A Rethinking Sermon

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 7 November 1959.</strong>

Even today, when

The title of my sermon, 'Should We Drop Christ?' will have surprised some of the more traditionally-minded among you, but facts have to be faced. And the first fact that has be faced is that Christ, whatever attraction he may have had in the past, is now a definite hindrance to the propagation of Christianity. Our churches are getting emptier and emptier and our message isn't getting through. I am convinced the reason for this is our obsessional concern with the figure of Christ.

There was no doubt a time when charity, love, brotherhood, the redressing of injustices, chasing moneylenders from the temple, hostility to the rich and powerful – in short, the image which Christ gave to Christianity – had an appeal. This is no longer the case. Values are changing, have changed. Injustice has greatly diminished (thanks, of course, to our efforts); the rich aren't as rich as they were, and moneylenders, let's admit it, have a part to play. In fact, people have rather come to like them. No faith that attacks them is, let me tell you, going to get very far these days. As to love, charity and brotherhood, they have been rejected by the people, repeatedly and decisively, and it's about time we started to take account of what the people want, instead if telling them what's good for them. All the old, obsolete values are contained in the figure of Christ. Therefore, I say, drop him.

I will no doubt be asked: what are you going to put in place of the values represented by Christ? I will answer that question, but let me first make another suggestion which seems appropriate at this time, and which naturally follows from the dropping of Christ. I believe we should change our name. Instead of Christianity, which is old and dreary, we should call our faith The New Faith or The Real Faith, which would also have the advantage of drawing to us all kinds of people who roughly believe what we believe but who have been repelled by our insistence that Christ was all-important to us. Surely we do want converts. We need converts. And we shall not get them without some pretty drastic changes.

What is the message of our rejuvenated faith to be? The first thing it must be, let me repeat, is acceptable to the largest number of people. It must therefore be up to date and take account of modern conditions. To begin with, I want us to say that sin, though still wrong in principle, is not unacceptable to us, provided it is kept under proper control. We certainly must be hard on those who sin regularly and blatantly. But we must also tell people that there are forms of sin which we not only accept, but we positively welcome. Secondly, we must change the whole emphasis of our message. Our insistence that we are above all concerned with the poor, the meek and the mild, has been all wrong, and has done us great harm. We must tell the rich that we care for them too, deeply, and that we do see their problems and difficulties, and that we want to help them as anybody else. Thirdly, we ought to say that, though we don't actually believe in the law of the jungle, we do believe there is an intermediate point between it and the brotherhood of man, and that a kind of qualified free-for-all, with the Devil sometimes being allowed to take the hindmost, seems to us a pretty reasonable compromise. And compromise, I want to say, we certainly must have. I also think, by the way, that we have been much too hard on the Devil in the past. Many people, whether we like it or not, genuinely believe in him – and we simply cannot afford to alienate them any longer, Ours must be a broad creed.

These proposals – which are only a beginning, but which will give you the drift of my thought – will, of course, be bitterly resisted by some so-called Christians. We have all come across the fanatics and fundamentalists in our midst (and how much harm they have done us in the past!) whose minds are full of shibboleths and antiquated prejudices. It is they who are the most dangerous enemies of our faith. I don't expect them to change. They will – in time – have to be got rid of. We shall be the stronger for their departure. Let them retire into the wilderness, where they belong, and continue to preach their dreary little sermons about Christ and Christian values. I am quite confident that, given sufficient up-to-date-ness on our part, they will soon be quite forgotten.

Two more things. I believe we should progressively cease to have church services. Our main effort must lie in the new and exciting fields of mass communications particularly television. That is where we must put our image across. And not with sermons, which are so often boring. What we need is powerful plays, indeed thrillers, packed with action, sex and crime, and also with a New Faith message. I am sure the television authorities would welcome an initiative on our part, if we can show them that we are living in the present and not in the past. Finally, we shall have to make drastic changes in our insanely cumbersome machinery for settling matters of faith and church organisation. We shall have to invest our High Priest (and isn't this a much more attractive title that Archbishop which is, let's face it, pretty dreary?) with absolute power so that the creed may be instantly and radically changed whenever he feels that people are getting tired of this or that part of the message. There is something to be said for democracy, but outside the Church, not inside. Our rivals know this. If we are to meet them on equal terms, we must learn it too.

Given these reforms, which, when you come to look at them closely, aren't nearly as revolutionary as they might appear at first sight, I believe that we can assure a much brighter future, not only to the priesthood (though this is not to be under-estimated), but also to all those, and they are legion, who want to look to us for salvation or, to use more modern language, for adjustment.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?