The post-Christendom election

By Jonathan Bartley
March 9, 2010

The 2010 general election will see a mixture of two contrasting approaches from the churches to politics. One we might term ‘Christendom’, the other ‘post-Christendom’.

Christendom – the 1700 year period in which Christianity was dominant both culturally and politically in Western Europe – does not mean ‘Christian’. Similarly, it is wrong to equate post-Christendom (the period of transition in which we find ourselves) with something in some way post-Christian. Indeed, for many, post-Christendom offers the chance of liberation and a new opportunity to articulate a more authentically Christian vision. Equally however, it would be wrong to write off everything from Christendom as ‘bad’. The task of the churches must be to critically assess what is useful for the post-Christendom journey, and what should be discarded.

In my 2006 book Faith and Politics After Christendom, I developed Stuart Murray’s work, and suggested that post-Christendom can be characterised by seven political changes:

From the centre to margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were often central in the business of government but in Post-Christendom these are marginal.

From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, and so could often easily exert political power and influence, but in Post-Christendom they are a minority.

From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story. They aligned themselves with and took part in governing activities. But in Post-Christendom they are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where they no longer feel at home.

From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, often enshrined in law, and often including the privileges of government itself. But in Post-Christendom they are one community among many in a plural society.

From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, perhaps most notably through legal means backed up by sanctions for law-breakers. In Post-Christendom they must exercise influence through witnessing to their story and its implications.

From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, often through the mechanisms of government and the law. In Post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.

From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, which made it far easier to be part of governing institutions. In Post-Christendom they must become again a Christian movement.

During this general election, it will be interesting to see how much the churches take on a Christendom approach, and how much they adopt approaches more suited to post-Christendom. The successful churches will be the ones that adapt and change. Those who continue uncritically in old Christendom approaches, and fail to take account of the new terrain, will find themselves increasingly ineffective. Below is a quick table (which I will update) which highlights some thoughts on how the approaches might differ.

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