And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope;
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
Hardened his heart with hope.
-G.K. Chesterton, 'The Ballad of the White Horse'As I read through the tumultuous history of the Church from the 5th to the 12th centuries, I was struck by the ups and downs and radical reversals throughout the period. So many unexpected challenges arose, oftentimes just when things seemed to be settling down into a beautiful Christian ideal—the Vikings sweeping through Britain, wealth corrupting the Cluniacs, Islam overwhelming the core of ancient Christianity.
Of course that's discouraging from a Christian perspective. Yet I found myself oddly encouraged by what seemed like the sheer contingency of Christian history, the sense that everything so easily could have been radically different. For me, this historical grounding offers a great sense of hope and confidence.
So many today speak as though the Church were entering a period of unprecedented decline. That's true in the sense that every historical development is unique and unrepeatable. But the Church has weathered greater crises than what we now face, and those who speak of the past as though it were a wonderful period of consistent and universal Christian faith are misguided and misguiding.
As I see it, there are two common responses when faced with the messy complexity of the Church's history. One is to reject the messiness of reality in favor of a comforting fantasy—that the Church has been a solid, stable, monolithic, and unchanging presence from Jesus to Pope Francis. The other is the more postmodern choice: since the Church is historically contingent, the current state of things must be totally arbitrary. Both are lazy options, and both work from an unexamined premise—namely, that a Church reflecting the messiness of historical life cannot also be the true body of Christ.
The reality that things could be different should not drive us to delusion or despair but instead should spur us to gratitude and determination—gratitude for the goodness of our liturgy and common prayer as precious, fragile, and by no means inevitable gifts; determination to preserve the best and mend the worst in each of our churches.
Of course, victory is in the sovereign hands of God, who will accomplish his purposes, and who is ultimately responsible for the survival and health of our Church. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."