Steve Holmes, inimitable Facebook theologian in residence (steverholmes.org.uk) pointed me yesterday to Callum Brown’s fascinating book The Death of Christian Britain. First published in 2002 and re-issued in 2009, Brown’s exploration of secularism focuses on the UK, but has resonance for the wider European scene. Himself a non-believer, Brown rejects the received idea that the decline of Christian belief in the UK is the result of 150 years or more of growing secularisation. Rather, he suggest, the church remained a relatively potent cultural force right up to the 1950’s, and lost ground VERY fast from the 1960’s onwards. The cause of this accelerated decline was not simply the decision ‘not to attend’. It was the failure of the Christian worldview to adapt to the cultural changes that the 1960’s brought.
Even working from anecdotal evidence, I think there is a lot to commend Brown’s view. For me it makes some sense of the incredible distance that has grown up in recent years between the church and the rising generation of European adults. Post-modern culture - essentially the consolidation of the very changes to which Brown refers - simply has no place for the Christian faith as it has traditionally been expressed.
Brown goes further still, though, in his analysis. He suggests that the change most responsible for the church’s loss of ground is the liberation and empowerment of women. Women, in Brown’s view, held the church together until the 1950’s. The dominant faith-model was a feminine model. But it was a conservative femininity, in-tune with an old-time emphasis on restricted domesticity, sexuality and activity. There was no faith-model for the newly liberated woman.
Is Brown right? I think he might well be, and I want to suggest that if he is, we have some thinking to do. Two key implications, for me, flow out from his view. These are my thoughts not his, but I think they follow.
The first is this. If the church had been able more quickly to adopt a positive view of female empowerment, and to articulate a feminine spirituality that took account of the new opportunities being offered to women, it might just have held on for longer to the centre-ground of culture. We were, we are, slow to adapt. The fact that feminine empowerment is even still a debate in our churches shows just how slow we are.
The second implication follows from this: the only church that can hope to regain ground in Europe will be a church that champions the empowerment of women. Is empowered feminine spirituality a key to the renewal of Europe? If it is, what are we doing about it? Might Justin Welby’s determination to press on in the release of women to his church’s highest offices turn out to be his most important contribution to revival?
If it is true that empowered femininity is crucial to our future, some of us might need to reconsider our attempts to re-invigorate male headship. Quite apart from whether is is theologically credible, it may well be historically disastrous. Instead, all those committed to the renewal of Europe’s churches should perhaps throw themselves, fully and without reserve, into the effort to free and empower women. Perhaps more, into the effort to make the church an environment in which empowered femininity can thrive.
On International Women’s Day, could there be a more urgent need?
For my own part, I can thank Chrissie Kelly, Jenny Baker, Christine Noble, Anna White, Wendy Beech-ward, Vicky Beeching, Bex Long and a thousand unnamed others for teaching me that empowered femininity is a key to renewal. I join you in praying that the whole church follows where you lead, and wins back the wounded soul of Europe.