A vision for downhearted pastors in disturbing times
During the lockdown I have been reading some books I should have read years ago but had never got around to.
One of those is The Christian Mind by the Anglican Harry Blamires (1916-2017), sometimes described as a protégé of C. S. Lewis.1 As with Lewis, he couldn’t be described as exactly evangelical, but it is a seminal book and after nearly 60 years still very much warrants our reading.
Can the Church survive?
One of the sections I found extremely encouraging was his description of the triumph of the Church despite all adversity, criticism, and predictions of its imminent demise. With the worldwide closing of church buildings and God’s people being reduced to meeting online because of the current pandemic, we ourselves might understandably wonder about the future of the church. ‘Things will never be the same again,’ some are saying. And perhaps they are right.
Blamires was writing in the era of the playwrights known as ‘angry young men’, amidst ‘God is dead’ theology, and the very real threat of nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis between the USSR and the US occurred just a year before his book was published. But listen to his confidence concerning the Church. It is very refreshing. In his text below, I have taken the liberty of inserting a few subheadings and substituting the twenty-first century for the twentieth and the present world pandemic for the nuclear crisis, using brackets to indicate where I have done this. Here are his thoughts:
‘Were it not so tragic, surely it would be laughable that a world poised on the brink (of devastation by coronavirus) should have time to ask, “Can the Church survive?” Can the Church survive indeed! As for the Church’s desperate crisis; if a desperate crisis is something which puts the very existence of an institution in jeopardy, then the Church is certainly not facing one. The world is. No doubt of that.
Heroes and laggards
‘But the Church can never be destroyed. It cannot even be gravely damaged. It cannot be decimated numerically; too many of the Church’s members are already beyond the barrier of death; too much of the Church is already safe home. It is perhaps the case that we – (twenty-first century) Christians – are the last few millions to live on earth in membership of the Church. Perhaps the end is to be soon. What then? Has not an enormous, immeasurable concourse gone before? No doubt we have reason to feel ourselves today a frail, struggling unheroic Christian band. But look at the tremendous men and women we follow!
‘It could be, in the eyes of God, that the (twenty-first) century’s contribution to the universal Christian Body is the sorriest and least distinguished of all. It could be so. Personally, I don’t think it is; but it is a possibility that has to be allowed for. If it were the case, it would be understandable that our Lord should have chosen to put the heroes at the front and the feeble laggards at the back.
The world is too late
‘But whatever the quality of (twenty-first) century Christians, the Church remains unalterably secure. And no Christian who understands the Church’s true nature can talk of the Church being in danger of being engulfed. It is too late for the world to destroy the Church, two thousand years too late. The world had its chance and did its best – and its worst – on Calvary. God answered with a body of men and women against whom the gates of Hell shall not prevail. We have his word for it. And if the gates of Hell shall not prevail, need we worry unduly about the latest secularist estimate of the Church’s statistical manpower or the jibes of shallow brains-trust intellectuals who have yet to find their peace?
‘The world is like an express train hurtling towards disaster – perhaps towards total destruction. And in this truly desperate situation certain passengers are running up and down the corridors announcing to each other that the Church is in great danger! The irony of it would be laughable if it were not so searing. Why most of the Church’s members have already got out at stations en route. And we ourselves shall be getting out soon anyway. And if the crash comes and the world (is destroyed), then the only thing that will survive the disaster will of course be the Church.
Those who have jumped overboard
‘“The Church’s Desperate Crisis.” “Will the Church survive?” “Can the Church Rise to the Needs of the Modern World?” Headlines like these may disturb or intrigue the minds of readers, Christian or non-Christian, who have swallowed the doctrine of the Authority of the World. But no one who is deeply rooted in the doctrine of the Authority of the Church can take them too worryingly to heart in the sense intended. For the Christian’s image of the Church is that of a mighty liner in mid-ocean riding out a storm. Safely on deck, one cannot take too seriously the cries of those who, having jumped overboard into the perilous sea, scorn the proffered life-belts, and use up their last resources of energy before being engulfed to warn those still on board that they are in a doomed vessel.’
Be encouraged. We hope that the coronavirus plague can be conquered. But even if that cannot be done and no vaccine can be manufactured, in the midst of death, you pastor hold out rescue, security and life through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. You are called to offer what no one else can. Now is not the time to be downhearted, but the time for courage and valuing the privilege of your work.
 Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (SPCK, 1963). The quoted material comes from pp. 152-154.