by the Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, Trustee of the Ozanne Foundation and Member of General Synod
I felt as if I’d been seriously told off by Jesus. A couple of weeks ago a verse from the gospel reading jumped out at me: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12: 56
Of course, it’s true!
Time and time again we try to get our message across by trying harder and expecting a different outcome. We find it so very hard to believe that the world has changed, so now there is a burning platform. You’ll have seen the stats -published 4 months ago by the National Centre for Social Research –that in 2018 2% of 18-24 year olds identified as Anglican, and only 1% indicating they belonged to a church.
If we are genuine about our longing to communicate our story – the story of the love of God which can change people and bring life and hope and joy to all humanity – we have got to get our heads round this fact:
No one wants what we are offering any more.
We are trying to say things in a way that people can’t, not won’t, but can’t hear.
History shows that in the end the Church is able to adapt, but as we move into the “Quantum Era” we are really struggling.
Most Christians of my generation have deep roots in the Enlightenment. It was a time when everything was either known, or not yet known. Newton’s laws gave us the world as mathematically quantifiable. The printing press eventually led us out of feudalism and towards democracy and capitalism and the Church thrived in this linear, measurable world view. Things were either right or wrong. Our religion became solid, precise, and mechanical. Scouring the scriptures, we came up with a clearly articulated, highly understandable belief system. We determined all the right doctrines, systematized them in books.
We figured out a proper doctrine for God, Jesus, human nature, sin, redemption, and the afterlife. We perfectly mirrored the culture. We became steeped in certitude; confident we had the right doctrines. The culture was looking for dependable answers to spiritual questions, and we had answers aplenty. These are the roots of that confident phrase we still hear today: ‘The Bible clearly says.’ The Alpha Course is the epitome of this way.
But physics has moved on. At the beginning of last century we discovered that stuff we though was solid, wasn’t at all. The table I’m working at looks firm enough, but it is actually made up of empty space and electrical charges. Einstein and then Heisenberg showed how little, not how much we know.
The world is working out what this means. Certainty is giving way to mystery. Power is fragmented, and as for ‘truth’ – well, who knows?
This could be such a wonderful opportunity. We surely secretly knew that it was foolish to be certain about God. We could inhabit this world so much better with a focus on what really matters: consciousness, mystery, empathy, purpose, creativity, love, God.
Non-religious people see this better than us.
There is a new play on at the Soho Theatre in London by David Baddiel. Called “God’s Dice” it explores this quantum era in terms of religious faith. Baddiel doesn’t have an ounce of traditional faith. ‘I think I’m more of an atheist than Richard Dawkins’ he says, but he is very interested in the human need for religion describing it this way: ‘the beauty and poetry and magic and morality and the theatre indeed of religion.’
In his play the protagonist’s ‘proof’ of God’s existence comes from depicting Jesus’ miracles as scientific equations. Done in this way – as equations – Jesus’ miracles go from being impossible to merely very, very, very unlikely.
Here’s the rub: if you are doing quantum physics you are also studying the very, very, very unlikely. How can one electron be in two places at once as quantum physics seems to suggest? Is that solid science, or does it require the same leap of faith as religion requires?
In other words – It’s a mystery, but it’s real!
When something goes viral through the power of new media there seem to be two features common to many ideas. The first is that they tend to touch people’s hearts more than their reason. Remember: That elusive truth now resides in emotion not fact. The second is that life on the internet is egalitarian – the powerless can feel empowered. A shepherd on a hillside in a third world country can now be part of a world-wide movement.
These are both areas where the Church is weak. Locked into a way of thinking about communicating faith that is linear.
An example? Well in my Diocese, Oxford, the number of confirmations has fallen off a cliff. Lots of soul searching later, the answer from the top is that we must revive the tradition of catechism and teach people better. We suppose that imparting our truth systematically as a series of ideas cannot fail to convince people. There is a concept called ‘lock-in’, where it is almost impossible to change perspective – which seems to apply here.
We are also obviously horrendously weak on equality. Women, BAME, LGBT, those with disabilities. We can’t seem to understand that these are issues that really matter to people. They don’t simply disagree, they are disgusted.
But it could be so different because our faith is about the heart. Our faith is about equality, equity.
A few days ago, Jayne Ozanne was the subject of an unpleasant piece in which she was called a “Notorious Anglican Lesbian Activist”. Instead of getting upset, or arguing, she embraced it with a sense of fun and now there are NALA badges and T-Shirts. It gave me a little glimpse in to how the Church is just as fragmented as the rest of the world and that trading clobber texts the way my parents did simply makes no sense anymore.
We need to occupy the space with creativity and learn to see the quantum age as bursting with energy where God reveals the full glory of mystery, uncertainty and diversity.