The Failure of the Church

[A word about the author of this paper seems essential to its complete understanding. Some months ago we noticed a brief editorial in the London Nation which read as follows: —
' An event of real importance in the Churches is the decision of Mr. Edward Lewis to resign his pastorate of the King’s Weigh House Church at Clapham, on the ground that he can no longer reconcile his desire to be a “man of God” with his position as a “ comfortably conditioned official” of “organized religion.” Mr. Lewis writes his letter from Assisi, the home of the greatest of mediæval Christians and of the re-birth of Christianity as a gospel of poverty and simplicity of living. In future Mr. Lewis declares that he will resort to wayside preaching. His formal secession from Congregationalism deprives it of its most gifted “intellectual,” and is one of many signs of a new spirit of freedom sweeping powerfully through the world.’
Believing that this striking action of Mr. Lewis typifies in large measure that spirit of religious revolt which is one of the most interesting phenomena of our time, we wrote to Mr. Lewis, who sent us in reply the following article. — THE EDITORS.]


I AM writing from England, and with a quite unpardonably superficial knowledge of the ‘Church-Situation’ in America. The observations, however, which I desire to make are of so broad and general a character that any force they have will not be impaired by accidental local conditions. Clinical examinations of the church-situation have frequently been made of late years by various practitioners; but although their reports have rarely failed to give an accurate and more or less exhaustive account of the symptoms of weakness and failure, they have not, as it seems to me, shown any clear apprehension of the root-causes thereof. The suggested remedies, therefore, have been for the most part in the manner of relief of acute localized symptoms, and have not availed, nor will they ever avail, to restore the prestige and power of the Church in modern society. On the contrary, in spite of sometimes frantic efforts to make the Church attractive (a suggestion which, in itself, is a serious criticism), the diminution proceeds, not only of the number of adherents in all save the Roman Catholic communion, but also of vital influence in the life of society. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that, in England at least, the Church is in Queer Street.

The present article is an attempt to disclose the root-causes of this failure.

During a recent visit to Italy, a Franciscan padre said to me with admirable assurance, ‘In ten thousand years the Church will be here as it is now.’ He meant his own communion in its institutional form. The Theory of Evolution is, for the Roman Catholic, on the Index; and probably his mind moves at a slower tempo than the rest of the world; so the padre may be congratulated on his enthusiasm, and left to his delusion. How far this optimistic vista is shared by the religious world as a whole it is not easy to judge; perhaps it is true that the majority of Christians regard the Church as identical with the Kingdom of God, and as having the stability of the New Jerusalem itself.

Crowns and thrones may perish,
Kingdoms rise and wane,
But the Church of Jesus
Constant will remain.

A very comforting doctrine doubtless, but the telescope must be at a very blind eye indeed if a churchman cannot see that most of the signs of the times are against him. As a matter of fact, one of the most conspicuous of such signs is a widespread anxiety, especially among its more awakened and alive adherents, concerning the position and influence of the Christian Church.

The Church’s power as an organization is obviously on the wane. That Roman Catholicism is increasing its numbers both in England and in America, and that Roman Catholics attain to the highest civic and political offices in these essentially Protestant lands, is no valid objection to this statement. This numerical increment is to be accounted for partly by immigration, partly, and perhaps chiefly, by the fact that in times of intellectual unrest people of less robust mind will run for a haven even if they have to turn in their tracks to reach it, and the reaction from oppressive and exhausting materialism will drive not a few to where the great mysteries are still frankly acknowledged and reverenced; but no one imagines that an institution can thrive permanently on accretions of this character; and there is no sane Englishman who would maintain that Roman Catholicism is developing organically with the national life of his country. It is perfectly obvious that this great Church which once controlled the policies of a continent has practically no institutional influence at what may be called the crucial and strategic points of the modern Welt Politik. It may be said to be her agelong policy, — and the recent official banning of the works of Bergson is an expression of it, — to have no influence on the vital thought-movement of the world.

The Protestant churches are of little account in the actual life of modern society. In England, eighty per cent of the people are outside their pale. In Germany there is the Austrittsbewegung movement, in connection with which, as a writer in the current number of the Hibbert Journal informs us, since January 1, 1908, ‘ in Berlin alone 31,907 Protestants, 5029 Catholics, and 196 Jews have notified their Austritt.' The increasing weakness of these churches is shown by their increasing concern to attract the people; days were when the Church was a ‘government, of men’; nowadays with all manner of devices it angles and touts after men.

The ' Kikuyu controversy ’ doubtless meant something very important for the institutional side of the Anglican Church, but the world at large looked on with either amusement or indifference or contempt. A cartoon in Punch in which a couple of Negro natives were represented as singing an aria, ‘Why do Christians rage?’ was an admirable and accurate indication of the public attitude toward that proceeding. Custom and habit will always have their hordes of slaves, but it is becoming more and more manifest that the free mind, the free life, the free spirit of the modern world are away from, and not with, the Church.

It is a strange paradox, — Religion flourishes, the organized Church decays. What is the reason for it? What is the remedy? It will be time enough to talk of remedy, when we have discovered the true reasons. It is at least possible that we may then be compelled to the conclusion that there is no remedy, — and this is not quite so tragic a statement as at first sight it may seem.

It may be stated, with an assurance of profounder root than that which made the Franciscan priest swell with pride, that, as an organization, the Christian Church is necessarily impermanent; it must go the way of all other institutions; in ten thousand years, — which is really a longer time than it sounds, since, with the speeding-up of modern life and the dramatically rapid developments in scientific and critical thought, a day with us ‘is as a thousand years,’ — the Christian Church either will not be here, except perhaps fossilized like Rossetti’s toad in the stone, or will be so different in every way (including its name) as not to be recognizable. The life which creates forms always destroys them in the fullness of time; the Church must either perish, or it must be destroyed by being fulfilled. It can only persist by being left, if the paradox may be allowed. Whatsoever of ancient Judaism, for example, vitally persists in the modern world, is to be found in the Judaistic elements of thought and practice which are embedded in the Christian system. And history will repeat itself. Christianity, as we know it to-day, must ultimately be dissolved in a new religious synthesis. One of the first articles of belief, for a truly religious and spiritual man within the Christian community, ought to be that there is a ‘Beyond Christianity.’ The passage into this ‘Beyond Christianity’ is inevitable in the natural course of events.


And here I come upon the first of my suggested root-causes. The Christian Church does not believe in a ‘Beyond Christianity.’ It is as much a closed system as ever Judaism was. It believes in its own potential finality; it believes in minor developments within itself, but that in essence it is the final word in Religion; there is ‘more light to break forth from the Word,’ but there are no other ‘Words.’ It is the walled Eternal City; within the walls there is sufficient accommodation, but there is no question of the walls ever being dissolved. It has no real outlook. All that really matters is within. It is capable of variation, but not of mutation. Salvation is through its sacraments alone; it goes ‘out into the highways and byways,’ but only in order to ‘compel them to come in.’ It talks about evangelizing the world, but it really means bringing the peoples of other religions into the Christian system and institution. Its one hope for those who die unbelieving is that, in some other state of existence, they may have a further chance of becoming Christians. Heaven is the imaginary projection of the final Christian community; and the guaranty of a place therein is church-membership, — in a broad sense.

The first three articles in the Hibbert Journal, for July, 1914, written by different men on different subjects, contain, strangely enough, identically the same question. In the first, it is put in this way: ‘Does “spiritual freedom” confer upon any one, lay or cleric, the “right” to stay in the Church after he has ceased to accept its teachings, the “right” to believe what he likes and openly avow such belief while remaining a member of a religious community which has subscribed to a confession of faith? What right, then, still adheres in a Christian body? Can a Christideal, identified with the true, the good, and the beautiful, be substituted for the historical person of Jesus Christ without fundamentally overturning Christianity as a spiritual religion?’

The second writer, speaking of the Modernist, says, ‘His fellow clergy suspect him. Worse, he suspects himself. He is forever asking himself, “Ought I to be where I am? Can I honestly go on saying the creeds, and celebrating the sacraments? Am I trying to live in two incompatible worlds? May it not be a form of hypocrisy, or of cowardice?”. . . Yet he cannot reverse his own natural development. . . . He must go on. . . . But he wonders whether his attempts to reconstruct his beliefs will ever end, or can logically end, in anything which can properly be called a Christian position.’

The third writer frankly entitles his article ‘Criminous Clerks,’ and goes so far as to propose a society ‘ to assist those unfortunate clergy who have learnt too late that their intellects cannot acquiesce in doctrines to which they pledged themselves as undeveloped youths.’ Such a society would instruct such equivocating clergy with a view to sincere intellectual conformity; or, if this were impossible, would facilitate their removal from their positions in the institution.

All this is highly suggestive. It means that within the Christian community there are not a few men who are nonChristians, in the dogmatic, institutional sense. Some of them themselves feel uncomfortable; of whom a few go voluntarily out; those who are responsible for the organization feel exceedingly uncomfortable because of them; do not know quite what to do with them; regard them as elements of disturbance and disintegration; sometimes forcibly turn them out, as in the case of the late Father Tyrrell; more often attempt to stifle them by official ostracism and snubbing; hoping, it may be, that the tremendous suction-power of the organization will eventually submerge them and their works. They are like unto ferment; and any ferment is highly objectionable and dangerous to the institutional order.

This is prime evidence of the general acceptance by Christians of the idea of the Church as something final and closed. It is an old idea, at least as old as ancient Judaism; and is far more deadly in its threat against the existence of the Church than all the ‘damnable heresies’ put together. It should be clear to any liberated mind that so far as this official, institutional view is able to prevail, the Church is doomed. Clear on the other hand it should be that it is precisely these men who retain the Christian spirit, — ‘ if a man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his,’ — but have worked themselves free to a large extent of the dogmas and formularies; who have assimilated Truth which has come to manifestation along other lines than that of the tradition wherein they were born; it is these who contain within themselves the promise, not so much of the re-birth of the Church, as of the birth from the womb of the Church of that other Something wherein that plasmic Substance, which created the churchbody, shall continue to live and manifest at a higher point in a new body, as the father lives on in his so different son.

‘Always emergence.’ Out of the nut, the seed, — the husk cast aside; out of the chrysalis, the butterfly, — the cerement left upon the ground to be reabsorbed into the matter-matrix; out of Semitism, Hebraism; out of Hebraism, Judaism; out of Judaism, Christianity. Why stop there? It is not possible to stop there, unless one confesses that the line of tradition has left the main channel of forward life and been sidetracked into a cul-de-sac. Out of Christianity, a Beyond Christianity. It is matter of common knowledge that Christianity, as it began to take shape, represented a synthesis of Judaism and Hellenism, with less significant ingredients from other quarters. Why should not modern Christianity become conscious of itself, as opposing, say, Buddhism and Mohammedanism; not as a competitor seeking to drive them off the field, or as a lion seeking to devour the lamb, but rather as a lover seeking marriage-union and offspring? Synthesis, not conquest? Something of this kind is believed in, and hoped for — indeed must be so visioned and dreamed of—by truly religious men; but it is not believed in by the Church. The justification put forward for that interdenominational communion at Kikuyu was that it was necessary that all branches of the Christian Church in British East Africa should be united against the common threat of the advancing tide of Mohammedanism in those regions.

That is the church-attitude. It wants to live, persist, and be immortal as it is; it does not see that it can live on only by dying to all those outwardnesses which it imagines to be its true self; it does not believe that it can save itself only by losing itself. It is self-bound in the mirror-lined prison-house of selfconsciousness. In whatever direction it turns it sees only itself. This, I submit, is one of the root-causes of its failure.


The second is not altogether unrelated to this. I will state it bluntly. In its present organized form the Church is a flat contradiction of the spirit and principles of its Founder.

This is not a criticism of the personnel of the Church; I admit that there are saints in Cæsar’s household; it is an affirmation of the necessary results which follow upon the organization of a spiritual movement. It is one of the revenges which Time has always up its sleeve. No institution can be perfectly true to its ideal; but it is the peculiar misfortune of the Church that, since the sum and substance of Christian practice is proclaimed as being loyalty to the ideal, the mind, and spirit of the Master, it has come about that few institutions are as false to their professed ideal as is the Christian Church.

No wonder the Church is beginning to question the historicity and reality of Jesus ! The spirit of Jesus, as a plumb line convicts the wall which is out of truth, convicts not only the world, but the Church also, of sin. There are those who take a natural, and those who take a supernatural, view of Jesus; but both hold up Jesus as the supreme example for the practice of life; and, save here and there in the conduct of an individual, there is no serious whole-hearted attempt to follow Him. We do not want reproductions of Him, as if He were the headline of a copy-book, but Christians on the whole do not even live their lives in his spirit. To a few in the Church, the doctrines in the Epistles are a dead letter; to many more, the doctrines in the Sermon on the Mount are a dead letter. We cannot have it both ways.

If we say that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount were determined by some eschatological view, and laid down for a state of things quite other than that under which life in these modern days has to be lived; or if we say that Christianity has been imposed upon the western world, and is an exotic which cannot be acclimatized; then let us frankly confess that Jesus is no example. But if we persist in offering and in accepting Him as an example, let us bow our heads to the judgment; for we who ‘profess and call ourselves Christians’ do not, as a whole, live our lives out in his spirit, and we apparently do not make any arduous or sustained effort to do so. Jesus is a name to exorcise with, or a password to be whispered into the ear of the official at the other side of death’s river; but if faith in Jesus be self-identification with Him in the spirit and practice of life, its absence is more conspicuous than its presence in the Church.

But it is with the institution rather than with its members that I am more particularly concerned here. Bergson has propounded a theory of the creation of matter, according to which matter is held to be a kind of degradation from spirit, a falling back like the descending drops from the fountain-jet. When a spiritual movement begins to materialize into form, credal or institutional, that form is necessarily in the manner of a degradation from the primal spiritual impulse. Institutionalized religion is always a degeneration from spiritual religion. There is always a qualitative loss in Faith when it comes to be expressed in a creed. Authoritative dogma and formulated doctrine are always somewhat at the expense of Truth in its pure integrity.

In the development of the embryo, there comes a moment when the germcells cease to multiply, and begin to create somatic cells, which rapidly increase, organize themselves, and form the body whose first purpose is the protection of the original plasm; the somatic cells are, in point of vitality, a degradation or relaxation from the germ-cells.

Jesus does not seem to have anticipated the formation of a Church; certainly He was not concerned about any such thing; He defined the Kingdom of Heaven as a ferment, not as an order. But the formation of the church-body was inevitable; equally inevitable was it that it should be a degeneration from the spirit which created it. This is not a peculiarity of religious institutions, it is true of all institutions; neither is it applicable only to organized Christianity, but to every other organized religion. Buddhism as it exists to-day in Tibet, let us say, is a vastly different thing from the Buddhism preached and practiced by Gautama and his immediate disciples. That which distinguishes the Christian religion, however, from every other is the supreme position it gives to a personality and a personal ideal once actually incarnated in terms of human life and character, and the central emphasis it places upon identification with the spirit of the Master as the determinant of conduct in the professed disciple. So much so that there is a sense in which Christianity is Jesus.

Now, it is this which occasions the severe criticism embodied in the title of this article. If it is in the nature of things that an institution should fall short of the quality of the life-pulse or movement which created it, then one could not well say that an institution is a failure because it is false to its ideal; but the Christian Church is held to be different from every other institution in that, so far from being a degeneration from the spiritual impulse which gave rise to it, it is its development and realization: the Church is the Kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke; the Church is the Kingdom, so far as at present realized on earth. Judged by its own claims, the Church is one of the most dramatic and complete failures presented by history; for if one thing is more obvious than another it is that the Church to-day is precisely that which Jesus opposed in Judaism, and died to break through.

In a sense, the Church is anti-Christ. Hear the episcopal communions telling us that salvation is alone through their sacraments! What has the Jesus-spirit in common with that? Listen to the evangelistic communions telling us that salvation depends on our acceptance of one particular view of Atonement! What has the Jesus-spirit to do with that? Ordinances, ceremonies, rites, fast and feast, vestments, incense, flummery and mummery, pose and posture, ecclesiastical orders, tests, hierarchies, temple-treading, riches, dignities, and all the paraphernalia of officialdom, — these may be necessary to the organization; they probably are, — but they have nothing to do with the spirit of Jesus.

This is one of Nietzsche’s criticisms of Christianity, and there is no answer to it. True, the criticism would lose its force if the Church would say,

‘ I am but the temporary body, an ark for the time being, to protect the plasm of spiritual universal religion; I can express certain aspects of it, reveal it in a particular way; but in due time I must wither and decay, having passed on the plasm to create for itself a new and higher body.’ This, however, is just what the Church will not admit; and so that which in any other institution would be regarded as a necessary defect, is judged by the world in respect of Christianity as being a culpable failure.

It is easy to see how this view of the Church reacts upon the life-quality of its members. The Cross is not regarded as a principle of life, but as a mechanism of salvation. Repetition of creed tends to take the place of vital, energetic, venturesome faith. Performance of rites, and submission to sacraments, tend to become substitutes for personal consecration to high ideals of living. The fact of Churchmanship is held to outweigh, as it were automatically, moral delinquencies. The whole thing becomes honeycombed with doublemindedness.


The third root-cause of the Church’s failure is its despair of the world. This is one of its fundamental characteristics. The church is optimistic, but only at the expense of the world. It fixes man’s great and only hope beyond the world. It conceived the germ of this failure when it excluded paganism. The pagan joy was based upon a belief in life, in the wholesomeness of natural things, in the essential goodness and rightness of the world. The Christian joy is based on a denial of natural life, and on the expectation of outlasting and ultimately escaping this world. The wholeness of the Christian life is not found by entering into and possessing the things of the world, vitally, strongly, with zest and mastery, but by casting them off, and putting them away. Christian discipline is a kind of armed defiance against the world.

Christians habitually couple the world and the flesh with the devil. The world is evil. It is essential enmity against the spirit. It is a place of exile. It is a temptation-haunted house of probation. It is the devil’s acre. It is a prison-house. It is something to be perpetually struggled with, and we shall be lucky to escape from it in the end by the skin of our teeth. It is a siren. To enjoy it is the great betrayal of the spiritual life. All natural things are inherently bad; they lie under the doom of a heavenly decree, and exist only to be annihilated by shock and fire. The world is no home for the soul; at best we are pilgrims through a desert dreary land; at worst we are trapped in an enemy’s country and there is no discharge from the war.

Human nature is radically evil. The flesh is the arch-foe to whom it is fatal to give quarter. Mortality is a disease. Natural passions are sinister. Sex is a death-trap. To be thoroughly ashamed of one’s self is the first step on the way to salvation. It is amazing what time and energy is spent in Christian pulpits for the sole purpose of making people ashamed of themselves; it is called convicting them of sin. We must feel that we are sinners, and go groveling in the dust before God, before we can be saved. This has the effect in many cases of putting a premium on insincerity. The worst things are picked out in the best of men in order that there may be some point of appeal for the Gospel, since this (as commonly preached) is directed specifically to our ‘ fallen state.’ A clergyman not many weeks ago said from the pulpit, ‘Even a saint sins every hour he lives’; which is not only not true, but not even interesting.

The Church has run a schism through God’s universe. Its central message is that there is, fortunately, another different world into which entrance will be given at the end of this life by the infinite grace of God, — operating, it is mainly affirmed, under certain sacramental and doctrinal conditions.

The failure of the Church is due to the natural working out of this profoundly irreligious principle. It is the Church’s sin against Life finding it out.

For, quite clearly, an institution which in despair of this world preaches the surety of another in which there will be rewards, compensations, and the righting of an unequal balance, will attract to itself for the most part those who, from some cause or other, find neither zest nor satisfaction here in this world-life. Far be it from me to say that people forlorn and heavily oppressed in the world should not have comfort ministered unto them; but surely there is something healthier and more positive and more comforting to be said to them than ‘Cling to the Cross. Only believe. The Way is short. For mourning you shall have laughter; for bitterness, bliss; for the slum, heavenly mansions; for harassment, liberty in a world to come.’

To what type of person is this likely to appeal; and what type of character is it likely to create? There always have been, and still are, great and heroic men and women associated with the Church; for the religious spirit is no respecter of persons, and does not disdain the habitations of physical and moral strength and beauty; but it will scarcely be questioned by any one who faces the actual facts that the first appeal of the Church is to the weak, weary, diseased, disappointed. It rejoices more to see a man leaning on the provided religious props, than to see him standing out in the hazardous world on his own feet. It rejoices more over the sinner on his knees at the penitent form, than over the naturally strong man who goes forth, like the sun, to run his course. It would rather behold a man bowed under the sense of the awful sinfulness of sin, beating upon his breast and petitioning God for mercy, than watch a man in the splendor of defiant and masterful courage ‘railing alongside the torrent.’

For the robust, vigorous, vital, selfreliant, venturesome man, who is laying firm hands on life and daily getting his ‘meat out of the eater,’ the Church has no message, no pride in him, no acclaim for him, no smiling ‘ bon voyage.’ Such a man might attend the services of the Church for a month of Sundays and never hear a single word which would sweep across his heartstrings and renew in him the zest and exultation of life; on the contrary, he would be invited to call himself a ‘miserable offender,’ to sing anæmic hymns, to listen to a dreary impeachment of the world and of the natural human heart, and to take part in a veritable orgy of life-negation.

The Church stands in the world as a reducing agent; it mixes water with the wine of life. It is a purveyor of consolations, a dispenser of promised compensations, a hospital for the infirm, a nursery for those who continue to depend on apron-strings, a waitingroom for would-be emigrants to a better land. Jesus said that He came that the world might have more abundant life; the Church offers to those who are faithful amid the hopeless, rank, evil circumstances of mortality the counterbalancing hope of another life.

The effect of this is that the virile and healthy men and movements of the modern world tend to pass by the Church, and to focus and give expression to themselves elsewhere.

When, therefore, the organization which presumes to stand for the religious function in society has fallen into open contradiction of its own first principles, announces its despair of the natural order, and has somehow passed from the main stream of the moving life of the world, it seems necessary in the interests of the social order which is and is to be, which requires and will ever require for its health and stability a vital religious centre, that some one — and it is sure to be more than one — should answer anew the old challenge, and go out to ‘prepare in the wilderness a highway for God.’