I: The Spirit to the Churches in North America: “Disestablish Yourselves!”

An Awkward Church
by Douglas John Hall

I: The Spirit to the Churches in North America: “Disestablish Yourselves!”

“And to the angel of the church in Ephesus write. . . ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. . . . But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first’. . . .”

“And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write. . . .’I know where you dwell; where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness. . . .”

. . .But I have a few things against you. . . .”

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write. . . . ‘I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. . . .”

“And to the angel of the churches in North America write. . . .”

‘Disestablish yourselves!’ . . .”

Or so it seems to me. In these two addresses I shall try to explain why
such a message might be appropriate, especially for the edification and reformation of the once-mainline Protestant churches of this continent. In this first address, I shall formulate what ‘disestablishment’ would have to mean within our particular context. There will be three sections. In the first,
“The Future of a Glorious Past,” I comment upon the confusion that reigns in the churches today as we find ourselves deprived of the triumphs that fifteen centuries of ‘Christendom’ promised us. In the second
section, “The Tenacity of the ‘New World’ Form of Christian Establishment,” I discuss the character of the ‘cultural establishment’ in our setting and the manner in which this complicates all attempts at liberating the faith from its societal moorings. And in the third
and final section, “Disestablishing Ourselves
as the Alternative to Being Disestablished,” I come to the main thrust of this first lecture: that responsible Christians ought not to be fatalized by the humiliation of Christendom but ought rather to attempt to discern in this process of de-constantinianization new occasions for authenticity and, accordingly, ought to give positive direction
to the process instead of allowing it simply to happen to them. In the second address, I shall speak about the rationale
of such a counsel–the end in relation to which a purposive, church-directed disestablishment can be a vital means.


It is instructive, sometimes, to read older works of theology. It can also be humiliating, because apart from a few classics it is hardly possible to find any theological literature of the past which does not strike one as being so ‘dated’ that one is stung into the realization that one’s own work will soon bear that same abysmal stamp of time. Probably it bears that stamp the minute it is uttered!

This is particularly true where theology has taken upon itself the awesome task of addressing the future, and more particularly still where it attempts to anticipate the future of Christianity itself. Recently, I came across a book published in 1934, The Christian Message for the World
Subtitled “A Joint Statement of the World Wide Mission of the Christian Church,” its authors were great American Protestants of the period such as John A. MacKay, Kenneth Scott Latourett, and E. Stanley Jones.

The whole ‘Statement’ warrants careful reflection in the light of our theme; but what struck me with particular force was its way of reading the Christian past.
That might seem an odd thing, since my object here (like the object of the book under discussion) is to consider the present and impending future
of the Church in North America. But, of course, every assessment of what is coming to be begets and is begotten by an interpretation of what has been. We interpret the past in ways commensurate with our anticipation of the future for which we think we should strive.

Let me share with you a brief segment from the seventh chapter of this work, “The World Reach of the Christian Faith.” What I would like you to notice is the way in which the past forms of Christian establishment are tacitly and unambiguously celebrated–a celebration needed by a church that conceives of its present mission in terms of the maintenance and further expansion of this same establishment:

From its inception Christianity has been expanding geographically. Beginning as an inconspicuous Jewish sect, one of the least of the many cults seeking to make a place for themselves in the Graeco-Roman world, it early outgrew its Jewish swaddling clothes, became cosmopolitan in membership, and within less than four centuries was the dominant faith of the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Christianity, although by that time closely associated with it, not only survived but won to its fold the barbarians who were the immediate cause of the overthrow, spread into regions in Northern and Western Europe which had not before known it, and became the chief vehicle for the transfer of the culture of the ancient world to the Europe of medieval and modern times. In the middle ages Christianity was an integral part of the intellectual, social, economic, and political patterns of the day. Its theology was formulated in terms of the prevailing scholasticism and it was apparently a bulwark of the existing feudal society.

Yet when the medieval world disappeared, Christianity persisted. Not only so, but when, in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, European peoples spread into the Americas and won footholds in Asia, Christianity went with them, became the faith of the peoples whom the Europeans conquered, and ameliorated the cruelties of the conquest. When, in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, European peoples again expanded, colonizing fresh sections in the Americas, occupying all of Africa and the islands of the Pacific, and subjecting to their control much of Asia, Christian missions followed and in some instances anticipated the advancing frontiers of Occidental power, and modified profoundly the revolutionary results of the impact of Western upon non-Western peoples and cultures.

Occasionally Christianity has suffered major territorial reverses. In the Seventh and Eighth Centuries Islam won from it vast areas and numerous peoples. In the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries the wide-flung posts of Nestorian Christianity in Asia were almost wiped out by Tamerlane and his cohorts. In the present century the church in Russia has been dealt staggering blows. Yet in spite of the fact that Christianity has never fully regained the ground from which it was driven in these defeats, usually it has more than made good in other regions the area lost. Never has it been so widespread as today.

In the history of mankind no other religion has been professed over so large a proportion of the globe or by so many people. From the outset Christianity has claimed for its message universality: it has maintained that it has a gospel for all men. More nearly than any other faith it has progressed toward the attainment of that goal. While of the other two great surviving missionary religion, one, Buddhism, has long been practically stationary, and the other, Islam, has made few if any major gains in the past hundred years, Christianity, in spite of the many obstacles which beset its path, is still spreading. In no similar length of time have its boundaries expanded so rapidly and so widely as in the past century and a half.[2]

Thus did our immediate theological and ecclesiastical forebears recount the history of the Christian movement. Thus did they lay a foundation in the past for the yet more auspicious future towards which they felt themselves moving. Today, informed and reflective Christian thinkers tell this story very differently, not only as to its details but also its general tone. It is
a different story that is told in Langdon Gilkey’s recent book, Through The Tempest,
or Hans Küng’s Theology for the Third Millenium
It is a different story that is assumed in David Tracy’s Plurality and Ambiguity
.[5] Both The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity
and Christianity: Social and Cultural
–two of the most ambitious recent surveys of Christianity–tell the Christian story in a manner that diverges markedly from the book I just quoted. Concomitantly, all of these recent works entertain a quite different future.

Many influences have brought about this historiographic change: the decline of Christianity in the West; the decline of the West itself; the failure of the Modern vision; the new consciousness of their own worth on the parts of non-European peoples; a critical perception of the technological society on the part of many who have experienced its most ‘advanced’ forms; the impact of religious and cultural pluralism, especially perhaps in North America; and (not least) the self-criticism of serious Christianity–its recognition of its own questionable triumphalism, of patriarchalism, of the equation of the Christian mission with Christian and Euro-American expansionism, and so forth. Expressing a new realism about Christian history that is shared by many reflective Christians in our time, Hendrikus Berkof writes, “To a great extent official church history is the story of the defeats of the [Holy] Spirit.”[8]

On the whole, however, the realism about our own Christian identity and vocation that informs contemporary Christian scholarship has not, it seems to me, penetrated the life and thought of the churches
on this continent. Large segments of North American Christianity are content to tell the Christian story – past, present and future-in pretty much the same way we heard it in that lengthy quotation. In fact (and somewhat ironically), the missionary enthusiasm present in The Christian Message for the World–
an enthusiasm engendered by liberal Christian expectations of the rapidly evolving ‘Kingdom of God’ — is today represented more consistently by conservative and so-called ‘evangelical’ Christians, who look to the twenty-first century in rather the same way the Liberals looked to the twentieth: as ‘The Christian Century.’

Our conspicuously depleted once-mainline churches, with (to be sure) important exceptions, appear to waver between indifference and confusion. We do not know, either how we should think of the Christian past or what we should hope for by way of a Christian future. Indifference
to this dilemma is indefensible and can only be sustained by persons who are not serious Christians. Confusion,
on the other hand, is entirely understandable.

How could ordinary churchfolk not
be confused about the identity and vocation of the Church? For fifteen centuries, Christians have been conditioned to believe that being Christian and being European or American were essentially the same thing, and that the Christian ‘calling’ was to spread Western Christian Civilization–to wit, Christendom!–over as much of the surface of the globe as possible. We have all, in one way or another, been nurtured on the same basic line of reasoning that permeated the 1934 book that I read from a moment ago. But while our liberal Christian forebears who created that statement really believed
it, we, for the most part, harbour in our souls a deep if unacknowledged skepticism about such a story and its attendant vision. Yet, apart from a few thinkers, experimenters, and perhaps fools for Christ, most of us do not know what could replace
such a conception of the church; and so we carry on… ‘as if.’


Confusion about the character and calling of the church is present in all the provinces of Christendom today, but in the United States and Canada this contusion is both extraordinarily complex and… poignant. Yes, poignant
because here, as (I suspect) nowhere else in the world, we are not only unprepared–psychically and spiritually–for what we must regard as failure, including Christian failure; but by the very nature of the case Christian failure is here bound up with failures of national visions–indeed, with the very ideological foundations of our society: what is called Modernity. That Christianity has not continued to manifest the unimpeded upward surge that so inspired the writers of the 1934 document is accompanied by the recognition that neither of our countries has made good the promise which, even in the midst of economic depression, could instill enormous pride in the hearts of Americans and Canadians sixty years ago. The humiliation of Christendom and the humiliation of New World optimism are inseparably linked. Thus, having little spiritual courage for undergoing humiliation at any level, we manifest in our common life today what I can only consider a kind of repressed melancholy–the melancholy of those who wish above all not to appear melancholy. Hence my word: poignant.

How should one account for this? So far as its ecclesiastical aspect is concerned, I attribute the complexity and ‘poignancy’ of our confusion about ourselves in large measure to the peculiarity of our
form of Christian establishment. The establishment of the Christian religion in both Canada and the United States, particularly the United States, has been infinitely more subtle and profound than anything achieved in the European parental cultures. The reason for this is not very complicated. While the old, European forms of Christian establishment were legal ones–de
have been cultural, ideational, social–de
Or, to put it in another way, while the traditional establishments of European Christendom were at the level of form,
ours have been at the level of content.

I suspect that our very refusal of formal
patterns of Christian establishment has blinded us to the power of our informal
culture-religious pattern. In both of our countries, there have always been influential voices reminding us of the separation of church and state. But only rather recently have a few voices alerted us to the paradoxical manner in which, while disclaiming any ties with government, representatives of the Christian religion could always assume highly if not exclusively favorable attitudes towards Christianity, not only on the part of most citizens, but also of officialdom. Soren Kierkegaard’s critical witness against ‘Christendom’ in mid-nineteenth century Europe was coterminous with what Sydney Mead identified as the point at which Christianity and Americanism became merged into a unified sort of spirituality.[9] But I suspect Kierkegaard [1813-1855] would not have known what to say in the face of a Christian establishment which had refused the status of legality and was, partly for that reason, all the more entrenched socially and even (in a hidden way) legally!

The tenacity of the North American cultural establishment of Christianity is evident today as both Europe and North America encounter the effects of Christendom’s decline. I find it interesting to notice the quite different ways in which Western European churches and North American churches have responded to the processes of secularization and ecclesiastical reduction. On the whole, I think, the Europeans have managed this transition much more gracefully than we. I do not admire everything that is transpiring in European Christianity today–and certainly not the presumptuous hope, entertained in some very high quarters, that with the disintegration of Marxist states, Christendom may reclaim exclusive cultic rights to its old European home! But I confess that I do admire the way in which many European Christians, West and East, have accepted
the new, minority status of believing Christianity, and have experienced this as both release and opportunity: release from the duties of chaplaincy to authority; opportunity for truer, untrammelled service of God and creation. This is what I covet also for us in North America; but I know that for us it is not easily come by.

Perhaps legally established relationships are always more readily dissolved than the more indefinite relationships of mind, will, and heart. Legal arrangements such as those between European states and churches, even if they have lasted for centuries, are set aside with relative ease as soon as both parties desire it or (what is more likely) the stronger party, the state, no longer benefits from it. There are religious leftovers, of course: church taxes may still be collected and–as in West Germany–most people may still dutifully pay them; state occasions, like the coronation of British monarchs, will still require religious pomp and sanction. But it is relatively clear to everyone concerned where the line is drawn between serious faith and civic cultus. With us in North America, on the contrary, Christ and culture are so subtlety intertwined, so inextricably connected at the subconscious or unconscious level, that we do not know where one leaves off and the other begins. The substance of the faith and the substance of our cultural values and morality appear, to most real or nominal Christians in the United States and Canada, virtually synonymous.

(Allow me a homely personal illustration: Several years ago I spoke to an ecumenical gathering in a far western state of this country on the theology of stewardship. In the discussion that followed my lecture a middle-aged man remarked, with little ceremony, that he had “never heard such un-American stuff!” When I confessed to him that I hardly knew, as a Canadian,
how to respond to this categorization of my message–what did he mean by ‘un-American’–he quipped, “Easy! It just means unChristian.”)

Our new world variety of Christian establishment has enormous staying-power because it is part and parcel of our whole inherited ‘system of meaning,’ a system intermingling Judeo-Christian, Enlightenment, Romantic-idealist, and more recent nationalistic elements so that even learned persons have difficulty distinguishing them. One cannot, therefore, judge ordinary folk who equate unchristian and unamerican sentiments, or what they hear as such. For the average North American church-goer, it is confusing in the extreme to entertain the ‘different’ picture of the Christian past that much scholarship is painting today, because that entails entertaining a different conception of his or her nation’s past as well–in short, of the whole
past. And if it is hard for such persons to accept another rendition of our past,
it is even harder for them to conceive of a future
that may be fundamentally discontinuous with that officially glorious past. In some of the traditions springing from the radical wing of the Reformation the idea of a Christian community separate and distinct from the majority culture can still achieve at least a formal hearing; but in our formerly ‘mainline’ denominations the thought that the Christian identity and vocation would require a deliberate distancing
of the church from the pursuits and values of dominant society is still so foreign as to be ungraspable, even at the intellectual level. Emotionally it is mostly abhorrent–“unamerican!”


And yet, our effective
distancing from the dominant culture is happening quite apart from our willing it. We are no longer ‘mainline churches’ or ‘major denominations’ in anything but the historical sense of having grown out of older families of Christendom. We are not ‘mainstream churches’ if that term implies (as it does for most people) a certain social status:
the status of unquestionable social respectability; the status of right-thinking American Christianity; the status of the unofficially official churches of our society. We may be allowed to play that role here and there, but I think we are deluded if we imagine that it is a role our society reserves for us alone, or that it will simply be held open for us, world without end! I do not mean that we are socially insignificant–in fact (as I shall say later) I believe that we have greater potentiality for genuine public significance now than we actually had in the past, in part because we are not
“mainline.’ But for the moment my point is only that most of the denominations which formerly could claim for themselves such distinctions as ‘mainline’ or ‘mainstream’ or ‘majority’ status are undergoing a shift to the periphery.

This shift is partly–but only partly–made conspicuous at the quantitative level. According to the recent work, Christianity: Social and Cultural History
. “. . most of the denominations that dominated America’s religious life before the Civil War (Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists) are in decline.” Between the years 1940 and 1986 there was an increase in the population of the United States from 130 million to over 240 million, a rise of 83%. “Denominations defined by their European origins–for example, Lutherans and Mennonites–have grown at rates roughly comparable to the rise in population. Most of the older Protestant denominations have had rates of growth considerably below the rise in population, and some of the mainline denominations actually lost membership in the 1970s and 1980s.”[10] Specific figures are provided in this source and many others, such as David Barrett’s exhaustive World Christian Encyclopaedia.
Of particular importance is the marked increase of those who claim ‘no religion’. According to the Barrett investigators, “White Westerners cease to be practicing Christians at a rate of 7,600 per day.”[11]

While theologians should not scoff at statistics, numbers do not tell the whole story. The effective disestablishment of Christianity in its traditional ‘Western’ form is experienced by all of us at levels of recognition which go deeper than our knowledge of church membership rolls and finances and other readily quantifiable data. If we have lived in North America for 50 or 60 years, then, unless we are amongst the exceptions, we have witnessed the advent of public attitudes towards religion which are vastly different from those that were prevalent in our teens and twenties. We have seen the rapid growth of an almost complete religionlessness on the part of many; we have observed the erection, in our towns and cities, of temples and mosques and pavillions of faiths known to us formerly (if they were known at all) only out of storybooks; we have lived to witness the proliferation of Christian
sects and (what is more unnerving to us!) their elevation to high social respectability, and even to the status of “normative Christianity”; we have observed, accordingly, how the instinct to belief (if there is such a thing) may now satisfy itself in literally thousands of ways that have little or nothing to do with the Christianity that we took for granted in, say, 1948. But beyond all that the discriminating amongst us have discerned the appearance of new attitudes towards the whole business of religion: that it is strictly an option; that it is a purely individual decision; that there is no reason why the children of believing parents should be considered potential members of religious communions; that religion may be useful, but truth doesn’t apply to this category; and so on. Such nonquantifiable experiences as these were, I am sure, in the mind of the American Church Historian, Robert T. Handy, when he wrote in the final chapter of History of the Churches in the United States and Canada,

The American and Canadian churches entered the period following World War I devoted as they had always sought to be to the service of God and to the continuation of the patterns of western Christendom.. .

In the half century following World War I increasing numbers of persons both inside and outside the churches came to believe that their civilization was no longer basically Christian and that Christendom was a fading reality.[12]

The question with which these observations leave us is not whether we can continue to assume the supposed privileges of our historical form of establishment. Rather, the question is whether we shall simply allow the process of being
disestablished to happen to us, or whether, as Christians and churches, we shall take some active part in directing the process. I do not believe that the process itself can be reversed; moreover, I do not believe that Christian faithfulness is well-served by trying
to reverse it. The scramble to regain or retrieve or recreate ‘Christendom,’ entertained in various forms and programs by several powerful Christian groups in North America and beyond, seems to me both socially naive and theologically questionable. Even if it could be achieved (and it could not be achieved without violence, psychological if not also physical), it would not, in my opinion, represent a faithful reading of the gospel for our context. After all, Christianity in the West ‘enjoyed’ fifteen centuries of almost monopolistic religious establishment. If we consider that history in the light of the Scriptures and our own best doctrinal traditions on the one hand, and of the socio-psychic realities of our contemporary world on the other, we can hardly with integrity desire a repetition of that highly ambiguous form of Christian existence. This truism was highlighted in 1992 by the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus.

If, then, we find ourselves amongst those who can neither pretend that nothing has changed, nor ignore the whole situation, nor seek to reconstitute the Humpty-Dumpty that was Christendom, and if, at the same time, we are not content simply to allow the process of effective disestablishment to happen to
us, the alternative that remains is to accept the reality of our new situation, looking for the positive
possibilities that it presents, and seeking to give meaningful direction to what historical providence appears to have in store for us.

We could, of course, simply fall into despair. Many, I think, have opted for that choice–quietly, even wordlessly. One can understand their discouragement, but it is not necessary. Given a modicum of grace and imagination, thinking Christians today may prepare themselves to see in our disestablishment, not an impersonal destiny such as may be the fate of any institution, but the will and providence of God. Protestant traditions of theology insist that God is at work in history, and that the divine Spirit creates, recreates, judges and renews the body of Christ. What is happening to the churches of Europe and North America today cannot be received by us as though it were devoid of purpose. The hand of God is in it.

But our Protestant traditions of theology also insist that God’s hand reaches out to the human counterpart, the covenant partner. History–including the history of the church–Christianly understood, should never be conceived of as that which willy nilly happens to
us. Even though Christians must reject the Modern idea that we human beings are the ‘makers’ of history, the covenantal basis of our faith places upon humankind a participatory responsibility for the unfolding of God’s purposes. Christians know themselves to be “stewards of the mysteries of God” [I Cor. 4:131. Accordingly, we are called to participate in the judgement which begins at the household of faith [I Peter 4:17], and to participate also in the reforming of that household. Semper

If, then, I say that the message of the Spirit to the churches of North America is, “Disestablish yourselves!” I mean precisely that
kind of participation and stewardship. God is offering us another possibility, a new form, indeed, new life!
But as always (and why should this surprise us?) we may accept this gift of the new only as we relinquish the old to which we are clinging. We may re-form ourselves according to the new (but is it not also a very old?) form only as we give up time-hallowed assumptions, automatic practices, beliefs so conventional as to be thought eternal, comfortable relationships with our world–all those things which belong to a form of the church that is no longer viable, which no longer truly lives and no longer gives life. If we just wait for more and more of those things to be taken from us by societal forces over which we have little control, we shall not even save for the future what was good in our past. If we disengage ourselves
; if with courage and trust we release our hold on what we have been conditioned to believe was the immutable form of the church; if, to use a newer Testamental image, we lose our life, ecclesiastically speaking; then we may in fact gain our life as Christ’s living body.


In the second address, I intend to speak to the question: What would disestablishing ourselves mean, concretely? In particular, what is the end that could be served if, instead of passively accepting the process of reduction and marginalization, Christian leaders and people sought to give it form and direction?

For the present, I conclude with the final sentences of Robert Handy’s History of the Churches in the United States and Canada:

The churches have faced many times of testing; those that lie ahead may be far more thorough than any recounted in this history.

The stamp of the centuries is heavy on the churches of the present. To understand how to treasure what was right and good in that complex past and how to abandon what was wrong or outdated will take all the wisdom and guidance which Christians seek in their worship of God as known in Jesus Christ.[13]


[1] E. Stanley Jones, Kenneth Scott Latourett, John A. MacKay et al.,
eds.; New York: Round Table Press, Inc.

[2] Ibid.,
pp. 149-151.

[3] Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

[4] trans. by Peter Heinegg; New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1988.

[5] San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987.

[6] Ed., John McManners; Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

[7] New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., and Toronto: Collier Macmillan Canada, 1991.

[8] Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith,
trans. by Sierd Woudstra; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979; p. 422.

[9] “. . . .during the second half of the nineteenth century there occured an ideological amalgamation of [denominational] Protestantism with ‘Americanism,’ and… we are still living with some of the results.” Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment;
New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1963; p. 134.

[10] Howard Clark Kee et al., op.cit.,
p. 731.

[11] David Barret, ed., The World Christian Encyclopedia, Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982. John Taylor, in an essay entitled, “The Future of Christianity” which forms Chapter 19 of the aforementioned Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity,
indicates that this trend has been particularly marked in Western Europe: “There is no society more saturated with Christian influence. Yet the main thrust of that steep rise in the number of people in the world who are without religion.. . has occurred, not under anti-religious despotism, but in West Europe.” [p. 657]. Hans Küng’s one- sentence summary of the global situation seems generally accurate: “Of the three billion inhabitants of the earth, only about 950 millions are Christian and only a fraction of those take any practical part in the church.” (“The Freedom of Religions,” in Owen C. Thomas, ed., Attitudes Towards Other Religions;
Lanham: University Press of America, 1986; pp. 195, 199.)

[12] New York City: Oxford University Press, 1977; p. 377. [13] Op.cit., pp. 426-427.