Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Journal of Ecclesiastical History: vol. 66/2

Volume 66/2, the April 2015 number of JEH, has been out for a few weeks now, so I am sure you’ve all already read it. But for the laggards,  my I-hope-regular editor’s service underlining personal highlights.

Apologies as ever to those not mentioned: picking out individuals is unjust, but not doing so is dull, and that’s worse. So I’ve no space to talk about other highlights, such as Nazi church architecture, or the wonderfully entrepreneurial eighteenth-century English cleric John Trusler – who made a fine living publishing sermons which were printed to look handwritten, so that time-pressed clergy could take them into the pulpit and still look as if they were penning their own improving thoughts.
The eye-opener for me is Stewart J. Brown’s article, ‘W. T. Stead and the Civic Church, 1886-1895: the vision behind “If Christ Came to Chicago!”’, on the British journalist, social activist and idiosyncratic religious liberal, W. T. Stead. After a conversion experience in 1885, in which he heard a ‘distinct and clear’ voice calling him to ‘be no longer a Christian, be a Christ’, Stead began pushing for what he called a Civic Church. This would be an inter-faith public betterment and civic renewal project whose only membership qualification would be love for humanity. This is what he meant by ‘being a Christ’.
He was most famous for the 1894 pamphlet If Christ Came to Chicago, in which that shockingly modern and godless city was used to imagine just such a spiritual-social renewal, and which sold over 300,000 copies on both sides of the Atlantic. In it he wrote:

How we believe in Christ ... is shown not by what we say about Him, not by the temples which we build in His honour, nor by the hymns which we sing in His praise, but by the extent to which we succeed in restoring in man the lost image of God.

That’s a lovely polemical manoeuvre: to begin with a classic Protestant attack on formalism and hypocrisy, and then slip that radically novel idea of what it means to be a Christian into the end, almost beneath the radar.
It didn’t work, of course. Other social reformers disliked both the implicit totalitarianism of his vision and the religious terms in which it was still couched. And church establishments naturally, and correctly, concluded that this had virtually abandoned Christianity as normally understood. One liberal Presbyterian replied with a pamphlet titled ‘If Chicago came to Christ’.
So what? It means that the wonderfully idealistic, tragically self-defeating 1960s notion of ‘religionless Christianity’ was already at work a lifetime earlier, and suggests, again, how difficult it was and remains for the liberal Protestant project to stay anchored. But of course, Stead’s opponents look as unappealing and sectarian as he himself looks impractical and ideological. Protestantism has been trying to steer a way through that one for at least a century and a half now. Answers on a postcard, please.

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