Arming today’s Church with knowledge
British Christians are taking some time to get used to living in a post-Christendom world. Gone are the days when biblical stories are the mainstay of our common culture language. Those who surround us are often very well primed in dismissing the Christian faith, from either a faith or anti-faith perspective. I want to see the Church do something about it, and I think the answer may come from looking at the other faith communities around us.
During my time at University of Bradford, I took part in a couple of Christian Union mission weeks. This may come as a shock to some who know me. Actually, it was a really interesting experience. Bradford is a University where the most visible faith group is Islam, and it was from here the argument mostly came. Christianity was a fraud, not because it claimed God existed, but because it lacked the credibility of Islam. There was only one God – he most certainly didn’t have a son, or send him to Earth. There was only one trustworthy scripture – the Qur’an. We didn’t know our bibles. We were wishy washy, rather than too conservative. And the arguments were thorough, consistent and rehearsed. Almost too rehearsed.
The fact is, this was in part correct. In their Biblical Education, British Christians today are pretty weak. Most of us don’t know how the 66 books came to form the Bible. We’re not great at defending our faith. We rely on beginners courses such as Alpha that can only ever convey extremely basic principles, on Sunday School and Youth Group talks that emphasise the fun, cell groups that focus on relationships and sermons that must be short and engage such a range of understanding that a low bar is automatically set. All of these are great things, but they are severely restricted.
The young British Muslims I met at University, alongside British Jews (and other faith communities), will have grown up attending extra classes after school where they will have studied their community’s faith. Whilst some individual programs may have been suspect for their particular approach, on the whole I envy these young people. Even taking an A Level in Religious Studies in which I took modules in both Old and New Testament studies couldn’t make up for it. Secondary School RE classes are only good for studying faiths as an outside observer, even in a Church of England school.
Arriving at University, many young Christians find themselves ill-equipped for life amongst educated Atheists and adherents of other faiths. Perhaps the reason is that their knowledge of academic subjects is likely to already be at a far higher level than their knowledge of their faith. As a community, Britain’s Christians are failing their youth by sending them to University with A* A Levels in their chosen academic subjects but little more than Lower Secondary understanding of their faith. Years of being told not to over-complicate the Gospel run headlong into discussions of degree-level Philosophy and Science that claim to disprove God’s existence – and so often crumble on impact.
Those who succeed do so for a number of reasons, sadly most often through diving into a ghetto for protection from modern discourse (such as a CU), but also through a total disconnect between sacred and secular realities. A few will survive through aptitude at debating or through being academic enough to unpick the arguments or because they studied above and beyond the levels expected of them beforehand. The fact so few Christians are picking certain subjects (including Anthropology, Philosophy and anything involving Genetics for starters) says something of the fear of Higher Level Education.
We cannot rely on Religious Education in the secular classroom. When I sat my GCSEs, I took both English and German. My German was taught to me as a second language, even when the teacher was a native German speaker. My English teacher taught from the basis that this was the language in which I would naturally choose to read novels, poetry and plays. A school RE lesson will necessarily look more like my German class than my English class.
Improving that level of education is not going to be easy. Resources are thin and this is not something for all young people with church contact. Its most probably something that needs developing at a city level rather than by a single church. This is only a part-solution, and its only going to take us so far. I admit, its inevitably going to be a lot of vicar’s kids studying at this level. But perhaps the time has come to really challenge ourselves to equal our Muslim and Jewish cousins in understanding our faith.