Section 4. What should Christians do?
This is the final part of the review of the Clearing the Ground report published by Christians in Parliament on the 27th February 2012. You can read part one of the report review HERE, part two HERE and part three HERE.
Following on from section 3, which looked at practical ways in which the problems faced by Christians can be addressed at a political level, the final part of the report turns its attention to the steps that churches, Christian organisations and individual Christians can take in order to respond to the challenges they face.
The report is keen to point out that though its findings point to the increased marginalisation of Christians in the UK, compared to the persecution and suffering faced by millions of Christians around the world, Christians have a great deal of freedom to practise their faith in this country. According to the Bible, Christians should not be surprised when their values lead to tension, misrepresentation and even opposition.
In order to avoid a wholly critical tone, all the submissions to the inquiry were asked to outline their vision for society:
‘All those who gave evidence saw the place of Christianity as being neither private, nor privileged. Contributors also agreed that plural society is a good thing which provides a framework of interaction for groups to show sufficient respect and tolerance of each other. This allows us to fruitfully coexist and interact without conflict or assimilation and it was generally appreciated as a biblically consistent way to organise society – and something worth defending.’
‘Such a view is outlined by Lord Carey: “This is the nature of the Church in a democracy – not to be the dominant voice, but to earn the right to be heard through its experience, its witness, and the quality of its extensive thinking about the common good.”’
Along with criticism of the growing acceptance of secularist values in law, the inquiry also found that there was acknowledgement among those giving evidence that Christians have been complicit in creating the problems of marginalisation. One of the main reasons cited was the poor preparation of Christian leaders to engage in public life.
“We are getting to a point where the unintended consequences of well intended positions have caused a problematic situation. We want equality, and have bought into society’s arguments in favour of equality. This has had the unintended consequence of eroding society. It means that society no longer functions well… Some of the issues which are always presented in individualistic terms have social consequences which are detrimental to the wellbeing of all. We face a major challenge about how to tell our story in a way which is about the common good.” (Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, Church of England)
As part of the Clearing the Ground inquiry, all witnesses were also asked the question: ‘What is the biggest challenge facing Christians in the UK today?’ Dr Peter Saunders, Director of the Christian Medical Fellowship captured the common sentiments expressed:
“The challenge is always to live in obedience to Jesus Christ, in fulfilling his great commission and his great commandment. I think that we are living in a society which has changed from having a predominantly Christian theist worldview, to one where secular-humanism and indeed more recently the new atheism is becoming more prominent… We live also in a much more multicultural society with people of other faiths and alternative world views. I think that inevitably has created some pressure points.”
Christians cannot expect the government or someone else to fix these issues. The Church has a duty to disciple Christians to lead lives that are authentic to the teachings of Jesus. This is a priority that needs addressing with all the Church’s energy and resources.
There is a Biblical responsibility for Christians to proclaim the gospel, challenge injustice and to speak out for those without a voice. However at times Christian campaigning can come across as reactionary, amateur and aggressive, exacerbating the problems that are being opposed. The report urges groups that take claims of Christian discrimination to court to first reflect upon the impact that their actions might have upon politics, public opinion, other Christian public policy groups, and Christian confidence. Closer ties need to be developed between such organisations, and others in the Christian sphere to ensure campaigns are effective and broadly supported.
The consequences of continually drawing attention to alleged discrimination against Christians, can be that the public perception of the situation is worse than it really is and Christian withdrawal from public life through disillusionment and misinformation. Any embellishing or exaggerating of the facts can quickly bring Christianity into disrepute.
‘Christians should act and speak with integrity at all times, and when representing the Church to the world or communicating secular issues to the Church, they should speak with professionalism, accuracy and grace. The assumption of a martyr position can appear laudable, but is often a lazy mode of public engagement.’
A major theme of the inquiry was to not only identify problems and potential solutions for Christians in public life but also to affirm the role of faith and the place of Christianity in society. Christians need to become effective at responding to the challenges they face in society and to be able to demonstrate a positive vision for it:
“I think the vision was best expressed by Augustine who contrasted two cities, the earthly city and the heavenly city; and Christians are primarily citizens of the heavenly city, a spiritual dimension to life which is not captured by the governments of this age or the powers of this age. But we do have a responsibility toward the earthly city which is to seek its good and to seek its welfare.” (Professor Julian Rivers)
‘Too often the Church can be defined by what it opposes, instead of what it proposes. It is essential that Christians articulate a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and is seen to be for the good of all.’
Over the course of the previous century, the Church has lost much of its power and influence. However, Christians of all denominations are becoming increasingly aware of the need to engage with communities, our nation and the world. This means moving beyond Church services and buildings and looking outwards. Such a shift is already having a transforming effect in many deprived parts of the country. There is a vast undercurrent of Christians living out their faith in society, but much of it goes unnoticed.
‘It is perhaps understandable that Christians are sometimes reluctant to publicise their activities, achievements and social contributions. This is probably related to scriptural injunctions for humility and to not boast about good deeds. However, if freedoms for Christians are to be preserved and the socio-political role of the faith is to be properly valued, it is important that Christians increase their voice and volume about what they contribute to society. This positive messaging should always eclipse what is spoken against in society.’
In the final summary of the report it is noted that in addition to specific legal and political problems, there exists a wider cultural challenge relating to the way that religion makes truth claims that are absolute. All beliefs (including atheism) claim absolutes. Therefore in a society with multiple beliefs, there will always be a conflict between the views and values which exist. David Cameron is then quoted:
“We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so… the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend…
The alternative of moral neutrality should not be an option… Put simply for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. ‘Live and let live’ has too often become ‘do what you please’. Bad choices have too often been defended as just different lifestyles. To be confident in saying something is wrong, is not a sign of weakness. It’s a strength. But we can’t fight something with nothing. As I’ve said if we don’t stand for something, we can’t stand against anything… 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…
I believe the Church – and indeed all our religious leaders and their communities in Britain – have a vital role to play in helping to achieve this.”
The freedoms that Christians enjoy in our society are largely a result of the influence of those who have gone before working for liberty and justice. These freedoms are worth defending. They enable the proclamation of the gospel and its practical outworking in people’s lives across our country. Christians need to make the most of these freedoms and engage their faith fully and confidently. Being distinctive in the outworking of their faith, Christians, must work for the good of society, and towards one that is truly respectful of different beliefs. This is the concluding paragraph:
‘‘Gospel’ means good news. Christians in the UK have the privilege and responsibility to defend the freedoms that the gospel proposes and requires. We hope that the Clearing the Ground inquiry will help Christians: to live out their faith without coercion or compromise; to continue to make immense practical contributions to the wellbeing of communities; and to speak out the good news of Jesus Christ with confidence and grace.’
The challenge of Clearing the Ground is well laid out for Christians. It’s no good just sitting in the church pews and expecting God or the government to sort things out. Christians have the most amazing message for our nation. God’s values bring freedom, justice and hope. It’s something to be confident of and certainly not ashamed. If Christians take on a victim mentality and just try building defences to stop the tide of secularism, then the church has failed in its duty to everyone.
I admire those Christians who live out their faith in the public arena, whether they be politicians, business leaders, journalists, or others. You are an easy target for those who misguidedly believe that religion has nothing to offer society, but if Christians are not in the public arena bringing the example of Jesus into the ‘world’ then how is anyone going to know the transformational difference God’s values can make to individuals’ lives and society as a whole.
Christians need to speak up when they believe society is going in the wrong direction, but we need to put in a lot more effort giving our country hope for a better future. The question is where do we go from here? This blog is my attempt to address the issue. I quoted this passage in my very first post:
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” (Matthew 5:14-15)
The thought of Christians uniting to offer our nation a better vision excites me beyond words. Let’s go to God and see where he wants to take us.
You can read the full Clearing the Ground report, executive summary and contributions HERE.