April 6, 2010

Jesus Good / Church Necessary: Churches Fail Because People Fail

Without a Church There Would Be Very Little Christianity

Those who praise Jesus but attack his organisation are missing out on so much, says Charles Moore.

02 Apr 2010

Jesus good/Church bad. It is an old and simple message. It helps to explain the Reformation. The very word "Protestantism" is a reminder of this. The protest was made against the Church, by people who sincerely believed that they were acting on behalf of Jesus.

The modern version of the same message – current since the 19th century – is that all Christian churches, not just wicked old Rome, are bad, since God does not exist. But Jesus is good. In this week's Spectator, Matthew Parris, who calls himself a "Protestant atheist", says that Jesus was a man whose teachings have "transfiguring energy", an "undismissibly real man". Jesus is "a colossal embarrassment" to the Church.

In his new "story" (his chosen word), The Good Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, the novelist Philip Pullman imagines that Mary gave birth to twins. One was Jesus, "strong and healthy". The other was Christ, "small, weak and sickly". Jesus preached the unvarnished truth. The envious Christ was the real Satan, tempting his brother in the wilderness, scheming to invent Jesus's divinity, so that he could found the Church of lies.

"Jesus good/Church bad" is a powerful message because it is partly true. All churches are staffed by human beings. All human beings are – to use a word of which atheists disapprove – sinners. Therefore all churches fail, often grotesquely – as with child abuse by priests – to live up to their calling. Their calling is higher than any other, so their failure is the more apparent and shocking.

In England, we are particularly susceptible to the message because of our version of liberty. We like to think the best moral law is no law at all. We want to be Robin Hood, having fun in the greenwood and shooting bad rich people with our longbows. Horrid old churches, with their crabby rules and organised hypocrisies, are on the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham. We don't want blessing of clergy, except from indulgent, fat, jolly old Friar Tuck.

But when Pullman and Parris and all the other non-believing Jesus-freaks tell us how much they love the man from Nazareth, I find myself asking how they know what he was like. The answer – unless they claim a revelation by the God in whom they do not believe – can only be that they have read the Gospels. And why were these Gospels written, and why do they continue to be propagated to the ends of the earth? Because of Christians. Because, from earliest times, the followers of Jesus Christ kept his two names together, working them into their persecuted symbols. They did not merely believe that Jesus was a good man, but that, at Easter, Jesus Christ rose from the tomb. They developed the idea that he was God.

Do these atheist Jesus-groupies, so fiercely sceptical of priestcraft, not realise that the "good man Jesus" they admire is conveyed to them only through the words of the adherents of the "scoundrel Christ", whom they hate? And if the Church is such a scoundrel, why has it allowed the Gospel tales of Jesus to be read out every day in church since the days of the Roman Empire? It is an odd way to deal with a "colossal embarrassment".

Since it is the Church which brought forth these texts, why does Parris-Pullman (that sleek intellectual engine) trust them, or bits of them? How can even these great authors confidently extract their manly, truthful Jesus, and then throw away all the other stuff – virtually the whole of John's Gospel, for example – in which Jesus preaches what they must regard as theological rubbish?

The reality is that a body of religious and moral beliefs cannot cohere, or spread, without people to care for it. You can argue that the shoes of the fishermen whom Jesus chose as his apostles were never supposed to turn into the red slippers of the Pope, but you cannot sensibly say that all will be well if what Jesus taught can just be left lying around for clever chaps like Parris-Pullman to adorn a tale. You have to work together for Jesus. Organised religion can be a very horrible thing, but the alternative is not true religion and virtue, but disorganised religion and moral confusion.

At 5.20pm on Thursday of last week, I happened to go into Westminster Cathedral, just before Mass. The next morning, I heard that, at exactly that time, about 200 yards away, a boy had been murdered. Sofyen Belamouadden, 15, was chased by a mob of youths into Victoria Underground station and stabbed in front of 600 commuters.

It was an extreme example of the powerlessness of modern society to deal with savage evil, of the "broken Britain" which David Cameron says he wants to mend.

There are all sorts of arguments to be made about such deaths – about unrestricted immigration, inhibited policing, family breakdown. I don't propose to go into them here. But what should surely be common ground is that the state, however important, cannot cure all the ills which give rise to such horror.

Nowadays, we have the state, we have commerce and we have individuals. What we notoriously lack is community. Community is made up of all those things which people do together – schools, families, clubs, teams, political parties, charities. Throughout the history of civilisation, community has been bound together by religion. Now we are trying to make do without it, and we are not doing very well. We thought that moral imperatives would easily survive without the "mumbo-jumbo". It turns out that they haven't.

After the news of Sofyen's murder, I turned again to the communion service which Christians say every day, everywhere. Its form is remarkably similar across the different denominations.

The service starts by asking people to admit and repent of what they have done wrong. Then it thanks and praises God for the good things they enjoy. The Bible is read out, with its teaching about how to love God and neighbour. Prayers are said for the people that most need them – clergy, our political leaders, the poor, family, the sick, the dying. Money is collected for the needs of those who lack it.

Then the story of Jesus's last supper is told. The bread and wine are consecrated in memory of the sacrifice which he made, when he was judicially murdered, for everyone. The people share bread and wine. The priest sends them out into the world in peace.

At the very least, this universal ceremony restates uniquely and communally what human beings owe to one another, which is what "society" means. Many do not share the belief which lies behind it. But it seems utterly destructive to scorn the faith which produces such a ceremony and insult those who take part in it. Jesus good/Church necessary.