Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Church Without God - Preface & Chapter 1

A few years ago I went to a large book sale at a local United Church here in Ontario, Canada, and I came across A Church Without God by Ernest Harrison. It was released in 1966 and by perusing through the chapter titles, I could tell that it was just as controversial as John Robinson's book Honest To God which came out merely three years earlier. At the time of the book's release, Harrison was Associate Editorial Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada and a minister at Holy Trinity Congregation in Toronto.

Let's dig in, shall we?

The original title of this book was meant to be “Mother Church is Dead and Gone – What do the Children do Now?  However, this title was deemed unsuitable. Harrison immediately refers to the Mother Church, or the Larger Church, saying that while it is no longer a central figure in the Christian drama, the "smaller" church remains relevant.

Harrison then states the purpose of his book: 

"An increasing number of Christians – to a greater or a lesser degree – no longer accept the traditional creeds, doctrines, liturgies, or moral precepts. Yet they consider themselves loyal members of their respective denominations and hope to be so received. If this book enables them to feel more confident in their hope – or if it enables those of a more traditional bent to welcome them – then it will be justified.”

Sounds like this book could be relevant to many of us today, eh? I look forward to delving more into this book.

Chapter 1 - The New Freedom

Harrison begins his first chapter by saying that the Church, while talking about God a great deal, is actually about people; ;people thinking thoughts and sharing them, studying, attending to the sick, etc. He describes the church as “The people of God – all of them, whoever they are, in whatever condition, of whatever intellect, whatever emotional stability. If God talks, he talks to them all. If he is silent, or cannot talk, then none hears."

He continues by saying that people have different meanings of the words Jesus or God or Christian. 
If it is through the Church that God works, and if the Church is his people, then in order to discover God’s will, we have to listen to what people say and think. When we do this, it becomes clear that God is much varied and many-splendoured, that he holds untold and apparently inconsistent forces and ideas within himself and passes them along, with little system or consistency, to his varied and many-splendoured children. He is not particularly logical and makes no effort to be fair; he is no lover of uniformity and shows little anxiety for unity. He makes no two things alike, not two human beings, no two thoughts, no two emotions.”

While there are many doctrines which Christians disagree on, Harrison says that the description of God as love is recognized immediately.

Harrison says that although the Church should be seen as the “People of God,” people have given up their voice, either willingly or by force, to the care of smaller groups, namely church leaders. They proceed to make up rules and creeds, but a quick survey of Christians shows that a lot of the creedal content is disregarded, such as the Virgin Birth. “When, in the light of Church opinion, some critics have questioned the need to accept the Creeds, the reply usually made is that the doctrines enshrined there can never be changed, because the beliefs set down were revealed by God to the United Church of the first Ecumenical and Undivided Councils.” This restricts the meaning of “The Church” even further. It is now not even a group of powerful people, but a small group assembled at one or two points in history. Harrison asks, “Who was assembled? The people of God? How many laymen were present? How many women? How many representatives of the poor or the working classes? How many decisions were made by aristocrats and well-educated scholars? How many by men in positions of rapidly increasing power over the lives of others? Does God prefer to speak through scholars, aristocrats, and powerful men? Does he ignore women and the poor?

Harrison goes on to say that these creeds were widely believed because those in power told them they were true, but that now (in Harrison’s 1966) large numbers of people were no longer persuaded. “In this context, it is obvious who Mother Church is. She symbolizes the Church in the narrow sense, the Church which knows what is best for others, and is willing to impose it in the strongest way that society permits. She holds, as I have said, most of the money and the legal privileges delivered from the past; but these are a hollow possession. For the hand, though it grips hard and continues to be heavy, is lifeless."

I would say that this is true in 2012 as well. Denominations and church leaders will often try to rule from on high, but the people in the pews or chairs or movie theatre seats aren't buying what they're selling.

Harrison is a powerful writer and thus I will be including many quotes directly from the book, which I believe is no longer in circulation. He begins the second section of the first chapter by saying this:

"At what point in our history Mother Church died is impossible to say; but its reality is now at last inescapable. She has had a great and awe-inspiring record. She gave most people in the Western World their birth and took full advantage of the fact. She offered herself as an agent, more precisely, the agent of God. She saw her duty to be that of imposing his rules upon her children, disciplining and punishing them, praising and rewarding them, smothering them with affection and smacking their bottoms, screaming at them in rage, demanding their obedience and their constant expressions of loyalty and affection. She destroyed any love they showed for mothers of other families; she gave them security, work to do, frustrations to overcome. She filled them skillfully with guilt upon guilt, so that they would never feel free to escape her apron strings. In the final event, she ate them. All this she did in the name of God, though the children rarely, if ever, saw him."

Harrison says that "Mother Church" also re-enforced the doctrine of original sin. He then goes on to talk at length about punishment being meted out and the threat of hellfire being held over believers heads.  But he says that this was only one side of "Mother Church":

"If you obeyed her, agreed with everything she did, ran her errands dutifully, worked hard for her, spike kindly of her to other families and outsiders, fought and killed those who opposed her, then her smile was benign. She offered exaltation and security, gave life and health, and beamed with gay abandon upon her faithful children."

Harrison then goes on to describe Mother Church's missionary efforts, building schools and hospitals in far-away lands.  After describing these, he again asserts, "Now, towards the end of the twentieth century, she is dead. Nobody knows when she died, and there is yet to be a public burial. While some still assert that she is alive, few actually even obey her commands.

Rev. Harrison begins the third section of his first chapter by saying that Mother Church's death has brought freedom to many of her children. The leaders, mostly men, whose decision-making power she symbolized, no longer imposes its will. Therefore Christians now have more freedom of thought and speech. The freedom is only partial, but it's there. He points out that the previously mentioned John Robinson is still a bishop, and that other "heretics" still hold teaching positions. He then goes on to describe some of the barriers that he has faced prior to writing this book. One criticism came from a man named Randall Ivany: "I wonder if they realize how many are being driven outside the Church by the doubts spouted by Harrison and men like him." Harrison responds by saying that, "I am, of course, not denying that people are leaving the Church, because it is a plain fact in all countries, whether they have Harrisons or not. Within the next decade, American and Canadian congregations will follow those in England, and it will be fortunate if they represent a third of their present level." Mr. Harrison's predictions ring true today in many mainline churches. But it is not because of so-called heretics, but because of a disengaged flock who no longer believe what they are being fed from the pulpit.  Harrison also says that many church leaders supported his right to publish books such as these, and says that he has a "wide freedom."

Rev. Harrison begins the fourth part of his first chapter by saying that large numbers of Christians are parting company with past traditional beliefs. Sometimes they part ways with the idea of the succession of bishops or the Virgin Birth, but sometimes they shed more serious doctrines. Harrison says that a "New Theology" is being formed, and it hold a wide variety of viewpoints. Bishops and ministers are moving away from "the given."  "All major Christian denominations now include loyal members who do not believe in God, the Apostle's Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the physical resurrection of Jesus, or in an after-life for themselves. They do not consider the Bible to be basically different in kind from other books, and they do not pray."

Harrison says that to many leaders and many laypeople, such beliefs put a person "outside of the fold." Words like "heresy" and "apostasy" are pulled out to describe them.

Harrison also says that preachers of this "New Theology" are often seen as attacking the faith and as negative. He says that he has tried to "avoid negation whenever possible, but much remains. I am deeply convinced that Mother Church led us far away from Christ; and I am glad we are free from her. I cannot write of the new freedoms within Christianity, of the positive goals now made possible, of the chance we at least have of coming close to Jesus Christ, without noting what I believe to be the negative attitude of the Church in the past and the restrictive nature of her methods and doctrines."

Harrison ends off his first chapter by stating that, "I assume that traditional theology was devised and refined by wise, clever, and sincere men. They made their teaching relevant to the people of their day and, if it is not relevant to us, then that reflects in no way upon their work." He also says that his book is in no way meant to undermine the faith of anyone.  But he controversially says that "I do not care whether the Church, in its present state, survives or disappears. I do care whether or not there are congregations of Christians whose life pulses because they meet together." The book is for people can no longer accept the tenets of the traditional church but still consider themselves Christians. "This book tries to establish that they have  every right to call themselves Christian and to remain members of their denomination. In simple terms, this book says: You will be attacked, but stay as long as you wish to stay. You may feel lonely, but there is much support all over the Church for you. If you wish to go, go. God (in whatever terms) is everywhere. But do not be driven out. Mother Church is dead, and any threats that are sounded in her name are idle ones."

Stay tuned for Chapter Two...

Mark Andrew Alward