(Don’t Fear) The Reaper(?)

All our times have come

Here but now they’re gone

Seasons don’t fear the reaper

Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain

We can be like they are

Come on, baby (don’t fear the reaper)

(Buck Dharma: Blue Öyster Cult, 1976)

Part One.

Blue Öyster Cult (BOC)’s  1976 classic rock tune ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ was written by the group’s talismanic front-man Donald Roesner, aka ‘Buck Dharma’. It benefits from a very catchy Byrds style guitar riff and vocal performance which taken together with a spooky set of lyrics prove to be an irresistible combination, earning it a place in various lists of greatest rock songs of all time. The lyrics explore an enigmatic theme of eternal love. It urges the listener to see that love lasts beyond our understanding of time and therefore death, and persistently cajoles that we shouldn’t ‘fear the reaper’.

In this way, the song echoes a core theme within Christian tradition, the sense that death is not to be feared. In John’s gospel, we hear that Christ is ‘the resurrection and the life’ so we should not fear death, while the writer to the Corinthians asks ‘O death, where is your victory, where is your sting?’ (15:55) The Johannine tradition has Jesus tell his disciples that ‘unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds…’ (12:24) The theme of death, and subsequent resurrection, or rebirth, in a new or changed form, is core to the Christian tradition as a whole.

This theme also bears out what process philosophy perceives in the totality of reality: that everything is in a constant ‘process’ or perishing and becoming. In Process and Reality Alfred North Whitehead speaks of the reality of ‘perpetual perishing’, which Schubert Ogden describes as ‘that inevitable transcience of our moments of experience’. This is not a particularly novel or modern idea. In a Gregorian chant attributed to Notker the Stammerer, ca 900 CE  we get the line: “Media vita in morte sumus” (“In the midst of life we are in death”). Fundamentally the reality we experience is this: perishing is a necessary part of the process of becoming. This process (of becoming and perishing) cannot be prevented, it is constant and ongoing and operates at all levels.

The ‘reality’ of this ongoing process, though, doesn’t prevent us from making attempts to achieve a fixed point, a sense of stasis – something Whitehead might have looked upon as an instance of what he called ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. The contemporary concept of the static comes from a Greek idea which is, ultimately, a form of conflict. A kind of defended position. In order to maintain stasis one has to fight, process-oriented theologians and philosophers might wish to say that this fight is against the unstoppable, inexorable, and ongoing process of change. It was demonstrated by King Canute when he showed how he couldn’t stop the tide: in a battle against perishing and becoming there will only ever be one winner. Perhaps this is most simply put in this way: ‘at one level, the only constant is change.’

Such a constancy, though, seems to run contrary to contemporary attitudes, attitudes which I want to argue derive from a ‘substance’ approach to metaphysics and a linear teleology, a belief that reality is made up of finite substances rather than ongoing processes. Rather than accepting change as something entirely natural and absolutely constant, many of us seem determined to fight it, in order to achieve stasis. This is most obviously evident in our determination to ‘not die’. Despite millennia of Christian teaching we continue to fear the Reaper, we fear the unknown process of change that death forces upon us, we fear what may happen to us during and after it.  We think of the old saying: mors certa, hora incerta (death is certain, its hour uncertain) and shudder. No wonder throughout recorded human history people have done their best to prevent it, avoid it, or ameliorate its effects. When its inevitability has become accepted, elaborate and speculative (but often rather thin) theories and theologies have been developed to somehow downplay its significance.

What is true on an individual level is also true at an institutional one: organised groups of various sorts seem desperate to preserve their life at all costs, fearing what might come after death – particularly if that is ‘the void’ of nothingness, or even the cavernous grave of Sheol. As a result of this fear attempts to achieve stasis are persistent, and as a result change is resisted, particularly if, or when, it looks like decay, decline, or worst of all ‘perishing’.

This is, I want to suggest, a fundamental error. It firstly denies the reality found in process thinking, and its antecedents, that everything is changing all the time and that perishing is a necessary part of becoming.  Perhaps more importantly, though,  it actively seeks to prevent the fruitful becoming of whatever is next. In effect, it tries to seal the grain of wheat in a hermetic bubble for fear that it goes into the ground and dies.

Elements of the Church, I further suggest, are particularly guilty of this. Despite the repeated command that we should ‘not fear’, despite the story and theme of death and new birth being ‘baked in’ to our narrative, and despite a history that evidences several iterations of perishing and becoming, we begin to panic when we see signs of inevitable decay (perishing). We don’t stop to think of what might yet become when what we have passes away. 

I don’t want to say that this fear is entirely unfounded. Perishing is painful and death is risky, to perish is to leave certainty, or the appearance of certainty, for that which is uncertain. The simile of the grain of wheat is partly challenging because a stalk looks so very different to a grain. Someone who really valued, or loved, the grain might reasonably panic when they see a green shoot coming up from the place where once there was a grain. “That is not the thing I loved!” Ultimately, of course, new grains are produced, but not before a whole plant has grown up, alarmingly different to the seed that was sown. “What I really wanted was a much bigger seed,” the alarmed or mournful gardener might wail, “I wasn’t looking for a plant.” A green shoot is also vulnerable, easily damaged or even destroyed. The process of change is one of vulnerability and unpredictability. No wonder we live in fear of the reaper.

Plants, particularly unexpected ones, are often unwanted. In order to prevent the appearance of unexpected plants my neighbours took a radical course of action – laying down a carpet of fake grass where once a lawn had been. Their reasoning had two key points – this grass would never die, but neither would other plants grow. They were aiming to achieve a kind of stasis that would deny the natural cycle of perishing and becoming. What they really did, of course, was simply slow the process at one level. That fake grass will not be there forever, ultimately something new will become, but it will take some time and, in the meantime, that which might have become has been stifled. A more radical option is to use concrete, of course, a material that seeks to embed stasis at a most fundamental level. The steady concreting of more and more of our land, in a bid to prevent perishing and becoming, has, of course, had disastrous and unplanned consequences. In fact, almost all attempts to prevent perishing have unintended consequences, you can’t stop the process of reality, or the reality of process and when you try, you run the risk of causing a lot of trouble.

“Seasons don’t fear the reaper…” sing BOC. The ‘Grim Reaper’ of whom they sing, and who continues to symbolise death in Western European and North American culture, is an extension of the Greek Titan Kronos/Cronus. Cronus was the father of Zeus (whose name means life) and carried a sickle – he wasn’t going equipped to commit a crime though, rather Cronus was a harvest god. One might also recognise, though, the movement from ‘Cronus’ to Chronos – time itself. The link between time and death has long been recognised. Nobody outlasts time, after all. Frequently attributed to the physicist Robert Oppenheimer is a quoted translation of a line from the Bhagavad Gita ‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’. The original line is drawn from an exchange between the Lord Krishna and the warrior prince Arjuna.

“Who are you?” asks Arjuna.

“I am Time,” replies Krishna, “powerful destroyer of worlds, grown immense here to annihilate these men”.

The wisdom of the Gita, and by extension much of the Hindu tradition, partly relates to the rejection of attachments. This is, perhaps, because Vedantic traditions contain within them a fundamental recognition of the ongoing process of reality. Similarly,. Buddhism recognises the cyclical, process oriented nature of reality, this is made evident in the core Buddhist idea of pratītyasamutpāda sometimes translated as ‘dependent co-arising’ but notably also described as ‘interdependent co-arising’ in which each of the twelve parts or stages of life is presaged by an earlier stage or necessary condition, we might, perhaps, think of this as causal efficacy. Sankhara (mental formation) for instance is the prerequisite for vinnana (consciousness), while jara-marana (aging and death) are the necessary conditions for avija (ignorance) which in turn is the stage before sankhara. As a side note: further and closer examination of the way that this philosophy corresponds with the philosophy of organism, particularly through a Christian lens would be of interest. Mainstream Christian thinking is perhaps, though, too wedded to substance metaphysics to readily or willingly accept this.

Time destroys all things, or put another way, all things perish in their time, just as that destruction, perishing, or death leads to new birth, or becoming. This ancient wisdom is not limited to philosophies from the Indian subcontinent, this kind of thinking is part of the Hebrew or Abrahamic wisdom tradition too. Ecclesiastes chapter three states it with eloquence:

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Ecclesiastes 3: 1-3

The philosopher Henri Bergson, a forerunner of process thought set out some key propositions in his work, one of these sums up neatly the challenge that such thinking presents to a substance metaphysic.  “There do not exist things made, but only things in the making, not states that remain fixed, but only states in process of change. Rest is never anything but apparent, or rather, relative.” 

The problem, Bergson observed, is that our minds are not easily attuned to observe this process of change – rather we take what he described as “quasi-instantaneous views of the undivided mobility of the real.”

In other words, we perceive life almost as if it were a series of still frames, when it is in fact played out in a constant process. We might look at that around us, for instance, and see a physical object, a table, a pen, a stone, a cup, what we cannot perceive that each of these apparently static ‘objects’ is in fact an example of mobility. Just because we’re unable to observe the frenetic activity at atomic levels, or the steady process of decay which will result, perhaps years hence, in the complete redistribution of the atoms of any object, doesn’t make it any less real. Rather our perception of stasis is less than real. We form an idea based on only partial, observed, data.

Part Two.

Having set out an idea rooted in philosophical theology, I want to now relate that to a practical issue – namely the concern for ‘decline’ in the inherited form of gathered Church in Western Europe and North America.

In 1954, the Hull University Librarian and part-time poet Philip Larkin wrote a short piece of verse called ‘Church Going’. In it he pondered “when churches fall completely out of use, what we shall turn them into?” This, it turned out, was a rather prescient question: less than a lifetime later, many have been forced to consider this question very seriously indeed. Among many of the churches I know well, relatively few have memberships that look able to sustain itself for another decade – and even where the membership numbers are healthy, other external challenges such as finance or buildings could radically affect their viability.

One URC congregation (I will call it ‘River Church’) which I know well is a former Presbyterian church, which became United Reformed in 1973, when the denomination began. In those days River Church’s membership was very healthy, even in the 1990s membership numbered in the hundreds. It began to decline, however, and today a cliff edge has arrived for River Church. Plummeting numbers have left that congregation, at times, close to single figures. This trend is one with which many across the UK are familiar, yet still one might write this particular story off as anecdotal if it weren’t indicative of a much broader trend in Western Europe and North America. The broader picture, however, is all too supportive of this observation. Over several decades, the United Kingdom has unquestionably experienced a sharp decline in attendance of inherited models of church, a trend that has become particularly marked in the last thirty years.

Without dwelling on the figures, I will simply say that the decline in attendance of inherited forms of church in the UK is quite well mapped – using various statistical models, a number of denominations, including the URC, are predicted to die out altogether by 2050, while the Church of England and the Catholics are given an extra decade or so. Whether these predictions are accurate or not only time will tell (previous predictions have not proved to be correct), but certainly by 2014 a growing proportion of the UK population had begun to report that they had never attended a church service in their life. The trends in the USA have lagged a little behind, but have since been particularly well documented and quantitatively analysed by the political scientist Dr Ryan Burge who noted that in 2020 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest Protestant denomination in the USA, reported its biggest ever annual loss of members. From 2019 to 2020 more than 400,000 people left the denomination, taking the estimated number of departures to more than 1.1 million over a four-year period. Although the SBC remains numerically large, with a membership of 14.8 million in 2020, this is down from 16.3 million in 2006. This social shift away from church attendance in North America and Western Europe has been accompanied by a steady decrease in numbers of people who describe or identify themselves as belonging to a religion. The shift in both the USA and the UK is marked, and sustained.

Leaving aside somewhat problematic ideas about God punishing the Church for disobedience, I will say that according to some, this trend confirms the secularisation hypothesis. Broadly speaking that argues that changing social attitudes will ultimately lead to a (total) decline in religion, and a concomitant growth of secularism. This is an idea with significant pedigree, memorably including Weber’s appropriation of Schiller’s entzauberung to describe a rational ‘disenchantment of the world’ and with the ‘magic’ of religion, leading to a general decline in the power of religion as a living and active force and a means of shaping the way we think and behave.

My own qualitative experience, both personal and in research, though, is that this situation is substantially more complex than the numbers would immediately suggest. In the first place, ecclesial decline is not linear. Complex interrelated cultural and relational factors can muddy the waters somewhat, such that trends are difficult to predict with accuracy, and claims of unalloyed decline are hard to justify. As Burge goes to some lengths to describe: the reasons that Americans leave churches are complex and multifaceted, this same issue was analysed in the UK by the Church of Scotland missiologist Steve Aisthorpe in his book ‘The Invisible Church’. Aisthorpe had returned to the UK from some years abroad to find the congregations that he had been part of had dramatically declined, and determined to find out what had happened to those who had left. Both projects demonstrated that the choice of an individual to leave a church may be related to a loss of belief, or a theological disagreement, just as it might relate to a practical issue such as the time of a meeting, or a simple disagreement between church members.

Aisthorpe’s project found that the disappearance of people from the church building or what I would describe as inherited forms of church, didn’t simply equate to a loss of faith. Rather people had left the building to practise their faith, or spiritual journey, in different ways, sometimes alone, or with like-minded fellow travellers. This accords with a wider observation that a decline in church attendance hasn’t simply translated into a move toward a genuinely secular society. To return, again, to the subjectivity of personal experience and conversations with research participants, I have found that even people who don’t identify with any religious tradition are often happy to tell me that they consider ‘spirituality’, and even to some extent religious ritual, to be an important part of their lives. They will sometimes talk to me of subjective ‘spiritual experiences’ they had while listening to music, going on holiday or walking through a forest; on occasion they even speak in reverential tones of ceremonies to mark rites of passage. This does not accord with the rigidly, dogmatic secularist attitudes of those who grumble that “religious beliefs are dumb and dumber: super dumb…” Dawkins’ commitment to this view is somewhat questionable – when challenged in an interview by Giles Fraser who pointed out that ‘the God you don’t believe in, most of us [Christians] don’t believe in either,’ he admitted that he wasn’t writing for questioning or critical religious audiences, he makes his money from dogmatic, conservative, constituencies in the USA.

Again, subjective observations are supported in literature as further studies have shown that while attendance levels have unquestionably declined, religious or spiritual beliefs remain important to people. According to a, now admittedly decade-old study, approximately 30% of those who belonged to no religion at all claimed to believe in life after death; 7% of self-professed atheists believed in angels; and approximately a quarter of the population believed in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists. Revisiting the themes of her 2018 Gifford Lecture for a 2021 journal article, the sociologist of religion Elaine Howard Ecklund notes that even in the hyper rational world of contemporary professional scientists the distinction between supposedly secular scientific thought and religious belief is not so clear as it may appear. 

This shift in social attitude and behaviour has occurred during a period of time in which, more broadly, British culture has become notably more diverse; with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. These include novel religions, such as Jedi-ism, which some describe as a joke or parody religion arising from the popularity of the Star Wars film franchise but may also indicate a popular belief in a beyond human ‘other’ variously described as a ‘force’, or sometimes as ‘the universe’. Although this shift has not necessarily yet meant that novel religious movements are considered entirely ‘respectable’ there has certainly been a shift away from the time when membership of a church was necessary to demonstrate one’s propriety or what Weber described as the ‘moral qualities of a gentleman’.

The response to what is sometimes labelled the ‘crisis of decline’ in inherited models of church has been complex – between 2017 and 2020 the Church of England spent £148 million on it’s ‘renewal and reform’ programme, the goals of which include making churches sustainable ‘across all generations.’ The main emphasis of the wide-ranging strategy is made clear in a document published in 2016: “One of the clear and intended outcomes of this work is to reverse the decline of the Church of England so that we become a growing church, in every region and for every generation.” What ‘a growing church’ means isn’t spelled out – but there are few congregations that expect it to look like closure of their local meeting.

A report published after the programme’s conclusion detailed the successes of the big spend, these include more than 100 new worshipping communities across the country, and a growth in people coming forward for training in stipendiary ministry. Somewhat buried in the text, though, is the line: “But of course, this has not led to significant growth in numbers, depth of discipleship and impact in communities in totality across the Church of England…”  Keith Elford, who carried out doctoral research on the programme noted in the Church Times that: “It appears that its chief concern was to achieve an increase in the numbers of those attending church (whether in new or traditional forms of church), and this has not happened. Attendance figures have continued their downward trend…” although he added a note that any such change in the trend would likely take many years to achieve, so it may be too soon to judge the efficacy of the programme.

I think it’s helpful to say that much of what the Renewal and Reform programme sought to do was very good, it tried to move spending from some of the traditional constituencies of the Church to marginal ones, and it was successful in doing so. It sought to encourage and enhance creativity, and again that was successful. But its main emphasis was to reverse numeric decline within the inherited forms of church, and this it did not accomplish.

Other denominations have also sought to address the perceived problem of this decline by the use of strategic spending and creation of creative and research-based resources – an example of this is the Methodist ‘Growing Good’ initiative. In a blog post on the Methodist Church website in 2020, Emma Nash, a Baptist minister who works as a Mission and Community Engagement Officer for the Methodists reflected on a concept at the core of the initiative: “Numbers are often a point of contention. As every mainline Christian denomination faces declining church attendance, we can find ourselves veering to one of two extremes. Some of us become anxious about reversing the trend in church attendance, because we want to see more people’s lives transformed by Christ, not fewer. This can lead us to focus too much on attendance at Sunday gatherings and to miss other markers of spiritual journeying and discipleship. Others of us reject church growth altogether as a capitalistic enterprise which seeks to force something which is the work of God alone.”

Speaking of the “Growing Good” initiative she commented that it “avoids the errors of both [these] extremes, seeing numbers as important and helpful, but part of a complex picture of church growth. Growth is seen as broader than attendance…” This and other efforts to stem the tide of decline in inherited church models are still ongoing, some attempts have already been consigned to the dustbin, others are still to be born. They all differ, somewhat, in emphasis or approach, but they share a goal – which is to arrest decline and promote growth. In other words, they seek to prevent perishing.

The United Reformed Church has not spent the sort of money some other denominations have on addressing this issue, but the same rhetoric appears nonetheless. The Vision 2020 document, published in 2010 stated boldly: “We will be a growing Church with an increasing membership.” The Theos report “The United Reformed Church: A Paradoxical Church at a Crossroads” published in 2023 veered away from this, preferring to look for areas of flourishing within the life of the Church. Its secondary research question, though, betrayed the anxiety that lies behind the calm exterior: “What do local churches [read: inherited models] need from the wider church to enable flourishing?” Despite the good news of the report, the fear of perishing is an evident subtext. “It is easy to see small churches and read a narrative of decline…” notes Chine McDonald in her foreword, before adding that this is not the whole story: “The lived reality is that, very frequently, small congregations have a disproportionate effect within their local communities.” The implicit point being that if those small congregations were not there, the effect would be larger than predicted. In other words: it would be a bad thing for these congregations to die.

Part Three.

As I conclude then, I want to bring together these two things – the Process idea of necessary perishing leading to becoming, and the observation that the gathered church, as we know it in its inherited forms, in the UK is in steep decline.

So I begin by reasserting the point that I made, at length, in the first part of this paper: perishing is a necessary precondition for becoming.  What this may mean, then, is that rather than focussing first on the fear, or prevention, of perishing, we might suggest that it would be more fruitful to accept, even welcome, this perishing and rather than seek to prevent it, actively look, instead, for what is becoming. To do so would be to adventure into the novel becoming that follows any sense of perishing, it would be to engage with the sort of strength that is only found in weakness and vulnerability. To steal a line from Joel 3:10 : “Let the weak say I am strong.” Our apparent poverty may indeed be riches – if only we could see it, welcome it, and learn not to struggle against it.

When perishing is artificially prevented becoming is stifled too. On that basis, a tragic irony is that an institution concerned with the survival of its inherited structures can stop doing the very things which keep it alive. A fight against perishing risks stifling the development of the genuinely new because it actively seeks to get in the way of becoming. Again this is a truth to be found, or perceived in all sorts of places: “My spiritual life began the day my daughter died,” wrote Mirabai Star who found that even after years of spiritual practise, her life was utterly transformed at the moment that she felt the immense pain of parental loss. As with so many others, she found that perishing really does lead to becoming. Her experience also highlights the fact that perishing is, or can be, very painful. It’s not something easy, it must be handled with care. 

When my neighbours laid artificial turf over their soil, in an attempt to preserve the traditional appearance of a lawn, they stifled anything that might have ‘become’ from below. Vulnerability to perishing has been protected against, but now no new grass or flowers may grow because of it. In process thinking, and in the natural world, it is perishing that leads to becoming, perhaps it is as simple as restating Newton’s third law (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).

How, then, can the Church respond to this? The practical lessons we can learn from this are firstly not to be desperate to protect ourselves against vulnerability (and consequent suffering) and secondly, to learn to accept that all things die away in their time. This does not mean we should all curl up and lick our wounds while we die, rather it means we should enter into an expectant waiting, one which accepts, even welcomes perishing as a necessary part of the process. If we give up the role of emergency room doctor, then we should learn to act as doula, or midwife – in the belief that this perishing of the old inherited structures will lead, or perhaps has already led, to the becoming of the new.

This means being willing to think expansively, to actively look for where, and in whom, the spirit is at work. Taken in the right way this is the opposite of the kind of pessimism or passivity that is usually peddled around this issue. It is actually a very exciting and hopeful time. If we can be freed from the fear of the Reaper, and learn to look instead for the becoming that perishing leads to, then we can follow Peter Pan in believing that “to die will be an awfully big adventure.”

We remembered, earlier the passage from Ecclesiastes 3, the most famous popular culture rendition of this is to be found the Byrds’1964  version of  ‘Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)’, composed by Pete Seeger. This is a song with more than a passing resemblance to BOC’s 1976 hit in both form and function. The guitar, the vocals, and the theme seem to have been a direct inspiration on Donald Roesner’s composition.

It seems to me that in some ways, BOC’s hit song was, in fact, a re-imagining of the Seeger/Byrds classic. The song was first recorded by a group called the Limelighters, one of whom was the guitarist Roger McGuinn, who went on to found the Byrds for whom he rearranged the composition. The words are, of course, an interpretation of a millennia-old poem. We might observe that the song shapeshifted, died, and was reborn a number of times. 

In a similar way, (Don’t fear) The Reaper has gone on to be inspirational on many other artistic endeavours too, most of which are very different to the song. It’s an imperfect example, but perhaps this process of creative advance can encourage us to imagine that the Church as we have known it needn’t be preserved in aspic, but instead may serve as an inspiration for new things. Just so long as we can trust enough to lose our fear of the reaper, and watch for the becoming of the new in the place of that which has perished.

BOC point out that the ‘seasons don’t fear the Reaper, nor do the wind or the sun or the rain’. They go on to suggest that ‘we can be like they are…’ the question is, in the face of rapid church decline, can we?

Please note that this paper was written to be presented in a seminar, and intended to provoke discussion rather than present a dogmatic position. Because it was written for presentation it lacks citations and a bibliography. If you need assistance finding the sources of quotes or statistics, please feel free to contact me: [email protected].

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