Religion in America today

Editorial by Paul Badham

from Modern Believing, Vol 50:4 - Oct 2009

This edition opens with a fascinating overview of the history of Christianity in the USA and a snapshot of the present condition of the Christian Churches there. The article was first presented at an Open Day of the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, so not surprisingly the emphasis is on Emotion, Experience and Enthusiasm in American religion. Dr. Lynn Bridgers argues that the big divide in modern American religion is between churches whose focus in worship is to communicate a living experience, and those who stress a sacramental, doctrinal or Biblical foundation for faith. The former are expanding rapidly; the latter are all in a state of decline. The documentation for all this is set out with great clarity.

However the argument is puzzling, for these things ought not to be. Historically the rediscovery of the sacramental through the Oxford movement was in great part a wish to recover the beauty of holiness in worship and to bring a taste of heaven to earth. Characteristically the Anglo-Catholics explored the ways in which gothic architecture, sacred music, incense and vestments could stimulate a sense of the numinous and lead people to an experience of the divine in our midst. Similarly the birth of Modern Theology in the writings of Schleiermacher in Germany and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Britain stressed the importance of rediscovering religious feeling as the foundation on which all depends and the cultivation of an experience in which the whole soul is dissolved in the immediate feeling of the Infinite and Eternal.[1]

However Bridgers shows that the historic mainstream Presbyterian, Methodist and Episcopal Churches, all of which are in steep decline characteristically respond to the contemporary world with a stress on the need for a return to Biblical and doctrinal orthodoxy as the way forward, coupled with a judgemental attitude to those who do not conform to traditional norms of ethical behaviour. Her documentation of this makes depressing reading especially as one considers that currently an appeal to 'Biblical Orthodoxy' is being presented in the Covenant as the only way to maintain the unity of contemporary Anglicanism.

The impact of a prolonged death on the families of the deceased

The reason why Assisted Dying has become an issue in our generation is primarily a side effect of the success of modern medicine in holding death at bay. Between 1991 and 2001 life expectancy in the UK rose by an average of 2.2 years. Unfortunately however only 0.6 of those years were healthy, whilst time spent in terminal illness increased by 1.6 years.[2] According to Richard Nicholson, writing as Editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics 'half an individual's life-time health-care expenditure occurs in the last six months of life... a major NHS activity is the prolongation of dying'. [3] The cost of this is seen in the experience of the dying and their families as they cope with this new situation.

David Seddon is a Humanist Funeral Celebrant who meets with the families of recently deceased individuals to plan their individually designed funerals. He describes the effect the prolongation of the dying process has on those who are close to the sufferer, watching the illness progress, watching the distressing treatments being heaped one on top of another, and wishing, against their heartfelt hopes, for their loved ones to die. People speak of their unconquerable fear that they will end their lives in a similar way; and, worst of all deeply regret that the final months or years can poison a lifetime of good memories.

Assessing Chaplaincy's Contribution in the care of mental disease on Campus.

Ivor Moody works as a Chaplain at Anglia Ruskin University, and describes the valuable role a Chaplain can play in providing pastoral help to those suffering from mental distress. It is striking to realise how often students suffer from various forms of mental unhappiness and how difficult it is to find the most appropriate way of helping such people. Moody suggests that the Chaplain's own experience of marginalisation and struggle to be heard on campus which can make the chaplain a fellow traveler on the road, sharing the journey of others who are fighting, amidst all the demands of intellectual rigour, to make sense of their emotional and psychological situation .

Hastings Rashdall's Theology of the Church

At this year's MCU conference Professor Keith Ward remarked in an aside that he considered the twenties as the greatest era for good theology in Britain. When challenged he cited the work of F.R. Tennant as exemplifying this. He could equally well have cited the work of Hastings Rashdall whose profound theological learning across the whole range of Christian theology and church life remains as important as ever. Modern Believing is already indebted to Margaret Rayner for her article on Rashdall's understanding of immortality which we published in April 2007. In this present issue she focuses on Rashdall's Theology of the Church. Her very fine scholarly article enables Rashdall to speak again to the present generation of Churchpeople. Contemporary ecumenical discussion would do well to heed Rashdall's message about the historical origins of Christian ministry which do not justify the exclusive claims of Episcopal Churches to have the only kind of valid ministry. The theological seriousness with which Rashdall developed his theology of the Church gives us an example of how we should seek to resolve our current divisions.

Making sense of Atonement

On no subject is Rashdall's theology of greater importance than on The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology first published in 1919. From the point of view of historical theology his magnum opus remains the definitive word on how to make sense of the atonement today. However as Bishop Stephen Sykes reminds us it remains the case that 'phrases and sentences' associated with older atonement beliefs remain 'the common coin of the Church's worship'.[4] Because of this each successive generation of theologians has to grapple anew with the ubiquity of sacrificial language and the suggestion that in some sense 'substitution atonement' remains the default position from which people first reflect on atonement theories.

We are therefore grateful to Jeyan Anketell for his survey of contemporary writing on the atonement in evangelical theology and his critique of such views from the perspective of Jesus' teaching about the love of God for his prodigal children and the limitless character of divine forgiveness.


  1. F. D. E. Schleiermacher: On Religion, New York, Harper 1958 p. 15-16. [back]
  2. Guy Brown: The Living End, London, Palgrave 2007 p.74 and 218. [back]
  3. Radical surgery needed - Cut out the hospitals: The Times, 6th October 2006. [back]
  4. Stephen Sykes: The Story of Atonement, London, Darton, Longman and Todd 1997 p.5. [back]

Revd Prof Paul Badham is Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (Lampeter Campus) and a Modern Church Vice-president.