Most Christian churches have within their ranks groups that are evangelical and sacramentalist, and groups that are more or less conservative/fundamentalist and liberal/progressive.
Historically, however, and cutting across these, the most significant division has probably been that between those who have acted broadly in line with current culture, and those who have taken a basically critical attitude within cultures, and sought to manifest that attitude in creating alternatives. Thus, within Christianity, especially since Constantine and the growth of 'Christendom', there has been a distinction, if not a division, between co-existers and radicals.
The co-existers largely assume that the world as it is has to be co-operated with, and its culture and history affirmed, so that Christians and Christian communities make their contribution to society through participation in society's politics and institutions, seeking wherever possible to influence them for good, and even at times to bring a distinctive faith element to the solution of their problems or the setting of their agendas.
The radicals, on the other hand, see the best way to love and serve the world as embodying alternative lifestyles and creating alternative communities, which take their cue not from the present situation, but from the distinctive teachings and practices of Jesus and the earliest pre-Constantine Christian communities, which saw themselves as called to embody signs of the Kingdom of God on earth.
In our time, the Christian communities of the Radical tradition, the Non-conformists, Roman Catholics (largely), Methodists, Quakers and (especially in the U.S.A.) Puritans, have tended to confine their distinctiveness to the realms of personal morality, and their interest in alternative community to the internal fellowships of their churches.
The political outcome of this is at one end the moral majority of the religious right in the U.S.A., and at the other, out peaceful co-existence with New Labour in Great Britain. The present centrist politics of the Christian Socialist Movement in Britain, and their boast of eight cabinet ministers as C.S.M. members, is the embodiment of this, and seeks to keep alive and adapt the Christian traditions within the Party.
The Christian radical tradition has obviously during its history occupied various pieces of ground in relation to local, national and international politics. There have, indeed, always been both immediate, realised, and also visionary 'apocalyptic' aspects of Christian radicalism.
A particular problem in Britain has been that, during recent decades, Christians and church people have largely concerned themselves with global issues, leading to the Jubilee campaign of 2000 and the continuing campaigns about world debt and world poverty. Such concerns have had the great value of allying Christians with people of goodwill in wider society. Indeed, many have left the churches' congregations, to concentrate upon them. But they have left Christians with little cutting edge on more local issues.
It may well be that the time is ripe to revive the old Christian radical tradition. The invitation by the state to co-operate in delivering services confronts the churches with age-old questions - not only, "will we lose our distinctiveness if we merely deliver (better than others, or cheaper?) state-regulated services?", but, even more, "what is our contribution (distinctive or otherwise) within society in any case?"
The latter question throws the churches back upon fundamental issues. Recent scholarship about Jesus has been almost unanimous in seeing him as a rebel peasant teacher and as the inaugurator of a popular movement of resistance against religious and economic establishments. The 'Kingdom of God on earth' which he claimed to set up might have been crushed by its enemies, but it still constitutes a contrary and alternative prophetic way for politics and discipleship.
Historically, this radical way has often emerged when the religious denominations have been co-opted into the contemporary society and its interests. At times when alternatives or contrary vocations seem most irrelevant and impractical, they have in fact emerged. They take their agenda and their context from the contemporary society, but their style and ethos is essentially non-conforming, inaugurative and, to varying degrees, counter-cultural. Their counter-culturalism inevitably relates to the dominant cultures of their times, but they consistently discover and make visible innovative communal, societal and personal attitudes and policies which contribute new dynamics to history.
And the co-existers benefit from the radicals, because what the latter see and pioneer becomes part of a new context for the co-existers.
In 2005, I am starting a campaign of weekend events and consultations at a dozen residential centres up and down the country, to try and discover who also has a hunch that the radical Christian way is worth dusting down and working at, in our present situation in Britain.
Revd Dr John VIncent is Leader of the Ashram Community and organiser of the Burngreave Ashram, Sheffield. His most recent books are the new course, Journey, Explorations into Discipleship, the second edition of Radical Jesus, both published by the Ashram Press, and Methodist and Radical (jt.ed.) published by Abingdon Press.
Dr Vincent is also Emeritus Director and part-time Lecturer at the Urban Theology Unit and an Honorary Lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield and in Theology at the University of Birmingham.
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