archbishop canterbury pope
When Christian churches focus on arbitrary moral rules on matters like sexuality they miss what's important about faith Getty

A few weeks ago, in a conversation over a Nando's with one of my sharpest twenty-something atheist friends, we discussed the interesting phenomenon of intelligent, kindly, and largely moral people of our generation who will have nothing to do with any of the major churches, let alone the Church of England. He made the interesting point that, from their perspective, the only substance of the Christian faith is morality, a morality that they find odd and rather unappealing.

This viewpoint I had not fully considered before, but perhaps it well explains the enormous struggle the churches have in reaching across generational divides. The atheist millennials are curiously both right and wrong. The actual substance of the faith is orthodox belief in the Triune God who revealed himself in the fully divine and human person of Jesus of Nazareth.

This faith is best defined by the historic Creeds (especially the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381, and the later Creed of Chalcedon). There is of course a distinctively Christian morality that has been developed over the centuries, but it stems out of the fundamental faith in Christ, and is ultimately a secondary phenomenon, though a vital one for any orthodox believer.

The millennials are, however, right in that judging from media coverage of the CofE, any reasonable person would conclude that the substance of the faith lay in its morality. This, perhaps, is less the fault of the media than it is the Church. The internal battles over matters of faith alone seem to have entirely ended.

No one seems to care that Anglican clergy (let alone laity!) in this country differ wildly over fundamental matters such as the nature and number of the sacraments, the presence of Christ (or otherwise) in the Eucharist, and the role that scripture and tradition play in formulating faith and practice (to say nothing of reason and experience). The contemporary divisions in the church appear to be near-exclusively relating to matters of sexual morality, especially same-sex marriage.

Of course, the fights over sex (as recently witnessed at various General Synods) do in fact flow from deeper disagreements over faith and its formulation, but that is not immediately obvious to anyone outside the Church, and not often clear even to those within it. To the outsider, understandably enough, the Church appears as a collection of overgrown infants squabbling over various arbitrary moral rules, many of which appear to be extremely odd if they are not understood as outflows of a deeper understanding of the nature of reality.

Christian morality is probably no easier to accept in its proper context, but when its roots are understood it does typically seem far more internally consistent and a lot less mad.

It seems that whenever Christian faith becomes too closely associated with moralism, the moralism persists in the next generation, but the faith itself rapidly dies off. This is the Welsh experience. In a series of enthusiastic "revivals", a particularly harsh variety of Nonconformist Calvinism swept across the country in the 19th century.

Church of England
A woman holds a placard during a vigil against Anglican Homophobia, outside the General Synod of the Church of England in London, in February 2017. Reuters

The "chapel" culture (as distinct from the established Anglican church) became very closely linked to the Temperance movement. Although this happened for entirely understandable social reasons, it created a very sharp division between the chapelgoer and the pubgoer, a division that persists to this day. Consequently, while almost everyone today does go to the pub, the chapels lie empty and are closing at an incredible rate of one a week. The rapid death of English Methodism is probably due to the same fundamental cause.

In the US, the liberal mainline Protestant churches are dying out for a similar reason. They have become synonymous not with temperance but with a widespread inclusiveness in matters of morality and a deep yet undemanding scepticism in matters of faith. In the current generation whatever was left of the faith is utterly dead, yet the strictly non-judgmental moralism persists in today's leftism.

A similar decline is starting to affect far more conservative denominations such as the Southern Baptists, as a new generation of their leadership realises that by identifying the faith with whatever the Republican Party's platform was at the time, they have bred a generation who find it much more convenient to keep the political conservatism but abandon the religious traditionalism. The failures of the religious left are obvious now, but the death of the religious right will only become more apparent over the next decade.

In reality, of course, the salvation of absolutely no one depends on whether or not the US passes a balanced budget amendment or the UK leaves the EU. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone. The great sin of Judas Iscariot was not betrayal (a sin that St Peter also committed), but his self-abandonment to despair. This despair was so great that he could not bring himself to repent, and he gave up on the possibility of divine forgiveness. His lack of faith is his condemnation, not his hateful deeds, which could have been forgiven.

The Church across the ages has always understood that orthodoxy (right belief) precedes orthopraxy (right action), and that the latter is utterly dependent on the former. All will sin, but when the sinner shows sincere repentance and a commitment to do better, the church can and should forgive, for sins forgiven on earth are forgiven in heaven too.

The gospels were not written to set out a new social programme, though implicit hints of one are found within them. They are biographies of Christ, written primarily so that the world might come to believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is that belief which lies at the core of the Christian faith, but no church obsessed with moralism, of either the liberal or conservative variety, will ever manage to preach it truly and clearly. In the next few decades we shall see whether or not the Church of England will join the ranks of the moribund, or turn again towards the light.