How the West was lost – and what God’s people ought to do about it.
Editorial Introduction: In the first of a two-part interview by Randall Hardy, the former Queen’s Chaplain Gavin Ashenden gives his perspective on the spiritual state of Britain.
Part 1: Counting the Cost
RH: Many people/Christians in the West are confused by the rapid changes which are happening in society. What is your understanding of the times in which we live?
GA: We’ve been used to a period when Christianity has profoundly influenced the world we’ve lived in, but its influence has ebbed and flowed, so we’ve had, if you like, almost eddies of influence. To continue with that metaphor and to use tide instead, the tide of Christian influence is in our day running out fast and the extent to which it’s run out has surprised everybody.
It’s almost as if Christian influence has crumbled overnight for some of us, in the last couple of decades, in a way that would have been shocking if we could have foreseen it. So I think the effect it’s had on us is to challenge our assumption that we could take the Christianisation of our culture for granted.
We clearly can’t, and its disintegration in our own lives has been a cultural and spiritual shock, and I think also a theological warning.
RH: How far back in history do you see the roots of today’s rapid changes reaching?
GA: I think it’s helpful to have a bird’s eye view of the last 2,000 years…if we do that from the perspective of our island, what we see is Christianity locked in a struggle with autocratic Roman culture and then, as it succeeded in converting the Roman Empire, it found itself facing paganism in Europe.
It converted paganism and set up the foundations for a deeper Christianisation of society. I’m one of the people who look to the Middle Ages as being an immensely impressive period, [when] the Christianisation of society went deep, with houses of prayer at the centre of society’s life and the rulers being held to account for Christian values.
Like all life cycles, it was cyclical and the Reformation sought to bring new life to it, but the problem for the Reformation was it was overtaken by the Enlightenment.
The tide of Christian influence is running out fast – and the extent to which it’s run out has surprised everybody.
So for the last 300 years we’ve been struggling with a growing rationalism which has fed human pride and amplified the theological question posed in the beginning of Genesis – ‘Just because you can achieve something, are you sure you can live with the consequences of taking those actions?’
What we discovered in the 20th and 21st Centuries is that we can’t live with the consequences of our skilfulness.
So from the perspective of the end of the Age of Enlightenment, where we are now, we see that we’ve been overcome by a love of human cleverness, which has eclipsed people’s sense of the need in their own hearts, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to communicate the Gospel at what I think I might want to call the end of the Age of Enlightenment – which is where we live now.
RH: We have seen many churches embracing these changes and seeking to claim they are Christian values. Why do you think this is happening and where do you think it is a leading?
GA: When asked this kind of question, we need to agree what category of diagnosis we are going to use. We have the options of spiritual discernment on the one hand, or an analysis that flows from a reading of political and historical development on the other.
Christianity always needs to interpret itself in a way that the contemporary culture can hear. But that immediately throws up a danger. It makes it more vulnerable to taking on board the assumptions of that culture. It takes a very healthy and confident faith to preserve its roots in revelation, whilst still finding imaginative ways of communicating it to people who don’t accept that source.
In our age the Church has become over-impressed by the intellectual and technological accomplishments of the last 200 years. To some extent, it has lost confidence in the miraculous and transcendent. So when society begins to experiment with different ways of understanding gender and sex which have nothing to do with the protection or nurture of the family, a misplaced vulnerability to the unbiblical ideas of social progress combined with a desire to be compassionate can produce a different matrix of theological priorities in the Church. Wanting to be seen as loving, we become instead indulgent and in need of approbation from those we live amongst, instead of challenging and helping them.
Using spiritual discernment, we find in Romans chapter 1 that there is a close correlation between idolatry in a culture and sexual and gender disorder.
It is no surprise that our idolatrous culture is experiencing profound confusion in matters of sexual identity and morality.
If we put these two things together, it is no surprise that our idolatrous culture is experiencing profound confusion in matters of sexual identity and morality. Sexual incontinence and confusion is one of the foremost by-products of idolatry. It is as if the ‘being made in the image of God’ becomes more obscured and society begins to image darker, more dangerous and disordered other ‘gods’ – in other words, the distortions that flow from the gravitational pull of the ‘ruler of this world’.
It will lead further and further away from an authentic Christianity into one of the usual perversions or diminutions of the faith; a ‘Christianity of convenience’. There is always the danger that Christianity becomes a kind of religious or spiritualised veneer used to give a kind of false comfort to genuine religious longings, but one which actually reinforces the selfish wills of the human heart rather than challenges and transforms them.
In my judgment, that is exactly the situation the Church of England has got [itself] into today. It refuses to allow its comfortable presuppositions to be challenged by the authority of Scripture and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, without which formative faith becomes relative religion.
RH: What do you believe are the implications for Western societies in the future?
GA: Western society appears to have run out of both inspiration and energy because it has put its eggs all in one basket. That basket is an inflated sense of what it can achieve. Western society has bought into a philosophy of improving utopianism – which is a misdiagnosis – and so Western society at the moment is faced with a choice, because it’s challenged by two great religious solutions.
The first one is Christianity, which invites it to have a more realistic sense of its own fragility and to repent and throw itself into God’s hand for re-making. And the other is Islam, which requires it to submit to an authoritarian re-ordering of society on theocratic terms, with power rather than mercy at the heart of it.
Secularism, which is effectively self-indulgence and intellectual pride, cannot stand in the way of Islam simply because Islam is so politically ambitious and so militarily equipped that secularists will find themselves unwilling to die for convenience’s sake.
In that sense I’ve always believed that a secular society runs out of steam, unable to sustain its own utopianism. It’s faced essentially with a choice between Mohammed and Jesus. It appears to have rejected Jesus, so it looks like it’s going to get Mohammed.
RH: You’ve mentioned Islam and many people are concerned about its influence on Western nations in its variety of forms. You could say in many ways that this has become the fly in secularism’s ointment. How do you see the relationship developing between secularism and Islam in the future?
GA: The real problem for secularism is it wholly misunderstands what Islam is. In its reliance on badly-educated secular Religious Education teachers, it’s made the category error of seeing Islam as a kind of Arabic form of Judeo-Christianity. It’s nothing of the kind. So far from being a cousinly Abrahamic faith, it is in fact the opposite of Christianity.
As a result of that, secularism has entirely underestimated both what Islam’s ambition is and its determination to fulfil that ambition in a series of strategies which begin with mass immigration and end in force. By misunderstanding Islam, secular society finds itself undefended against it and worse than that, in its antipathy towards Christianity, it has decided to use Islam and Islamic immigration as a weapon to take what I think is revenge on Christianity.
Secular culture [cannot] sustain its own utopianism. It’s faced essentially with a choice between Mohammed and Jesus. In rejecting Jesus, it looks like it’s going to get Mohammed.
What it’s done is to make a pact with a religious and political force that will in the end overcome it. Not unlike, I suppose, in one sense, the way in which the Anglo-Saxons paid a Danegeld to protect themselves against one enemy, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the very people they were seeking protection from.
RH: You have outlined the reasons you see behind the cultural changes in Western societies in recent decades. Are there any passages in the Bible which in your opinion shed light on these developments?
GA: The Bible ought to shape all our views – and does, of course. But I find myself looking particularly to the Gospel of John and to the Book of Revelation as providing ways to best understand the dynamics of the rapid shifts that we’re experiencing during my lifetime.
And so I think I’d want to make a bridge between the Lord’s Prayer and Revelation chapter 21, and say that I’ve increasingly come to see what Jesus taught us to pray for in the words “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” not as something that can be achieved on the earth, where St John tells us that the main influence is the ‘ruler of this world’ and the Book of Revelation tells us that the earth is, if you like, the remedial Borstal for Satan and his angels after they lost the metaphysical fight with St Michael.
Instead, I see the new Heaven and the new earth as the place that we’re being pointed to in Revelation 21 in a way that should direct our prayers and our energies. That’s not to say that what takes place in time and space and history is unimportant, but it is to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is beyond time and space, and we’re called to make the most direct journey possible towards it, living out all the Gospel values we can as we do so.
Next week: Part II: Paying the price.
Gavin Ashenden read Law at Bristol University, before studying theology at Oak Hill Theological College in London. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1980, subsequently serving in a London parish for 10 years. He spent 23 years at the University of Sussex as a senior lecturer and senior chaplain, lecturing in the Psychology of Religion and Literature.
Over the years he has written occasional newspaper articles and worked for the BBC on a freelance basis presenting a weekly faith and ethics radio programme.
In 2008 he was appointed a Chaplain to the Queen. In 2017 he resigned from this position in order to be free to speak out for the faith in public. Later that year he resigned from the Church of England, convinced that its leadership was replacing apostolic and biblical patterns with the alternative values of Cultural Marxism.
He is now a Missionary Bishop to the UK and Europe in the Christian Episcopal Church.