Proponent of so-called progressive Christianity, the Rev. David John Keighley, 72, has some suggestions for making the Christian faith more appealing to the incredulous, scientifically-literate youth of today. Recently he sat down to talk about them with The London Economic for an article modestly titled, “The Church of England needs a new theology if it is to survive.”
The argument is a familiar one: congregations are diminishing, the church is facing an existential crisis, society is becoming more secular, laity know about science now and can no longer be duped into believing the unbelievable. Reason! Progress! Credibility! Etc.
The problem you see is “a continued adherence to outdated doctrine,” by which is meant not things like unfettered progress or radical autonomy, but rather things like the virgin birth, miracles, and so on. Clumsy and awkward beliefs such as these “clash with today’s scientifically-literate laity.”
So, what’s the solution? Preach the gospel? Administer the sacraments? Evangelize? Teach the faith? Make disciples? You’d be forgiven for thinking so but, no. The solution, evidently, is — stop me if you’ve heard this before — a wholesale rejection of these “ancient, unintelligible creeds and outdated concepts.” “To rescue the Church from the precipice… we must demythologise much of Christian theology, challenge the literalism of doctrine and scriptures, and disclose the still valid, hidden truths of Christianity,” says Father Keighley in a cultured voice. If you’re beginning to yawn rest assured, this is Progressive Faith for Rebellious Christians and not at all a boring recapitulation of the liberal Protestantism of yesteryear.
Father Keighley no doubt reckons himself to be a bit of a rebel (not unlike another Anglican cleric in his age bracket). He is, however, nothing more or less than the reincarnation of the fat ghost (who, in his former life, was a liberal bishop) from The Great Divorce, astonished that such primitive superstitions linger on. There has been a revolution of opinion on these matters in educated circles you see, or have you not heard? To resist progress is to stagnate, and what is more soul-destroying than that? No doubt, with a bit of progress hell itself could be improved on. And just imagine how even Jesus would have outgrown some of his earlier views if he had lived, “as he might have done, with a little more tact and patience.”
Those possessed by such a spirit prefer to talk about theology “simply, and seriously, and reverently.” Their opinions are honest, sincerely expressed and fearlessly followed. Heroic even. “When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me,” says the fat ghost, “I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.” A risk that brought with it popularity, book sales (see here, here, and here), invitations to speak, and features in The London Economic. How brave.
There is a lot to which one might object in an argument like Father Keighley’s, but let me mention just two things. First is the assertion that traditional Christian doctrine is simply out of place “in the changed and developed culture of today.” Developed cultures, we are told, have evolved beyond the need for traditional faith which is, in fact, intellectually and morally dubious if not repugnant to the modern man. Reason and science have now undermined the doctrine of the Incarnation. If the church in our day and age is to appear credible to very smart people she needs to rethink not only the packaging but the product as well. We should offer them Christianity but without the cross, and only as one option among many.
There is an air of cultural snobbery here to be sure. It’s awfully Eurocentric and awfully white. For if the argument is that traditional faith no longer appeals to developed cultures then the implication seems to be that a sure sign of an undeveloped culture is the extent to which it finds traditional faith appealing. Consider for example Africa, Asia, or Latin America, all places where traditional Christian faith is growing today. Would Father Keighley have us feel sorry for these poor, unenlightened souls still weighed down by “ancient, unintelligible creeds and outdated concepts”?
Second, unless I’m mistaken, Father Keighley’s proposed project — stripping Christianity down but hanging on to the “still valid, hidden truths” — has been tried. It’s called modernity and we are living in it. But modernity can no more escape Christianity than my angsty friend from youth group could escape his family history by legally changing his last name.
Indeed, those “still valid, hidden truths” when traced to their conception inevitably lead to a collision with the crucified and risen Lord as Tom Holland (not the actor) has so convincingly demonstrated in his book, Dominion. As it happens those “still valid, hidden truths” are not universal but rather historically contingent. Or does Father Keighley genuinely believe that the Romans were known for their inclusivity and respect for human dignity? No, those truths, those values are tethered to the resurrected body of a first century Jew named Jesus, who, not-coincidentally, is the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, and who assumed our human nature having been “incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”
Moreover, these “unbelievable” truths of the Christian faith that Father Keighley finds so objectionable — and make no mistake about it, Father Keighley’s proposal tells us far more about him than anything else — were just as unbelievable in the first century. I am, of course, tempted to give Father Keighley the benefit of the doubt. After all, perhaps he genuinely thinks that the proclamation that the God of Israel took on human flesh, subjected himself to the utter shame and degradation of a Roman crucifixion, and then rose from the dead three days later came much more easily to first-century Jews who by no fault of their own were born into a less scientifically advanced culture. He would be mistaken, however. The biblical and historical records are clear: this proclamation was just as unbelievable and down-right scandalous then as it is now (John 8:58-59). To cultural snobbery then we can add chronological snobbery.
Perhaps most surprising, however, is Father Keighley’s genteel assurance that his proposal will in fact lead to renewal in the church, particularly among the younger demographic. I genuinely wonder to what extent Father Keighley has engaged with actual young people. Surely at the age of thirty-seven the days when I can consider myself young are numbered but I’ll tell you that his vision of a rationalistic faith with all of the strange bits cut out couldn’t be less appealing to me.
And I am far from alone in this. Even a cursory engagement with younger Anglicans online, for example, shows that they are more committed than ever to the strange bits that cause Father Keighley to blush. We don’t read the Creed and wince but confess it with our whole heart. Divine and human, the Holy Ghost, a miraculous conception in a virgin’s womb, sin and salvation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and yes, even a coming again in glory to judge — we want it all.
Give us an Incarnation with blood and guts and strange things that cannot possibly be true unless of course they are. Some may call it “outdated” but we call it “eternal.” Some may believe the church needs a new theology if it is to survive but we believe the church cannot survive apart from an ancient theology. The faith once delivered, to be apprehended and passed on by each successive generation. Give us that or give us nothing, but go ahead and keep whatever it is we’re calling “updated.” If it still makes sense apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead we are not interested.
And on that note, I give thanks. When The London Economic published Father Keighley’s feature I confess to you that I took no small pleasure in witnessing its reception by younger Anglicans. The extent to which they took one whiff and said “no thanks” is just one of the reasons that I am so hopeful for the future of the church in the West. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is raising up a new generation of leaders that are, to put it simply, not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. They know first-hand that it is indeed “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). And they’re happy to say that out loud with a smile on their face because they know it is salvation that we’re groaning for, not self-improvement.
This is a good thing, not necessarily because it will save the Church but rather because it corresponds with the truth. In fact, we needn’t concern ourselves with saving the Church at all. Jesus has gone and done that already. We need only concern ourselves with the beautiful gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. If that leads to revival and renewal, thanks be to God. But if not, it is better to die with Christ than to live without him.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.