City and church

It's not enough, not nearly enough, merely to see the city as antithetical to God and churches as places of alternative discourse and practice (See my previous post Church and city).

Nalanda temple, Bihar, India. This ancient seat of learning 
flourished between the 5th and 12th centuries CE and is described 
as "one of the first great universities in recorded history."
It's also important to acknowledge and celebrate that cities are places of human flourishing. Cities hold a critical mass of people in structures that generate so much more than would be possible in communities with smaller numbers distributed further apart.

Universities are, perhaps, one of the oldest examples of this phenomenon: pack a lot of capable people together and they come up with so much more than any of them would achieve on their own.

The arts, culture, commerce, the intellect, engineering, cooking and, inevitably, crime all flourish in cities in ways that would never be achieved in an agrarian society.

The church has been part of and has benefited from this flourishing. As beneficiary it should thank God. It is enjoined to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps 122:6) and those exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon were told to seek its peace and prosperity. (Jer 29:7). More to the point, the church has no choice. Almost everywhere is city or has been landscaped by the demands of the city (for food, water, power, labour, communications). It is inescapable.

The art or goal, it seems to me, is for the church collectively and faithful Christians individually to be in-and-apart-from the city. For most faithful people, I suggest, holy living is not a search for a world-denying asceticism but is a struggle to be both Christ-centred and engaged in the quotidian business of making a living, sharing family life, growing up and growing old. Christians are normal, but they choose in some way to set themselves apart.

I don't think there are any easy answers to the immediate questions: what might a proper 'apart' be - and what would be the criteria by which to judge - and how can the separateness  be a positive element in both personal growth and community engagement? These are questions of identity, to be lived out in practice in changing circumstances, characterised by judgements of value rather than doctrine, and all but impossible to determine in the abstract.

To stand apart can (should) give a critical distance by which Christians may both critique the secular world and contribute constructively to it; to do so while knowing that we are ineluctably part of the secular world should also place a critical brake on the tendency to self-righteousness and complacency.

I guess the only way is to keep practising.


  1. It was Christians who early on invented the word 'pagan' for countryfolk who still hadn't accepted Christianity.
    Half of me agrees, the other half positively disagrees. I was brought up in a country hamlet and when the sights and sounds are rural ones I feel this is how God designed us to be. On the other hand, when in the country I miss the facilities of the city - at least the ones I want.
    Is it inevitable that we get one or the other but never both? Or is it the result of our current patterns of living? The last country village I lived in, the older people remembered the days when there was plenty of employment in the village and lots going on.
    To what extent is it the motor car which has emptied the villages and crammed too many people into the cities?

  2. Jonathan,

    I'm not sure exactly which point(s) you are agreeing/disagreeing with.

    Certainly urbanisation long pre-dated the car. Feet and horse were first and then every change in communication technology has both reinforced the city and extended its reach into the countryside.

    Latterly the car has enable people who work in or made money in cities to live in the country - often to the annoyance of those who grew up there and cannot now afford property.

    In 1939 half the population worked on the land, now it's around 2% (I think). There was often plenty of work - but much of it was insecure and in bad years the poor, as ever, had few if any reserves.

    The city:country contrast you describe makes the point of their interconnection. It is the city's overwhelming economic power which is determinative.