In the continued absence of the parousia, Christians have had to do something which was not looked for by the first Christians – that is to exist in time across the ages and in divers cultures. Initially mainly Jewish in terms of adherents, the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews in the aftermath of revolts, shifted the composition of the Christian community; to put it bluntly, the mission to the Jews generally failed, and the mission to the Gentiles was hugely successful. By the end of the second century the faith had spread to the borders of India in one direction, and to the islands of Britannia in the other; the Mediterranean Sea was fringed with Christian communities, and if we are to credit their own tradition, there were Christian communities in southern India. Although the first Council at Nicaea in 325 was called ‘ecumenical’, it consisted only of bishops from within the Roman Empire; we know that there were Christians in the Persian Empire who were not invited, and who learned of the results of the Council only years later. It was, ironically, the greatest danger Christianity faced which had the most decisive influence on it – Islam.
If we were to survey the Christian world in the seventh century we should find its intellectual powerhouse was Alexandria and its most sophisticated thinkers were mainly in the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capital, Constantinople, had a magnificence lacking in the decaying splendour that was the old Rome, where a succession of Popes had to come to terms with a succession of barbarian invaders, some of whom were Arians. It was the irruption of Islam which destroyed that rich Eastern influence. By the eighth century Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria had all been conquered, and for the next five hundred years, Constantinople found itself constantly under threat, with its lands slowly being taken from it until, in 1453, the great city, a shadow of its former self, was finally conquered. One of its great service to the faith was that its resistance allowed the church in the West to develop within the new states which came into existence out of the wreckage of the old Roman Empire in the West. The King of the Franks had defeated the Muslims at Poitiers, and although Spain was lost for centuries, the West survived, prospered and became the centre of the Faith, with the Bishop of Rome, universally recognised as primus inter pares (first among equals), able to assert his version of what that meant, even if it resulted in a schism with the East in 1054.
The longer-term results of this have been interesting. During the age of discovery, it was Western Christians, especially Spanish and Portuguese ones, who came across the ancient Christian communities in India and China and attempted to bring them into line with their version of the faith – the cultural damage was tremendous, but it was one of the features of the Western Christian tradition that, assured of its own superiority, it thought nothing of imposing its ways on Christian communities which had survived for centuries. We see the same thing in the nineteenth century in the dealings of the Western Churches with the Eastern Christians in the decaying Ottoman Empire.
The dark side of such assumptions of cultural superiority are obvious now, but there was also a positive side – which is that in some of the places, especially those in Africa and Asia where the faith had had little or no history, the roots struck deep and the crop is abundant. Ironically, as we see in the recent debates in my own communion and that of Rome, the Africans have also imbibed the view of their Western founders that there is one way, their way, so, just as many in the West had begun the process found in every age, of finding ways of living in a changing culture, they find their own spiritual grandchildren insisting on the ways of their grandfathers. History in rich in ironies.
We have, though, I think, almost reached a tipping point. Were it not for the vast power and wealth of America, and for its rich an vibrant Christian cultures, then already the West would have ceased to be the centre of the faith – Europe has proven a good source of seeds for the growth of world Christianity, but vitality lies elsewhere now. We can only speculate on what the Christian world will look like in a century of so, and in so doing, bear in mind that no one, a century ago, would have thought it would look as it actually does today.
In one thing alone can we be sure – that guided by the Holy Spirit – Christianity will continue to grow and, having reached the ends of the earth, may even return to the places where once it was dominant.