Christianity Modernised

Christianity is widely condemned for being a closed set of beliefs and practices, shutting out wisdom from other bodies of thought and our own time. As this essay shows, reform though difficult is possible.

Christianity is a broad church and therefore hard to characterise accurately, but it is often seen as relatively conservative and somewhat of a relic from the past. Is change possible, let alone desirable? This essay explores the question of modernisation through issues of authority, belief, constitution and practice.

Upfront I must say that modernisation as suggested may be possible but it is not likely. It would require huge shifts in mindset by many, many people, not to mention those with a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Still, in the interests of truth, these questions must be asked.


The Bible

The Bible is the primary source of Christian doctrine and will remain so, presenting us with all sorts of problems, for it was written with purposes specific to its time, literary forms specific to its time, and in the context of beliefs specific to its time. However, our understanding of it is subject to constant re-evaluation. The Bible is not in its totality the word of God but contains the word of God – an important distinction. This means two things: we have to decide what is core as distinct from mere periphery, and we have to interpret for ourselves those passages which are contentious.

Convention has it that the core begins in Genesis and includes topics like original sin, the covenants and God’s chosen people. Yet while these are important, the real heart of it all is surely the story of Jesus. There are firstly his teachings, especially the two great commandments (Matthew 22:35-40) and then his blameless life and death and resurrection, which give these commandments concrete form. Everything else in the Bible, I suggest, has to be interpreted in light of Jesus’ teachings and story. There are many passages which could be regarded – and have been regarded - as contentious topics; but time changes our view of these things. The Virgin birth, for example, is no longer a big issue; on the contrary, socially disputed topics like homosexuality, divorce, and the role of women are.

We cannot realistically escape the centrality of the Bible as the source of Christian belief, but we also have to work out afresh exactly what the Bible message is. This is enormously difficult, so vast is the full compendium and in parts so inconsistent. Not only this, but we also have different types of source material to reconcile – story, teachings, poetry and more. We have to make our own judgement as to meaning in the original context (so far as it can be determined), meaning in today’s context, and the relative weight of each passage in relation to overall doctrine. Divorce is an example. Jesus disapproves of divorce in general terms while allowing that human hardness of heart has perverted the original idea of marriage. Regrettably he does not make allowance for all the causes of divorce that we today would recognise. These might be said to fall under another pronouncement, whereby we are expected to love others as our own self, including (arguably) compassion for people going through marriage breakup. Setting this sort of debate in the context of a modern society which is quite comfortable with divorce only adds to the problem.

When literal interpretations of the Bible are at issue, each society and each generation has to make its own interpretations, taking account of contemporary law and practice. As we get further in time from the first century and become ever more distanced from the society in which the ancients moved, the most sensible thing to do is to focus on the core messaging and gradually loosen our attachment to specifics like prohibition of divorce, condemnation of gays or subservience of women. These specifics are important for what they tell us about human and God-centred relationships, but they are not the be-all and end-all of faith. They are not the whole, as expressed in the great commandments: they are merely parts of the whole.

Other sources

Christianity is a revealed religion, but revelation can be ongoing. Most importantly it is a religion which lives through everyday experience, now spanning well over twenty centuries. Despite efforts to the contrary, there is no infallible formula to tell us where in all this the absolute truth lies.

Over time there have been all sorts of variations to core doctrine which have enriched our understanding or detracted as the case may be. Some of the more famous contributions to Christian thought like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of the existence of God are deeply embedded in tradition, so much so that it is hard to imagine a contemporary Christianity without them. Some sources draw strength from their longevity, others from their modernity or their centrality in church functioning, for example documents of the Second Vatican Council. Meanwhile other sources have power of a completely different kind, such as the hymns of Wesleyan Methodism or the silent worship practised by Quakers.

Christianity has had to find its way through all sorts of changes conditioned by politics, economics, social life and customs and more. An obvious observation is the shift from close adherence to rule to the free-for-all of modern liberalism: a journey that went through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the death of imperialism, and more. This has made possible the writing of articles such as mine. Another observation from an earlier time is the shift away from agricultural society with its attachment to sacrifices, presumably an underpinning of the story of the Cross. A modern Jesus, responding to the evils committed on the planet, might still be put to death but might re-emerge as some form of cosmic artificial intelligence. Obviously this sort of scenario is pure fantasy, yet it indicates the range of thinking we have to undergo if we are serious about modernising Christianity.

I said above that we have no infallible formula to help us make sense of all this mass of contradictions. In fact the formula, such as it is, lies in whatever we identify as core. My view is that we do best if we limit the core to the smallest set of truths or perceived truths as possible. Everything in the end comes back to the two great commandments and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But as the following discussion shows, even the most pared down account of Christianity in the modern world says a lot more than this.


Core doctrine

The essence of Christian doctrine, as I understand it, is this. Beyond (and maybe through) everything material there is a presence called God or the Divine. God created the universe and all that is in it, with unlimited possibilities for life stretching into eternity. Fundamentally the universe is good but it also has the potential for evil, which human beings have discovered. To help us, God has given us Jesus who is the goodness of God in human form, and Jesus through his teachings and personal example has in turn given us the means to rise above our wretchedness and share in the goodness of the kingdom of God.

Both in this summary version and its numerous expansions, there are ideas that do not necessarily fit with modern ways of thinking. In the paragraphs that follow I explore some of the major issues under the headings God, creation, creation as imperfect, humankind, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.


The question of whether we all have a source is not really an issue for this discussion. It is a debate that encompasses all religion, and our concern here is specifically Christianity. It does, however, figure when we settle on a notion of who or what God actually is. Christian doctrine as it stands is like other monotheistic faiths in that it rests first and foremost on a view of the Divine as superpower: God is Almighty God. In other words, the universe is as it is for all sorts of reasons, but the power to ordain it so is pre-eminent. God has thus been conceived of in human terms, borrowing from familiar ideas like kingship and lordship, but this reduces “Him” to something much less than “He” is.

Christianity should approach the question of divinity with a new humility, confessing that the Divine is necessarily beyond the scope of human understanding. We might be right in apprehending the existence of Divinity but we as mere humans cannot go much further: we can apprehend but not comprehend. A good way of thinking about the Divine might be Paul Tillich’s idea of God as the ground of being. As such, the Divine is the source of everything, evil as well as good. We have to acknowledge it/him as being beyond all value, while also residing within all value.

Possibly the biggest problem for modern Christianity is whether or not God is personal. Centuries of thought have led to a departure from the personal God of the Bible, with a move to something more abstract, as in Spinoza, Whitehouse and Tillich. The idea of a personal God is, however, absolutely integral to orthodox Christianity, so we are forced to a position where God may both the ground of all being (Tillich) and the entirely personal Lord of creation (the Bible). In other words, God is both God and the “God above God.” Logically, if we accept the concept of God as the ultimate transcendent, encompassing absolutely all that is within the universe, this should not be a difficult leap to make: we are simply saying that God is both personal and beyond personal.

The Bible and Christian tradition speak of God as male, and this is another part of orthodoxy that is sorely in need of modernising. Again, if we accept the premise that God is beyond all limitations, we must understand that God is female as well as male; and if we have learnt properly the lessons of sexual identity that are now commonly understood – LGBTQI – we are probably nearest the truth if we refer to God not as He but as They.

By a curious contradiction we are as much challenged by the limiting of God to male gender as we are by the expanding of God to the Holy Trinity. Why? The Holy Trinity unites in the one the three – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A simple and I think sufficient explanation is that God, while being diverse, is also ultimately a unity. This is the same unity at work in the creation and unfolding of the universe, the vicissitudes of human history, the establishment of the standard of human perfection which is Christ, and the ongoing goodness in action which is inspired by God. To accept all this we have to make the mental leap of bringing disparate realities into one – but this is a large part of Christian belief from the very outset. It is like the non-dualism of Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions, asserting the absolute connectedness, the essential oneness, of all that is.


Creation here means not only how the world was brought into being but how it continues to work.

The Bible is written largely in the form of a story, an entirely natural unfolding of events through cause and effect. It is only later and in hindsight that the idea of a plan has arisen. The idea of a plan, however, overlooks the operation of chance which happens partly through free will. It is therefore more correct to talk of God’s design through which certain things were put in place as givens, while certain other things were provided as possibilities.

Being as limited as we necessarily are in terms of our ability to see the whole, we cannot with any confidence assert there is a plan. This means, inter alia, we cannot say there is a plan for the final resolution of all issues in something like a last judgement. The most we can say is there appears to be a design – some would say an intelligent design though that’s a loaded term – serving as the template for all that follows. This design might be a part of cosmic truth, implanted on the universe by the Holy Spirit, which is God in action or God’s agent.

Christian doctrine inherited from the Bible faces a perpetual challenge from scientific rationalists who see a disconnect between the creative capability of spirit and the material world we are all familiar with. Genesis 1 tells us that God said “let there be” this or that, but there is nothing in science to account for the processes involved. In an increasingly rationalist and sceptical age, this is a problem. The Neoplatonist idea of emanation has some appeal; that is, that all things phenomenal and otherwise are a necessary outpouring from the One. However, this again has no appeal to rationalists. A suggestion from Creativist philosophy is that the first product of God is truth and that this is the raw material from which love or goodwill fashions the universe, however this does not explain the first creation which would appear to have been ex nihilo, out of nothing. It is beyond the scope of the present paper to offer a fully argued solution. All that can be done here is to remark that this is an area that needs more work.

Modernisation has already made a significant advance in our time through the acknowledgement that we humans are not the overlords of the universe but merely stewards. We are still a long way from accepting humbly that we are no more than equals with everything else on the planet – Genesis 1:26 is an obstacle – but we are at least on the path to proper humility in respect of creation.

Creation as imperfect

Creation, so we are told in Genesis, was seen by God as good. In its design, if not its execution, it might be said to be perfect. Yet creation from our perspective is full of imperfections. Here I consider just two – the big two - evil and suffering.

The source and nature of evil is a huge problem in Christianity, indeed the monotheistic religions as a whole, partly (perhaps) because evil is not sufficiently explained in the Bible. We understand well enough that it is human ambition that has led us to aping God and at least pretending that we know the difference between good and evil, however this does not mean we have a mature grasp of the matter. Plainly, evil (or the possibility thereof) pre-existed humankind, but why is it part of the package at all? To ask why is probably inappropriate for this is an attempt to do the impossible, probing the mind of God. A better approach is to simply accept that it is so, and to realise that the universal design is something like the yin and yang of Chinese thought, whereby everything proceeds through a complex set of relationships involving both harmony and conflict. Conflict, as in evil and suffering, leads to a reordering in which a new harmony is found, and from this harmony a new level of creation emerges. Thus good and evil, like pleasure and suffering, exist in a never-ending symbiosis. And if we are looking for any evidence of a divine plan, it is in the very design of the cosmos itself: not only the endless playing out of these relationships but also the presence of the wildcard which is chance, represented in humankind by free will.

Very little of all this is evident in the Bible, except in the Book of Job, however it is hardly reasonable that the Bible be the repository of absolutely all knowledge and wisdom. Arguably, one of the great failings of Christianity to date has been its inability to deal convincingly with the question of evil. All we need however is a modicum of understanding as outlined here. Beyond that we simply have to do as Job was told to do: to accept. As God said to Moses (Exodus 3:14), “I am that I am.”

Evil comes from God the All just as much as goodness does, and while we should resist it, we should not be so vain or foolish as to suppose we can stamp it out. Evil, like suffering, exists in symbiosis with the good and can actually help in engineering the good into existence. The crucifixion of Christ is the prime example, but there are countless others. Diseases precede cures, war precedes peace, and so on. On principle we try to stop evil and sin from happening at all, forgetting in our innocence that these, are in the long run, learning experiences that can better us. Unfortunately, this broad generalisation is not helpful to the person who has just been raped or left destitute by swindlers or struck down in a car crash which was someone else’s fault. Christianity’s best response in these situations is not to try to reason the pain away (except perhaps for a dose of Stoicism) but to exercise compassion and give whatever practical help is at hand. The bottom line is that we are in a world both harsh and gentle, and Christianity is one of the main sources of gentleness.


Where does humankind fit in the grand panoply of things? And what is expected of us? The most obvious answer is that we are here to support the continuing process of creation, but how? One answer is that we are here to be stewards of creation, but there is more.

In the Old Testament, God established covenants with his people whereby obedience to certain commands was rewarded by earthly prosperity and protection. Thus it was that obedience to the Ten Commandments became foundational. In the New Testament this was overtaken by the New Covenant of John 3:16 in which “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Put another way, obedience to the commandments of God will lead to salvation. Just as obeying our parents or earthly masters can bring reward, so it is with God, though now the reward is in the realm of the spirit.

I have said elsewhere that God may be thought of as Providence, or the Pit, or the All: the good in life, the bad, or everything good and bad. This is something we humans have the freedom to choose. We can choose to be uplifted or we can choose to wallow in the muck of our own ego, greed and other failings. Exactly what is expected is spelt out at length in the New Testament. A lot of it is ethics as described later in this essay, but there is more, for before anything else we are asked (Mark 12:30) to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Whether or not we believe in a personal God we can at least interpret this as love of goodness.

The payoff might be seen by modern minds as problematic, for science today disregards the idea of eternal life. The idea of a soul, especially one with ongoing life, is also challenged. We might decide that the soul is in broad terms our character and personality, but this does not mean that it necessarily continues after death. As mere mortals we are unable to say so definitively, yet it seems unlikely. For any person, religious or not, life continues after death in different ways, through the effects of our actions, things we have said, ways in which we have handled situations, and so on. Our life also goes on in other people’s memory, incalculably. One way or another we all have an ongoing life and we all contribute in a small way to the broad stream which is (supposedly) life everlasting.


Jesus through his teachings and life example pointed the way to the sort of life we need to lead to lift ourselves up. But it was Jesus’s death and resurrection that is the ultimate message. He allowed himself to be captured, humiliated and put to death partly in fulfilment of ancient prophecy and partly for the very immediate reason that his followers could also have been treated harshly if he had not taken responsibility for them. In medical or scientific terms his return to life is unexplainable, but we can say, whether or not it was literally a miracle, it typified the miracle that can occur within human lives if they choose to make such a sacrifice.

The death of Jesus is not hard to account for in secular terms – the removal of a perceived threat by religious leaders backed up by Rome – but it is problematic when we look at the eschatological issues. We are talking here of the idea that Jesus was sacrificed by God and lifted up as a symbol of the determination that humankind was to be given another chance. Nothing is more central to Christian belief than the resurrection. One modern view, that of Bishop John Spong, is that the resurrection was not a physical event but something psychological. It was the mental leap by early Christians who accepted that Jesus was the Messiah, the divinely-appointed one who would, one way or another, save them from their seemingly endless life of deprivation and humiliation. For people educated in these matters, this interpretation is not perhaps hard to swallow; for others it may be a different story.

In our modern age, belief in God or any kind of spirit is increasingly under threat from the secular perspective that we should accept only the evidence of our senses. The logical consequence is a shift in interest away from God and towards the flesh and blood Jesus. This was especially evident in the 1970s musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, and even the slightly earlier Hair. In a subtle way this has carried through to today, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, when pressed to define or explain God, diverts attention to God’s earthly manifestation Jesus. There is nothing hugely wrong about this except that it takes attention away from the core issue, which is the distinction between an all-encompassing no-holds-barred total reality and the specifically Providential Christian reality. The distinction between the Old Testament God and the New Testament Christ.

The Holy Spirit

The idea of the Holy Trinity is somewhat complex but does not have to be so. Wikipedia’s article on the Trinity defines God as being one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine persons sharing the one essence. In Biblical terms we have God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In modern parlance (including the consideration of God not being exclusively male) we might say that God is our source, sustainer and ultimate standard of excellence, or alternatively our source, sustainer and uplifter.

The Holy Spirit often seems neglected or at best a shadowy presence in discussions of Christian agency. It is, so to speak, the ghost in the machine, not in the philosophical sense but as something insubstantial that can be put to one side.

A difficulty here is that the Holy Spirit has a multitude of roles. We might say that both the Holy Spirit (first mentioned in the Bible as early as Genesis 1:2) and Jesus act in some sense as agents of God. Jesus is the agent outside, the agent who is another human being, while the Holy Spirit is the agent within – that which can move within and inspire matter. The director of a stage play would find this an enormous challenge, for the Holy Spirit has an ethereal quality and lack of stage presence that puts it out of our reach. The Holy Spirit is an integral part of the overall doctrine inasmuch as it resides within us and links us to the overall “Godness” of the Holy Trinity. We can see, if our minds are properly focused, how the good within us is the same as the good within Jesus and the Divine creator. A modernising Christianity needs to pay more attention in its messaging to this final piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Failure to do so will mean that Christianity remains somehow “out there” rather than within us, as it should be.


Christian ethics evolved substantially during the Biblical period and it is therefore to be expected that they would have evolved greatly in the 2,000 years since that period. This does not mean that certain things previously held fundamental do not still apply; rather the issue is what things still apply – what is core. If we start at Genesis we see there were just two imperatives: the imperative of creation itself – to be fruitful and multiply – and the imperative of obeying God. Fast forward to the Ten Commandments and we see that obedience to God is still the lynchpin of received ethics, but there is also a new set of ethics, effectively creation in reverse – not to kill, not to steal etc. Truth and love enter into the picture as well, though somewhat obliquely, e.g. not bearing false witness and not killing or committing adultery. Jesus took all this forward a quantum leap with his two great commandments, which were to love God and to love other people as one’s own self.

Ethics change as we come to understand better their significance; alternatively they change with new developments in society. Jesus understood that the world hangs together not just through obedience to God or to laws but also through love; indeed love was – is - paramount. We today understand that love in turn hangs off truth and that truth is the fundamental substrate of all that is. Similarly with the subjugation of Jews to the Romans, Jesus realised there was a need to respect civil as well as religious laws (which might at times clash).

In the 21st century there are all sorts of social norms which have dislodged earlier ethics. Sex without procreation, abortion (subject to strict controls), divorce and remarriage, gender reassignment, same-sex marriage – these and others are all generally accepted, notwithstanding scruples which in some cases are Bible-based. Largely the reason is the rise of civil standards of ethics which ironically were Bible-inspired. Equality and freedom have come to the fore and now take precedence as drivers of ethics. Women are equal to men with the same right to enjoyment of their bodies and their lives generally; gay people are equal to straight and not to be discriminated against; transexuals are entitled to the same freedom as other people in choosing their sexuality. Not only have social attitudes liberalised but technologies have developed which make the previously unthinkable (like artificial insemination) now routine, and our horizons have expanded accordingly. One of the biggest horizon shifts is to accept that we no longer have a right to dominion over other creatures, for we are all fundamentally equal.

Thus the Biblical values of love, truth, creation and obedience to God (or Divine goodness) are now supplemented by the humanist values of equality and freedom. Can these values be reconciled? The answer is emphatically yes. We have in fact a minor miracle, for as ethics were transformed in the progress from Old Testament to New Testament, so they have been transformed further in the progress to modern humanism. They have in fact been enriched. If we accept the premise of all people and all things being fundamentally equal – all creatures of God – we have to accept that they must also be free, bound to obey no law except that of God. Truth resides in accepting that freedom. Love resides in honouring it, to the point where we can say that the best thing one person can do for another is to help him or her be free.

Freedom is a concept with many meanings. In the Bible it begins with liberation from bondage by an oppressor like the Babylonians or Romans, but the deeper meaning, more prevalent in the New Testament, is freedom from spiritual bondage by virtue of God’s grace. This can refer to entanglement in sin or indeed to something else like a medical condition (the demon-possessed man whose demons were sent by Jesus into the Gadarene swine). The point is that Christianity now has the opportunity to build on advances in social mores, science and all the rest by adding Biblical teachings to the debate as the occasion demands. In the case of women in the priesthood, for example, we have a new baseline where women are accepted socially and in business as leaders with gifts equal to men, so we have a duty in love and a spirit of creativity to help them advance into the priesthood and full parity with their male colleagues. This is a matter of truth, love, equality, freedom and creativity all combined. The same applies to gays and lesbians seeking equality of opportunity. Churches can and should help them advance within their faith and in the wider community, through vigorous advocacy where necessary.



Churches have traditionally been wary about recognition of certain people as members. Disagreements over doctrine or matters of discipline are often sticking points, with recognition denied to gays, divorcees, supposed heretics, extreme sinners etc. There is quite a difficult debate to be had here. On the one hand it can be argued that a Church has points of definition which it must maintain in order to be credible in the marketplace of religion. This could legitimately be the case with core doctrine as distinct from custom and practice, though even doctrine (as discussed above) is notoriously hard to define. Also at issue is the nature of variation from the standard. It is one thing to be a Catholic theologian in dispute with orthodox thinking (Teilhard de Chardin for example), but quite another thing to egregiously break rules (as has happened with priests who committed pedophilia).

Membership is, of course, not a black and white matter. Promotions within a Church may be denied as a way of subtly excluding or silencing someone; transfers may have the same effect. Quakers distinguish between members and attenders, only the former being able to have full voice in decision-making. There may be good reasons for these measures – this cannot be denied – but the underlying effect is to keep people out. This, in a movement where the founder explicitly embraced all, is risky business. Modernising has to take account of core meaning – what it means to be a Christian – but also the societal tendency which is to be increasingly open. A century ago, voting rights in elections were severely restricted (adult males, property owners etc.); now this anti-democratic behaviour is vigorously rejected.


A church is a free assembly of people who follow Christian teaching. In this time – the 21st century - when freedom is almost universally acknowledged as a universal good – we should make every effort to honour that notion of free assembly. It follows that religious organisations based on power are essentially wrong. The idea of power as something divinely ordained and stemming from the presumed power of Almighty God is seriously harmful, giving rise to all sorts of abuses and solidifying governance structures and processes that are desperately in need of being shifted. It is no wonder that the 2022 synodal consultations throughout the Catholic Church have identified two items above all that are objectionable – the role of women in the Church and clericalism, or the maintaining of the power of the clergy. Plainly the two are linked, for power is concentrated in the hands of a male hierarchy with women constantly being left out, on the spurious grounds that Jesus and his disciples were not women.

An important part of governance is the acquiring and use of money and property. Christian churches, indeed religious organisations of any kind, are in a difficult situation here, for they have to survive in the world which has different standards. Pope Francis rightly inveighs against materialism and calls on Catholics to be a poor church for the poor. This means bishops living without palaces, ritual without pomp, investments strictly ethical, fair compensation for victims of abuse, and so on. It is all very well for a religious organisation to equip itself with the means to carry out its mission and even to hedge itself against financial downturn, but a clear distinction should be made at all times between what church members want and what they and others actually need.

The Christian Church, or at least major parts thereof, has another set of issues arising from its age and accumulated traditions which have made it what we might call an established part of the modern world. There is much to protect, corporately and individually, and this has bred a high degree of conservatism. This is in direct antithesis to the Christian story which is one of continued struggle against establishment forces. For the Jews fleeing persecution in the Old Testament to Jesus disrupting the priests in the New Testament, then to subsequent centuries of persecution across the globe, there has been an ongoing struggle to assert the Christian message and way of life. Even today there are places where this dynamic continues, whether in attempts by authoritarian governments to control the appointment and activities of priests or the rising tide of secularism and absolute hostility (partly fed, it is true, by misdeeds of the Church itself) evident in both the mainstream media and social media. With so much to lose, it is hardly surprising that clerics and others become conservative and forge alliances with conservative politicians, business people and commentators. Conservatism finds expression in many ways, but while the public face of it is Christian lobbying and hardline stances on social and political issues, the first and most immediate aspect is within itself, in its governance arrangements. Hence we find deep-rooted conservatism in the male hierarchies of power, the concentration of power in Rome, the insistence on central control, and the limited opportunities for change driven by the laity.

In the corporate world, the shape and practice of governance are influenced by many factors, but key factors have to be the mission of the organisation, its personnel and business environment, including the expectations of society. If society expects that the Christian Church will model its own teachings – an entirely reasonable expectation – its governance will need to display a deep care for and commitment to all, clergy and laity and the broader population alike. Authoritarianism of all kinds will disappear and there will be a new level of trust in the wisdom of all people of goodwill. And if we remember how often humble people have risen to prominence in the faith – Jesus the carpenter foremost among them – it would be reasonable to expect management structures that are highly democratic and enabling to ordinary people who have something to contribute.



Christianity being a broad church, there is a big range of ideas on what should constitute worship, and an equally big range of styles of worship. This includes core elements such as the sacraments, where some things are held by one branch of the faith to be mandatory (adult baptism for example) where others are simply not recognised at all (the Quakers, who believe that all of life is a sacrament). Worship being in a sense the most public face of a religion, it might be said that people interested in the faith are offered a veritable smorgasbord from which they can choose.

To a degree this might be said to be a good thing, for it reflects the absolute diversity of humankind, including Christians. There is something for everyone, if only they can find it, and if only it is available to them. In the present paper there is no intention of reviewing any of the worship practices of offer, except to say that there are some which are held by some people to be offensive or downright contrary to the essence of Christianity. This begs the question, addressed previously, what exactly is the essence of this religion, to which my reply is simply this: the two great commandments of Jesus in Matthew 22:35-40, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There is no rule here as to what good worship should be. Many people are offended by the more loud and declamatory practices such as those of Pentecostalism; others find the highly stylised ritual of Catholicism and Anglicanism cold and repellent and lacking in soul or substance or vitality; others still reject the individualism and quietism of groups like the Quakers and Brethren, which they find lacking in proper discipline. If we ask what constitutes modernising, at least in the 21st century, it is probably a pluralistic acceptance of and respect for diversity. We might want as individuals to jazz up certain types of worship, make them less noisy and more contemplative, or whatever, but we have to hold our peace and perhaps rejoice in the fact that Christianity flourishes in all shades of the rainbow.

Applied ethics

Ideas about how humans should live have emerged gradually in response to changing situations, just as evolution has occurred gradually. In the beginning there were very basic ideas about duty to be fruitful and multiply, duty to resist temptation and so on. Then came the refinement of the ten commandments and the massive revisionism of Jesus whose teachings are summed up in the two great commandments – unstintingly to love God and to love others. But teaching about the Christian life does not stop there, though it remains the core and the primary reference point for all that has followed. Each age throws up new challenges which require us to revisit the early teachings and come up with new solutions. Sometimes it seems that a complete reversal is required, for example in rules about marriage and divorce. We should not be afraid to make these reversals provided we have a sound grip on the absolute fundamentals – provided we can agree on what those fundamentals are.

In modern times, society has produced new norms based on ideas about rights and freedoms and equality. Christianity can take credit in part for these changes; Christianity should also embrace them for they reflect ideals conveyed through the Bible. Paramount perhaps is the idea of equality, from which we also get the idea of freedom. If we are to love our neighbour as ourself (Mark 12:31) we are acknowledging our essential equality with each other. This is one of the most radical of Jesus’ ideas. It undercuts all sorts of power imbalances and attitudes of privilege and discrimination.

Humankind is asked to be always humble, acknowledging the presence of someone (or something) greater, i.e. God or the Divine. We are asked to be humble in the face of an omni – omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent - a supreme power who knows all and who loves without limit – all in all an unfathomable mystery. At different times in our history, an even in biblical times, different emphasis has been placed on these characteristics. Unfortunately, it is not in our nature to be humble, or at least not in our nature to stay humble. We partake of the universal restlessness, the desire to be greater than we presently are. This means that we can never be still for too long and we always want to partake of the tree of knowledge (of good and evil). This comes with consequences, not all of which are good. We learn before anything else that we ourselves have limitations. We become ashamed. This shame is the Adam and Eve fig leaves.

A new language

Christianity, like any other religion, is a culture, and a hallmark of cultures is the language they use. Christians use words and phrases that have some currency in ordinary everyday life but not a lot – words like worship and sin and salvation. Others like baptism and rosary are almost exclusively Christian. We can in fact trace the separation of sacred from the secular through the use (or non-use) of language.

If Christianity were to be modernised in ways that I have suggested, certain elements of Christian language would disappear altogether or fall into use only on special occasions. How as a society we would deal with this I cannot imagine, for there are words that have been part of us for centuries. Still, change is possible. Sometimes language just slips out of currency unnoticed. An example might be Holy Ghost which has been surpassed by Holy Spirit. To take this particular example one step further, I suggest that Holy Spirit would remain only as long as we could give it meaning. Custodians of the Christian faith – people like those who used to labour over Bible translations – would do well now to consider how key concepts like Holy Spirit might be defined in a modern world.

A language-led refreshment of Christianity could be quite revolutionary. One might say it would need to be revolutionary if the religion is to be saved from oblivion. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • We fail to do proper honour to God when we speak of God as exclusively male. We should instead use terminology that is all-embracing or (failing any better alternative) gender-fluid, e.g. they/ them/ their.

  • Instead of Satan or the Devil we could talk today about Negation, i.e. the force which opposes the goodness of Providence. Negation encompasses such things as greed, egotism, fear and apathy.

  • The Last Judgement is an idea that many have now abandoned for good reason. We no longer believe in an event called the Second Coming, a day somewhere at the end of time where all is resolved, virtue is rewarded and wrongdoing punishment. It may indeed be that we no longer believe that such a settlement will ever occur, but if we do, we might switch to terminology like the last dispensation. This leaves everything suitably vague for we cannot presume to know what this dispensation might be.

The move to modernise key texts, including the Bible itself, has a long and honourable history. Presumably this is work that will go on and on. Mostly we can and should be positive about this, though there are casualties along the way which we might regret. One particularly sad for me is the many hymns and psalms that will disappear, indeed have already disappeared. Some of them come from periods in our past when Christian creativity has been exceptionally lively, for example the Wesleyan hymns of the 18th century. There might also be implications for other kinds of art works, for example the great paintings and sculptures from many centuries which have given us their own kind of language for interpretation of the great stories, from Michelangelo’s creation to the Brueghel depictions of hell.


While language has to change, it is only a start. If Christianity is ever to modernise in any meaningful way, it will have to be evident in beliefs, actions and behaviours. There will have to be major changes in hearts and minds. Firstly there will need to be a new passion for truth – the unvarnished truth of our existence which Christianity seeks to elevate. Secondly there will need to be a lot more loving. Christians will need to abandon their attachments to power, position, property and the like and embrace, in a very simple and direct way, “the other”, that is, the other person, the other being. This arises of course from the second of the two great commandments, that we love our neighbour as ourself. Implicit in the first great commandment, to love God, is the absolute commitment to truth.

A Christian church that does all this would be making a huge shift, abandoning centuries of prejudice, pride, and paranoia about the influence of alternative ideas. It would be embracing broader and deeper truths about the way our world is constituted and moves, recognising for example that the God we worship is, like other deities, largely our own creation, though it represents the deeper reality of Divine Providence, forever guarding and guiding us and leading us by the “still waters” (Psalm 23).

I have presented this as an agenda for modernising Christianity. In truth, however, it would just be living Christianity as it has always been meant to be.

In some parts of the world Christianity is thriving, but in the developed world it is declining, in some places quite rapidly. Some would argue that this is a good thing and indeed that all religion should disappear, for (they claim) it is by and large harmful and holds us back. Others say that religion is outmoded but that it represents an approach to life that is worth keeping.

We cannot know what will become of Christianity in the long-term, but it seems likely that it will increasingly be influenced by ideas from other religions and that trends in the secular world will prevail. These might include, for example, liberalizing, democratizing, demystifying, and submitting to common ethical standards which ironically have sprung in part from Christianity itself. Science will continue to shape church thinking in ways that challenge Biblical and traditional orthodoxies, especially in areas relating to the way in which we conduct our lives, and most likely there will be a falling away of old mythologies like Heaven and Hell.

This blog makes a brief survey of some of the issues that will have to be addressed as we move deeper into the 21st century. It starts with questions of authority, both Biblical and non-Biblical: how, for example, we value Old Testament thinking against the standards of the New Testament, how we treat apparent inconsistencies in the Bible, how we weigh up centuries of religious thought, and how we open up to and value current social mores. Is the authority for all we think and do as Christians fixed for all time, or are variations allowable?

From authority we move to beliefs, firstly core doctrine (that is, the specifically religious teachings of the faith) then the ethics which arise from this doctrine. Here we face issues around the three parts of the Holy Trinity, creation, good and evil and suffering, and expectations placed on humankind. A modernising approach should begin with humility, accepting that there are areas of the faith where we as mere human cannot possibly “know” – the true nature of God, why we and the universe in general exist, and where this existence is heading. Secondly, a modernising approach should recognise that much of Christian doctrine (indeed any religious doctrine) is a creation of humans like ourselves, and therefore potentially brilliant in parts but also dispensable. Thirdly, a modernising approach should accept that most likely we will have to contend with paradox; indeed, paradox might be considered a norm in the realm of faith, where we somehow have to accept the massive contradictions inherent in a more-than-universal view of things. An example is the notion that God or the Divine can somehow be personal and impersonal or beyond personal all at once.

To some extent, religious belief is subject to fashion in the wider world. For example, it is no longer fashionable, in Western nations at least, to embrace miracles when everyday verifiable alternatives exist. We are less attracted by the idea of creation in six days, or the temptation in the Garden of Eden, or the Virgin birth, or even the physical resurrection of Jesus and ascension into Heaven. Heaven itself has less warrant today, at least in wider society, and shifts in thinking like this inevitably flow on to adherents of the faith – or at least some adherents.

Christianity is already in process of modernising through its focus on Jesus as human, and therefore Jesus as a supremely potent guide to the life we should be living. The same maturity cannot be said to apply in our ideas about God. We persist in ascribing all kinds of value to God – omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence and so on – when a more rational though also more challenging view is that God is beyond all value (though, paradoxically, value resides in God). This error underlies some of the key weaknesses of Christine doctrine, for example that God is male and, by being all-powerful, legitimises the concept of power as a guiding principle in human affairs. And while Christian ideas of God remain half-baked, they are also underdone when it comes to the Holy Spirit and the role of evil and suffering in the world.

For a proper understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus we can do no better than return again and again to the two great commandments: that we love God with all our being and love others as ourselves. On this rests the best of Christian ethics. When we properly absorb these imperatives of truth, love, and equality of all, taking account of the prevailing circumstances of our time, some of the contentious issues like treatment of women and minority groups take on a whole new cast. Materialism fades and care for the poor – poor in any sense – rises to the fore. We see then that things that have been so long and so widely accepted as essential parts of Christianity are maybe in our time open to question.

This brings us at last to questions of church governance and practice – how Christianity manifests itself in the world. If doctrine is secure, if ethics are sound, most likely other things will fall into place. A large part of the challenge here for Christianity is the extent to which it can reconcile its spiritual identity with the material world in which it has to function. The expressions of Christianity by way of governance and practice are diverse, almost as diverse (so it seems) as creation itself. While this may seem reasonable in a church so broad, it also raises questions about internal consistency: how, for example, we can reconcile Christian fundamentalism and forms of orthodoxy with the Progressive Christianity movement; and how can we deal with situations where church attempts to “own” people as distinct from the looser invitation to just walk in and be friends for a while.

In considering these matters we should reflect carefully on anything that excludes people from the church or prevents them from having full enjoyment of a spiritual life. So, for example, we should reflect on things like clericalism, hierarchies, restrictions on church membership, undue attention to details of ritual, archaic language, jargon, and forms of sentimentalism that make the everyday person feel somewhere on the outside. Things that should be simple are often made unnecessarily complex, unnecessarily difficult. To paraphrase the second great commandment, we do well when we put ourselves in the shoes of our neighbours, or see things through their eyes. Surely in a matter so important as religion, we should find a faith and its practice so inviting that we are banging on the doors, wanting to get in. To get to this point, Christianity needs modernisation to a massive degree.