Another week goes by and a few more political types have decided to give their opinion on the state of Christianity in our country. It certainly is reassuring to know that if by chance the Archbishop of Canterbury misses his return flight in future after attending another international gathering of church leaders, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage is on hand to step in and give the Church of England some advice to keep it on the straight and narrow.
Farage in an interview with the Telegraph last weekend was more than willing to give Justin Welby a bit of help:
“We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values. That’s the message I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from our politicians. Anything less is appeasement of the worst kind.”
The actual tenets of the Christian faith appear to be of little interest to Mr Farage given that he reportedly only attends church only four or five times a year. Instead it is about “our identity”. As a nation, a society and a culture, we have little choice but to face the onslaught of a combination of multiculturalism and secularism that is redefining what it means to be British. The inevitable identity crisis that we are working through has led to a reaction from some desperate to hang on to a certain form of Britishness that in many ways Nigel Farage’s UKIP has embodied. It harks back to Jerusalem’s green and pleasant land where everyone gets along nicely because everyone is more than happy to be a cultural Anglican sharing in the values of tolerance and fairness with an appreciation of British tradition and occasional church attendance. And Mr Farage is far from being alone in holding these views.
On the same day as his interview was published and proving again that the current government does ‘do God’, Baroness Warsi, the first faith minister also made some comments covering the same theme. In another Telegraph interview, the country’s most senior Muslim politician came to the defence of our Christian heritage as she has done on previous occasions:
“We are not the US and we are not France we are a very different nation and I just think that we need that gentle relationship with faith having a space in the public sphere,” she said.
She also warned against an “obsession” with symbols such as crosses and veils rather than discussing faith itself.
“I think we do become quite obsessed with the minutia rather than the basis of what most faiths are about which is to be a good person and do good things for society,” she said.
Despite evidence of declining public affiliation to the Church of England, she insisted she had “no doubts whatsoever” about maintaining its position as the Established Church.
Describing the CofE as a “bedrock” of society, she brushed off suggestions that other faiths could be given automatic seats in the Lords alongside the bishops.
“I think at the moment the system works,” she said.
“We have an Established Church, it does have a unique position, it has an obligation to all of its parishioners irrespective of their faith so it has a unique role to those beyond just its own faith group, I think it is an incredibly positive aspect of our life in Britain and long may it continue.”
You might think that some of our more well-known atheists might have slightly less favourable things to say about our Christian roots, but they seem to be in no mood to have them ripped up and shredded. Instead Polly Toynbee lamented yesterday the fact that in schools, ‘The Bible has all but gone in a generation, a deep cultural loss: apart from the nativity, there is no common reference point, no chill to the marrow at God telling Abraham to cut his son’s throat, no common understanding of a reference to Lazarus.’ Even atheism’s self-appointed high priest, Richard Dawkins admitted in his recent autobiography that he feels ‘Anglican nostalgia, especially when you look at the competition’. He also said that he would feel ‘deprived’ if the Church of England disappeared: ‘I’m kind of grateful to the Anglican tradition for its benign tolerance. I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green. I have a certain love for it.’
So we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where there is still a great fondness for Christianity albeit in a watered down form. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope continue to receive plenty of media attention and issues of faith still make the front pages of the newspapers. But at the same time that many want to hold on to some elements of Christian tradition that give comfort and security, the courts and politicians are giving little acknowledgement to the Christian moral framework that provided the foundations for many of our laws. Tolerance of multiculturalism has too often become a hypersensitive intolerance of anything that might be construed as offensive such as simple expressions of faith in the workplace. Militant secularist groups add to the pressure on religion and Christianity in particular by attacking anything that is seen to constitute religious privilege through the legal system from faith schools to free car parking for church attenders.
All the while as the voices of those on the outside feel the need to say how the Church should be managing its business, it sits in the middle with the important job, not of appeasing Nigel Farage or the National Secular Society, but ploughing ahead in the pursuit of doing God’s will.
Cultural Christianity still maintains a great deal of value in providing a common bond that gives our society a solid grounding. It makes sense for the Church to work with those who see it as a friend and to remind our society that just because it is accepting of those from different backgrounds with differing beliefs (as it should be), it does not mean that the ‘bedrock’ as Baroness Warsi puts it, should be kicked away and replaced with a secular theology where all gods are both equal and meaningless. If the perfectly good moral compass of Christianity is rejected, who then is given the moral authority to decide what should replace it? Sir James Munby? Russell Brand?
In response, it might look like the Church ought to be making a priority of advocating cultural Christianity/Anglicanism, but what would Jesus say? It’s not religion, it is what its label says it is, i.e. culture. It has very little to do with any form of Christianity that you find in the Bible. It only exists because Christianity played such a key role in the formation of this nation as we know it and now centuries on we are living in the fading afterglow. For the Church to hold on to this tightly would be to cling to the past without any hope for the future. It would be no better trying to fight the tide of secular legislation through the courts. It would be self-defeating.
Instead if we want to see the Church at its most valuable both to its members and this nation then it needs to be doing what caused Britain to be a Christian nation in the first place. It was those who passionately followed Jesus’ calling to love God, love our neighbour and make disciples, who have given this nation so much. Think of the early Celtic missionaries, the monasteries that brought education and hospitals, the scholars who gave us the King James Bible, John Wesley who brought a spiritual revival that changed the direction of this country. Remember too Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery and the Quaker reformers such as George Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree who worked to improve the lives and social rights of those working in Victorian cities.
Britain has Christianity running through its veins and has received many blessings as a result despite what some who are ignorant or in denial might think. But if we are to still be talking about our Judaeo-Christian heritage in a hundred years time, it will be as a result of a vibrant and healthy Church that continues to change this nation by faithfully serving God and fighting injustice. A defence, muscular or otherwise, of past achievements and nostalgia will not be enough.