Fraser Watts discusses the Theos report on Christianity in the 21st Century.
The think tank, Theos, have published a very interesting report, “Doing Good: A Future for Christianity in the 21st Century”. As everyone knows, there are fewer people going to church. However, it is interesting that the level of Christian social action has increased. Christian social action tends to be associated with church growth.
Christian social action
Yet, there is a problem, as the report points out. It draws attention to the fact that, in the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century, the social action tended to eclipse the gospel from which it grew. They want to avoid repeating that mistake in the present wave of Christian social action. So far, so good.
Like the report I am encouraged by the present move to more Christian social action. I also agree that there is a danger of it becoming disconnected from other aspects of Christian life. However, I don’t think the report understands the nature of the problem. I also think that their suggested solution of renaming it as ‘social liturgy’ is wide of the mark, and will not help at all. It just makes it sound churchy.
What is needed? First, we needed a stronger theological understanding of God as present and active in society. There can be an implicit assumption that God belongs in church, and Christians are going out to ‘the world’ as God’s agents, as into foreign territory. A better way of thinking is that God is already involved in society. Their first task is a prophetic interpretation of what God is doing there.
Only in the light of that analysis does it become clear what Christians need to do.
Linked to this, there needs to be a strong and explicit connection between what God has done in Christ, and what Christians are doing now. The most common phrase is ‘witnessing to the love of God’. But ‘love’ is too general a concept to bring much clarity here. Iris Murdoch made a similar complaint in The Sovereignty of Good about ‘good’ being too general a concept.
I suggest that ‘reconciliation’ is a more helpful and specific concept; it is one that St Paul used to make the kind of linkage that is needed. (‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself… and he has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation’; 2 Corinthians 5:19). I include under reconciliation ‘urban reconciliation’, about which I will say more shortly.
There also need to be objectives. It should be more than just doing the right thing; it should be intended to achieve something, i.e. continuing Jesus’ project of building the new way of living that he called his ‘kingdom’. John Robinson once said, ‘we can have as high a doctrine of the Church as we want, as long as our doctrine of the Kingdom is higher’. Talk of ‘social liturgy’ seems to make church the primary focus; I want to reverse that priority.
In short, Christian social action needs to be embedded more strongly in a theological framework, rather than being presented as a special kind of church service, which is what ‘social liturgy’ implies. The best example of this I know is the social theology of Coventry Cathedral, about which I wrote in Theology in autumn 2015 (118(6), 429-437).