Prudence Dailey: Commentary
In Defence of Christendom
‘Of course, none of us would want to see the return of Christendom’.
These words were spoken some years ago by a bishop during a General Synod debate: I cannot now remember exactly who said them, nor the subject of the discussion; but I will never forget my naïve bafflement at hearing this utterance. Christendom has been defined as the centuries during which Western civilisation considered itself formally and officially Christian: why on earth would Christians welcome the de-Christianisation of the West?
While there is no specific date on which Christendom can be said to have come to an end, its fizzling out seems to have been recent and rapid. When I was born, in the mid-1960s, the tail-end of Christendom was still in operation: I arrived prematurely and, concerned that I might not make it, hospital staff immediately—and before even consulting my mother, who was recovering from a difficult birth—summoned the Chaplain to baptise me at once. At my state secondary school in the 1970s and 80s, we sang hymns and said prayers in assembly: that was residual Christendom, too.
I think I now understand where certain Evangelical objectors are coming from. Christendom (they argue) makes no distinction between the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’, demands no individual acceptance of Christ, and sees no need for evangelisation and conversion. By contrast, to be a Christian in our modern secular culture demands a definite personal commitment.
The implication is that, at the time when Christianity could almost be taken for granted, many of those who thought of themselves as Christians were really only nominally so. There is, of course, an element of truth in this: in an environment when it socially expected or advantageous to lay claim to the Christian faith, and perhaps even to attend Church regularly, quite a lot of people are going to do so without any real personal faith.
To see things this way is, however, to privatise faith excessively, and to misunderstand human nature. As every parent who has sought to raise Christian children understands, while it is ultimately up to each person to accept or reject the Gospel, such decisions are not reached in a vacuum. Communities of shared faith provide an environment in which belief can be nurtured, and the Christian message is regarded as prima facie plausible. It is no surprise that the Bible several times speaks of whole households being baptised. What is more, secular writers such as Tom Holland and Douglas Murray have increasingly come to understand that Western culture is fundamentally underpinned by the precepts of Christendom, without which it is increasingly fragile.
Following the recent death of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, as attention has been turned to aspects of his life that were previously not well-known, we can see the extent to which he represented the last dying embers of Christendom. Brought up, like any Greek prince, in the Orthodox Church, and then switching his allegiance to the Church of England because he was expected to do so, it would have been easy to imagine that his Christian observance was largely a formality. In reality, however, nothing could have been further from the truth: he was a man of deep Christian conviction, who not only read but also wrote religious books and prayers, and (it is said) persuaded Her Majesty to include more overt Christian themes in her annual Christmas message. Inextricably bound up with the Established Church—of which his wife was Supreme Governor—his faith was no less genuine for that.
It is, alas, highly unlikely that Christendom will return in the West in our lifetimes, or perhaps ever in this life. We should, however, recognise what we have lost, and pray that in God’s good Providence it might one day be restored.