It sounds like a parody, but the Church of England has found yet another questionable way to stabilize declining attendance numbers; designing churches for entirely different religions. As The Telegraph reports, the Church of England has decided to train members to found what they envision as “almost a pagan church where Christianity [is] very much in the centre.”
Details about what the proposed “Christian” pagan worship would look like are not found in the Telegraph or Christian Post coverage, but there is enough to raise red flags of concern.
Christians are called to reach out to people of all faiths to share the Good News, and how we present God’s promise for humanity should necessarily differ on who we are reaching out to. Jesus could quote Scripture to the Jewish authorities, but he also reached out to Gentiles using miracles and allegory. But framing Christianity to appeal to different religions should not result in downplaying our basic and fundamental beliefs. If there’s any truth to The Telegraph’s claims that ministers are being trained to create “new forms of Anglicanism suitable for people of alternative beliefs,” this is an extremely dangerous and unhelpful idea.
The harsh truth is that most of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity and paganism are simply irreconcilable. Paganism comes in many different flavors, among them pantheism, shamanism, Wiccanism, polytheism, Gaia worship, and animism. Some forms of paganism have a monotheistic flavor (such as the beliefs of some Native American tribes), but by and large, Christians and pagans simply cannot see eye-to-eye on the most defining features of our faith the way Christians and Jews or Christians and Muslims might be able to. What sort of church can be “almost pagan” and amenable to “alternative beliefs,” but also refuse to budge on the basic truth that there is one God and only one path to salvation?
Common ground between the two religions that the Church of England looks to seize upon is “spirituality.” Rev. Steve Hollinghurst, who is advising the Church of England on the creation on the new church, claims that while the UK is no longer a Christian country, “spirituality is very much on the agenda for many.” My fear is that the Church of England aims to sell pagans on a form of Christianity tailor-made to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd: heavy on positive feelings and spirituality, but light on any actual theology, responsibility, or consequences. After all, this is precisely the type of religion pagans have already chosen. In Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth, UK religious scholar Graham Harvey notes that, despite their spirituality, most pagans care little about developing a coherent set of beliefs or moral codes.
“Pagans spend little time deliberately contemplating the formation of their religion. They rarely indulge in theology… people who discover the appropriateness of naming themselves Pagan are not thereby compelled to accept a codified set of beliefs or practices.” (2000, p. 1)
If the Church of England seeks pagan converts, selling itself as another wishy-washy anything-goes religion would be folly. After all, the pagan community incorporates dozens of varied beliefs. When some pagans worships Gaia, some worship the Wiccan mother goddess, and some worship the Roman pantheon, why does the Church of England expect that the worship of the God of Abraham will stand out as anything but another deity to arbitrarily believe in?
The only way to appeal to potential pagan converts is to make very clear the distinction between our two religions. Christians must not whitewash what the Bible teaches: that being a follower of Jesus Christ requires devotion, discipline, belief, and a strict set of morality. We must show how maintaining a strict moral code enriches our earthly life and that belief in the Christian God is the only way to an eternal, blessed life.
The Church of England is doing a disservice to the men and women they reach out to, imperiling their very souls in the name of kindness. When Jesus called His first disciples, the Bible tells us that they left everything they were carrying to follow Him (Luke 5:11, Luke 5:28). Later, He bids two men to leave their families behind. When one man asks to first bury his father, Jesus implores him to “let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:59-62). Even today, those wish to truly follow Him must leave behind their previous lives. The Church of England is trying to meet unbelievers halfway, telling them they can follow Jesus but still bring some of their heretical baggage along for the trip.
Christian denominations should not resort to twisting or downplaying the central teachings of Christianity just to make their own falling attendance numbers look better. Not only will it fail to attract pagans to begin with, it risks alienating regular parishioners who recognize that their Church is selling its own members short on the full message of Jesus Christ. The Church of England is right to bring the news of Jesus Christ to the pagan community, and I wish them success. But I pray the message they bring is the authentically Christian one that’s attracted converts for 2000 years.
UPDATE: Rev. Steve Hollinghurst, one of the Church of England officials quoted, has responded to this blog post. You may read his response here.