David Cameron and The failure of Christian vision

Two stories grabbed my attention this week. The first was an article in the Economist magazine entitled “God in austerity Britain”. The other was the talk by David Cameron to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Both are challenges to the church and its role in society. But what is interesting is that both believe that the Church has something worthwhile to say but that it hasn’t got its act together.

Bagheot in the Economist appears to believe that it went wrong for the Church after the second world war

Welfare utopianism is an Anglican tradition. In the 1940s the church embraced the welfare state as a modern, professional alternative to charity, willingly dismantling voluntary relief networks and signing over thousands of church schools, hospitals and other bodies to the state, notes Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University.

This is incredibly important to understand where the Church of England hierarchy (and many of the clergy) has its default setting. In the 1960’s this was followed by what was known as “South Bank religion” where there was a huge effort by the diocese of Southwark to work for social justice in the inner city. Large resources and many clergy were put into this work. Some good things came out of it but overall it didn’t succeed and although Southwark still contains many within it who hark back to that period it was not sustainable. So, often now we see a move towards wanting more “welfare utopia”.

So, recently our old bishop (and now Bishop of Bradford), Nick Baines, wrote:

In other words, how can you create the big society if you want volunteers to serve the vulnerable in their local community whilst at the same time cutting all the funding to enable those charities and local bodies to run. You need some paid people to coordinate, seek funding, run the show, recruit, resource and train the volunteers. No funding, no Big Society.

Much as I like Nick, I think that I would say that it is we, the church, that needs to do this. We are to be good news not just telling others that they should want it.

So, we come to David Cameron’s speech (you can read it in full here). Alistair Campbell famously said of the government under Tony Blair “We don’t do God”.  This of the most religious Prime Minister since Gladstone. David Cameron does not claim to be a Gladstone. Indeed he describes his faith

In making this speech I claim no religious authority whatsoever.

I am a committed – but I have to say vaguely practising – Church of England Christian, who will stand up for the values and principles of my faith…

…but who is full of doubts and, like many, constantly grappling with the difficult questions when it comes to some of the big theological issues.

This precursor allows him then to make some very encouraging and direct remarks about Christianity and its role in British society. What I was really struck about was how fulsome he was in defence of Christianity as being central. He goes beyond just saying that the King James Bible is important to our history and art and language. He makes a case for the defence of Christianity and its relationship to this country.

So, he says

We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so. Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong.

I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger.

But what I am saying is that 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.

He also talks about how Christianity “prods” us

Faith is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for morality.

There are Christians who don’t live by a moral code.

And there are atheists and agnostics who do.

But for people who do have a faith, their faith can be a helpful prod in the right direction.

And whether inspired by faith or not – that direction, that moral code, matters.

Whether you look at the riots last summer…

…the financial crash and the expenses scandal…

…or the on-going terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world…

…one thing is clear: moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it anymore.

He even quotes President Obama

As President Obama wrote in the Audacity of Hope:

“…in reaction to religious overreach we equate tolerance with secularism, and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our politics with larger meaning.”

He is asking us to have a moral debate about the sort of society that we are and the sort of people that we wish to become. Now already there are those who are decrying the Prime Minister. Some even prefer Christopher Hitchens “certainty” to David Cameron’s uncertainty and values

But I think that Cameron is on to something with all this. He is saying that there is a major role in the public arena for the church and faith. He is asking for the church to re-discover its ability to speak to and for the people of this country.

This will mean that the church needs to work on its language and its ability to re-connect with the people of this country. As the Economist says

…the economy may be about to fall off a cliff. That poses a huge test for the Church of England and its claims to be a source of national strength. If the church cannot offer a message more spiky and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail that test.

David Bentley Hart in his brilliant book  “Atheist Delusions, The christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies” makes the point of the early church that it was revolutionary and

The true revolution was something that happened far deeper – though often far humbler levels; its true victories were so subtle as to be all but invisible; it advanced not only by the conversion of individuals but also by the slow, tacit transformation of the values around it.

Instead of a role of being the guardians of the “welfare utopia” I believe that the church is called to be the ones changing the values around us. Instead of complaining that the state should do something, to look to start things ourselves. When we put forward a vision for change, when we draw people into being followers of Jesus there is the prod to start to live by the values that Jesus taught us – to look after the poor, to live lives that reflect our Saviour.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude us commenting on the issues of the day, but lets stop reacting to being the Tory party at prayer by being the Labour party at prayer and lets be the church. Far more radical than either.

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7 comments on “David Cameron and The failure of Christian vision

  1. MQ
    December 17, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    Having read the whole speech, I have to say, Cameron is right on the way that ‘tolerance’ has been so misused as to become a freedom from morals and an intolerance of expressing differing views and beliefs. Dismal blurring of the difference between the strengths of a particular translation and the meaning of the content that was translated, though!

    I’m all for a church that stands up to be counted and is clear about what it believes. But I think the tweet you quote is quite correct that Cameron has completely missed the point of the Book he’s talking about… and surely a church that is really only known for preaching morality, respectability and works is far more dangerous than someone who has understood the gospel of grace such as Christopher Hitchens!

  2. Will Cookson
    December 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    MQ, welcome and thanks for the comment.

    Of course, I don’t think that David Cameron has a necessarily advanced faith – but why would I expect that? I do think that he is attempting to give the church space to contribute to the life of the country. I do think that some (I don’t mean you!) hav’nt been very generous to him and I suspect that for some they can’t see beyond the party. I wonder what they would have said if it had been said by someone such as Ricky Gervais??!

  3. MQ
    December 17, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    You’re absolutely right – a very good challenge, which despite your gracious caveat does apply to me too.

    I shouldn’t be cross with Cameron for missing the point, but should call for the church – as you say – to “get its act together” and speak up when – as now – we’re invited to. Only then will people, including our leaders, better grasp what we’re about – it is as much our responsibility as theirs.

    Of course, what the church then says might not be what he expects. We should set the moral tone by what we do, whilst our words must make clear that trying harder to be good, decent citizens – and preaching to others do to so too – is not what will save this country… We’ve got to be crystal clear about the unique message of the gospel, the grace everyone needs, and the only way to get it. What a damning indictment of the church’s witness that Hitchens is one of the precious few people who ‘got’ it!

    Having been clear with our message, we are certainly mandated to back it up with action, and whilst the PM giving us space to do that is to be welcomed, we shouldn’t have to wait for him to ask, should we!

    On the subject of the man and the party, Cameron’s views on the voluntary sector and desire to dismantle the welfare state are at least internally consistent. I’m starting to understand the point of view that the voluntary sector won’t pick up the mantle until the government has well and truly put it down (so the severe cuts are intentionally meant to leave more need for the voluntary sector to address – quite serious short-medium term pain is inevitable if you want to see that principle put into practice). I’ve heard US Republican voters (in conversation over a meal) opposing a welfare state because it robs Christians of the opportunity to do what Jesus has called them to do. It makes some logical sense, but … hmmm, it just doesn’t sit right with me (a child of the UK’s welfare age).

    We should be moved and outraged at the ongoing need for welfare in this country. But whether our efforts as Christians should be to build a state that takes care of those in need, or to be more directly involved in meeting those needs ourselves is a matter of debate and political preference. I think that’s what the conclusion to your original post is getting at. Maybe we need as Christians to better understand that the Conservative viewpoint is that the voluntary sector is hindered from doing a better job of welfare by the existence of a welfare state. That’s the conclusion we have to come to if we assume the best intentions and sincerity of that party.

    Why do we object to that? Do we genuinely believe that the welfare state is the best (most efficient, most comprehensive or most effective) way to take care of the vulnerable in our society? Or is it that it is the easiest way to do it, because it absolves us of our own responsibility to get involved?

    All that to say, I don’t think we should look ‘beyond’ the party to see Cameron – his views on the church and its role as part of the voluntary sector are fully consistent with the party’s stated approach. I find it deeply challenging… everything in me wants to disagree with it, yet, taken at face value, its logic nags at me. And there’s the rub – face value. Is it so wrong that in fact I doubt the good intentions of the government that wants to ‘liberate’ the voluntary sector?

    Clearly this debate will continue to rage in my head, not to mention elsewhere! Just as long as we don’t let it crowd out the equally pressing need to get our grace-gospel message clearer. Grace first, changing society is then the outworking of that grace in people’s lives.

  4. Nickkk
    December 18, 2011 at 12:26 am #

    “shall I continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means.”

    Shall I dismantle the welfare state, and create more poverty and suffering, that Christians may have more opportunity for good works? “By no means.”

  5. Will Cookson
    December 18, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Nickkk,
    Welcome. I for one would not wish to dismantle the welfare state. I was brought up in a one-parent family and without it life would have been beyond difficult.

  6. MQ
    December 19, 2011 at 2:26 am #

    Nickkk, that’s probably an oversimplification – after all, part of the Conservative argument is that the voluntary sector can do it *better* than the welfare state, so the intended long-term result is less poverty and suffering, not more.

    But, yes, that encapsulates beautifully what I find so troubling about that logic in the short-to-medium term.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Yes, Prime Minister does God | Richard's Watch - December 19, 2011

    […] a couple of helpful brief commentaries see Peter Kirk and Will Cookson.  For a useful full text, with his own emboldened emphases, see ‘His Grace Cranmer’s’ […]

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