The Church Invisible
A Journey Into the Future of the UK Church
Reviewer: Discerning Reader Team
Eclectic author Nick Page’s serialized story from the UK’s Christianity and Renewal magazine was printed in novel format by Zondervan in 2004. It chronicles a cranky churchman’s journey into the future, a future in which established denominations have lost their buildings, their personnel, and most tragically, their mission. In this reality – or more accurately, this fictional potentiality – church buildings have been rezoned as apartment blocks and museums, the position of archbishop of Canterbury is passed around a small group of remaining vicars (pastors), much like the position of bridge club treasurer.
Since this book is out of print and not likely to return to print (at least in North America), I will spoil the plot more than I usually would in a review. The book opens with main character Nick Page (yes, selfsame name as the author) sitting through and eventually leaving a ‘Future of the Church’ meeting in Oxford in which every lame excuse and blindly optimistic tidbit is trotted out to explain the Church’s inability to garner new members – indeed, even to retain its current membership. On the way home, Page is struck by lightning, which somehow transports him into the future, a future in which he has been dead for several years after a chance encounter with a wildebeest or water buffalo – exactly which specimen it was escapes me at the moment, and in any case, it’s not germane to this review except to point out author Page’s type of sense of humor.
In what seems to be a preordained encounter, the mostly-unsympathetic protagonist Page meets up with someone from his past, Lydia. Only, he does not remember her. Together, they tour the British Church of the future, a sequence of events in which the already-unsympathetic Page becomes more curmudgeonly by the page (no pun intended). The Future Church storyline culminates in a sort of upper-room experience in which a postmodern, non-technological, clergy-lacking church gathering is taking place: someone shares a poem, someone shares a painting, etc. etc. This experience rejuvenates Page, and he returns to his own time a more hopeful but none-the-saner version of himself.
Page’s plotline isn’t the only one, however. A character named Stephen Thornton, whom we only know about through the letters ‘reprinted’ at the end of each chapter, clarifies and contextualizes much of what is going on in the main plotline. For example, at one point early in the book, a character in the main plotline laments the Church’s failures:
“And when they [seekers] did venture into church they didn’t find the answers they were looking for. We wanted to give them things to believe in, but they wanted somewhere to belong. We told them to think when they needed to be shown how to live. We made them feel guilty when they needed to feel loved.”
After reading this paragraph, I notched a question mark in the margin to note how vague these sentiments are. It also posits some potential false dilemmas. Of course seekers aren’t always pleased to find they’re worse off than they think. Community is often a more difficult existence than aloneness. Seekers will often feel condemnation where others are sensing true conviction. However, on the facing page Thornton, a historian by trade, turns up his nose at generalizations such as
“Yet if you look at Jesus, if you look at the history of the early church, you discover that what attracted people to Christianity was that it was not attractive. It was wild, dangerous, subversive.”
An alert reader will home in on the author’s use of Thornton as a surrogate persona within the narrative. In a way, author Page is sending the message that he knows full well that “generalizations of this sort” fail to fully develop what he is trying to get across in the book. Admittedly, the book is a collection of serialized chapters, but as we know from so many Christians’ unquestioned acceptance of other unsound theological novels, the discernment required to divide the wheat from the chaff is sorely lacking. The serialized chapter genre doesn’t lend itself to working out ideas responsibly, and this is the major problem with the book.
More could be said about the book’s good points, such as the discussion of liturgy: “To follow a pattern of services, a familiar routine of worship, gives people a rhythm to their life…And as people’s lives began to fragment…that kind of thing became quite important. Increasingly our work and social lives had no fixed points, nothing to anchor them or hold them steady. Church services, with their traditional patterns and rhythms had always provided a structure for people’s lives, something solid and familiar and strong.” Whatever you might think about liturgy, this is a compelling argument. I also enjoyed the chapter in which Page and his companion visit the statue graveyard in London, now being used as a makeshift homeless shelter.
More could also be said about the book’s not-so-good points, such as the attitude conveyed in the book that Christ’s Church is actually in danger. I’ll let Charles Spurgeon speak here:
“Never think of the Church of God as if she were in danger. If you do, you will be like Uzza; you will put forth your hand to steady the ark, and provoke the Lord to anger against you. If it were in danger, I tell you, you could not deliver it. If Christ cannot take care of his Church without you, you cannot do it. Be still, and know that he is God… When you begin to say, “The Church is in danger! The Church is in danger!” what is that to thee? It stood before thou wert born; it will stand when thou hast become worm’s meat. Do thou thy duty. Keep in the path of obedience, and fear not. He who made the Church knew through what trials she would have to pass, and he made her so that she can endure the trials and become the richer for it. The enemy is but grass, the word of the Lord endureth for ever.”
I really wanted to enjoy this book, and I did to an extent. It isn’t a terrible book, but neither is it a really helpful one. As far as the subgenre of ecclesiological fiction goes it’s not bad, but I would recommend you read Douglas Wilson’s Evangellyfish instead, or even Richard Belcher’s “Journey” books from Richbarry Press. If you are looking for a title similar to The Church Invisible, set in the UK in an alternate reality, you would enjoy Jasper Fforde’s books – they are not strictly ‘Christian,’ however.