It’s been a remarkable couple of weeks for the relationship between Christianity and the state. We’ve had the Advertising Standards Authority ruling against Healing on the Streets – Bath and the Bideford Council prayers case at the High Court along with Eric Pickles response in the form of the Localism Act. The chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, has made some controversial comments about the place of religion in society and even Richard Dawkins has had a go at people who call themselves Christians, but don’t have an active faith.
Maybe it’s something of a blip, but I am convinced that these arguments will continue to rumble on. Next up is the same-sex marriage consultation in Parliament and there is a fair head of steam building on that already. Religion and faith are again being attacked from those opposed to them, but rather than being pummelled into submission, I believe that the Church and Christians have a great opportunity to find their voice and stand up and be counted for what they believe.
I do get frustrated at times because it feels like the Church is constantly on the back foot reacting to the latest attack and trying to do its best to defend its position against the tides of atheism and secularism. It is a sad thought that if the Church in the past had been more proactive at speaking its mind and sharing the gospel it has been entrusted with, then maybe things would be different now.
Sometimes with all the adverse news about the Church’s influence being eroded away it is easy to miss the signs of hope that do appear.
On the 16th of December, David Cameron gave a speech at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford to mark the end of the 400th anniversary year for the King James Bible. This in my mind was a very significant moment in British politics.
For many years the message from the last government was famously, to quote Alistair Campbell, “We don’t do God.” This was despite Tony Blair quite clearly having a strong faith and following on from him, Gordon Brown too. The previous government did very little to encourage the work of faith groups in their communities and in fact made it more difficult. When I was working as a youth worker for the church ten years ago we were unable to access government grants to grow the work we were doing outside of the church with young people in the local community. The sole reason for this was because the work was being run by a church. It was only when we started a charity apart from the church doing exactly the same work that we could receive the funds.
In contrast the current government has stated more than once that they ‘do God’. Even though David Cameron’s level of understanding of the Christian faith appears somewhat limited at times (he described himself in his speech as “a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian”), he and his government are very keen to see faith groups and in particular churches involved in our communities and society at large, being an essential part of his vision for the ‘Big Society’.
In his King James speech David Cameron claimed that, “We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.” Later on he made these points:
“The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.”
Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities. These are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.
But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none. And I believe we should all stand up and defend them.
Those who oppose this usually make the case for secular neutrality. They argue that by saying we are a Christian country and standing up for Christian values we are somehow doing down other faiths. And that the only way not to offend people is not to pass judgement on their behaviour.
I think these arguments are profoundly wrong. And being clear on this is absolutely fundamental to who we are as a people, what we stand for and the kind of society we want to build.
First, those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.
Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France. Why?
Because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.
And because many of the values of a Christian country are shared by people of all faiths and indeed by people of no faith at all.
Second, those who advocate secular neutrality in order to avoid passing judgement on the behaviour of others fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code.”
The day after I was listening to Any Questions on Radio 4. As the content of his speech was being debated, a consensus formed amongst the majority of the panel (mainly composed of humanists and atheists)that without Christianity our country would have turned out pretty much the same and that Christianity has brought very little of benefit to us in our nation’s history.
They were very wide of the mark on these points. It reminded me of the start of the start of the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where at a meeting of The People’s Liberation Front of Judea, Reg gives a revolutionary speech asking, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” In the same way that those at teh meeting then outline various positive aspects of the Roman occupation, so I could see the Any Questions debate continuing off air:
“Look, what has Christianity ever brought our nation?”
“Um, hospitals, schools, universities, oh and democracy.”
“So apart from hospitals, schools, universities and democracy?”
“Well there’s human rights, the abolition of slavery, a legal and moral framework…”
“OK, so ignoring all that, what has Christianity ever given us?”
If you were to remove Christianity from our nation there would only be a dark and empty shell left. Is that really what anyone who cares about our society wants?