstitious or simplistic religious faith, and if people don’t move on to a more credible and adult faith then there’s a “gap in the market”, so to speak, which atheism and indifference can fill. Think of all the atheists you know whose concept of the religion they are rejecting is an essentially childish one.

    But there may be another mechanism at work also. What education – along with other trends which tend to reduce social inequality – can do is to promote personal independence, and reduce deference, and this can make people more willing to explore thoughts or ideas which go against what is handed to them, and/or more willing to be open about there doubts concerning, or rejection of, received wisdom or conventional beliefs or attitudes.

    In other words, atheism, agnosticism and heresy may in the past have been “masked” by social pressures which lead people to display or express conformity, or at least to refrain from expressing nonconformity. Education may have played a part in reducing these pressures, and so opening up the expression and exploration of nonconforming religious ideas, including atheism.

    On a quite separate note, I’m curious about your “missionaries to Brazil’ story. I’ve always thought that there are basically no atheistic societies; that theism in some form is the natural condition of humanity. I can’t avoid the suspicion that the tribal societies these missionaries encountered weren’t so much atheist as religious in ways that the missionaries didn’t see, or didn’t understand. But I confess that that;s my prejudices speaking, not the actual evidence.

  16. Your point about atheists not knowing what they’re missing is very true – on a parallel, it is painful seeing how the media reports on religious affairs with a slipshod ignorance that would never be tolerated in sports journalism.

    I suspect much trendy stuff in education about facilitating learning is actually encouraging people to be sceptical and engage only a hermeneutic of suspicion. But you are quite right to say that the pressures, good and bad, to conform are less and less persuasive, and so there is more freedom (and licence) today than earlier.

    (May I rant a moment? It amuses me how Aboriginal sacred sites and Buddhist lamas are spoken of in the media in solemn unquestioning tones, never hinting for a moment that such beliefs are not necessarily true, but Christianity is mocked and the Church held up for condemnation, if necessary by getting some tame dissenter to make sanctimonious criticisms. Rant over!)

    Yes, like you I was surprised by that tale of the Brazilian indigenes, but, given that any missionary worth their salt enquired into whatever preexisting beliefs were held by the people they sought out, if only to debunk them, it seems strange but possible there really was no religion much among them.

    (I recall the tale of an intrepid seventeenth or eighteenth century Jesuit who made it to Tibet, was granted his cell and even a chapel in one of the famous monasteries there, spent years learning classical Tibetan and mastering Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, then writing a scholarly confutation of Buddhism, and presenting it to the assembled monks, who complimented him on his prodigious learning while politely rejecting his tome as opposed to the Lord Buddha – whereupon he thanked them and departed for India.)

  17. Here’s a reference to one practically atheistic tribe:

    http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20090412-ENTERTAIN-904120305

    (I had in mind native Brazilians on the Atlantic coast, whom the early Franciscans attempted to convert, however.)

    • Peregrinus

      They’re not “practically atheistic”; according to the article “Spirits live everywhere and may even caution or lecture them at times”, and indeed “these spirits are visible to the Pirahãs”.

      The fact that they don’t have a creation myth is interesting. Creation myths are very common, but they are sometimes lacking in cultures which have no sense of history, in the sense of the progress or direction of events. From the article, the Pirahãs live very much in the moment. I would guess their sense of history is of a series of infinitely repeating and overlapping cycles – the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of the generations, the cycle of the day, and so forth. But if these cycles are seen as continuing infinitely – and why should they not be? – then there is no need for a creation myth, because there is no concept of creation. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t religious.

      Likewise the article tries to suggest that the Pirahã have no rituals associated with death, but they clearly do – the bury their dead as opposed to burning them, mummifying them or leaving them for scavengers.

      The western mind – and perhaps particularly the secular western mind – assumes that religion is an attempt to account for human origins, and/or an attempt to deal with the harshness of life by focussing on an afterlife. If they don’t find these things, they don’t see religion. But maybe that tells us more about the western mind than it does about the nature of religion. The Pirahãs clearly have supernatural beliefs, involving sentient beings in the form of spirits with whom it is possible to have a personal relationship. How is that not religion?

  18. This is in reply to Tony somewhere further up the chain.

    I’m happy to go hunt *everything* down (eventually) Tony, but there’s no way I’ll do it if you’re not going to be persuaded by *any* argument I put out there. If I could show you that there is a strong link between orthodoxy and increases in seminarians, would you be happy to accept that at least, or not? Basically, I can’t be bothered engaging in any discussion where someone is determined not to give any credence to anything I say, and I find far too much of that on the ‘net.

    As for +Wilson: I lived for 5 years in Adelaide and I was always rather impressed by the Archbishop. I have no reason to believe he is not orthodox in his belief. However, I know a young man who is now with the Franciscans who went to the Vocations Office in Adelaide when he first began to discern his call to the priesthood. They would meet monthly or so and sit around being invited by the “facilitator” (or whoever it was) to contemplate cushions and other such drivel. So, while I have no quarrel myself with the Archbishop, it may be the case that he needs to stick a bomb under the Vocations Office.

    I’ll say this, Tony, the dissenters in the Church have been running it here in Tasmania for decades now. I think that’s largely true in most of the rest of Oz. Things have become far worse under their “care” and in any case, they are hardly Catholic in their belief, so it’s not only about numbers. I think it’s bad that so few Catholics even just come to Mass on Sundays, but a Church full of dissenters would not be any better IMO.

    “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” seems to be the bit many bishops have trouble with. I guess they nuance it.

    • Tony

      It’s frustrating for me too Louise. I seems your not grasping the fundamental point I’m making (and, I think, Pere has made).

      To have meaninful, objective ‘facts’ come out of statistics — to know anything — you have to have agreed terms.

      If you assert that there’s a causal relationship between the ‘orthodoxy’ of a Bishop and the number of seminarians in his dio, the first and most important thing you have to do is describe and justify what you mean by orthodoxy.

      To my understanding for such a term to have any more meaning than the political bias of the user, you’d have to cite something official. Again, I challenge you to justify the notion that any bishop in Australia not orthodox.

      If you can’t do that fundamental thing, your statistics too easily fall into the trap of being, as Pere described, ‘wish fulfillment’.

      If, for example, I asserted that 90% of those in seminaries at the moment were so fundamentalist and right wing that they’ll end up driving away more people not attracting more, you’d rightly question me on my numbers but, more importantly, I’d suggest, you’d want to challenge me on my terms.

      If I then responded with ‘I’m almost certain of my figures’ and if you don’t believe that you can’t know anything, you’d be a little miffed.

      Even in the example of AB Wilson, you dodge saying he is unorthodox which, according to your original assertion would explain the low numbers in Adelaide, and suggest (one the basis of one story!) that the vocations office needs a bomb under it.

      In other words in the first real example I bring up, ‘orthodoxy’ is apparently not the problem. Could this be the same in other dios? Could there be other factors besides the arbitrary disignation of ‘orthodoxy’ that influences sem numbers?

  19. Matthias

    Joshua like you I think it hypocritical that Buddhism and Aboriginal sacred sites and the Rainbow serpent myth are spoken with great solemnity in the media,whilst Judaeo-Christian faith is treated with disdain. and with the gay and lesbian arguments within the Anglican Church we see how the theological liberals treat Scripture with the same disdain.
    Pereginus i was an Elder in the UCA and i can recall discussions on Parish Council and in regional presbytery ( like diocese) which expressed concern as to the numbers in the UCA by 2020. A lot was based upon demographics-the ageing membership ,which is also seen in the anglican church ,but also upon people disagreeing with the theological position around the ordination of gay clergy

    • Peregrinus

      Hi Matthias

      You’ll obviously know a great deal more about the UCA than I do, but I’ve always understood that for both historical and theological reason (a)it embraces quite a degree of diversity between different congregations, and (b) authority is quite decentralised, with each congregation enjoying a much greater degree of self-determination than would be found among the Catholics or the Anglicans. So, for instance, if a congregation did not favour gay clergy (or, for that matter, women clergy), they would always have the right not to appoint a gay or female cleric. Other congregations might do so, but that was there affair; participating in the same church organisation as those other congregations did not imply sharing their views or practices on every matter and particularly not on this one. Have I got that right?

      The other thing you might be able to cast some light on; to the extent that people left because they didn’t like, e.g., the acceptance of gay clergy, was there any sense of where they were going? Did they tend to go to other, less liberal, Protestant congregations, or did they cease to practice entirely?

  20. Matthias

    Those who left were going to either the Presbyterian churches nearby,Low Church Anglicans or even to Baptists. some have gone to “evangelical ‘ congregations of the UCA