Articles of Faith

Faith, doubt and the pandemic: a sermon

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Faith, doubt and the pandemic: a sermon

(Alamy)

The Prime Minister Arthur Balfour once wrote an essay called A Defence of Philosophic Doubt. This is an address in defence of religious doubt.

The most precious things in life, it is often said, cannot be pursued directly. Sleep is an example. Nothing is better than a good night’s sleep, but how pointless it is to seek it. The more we try to get to sleep, the more it eludes us. It comes of its own accord, when we are no longer trying. Happiness is the same. The pursuit of happiness may have been one of the “unalienable rights” identified by the American founding fathers, but many wise men have thought that happiness is something that can never be won through a direct quest. It is experienced, if at all, almost by accident, out of the corner of an eye. Perhaps faith too is like that for some people – those many who do not have the degree of faith described and encouraged by St Paul, and apparently possessed by some Christians today. 

No one can dispute that the Church of England has had a miserable 18 months. So many articles have been written to this effect in the thoughtful press that the diagnosis has become a cliché. It is therefore unnecessary to spend much time contemplating last year’s nonsense of priests barred from their own churches, the Primate’s decision to broadcast the Easter 2020 sermon from a domestic setting in Lambeth, the obsession with paperwork and risk assessments exhibited by clergy across the country when some form of worship finally was permitted, all instead of doing what the church should – providing an available, sympathetic setting for the Christian soul’s search for God. 

More substantially, it is hard not to despair at the absolute failure of the church’s leaders to rise to the occasion of an international plague – something for which the Book of Job and the Cranmer prayer book had explicitly equipped them, had they but noticed. What is one to say, moreover, of the imposition of cuts to the church’s traditional role within parishes, so that lay people are increasingly left to conduct services for themselves, while their leaders instead pursue what the mainstream magazine Faith and Worship calls the “delusional fantasy” of 10,000 new, online churches? How can we contemplate except with disbelief (an apt word) the latest stage in the church’s spiral of self-harm: its embrace of black theology, which (for those who have not heard of it) seeks to reinterpret the entirety of Christian theology developed over the last 1,700 years through the prism of critical race theory and the injustices perpetrated by Anglo-American slavery (and no other sort)?

Although many commentators have eloquently charted this dismal trajectory within the Church of England, fewer have asked why it has come about. How is it that this national treasure, with so many advantages still at its disposal – buildings, history, music, liturgy of the era and quality of Shakespeare –squanders its inheritance so recklessly, doubling down every few years, chasing diminishing congregations with ever more prosaic and uninspiring forms of worship, apparently oblivious of the fact that congregations diminish precisely because church-goers do not want their clergy to be amateur pundits, social scientists or stand-up comedians manqués, but men and women who look the joys and griefs of our ephemeral existence in the face, and offer a sacred, religious dimension to them – priests who draw us up towards meaning, and who do not themselves descend to the lowest common banality.

One possible reason for this institutional failure is an issue of faith itself. It goes back many years before our present difficulties with Covid, though the virus has laid it bare. The ultimate questions of faith are: what do we believe and how do we believe it? Some within the Anglican church know the answer to these questions, but its leaders no longer seem to care about or make room for Christians who are not sure what those answers are. Is this second class of churchgoer an inferior species? Is religious doubt (for that is what it is) necessarily a falling short, a failure of faith? Or might doubt be an inevitable concomitant of real, mature faith, so that to doubt is an intrinsic part of what it means to believe – to be a Christian? If that is so, the church ought to take better care of its doubters.

By contrast with Anglicans, Roman Catholics are invited to accept the authority of a mother Church of venerable antiquity, to believe an article of doctrine because they are instructed to do so by older and wiser heads than their own. There is a lot to be said for this approach, but obedience is an unfashionable concept in 2021, and anyway the Church of England derives historically from a primal act of dis-obedience, so it is in no position to exact unquestioning submission to authority. 

Instead, within the Anglican church a particular way of thinking has come to dominate. It is one that appears barely to accommodate doubt. Over the last half-century, there has developed an Evangelical form of belief which has been so successful (only relatively, of course) that it is in danger of eclipsing other Anglican traditions. This form of faith is often identified with Holy Trinity, Brompton, but has spread to all parts of the country, aided by the Alpha course, which originated with and has been expanded by clergy at Holy Trinity. Although the course is by no means to all Christians’ taste (one commentator observes that the course leads people into a self-centred religion which is not the same as the genuine Christian discipleship”), many of those who have completed it reserve the title of Christians” exclusively for like-minded believers. The rest of us are apparently something else.

Evangelicals believe, with the zeal of the converts which they often are, that they are born again into a personal relation with Jesus; that the New Testament is the word of God, not man; that every word of the Bible is literally true, and it alone provides the answers to life’s problems. All this assumes the validity of the very proposition which doubters regard as open to the question: how far can we trust the Bible? For the Evangelical, modern textual scholarship, which is legitimately brought to bear on all other historical documents, is not to be applied to the Gospels; they are sacrosanct. Those who think otherwise – including other forms of Christian profession, let alone followers of other religions – are in grave error, and only the infinite mercy of God might save them from an eternity spent in agonising separation from Him. What Luther called justification by faith is thus turned on its head, and anyone with a non-compliant, i.e. non-fundamentalist faith, turns out to be in mortal danger. 

One should not presume to denigrate any form of Christian belief, let alone a comparatively popular one; but there are others within the church who, though they recite the Nicene Creed in good faith, find it difficult to believe in the literal truth of what the White Queen calls six impossible things before breakfast”. By contrast, it is unusual to meet an Evangelical who admits to doubts at all. Is freedom from doubt, then, a strength or a weakness? What labels do we attach to Muslims who have no doubts that they alone are right? Are Christians of this conviction any different? If so, why? The only answer offered by the Evangelical is that Christians are just right, and Moslems are just wrong, a stance that is grist to the militant atheist mill, and which is also repulsive to those whose thinking is naturally pluralist and syncretic. 

One reason why the Church of England has failed to rise to the occasion of the Covid pandemic is that Evangelical thinking has become so prevalent in its upper reaches (including the present Archbishop of Canterbury) that its leaders have almost forgotten any other type of faith, and the need to protect it. One of the enviable aspects of an undoubting faith is that the message is all that matters. It does not signify how that message is conveyed or by what acts of worship it is accompanied. If all that concerns you is the calorific value of what you eat, it does not matter what it tastes like, or where or with whom you consume it. On this view, the good news of the New Testament is sufficient nourishment, whether delivered from a cathedral or a kitchen, whether in the timeless rhythms of the Prayer Book or in the dreary cadences of the management consultant. Indeed, worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness may on this view be a positive distraction from the core message, seducing Christians into focusing on the wrong things – sublime architecture, the emotions stirred by music, the sensual appeal of great language.

People with certainty are perhaps to be admired, but they are not everyone. They are not even all priests. Many vicars who do not embrace the Evangelical way understandably quail at the difficult task of persuading a generally sceptical population that God exists, and that a perfect expression of God’s nature is in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ, by whose example we would do well to order our lives. 

If the claims of Christianity are true, can they only be true in a rigidly literal sense, or might they be true in some other and if so what way?  What does it mean to believe in the truths of the Creed? Is it like believing that 2+2=4, or that evolution by natural selection explains how we got here? Or is it different? Must Christian belief entail a rejection of other faiths, or can they co-exist, like different prospects of the same mountain? It sometimes feels as if many among the Anglican clergy would rather not face up to these questions, even though they are basic to religion. So they address easier questions instead – important questions of course, but on which they have no more authority than the next person: the desirability of peace abroad or social justice at home. Such homilies can of course be as easily delivered online as in an expensive church with a leaking roof. Yet many people attend church because they want to enter a sacred space where under the guidance of a spiritual authority they can develop a closer understanding of God through Jesus, not because they want a resumé of the week’s news that may as well be broadcast on Zoom, from someone who happens to be wearing priestly vestments.

There is, in other words, another sort of faith. It may not be as robustly held as the Evangelical certainties, or as glib as a pulpit denunciation of government policy. It is the faith that longs for God, rather as one may long for sleep or happiness. A faith that pursues God indirectly. A faith that recognizes that there is, in the medieval phrase, a cloud of unknowing between God and man – a faith that means something quite different from certainty. Many even in the clergy have had this sort of faith; it is nothing to be embarrassed about. The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas talked about “this great absence/that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope/of a reply”. Seen in these terms, the God of the New Testament is sometimes felt, glimpsed, seen “through a glass darkly”. This is not the perfect faith of the martyrs, but it is still faith. 

The Church of England needs to maintain a home which accommodates the many people for whom this faith is all that they have. For these Christians, yet another streamed broadcast is not enough. There have to be physical services, beautiful buildings, holy places where, in TS Eliot’s phrase, “prayer has been valid”, old stones, faded hassocks impressed by the knees of previous generations of worshippers, sunlight through stained glass, gilded candle-sticks, a community of fellow churchgoers, a liturgy that both binds them to the past and provides a special language in which to address God, flowers to glorify creation, music to make the soul soar heavenward, the practice of a religion rooted in tradition and continuity. 

This is the fertile ground in which the faith which comprises doubt can grow, through what St Augustine called the habit of religion. There is no evidence that current church leaders know more about the Christian faith than the long line of their predecessors. Nor have the authorities any right to close off these age-hallowed paths along which people make their own halting, oblique progress towards deeper faith. For them, the truths of the New Testament are not prosaic facts, but mysteries. Christianity in its early centuries was a mystic religion, and its mysteries were central to the teaching of the early Christian fathers, though one is unlikely nowadays to hear them preached or confronted from the pulpits of Evangelical churches. Indeed, that mystic character has generally been lost, as Anglicanism now finds itself (where it exists at all) suffused by “the light of common day”. Yet how much truth has been obscured by this apparent process of illumination. 

It is the essence of mysteries that the truth is hidden. The doubting Christian therefore prays for revelation but knows that one can only travel hopefully in this life. To quote Eliot again: “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting”. For this reason, the most compelling prayer in the New Testament is also one of the shortest: it is that of the suffering father in St Mark’s Gospel, who cries “Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief”. How good it would be if the Church of England turned some of its attention to helping our unbelief.

This article is based on a sermon delivered by the writer at a Mattins service at Pentridge, Dorset last month. He has explored issues of faith and doubt in greater depth here .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 81%
  • Interesting points: 86%
  • Agree with arguments: 73%
39 ratings - view all

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