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.