A visit to the World Council of Churches at Uppsala in Sweden confirmed my feeling that institutional Christianity is quietly but inexorably extinguishing itself. Ecumenicalism is predominantly, I should suppose, a response to this sense of being about to become extinct, rather than to any zeal for union as such. The most vital elements in the Christian story have, in any case, derived from dissidence rather than agreementSt Francis, Ignatius Loyola, Luther, Pascal, Wesley, Kierkegaard, etc., etc. At Uppsala, as one clearly saw, they were able to agree about almost anything because they believed almost nothing. They reminded me of a pub turn-out in my youth, with ten or a dozen drunks holding on to one another, swaying to and fro, but managing to remain upright. Alone, they would infallibly have fallen into the gutter. It was all tremendously reminiscent of the United Nations, that tragically absurd assemblystony faces between earphones, paper circulating in prodigious quantities (the Swedish Government allotted ten tons, which got used up in the first two days), oratory to match, interminable discussions about the precise wording of statements of belief and purpose which few would read and none heed, a wellequipped but little-used press room, documents of no conceivable importance or interest to anyone urgently rushed out to choke the pigeon-holes of absent journalists.
If ever in human history there was a non-event, this was it. I cannot see how, apart from the desultory use of the cross as a symbol and the garb of some of the delegates, anyone could possibly have known that the occasion had anything to do with the Christian religion. The natural assumption would have been that it was an assembly of the well-intentioned concerned to deal with some of the world's problems like hunger and racialism, but displaying little clear notion of how to set about it, and anyway disposing of no authority or resources commensurate with the task.
It is natural enough, I suppose, that the Churches in their final decrepitude should thus concentrate on their social, and ignore their spiritual, responsibilities. Thereby they fall in with the prevailing temper of the age; everyone can understand the merit of giving a starving man food, or of championing the victims of napalm or apartheid, but the very language of mysticism or transcendentalism has ceased to be comprehensible. In St Augustine's Confessions I read: 'I no longer hoped for a better world because I was thinking of the whole of creation, and in the light of this clearer discernment I had come to see that though the higher things are better than the lower, the sum of all creation is better than the higher things alone.' The Churches, on the contrary, feel bound to proclaim a better world, thereby promoting their own extinction. For if a better world were attainable, they would be unnecessary; ifas is far more probableit is unattainable, they cannot but be involved in the consequent disillusionment.
Their better world promotion has the short-term advantage of being a soft sell. How much easier, and even pleasurable, to march to the American Embassy to protest against the war in Vietnam than to march to Gethsemane! Even the saints have found Christian virtue hard to practise, but any tousled student can acquire a glow of righteousness by pouring a bucket of paint over some visiting speaker from the U.S. Embassy or South Africa House. And how many of those who so ardently collect for Oxfam reflect that if the amount collected were multiplied by a thousand it would still not come anywhere near compensating for those Indian doctors who keep our (on Asian standards) over-manned Health Service going ? Again, many more people are killed and injured on the world's roads any bright week-end than in a month of the Vietnam war, but whoever heard of a protest march about that ? To stop the slaughter on the roads it would be necessary to restrict motoring, which the Churches could not possibly recommend. It would amount to restricting pleasure, which, in terms of the pursuit of happiness, is the ultimate abomination. In a materialist society, pleasure alone is sacred, and its instruments (money, contraceptives, drugs, etc.) are invested with sanctity and regarded with venerationthe modern equivalent of the bones of St Peter or fragments of the True Cross.
One of the few sensible observations came from the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan, Nicodim of Leningrad and Novgorod. 'How', he asked, 'can there be a dialogue of Christians and Marxists when between them there is an insuperable abyss, and when the basic beliefs of the one are denied by the other?' This bearded, youthful prelate, I reflected, has to deal with the most brutally tyrannical and materialistic regime the world has yet known, unlike these soft confused upholders of the Protestant Establishment drivelling away their lives in pursuit of a phantom kingdom of heaven on earth. To him, therefore, the full absurdity of trying to marry the ideas of Marx and Christ is all too apparent. Metropolitan Nicodim has to take his orders from the Kremlin bosses, certainly, but at least he is under no necessity to pretend that they and he pursue the same ends. In the Americanised part of the world, on the other hand, the situation is far worse. There the Churches joyously accept the Devil's offer of the kingdom of heaven on earth, with, of course, the subsequent commitment to fall down and worship him.
The collector's item in the output of the World Council of Churches was a paper entitled 'Towards a New Style of Living' the nearest the Council got to grappling with the Christian notion of being reborn. Except a man find a new style of living, instead of: Except a man be born again. The paper contains a priceless collection of current cant:
... a creation stirred to newness by scientific and technical inventions .. . generations are finding it increasingly difficult to communicate ... young people ... experimenting with new styles of life .. . marching, popular music, sit-ins, mural newspapers, hippies and imaginative dress ... in all relations between men and women there is always a sexual component ... too often chastity is thought of simply in terms of abstinence or of keeping intercourse within marriage ... an essential link between healthy sexuality and personal fulfilment . . .
I appreciate very much, too, the sweeping McLuhanesque generalisations like 'The contemporary world is dominated by middle-class people, the majority of whom are white Europeans and North Americans.' For a moment it pulls you up. The U.S.S.R. and China dominated by white middle-class Europeans and North Americans! Can it be? India, too, and Indonesia, and all those liberated African territories ruled over by Jomo and Hastings and Julius and Kenneth and Apollo Milton! Are they all white middle-class Europeans and North Americans? But back to the text:
... Christians of all age brackets should join with people of all convictions in providing opportunities for the generations to grow together ... secular technological civilisation which is spreading over the world ... reconciliation which means directing conflicts towards constructive ends ... discernment of appropriate forms of living. . .
And so on. All very soothing and reassuring I suppose, if you like that kind of thing, but scarcely in the vein of St Paul.
By travelling the thirty miles into Stockholm the Uppsala delegates could see a new style of living for themselves; there examine, if they so fancied, some of its embellishmentsfor instance, eye over the lavish piles of pornography in the bookshops, or slip in surreptitiously to take a look at the sexual act portrayed in full on film (I am Curious Yellow). A young Swede explained to me that the film is socially significant in that the heroine, bicycling from one sexual encounter to another, is seated on a box labelled 'Social Conscience.' This theme, which a Hogarth or a Gillray would have handled so perfectly, well symbolises, I decided, the World Council of Churchesthe little label of social virtue carrying so heavy a load of personal sin. How splendidly appropriate, how superb an example of what Blake calls 'fearful symmetry,' that the largest ever gathering of the legatees of a bankrupt Christendom should take place in a leaden Scandinavian paradise, with all those sad, earnest faces going sadly and earnestly about their pleasures.
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