October 29, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
And it’s Thursday, October 29, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Secular Britain sees future for churches, but not religion, in its society
We’ve been tracing and tracking the effects and the causes of secularization, especially looking at strategic parts of the globe like Europe. One of the most interesting nations to watch in terms of this pattern is the nation of Great Britain and as Simon Jenkins reports in The Guardian this week,Show Full Transcript
“England’s churches can survive – but the religion will have to go.”
That’s one of those headlines that indicates something of the direction of the thinking of our age. Because here you have a distinction between the church and religion, as if the church can survive, but religion will have to go. A closer look at the article reveals that when Simon Jenkins is talking about the church, he’s not talking about an institution, he’s not talking about a people, he’s talking about a building and what he’s talking about is the fact that England’s churches represent a very important part of the National Heritage. He’s arguing that those parts of the heritage that are represented by the spires and towers of Britain’s churches, they should be maintained and they should survive. But as he points out, they’re not going to survive as houses of faith.
In his article, Jenkins writes,
“The buildings are beautiful, but too many remain empty. They will regain their focus only if they convert to a communal role.”
Now this is a very interesting public debate that’s ongoing in Britain right now, because it comes down to matters of history and heritage and also of economics. Because you’re looking at the fact that these massive church buildings in the United Kingdom, many of them now centuries and centuries old, even as they are architectural gems they are very expensive to maintain and it is increasingly clear that as diminishing percentages of Britain’s go to church and as Christianity disappears as a living faith in that nation, the churches are there to remain as a mute testimony of what once had been, and there is an ongoing political controversy in Britain as to whether or not a nation that after all, has limited funds should be spending those funds politically speaking, in terms of preserving those buildings. Simon Jenkins writing from the secular left says that there is a good argument to be made for perpetuating the buildings. He says,
“England’s biggest, most plentiful, most beautiful buildings are its churches. They are also its emptiest.”
He goes on to say,
“There are some 16,000 churches in total [and again he means building], and every now and then their owner and janitor, the Church of England, utters a howl of pain.”
Very interesting statement in of itself, this appears in The Guardian, a London newspaper. Jenkins goes on to say,
“This month a church report points out that more than a quarter of churches have fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday – fewer than 10 in rural areas. Help, it cries [meaning the Church of England], opening its mind (at last) to a future for local churches as everything from farmers’ markets to digital hubs, and even to [entertainment centers including pubs].”
Now what makes this interesting is, as we have discussed even recently on The Briefing, you have the Church of England looking at the fact that many of its church buildings are now effectively empty and there is no reason whatsoever for anyone to expect or to predict that people will once again be in those churches for Christian worship. So the big question is, what do you do with them? There is by any measure an immense architectural investment and in heritage in these British churches. As a matter of fact, you’re looking at 16,000 buildings and the amazing thing is how many of them actually are judged to have enduring architectural and historical significance. Many of these churches have been standing at the center of their communities and villages for centuries, indeed, for over a millennium. Many of these church buildings themselves go back to the very earliest years of the Christian witness there in Great Britain. You also have to look at the fact that many of these buildings are now left as mute and empty testimonies to a faith that once was, that once shaped the entire civilization.
William Manchester, a very important historian of the era, in his book A World Lit Only by Fire points out that in the medieval world you recognized you were coming out of the forest into civilization or you look at the distance and you were able to identify civilization itself by the presence of a church spire. That church spire, whether it was a tower or a steeple was a testimony visible even at a distance of the fact that a city was there or a village was there and that village or city was determined more than anything else by the presence of the church at its center and the church at its center was a testimony of the fact that the Christian faith was central to the society. But now it is no longer and these churches are now standing at the center of where the cities once began, but they are empty, increasingly empty and there is no reason as this report from the Church of England indicates to believe that they’re going to be people in them once again.
Now, from a Christian worldview perspective, we have to recognize that what departed before the people, by and large is the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The loss of a compelling understanding of the truthfulness of Christianity and the power of the gospel, and the authority of Christian truth, those were abandoned only to find out that people didn’t stay once Christianity had been redefined in an exceedingly secular and liberal direction. In his article, Simon Jenkins says,
“The essence of most churches is their beauty and physical prominence. They are the physical embodiment of local England and should recover their status as the community’s social and cultural focus. This will never happen while they retain their aura of religious exclusivity.”
Very interesting. Here you have Simon Jenkins arguing that what these church buildings should now become are community assets, but he says the only way they can actually once again be the center of community life in an increasingly secular Britain is, if they lose, forfeit and deny their Christian heritage altogether. This is one of the most interesting things in this entire picture, because so many these buildings have built right into their architecture, into their windows, into their stonework and tracery, visible Christian symbols that are impossible to ignore. So even if the Christian faith is not being taught from the pulpits of these now mute churches. The fact is that the stained-glass that the very architecture of the buildings cries out certain Christian truth claims and present certain Christian symbols that a secular world in spite of its secularism cannot ignore. There was a recent article indicating the awkwardness of turning some of these ancient church buildings into entertainment centers, when after all, it was hard to have certain forms of modern entertainment taking place with the background of the Christian symbolism or even explicitly Christian testimony in the form of stained-glass. But this article also points to something else and that is that in a secularizing society the empty church is not enough.
As Simon Jenkins makes explicit in his article, the demand is now being made that these empty churches be stripped of their Christian symbolism, that they be cut off from the Christian truth claims, and from the Christian church that had built them, that the embarrassment of the testimony of this Christian tradition be erased so that there is no contemporary awkwardness and no limitation to the communal reality that Simon Jenkins wants to take place within these now abandoned buildings. The most important thing for biblically minded Christians to remember is that the departure from the faith precedes the emptiness of most of these buildings and we also need to recognize that the emptiness of the buildings is not enough for an increasingly secular society that wants now to be rid of even ancient symbols that remind them of the Christian truth claims and traditions that have now been left very much in the past.
What’s basically being called for in this article is a religious cleansing of Great Britain from the Christian symbols that are embedded in these ancient buildings and yet you also have here demonstrated the fatal conceit of a liberal secular culture. It wants the ancient architecture without the meaning that produced that architecture. It wants the aesthetic experience without the truth that undergirded that aesthetic expression. It’s extremely sad to find that kind of demand coming from a secular society, sad but understandable. What’s far less understandable is the fact that there are some churches and denominations that seem to be running headlong to try to meet this very demand.
Church buildings less popular wedding venue due to America's growing unbelief
Well, that was Great Britain, here’s a story from the United States. Yahoo News reports with Dan Cox writing,
“The summer wedding season is over, but the fall season is in full swing — it’s a little-known fact that after June, October is the most popular month for weddings. But as couples prepare to exchange vows in front of friends and family, many of them are headed someplace other than a chapel.”
“Of the many ways the typical American wedding has changed over the years, perhaps the most dramatic is the venue.”
Here again, a very revealing story not across the pond as they say in Great Britain, but right here in United States, where as Cox reports, one of the biggest changes in how weddings take place in the United States is the change of venue and what does that mean? It means outside of a church building. He goes on to write,
“Today’s couples are forgoing the traditional church setting in favor of rustic barns, high-end hotels or the county courthouse. A recent New York Times article noted that since 2008, there has been a nearly 50 percent increase in weddings held at the city clerk’s Manhattan marriage bureau. Given the uncertain economic terrain many young couples are navigating and the ever-skyrocketing costs of a ceremony and reception (the average cost of a wedding in 2014 was more than $30,000), the shift to more modest venues might not be surprising.”
Now before we leave that paragraph entirely, embedded within it is what’s known as a non sequitur that is a turn in the argument in which one thing doesn’t follow the other. There is no obvious explanation why moving out of churches is for any kind of economic concern, because the very venues that this reporter indicates as the new alternatives are almost certainly more expensive than the church buildings they have replaced. Dan Cox is surely on firmer ground when he writes,
“An abundance of nonreligious wedding venues may also appeal to young couples who believe the event should be a reflection of their tastes and interests, much like their curated social media lives. Why settle for your childhood church when you could say “I do” in an art gallery or at a craft brewery?
“There is evidence, however, that more than pragmatic or aesthetic concerns are in play for many young couples. The rise in courthouse weddings is one clue that something more fundamental has shifted in the religious landscape.”
And I said, as he continues in his article he moves to firmer ground. The firmer ground is the acknowledgment that this isn’t just an aesthetic choice, and certainly is not just an economic choice. What we’re looking at is the fact that there is a major shift in how weddings are conceived and that major shift reflects an underlying change and that change once again, is secularization. The fact that increasing numbers of young Americans, one out of three we’re now told in most recent pew survey, identifies religious nones having no religious affiliation whatsoever. And as this article makes clear, this becomes evidence in itself of why we should note the movement of so many weddings outside of church buildings. As it turns out the numbers are even more striking than I had imagined. He writes,
“Only 39 percent of married young adults (ages 18 to 29) report that their weddings took place in a church or other place of worship and were administered by a religious leader.”
That’s really interesting. That’s 39 percent. That means that at least by this measure 61 percent of all weddings reported amongst younger Americans took place outside of a church building and they were officiated by someone other than a religious leader. That’s compared to two thirds, 65 percent of weddings that took place among those who are now senior adults ages 65 and older, that is to say, 65 percent of the weddings of those now age 65 and older took place in a church building and were presided over by a minister of one sort or another. That’s a massive shift. You’re talking about going from grandparents to grandchildren when it comes to those getting married and you’re talking about moving from a vast majority getting married inside the church to getting married outside the church. Now Dan Cox doesn’t get into this in terms of his article, but we must, and that is how the redefinition not just of a wedding, but of marriage itself helps to explain the shift. And what I documented in my new book, We Cannot Be Silent is the fact that this secularization of the culture had to precede the advent of same-sex marriage and we also have to understand that what we’re looking at is a repudiation of the Christian understanding of marriage that had to be a precursor in a prelude to the redefinition of marriage that would include same-sex couples.
The article by Dan Cox also points to the fact that there is something of a circularity to the process here. Religiously unaffiliated young adults are far less likely to get married in a church and those who are less likely to get married in the church are also less likely to be religiously affiliated in years ahead and as the article makes clear, they are far less likely as parents to have anything to do with inculcating a religious understanding in their own children, that just makes fundamental sense. It’s one of those questions that gets back to the circularity of so many social patterns and moral influences. Which comes first? Getting married outside the church or departing from the Christian faith? The answer is it’s impossible to answer that question. But when you think about it, you cannot have one without the other. And in this case, the statistic indicating where people get married is an indication that the religious police have shifted massively. There’s also something else that needs to be added here and that is not so much the redefinition of marriage, but the less consequential, but more visible redefinition of a wedding. We are looking at the fact that for increasing numbers of younger Americans, the wedding is understood to be a massive act of self-representation. It is now considered to be a social event that is to send a social signal. That is a very different understanding than the wedding ceremony throughout the Christian tradition. It’s a very different understanding than what wedding ceremonies generally represented just a matter of a generation ago.
You do have here the influence of a consumer society leading to vast increases in proportional spending for weddings. That tells us something that the average wedding in 2014 cost more than $30,000. Obviously you’re not talking about a church sanctuary, a Fellowship Hall and some mints and peanuts in the reception. You’re not talking about cake and punch you’re talking about a massive social event. But you’re also talking about the fact of increasing numbers of young couples and this includes some who have been raised in Christian churches and who have made Christian commitments, they still are tempted to think that the wedding ceremony is an act of self-expression rather than of mutual commitment that is to be accompanied by a very clear Christian statement in the affirmation of Christ’s people. Understood in a biblical perspective, a wedding really doesn’t have to cost all that much it’s just a gathering of people to witness to the rightness of a man and a woman coming together within the bonds of holy matrimony. But that’s the real point isn’t it? Because we’re now not talking increasingly about what’s understood to be holy matrimony and that explains not only the revolution in terms of the wedding, but the revolution represented and where the weddings take place.
Despite opposition of Americans to most abortions, laws remain unaltered
Next, also here in the United States, Danielle Kurtzleben has written an article for National Public Radio also for broadcast, the headline is,
“Despite Constant Debate, Americans’ Abortion Opinions Rarely Change.”
This is one of those articles that should get our attention because it documents what many suspect. As we have been involved in a massive public debate over the issue of abortion for the better part now of a half-century, there has actually been something less than massive change in terms of the moral understanding of Americans about the question going back to the opening of the conversation in the late 1960s. Kurtzleben writes,
“Abortion is one of those rare issues in which public opinion never seems to budge all that much. Americans are still more or less where they were on whether they think it should be legal as in 1975, just after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision [in 1973]. That is, with the largest share of Americans somewhere in the murky middle.”
She goes on to say,
“According to Gallup data, by 29 percent to 19 percent, Americans think it should be legal in all circumstances. But a majority — 51 percent — say it should be legal in only certain circumstances — in cases of rape, incest or where the mother’s life is threatened, for example. That number has barely changed in 40 years.”
Now Kurtzleben very interestingly and revealingly, contrasts that with the moral change that has taken place in public opinion over the issue homosexuality and same-sex marriage. As she writes,
“Those kinds of data stand in stark contrast to what’s available about other social issues. Consider same-sex marriage, for example, where public opinion has swung dramatically toward legalization in the past decade.”
But, she says, in contrast opinions on abortion haven’t changed much.
“That’s perhaps even more surprising when considering what’s happened over the past 40 years: a patchwork of state laws passed to define very specific restrictions on abortion, a decline in teen pregnancy, and increasing political polarization. All of that has apparently neither caused nor been the result of big shifts in national public opinion on abortion.”
Before considering her argument, I want to point to some of the data that she cites later in her article. She says,
“A majority of Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. But a majority also oppose it in the second and third trimesters. Most support it in cases of rape or incest, but most oppose it if the mother simply can’t afford another child.”
So now let’s look at the argument she’s making. She’s making the argument that public opinion on abortion hasn’t shifted all that much going back over 40 years and more. And in one sense what she’s saying is true. There is no doubt that the vast majority of Americans now remain somewhere in what’s identified in this article as the middle, but wait just a minute – what’s that middle? According to this article, this is very, very important, appearing in National Public Radio, according to this article and the statistics are absolutely true, the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion should not take place in the second or third trimester of a pregnancy. That is hugely revealing. According to this article and the data are very valid, according to this article, the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal only under very rare and minimal circumstances. So what makes this article important as a matter of fact, is not so much its central thesis that opinion on abortion hasn’t changed all that much in America in the last 40 or 50 years. There’s much to discuss about that, including the fact that there has been a shift in a pro-life direction, but it hasn’t been enough of a shift, we have to acknowledge to lead to any political movement that has actually reversed Roe V. Wade.
No, we have to look at the fact that the vast majority of Americans haven’t really moved on the issue of abortion for 40 or 50 years and that does stand in stark contrast to the issue of same-sex marriage. But then we have to look at the article itself and understand what’s really being told to us here. What’s being revealed is that for the last 40 or 50 years and more, the vast majority of Americans have believed that abortions should not be legal, except under the rare circumstances of rape and incest and similar conditions and we are told the vast majority of Americans believe that abortion shouldn’t be available after the first trimester of pregnancy. Now that is a morally confused position, what it lacks is a clear understanding of the sanctity and dignity of human life at every stage and that would include every trimester of pregnancy. But what it does tell us is that the current legal regime on abortion going back to Roe V. Wade is radically, radically more liberal than the American people themselves and this story that appears in National Public Radio is also an acknowledgment of the fact that the current legal practice of abortion in virtually all 50 states is radically more liberal, radically more pro-abortion than where the American people actually are. The headline in this article should actually be America’s laws are wildly out of sync with the American people on the issue of abortion. But that’s not the way the headline ran and that’s something else we need to notice.
What National Public Radio wanted to communicate in this headline is that moral conviction on abortion hasn’t changed all that much for the last 40 to 50 years. Well, so good, so far. But the bigger story found in the article is actually the fact that America’s current liberal laws on abortion are far, far out of sync with where the majority of Americans are and as the article says, have been. That tells us that the courts who have been making these rulings, going all the way back to Roe V. Wade in 1973, are far more liberal than the American people. That should’ve been the headline in this article from National Public Radio.