Nick Baines, bishop of Bradford, has written a very useful summary of the church’s position in the current scrap with the government over a range of issues where the elected minority think they can impose views on the church. It is an important read for anyone who, like me, sits between the polity of the state and the role of the church. He argues forcefully that whilst the church should seek to remain humble in its attitude to the world and the things that happen in it, as well as to its own failings, we as Christians are under no obligation to assume the same posture politically or socially as the government of the day:
Did the Prime Minister not feel just a tinge of embarrassment in encouraging the Church of England to “get with the programme” (interesting choice of words…) when he had, for example, failed to reform the House of Lords (which the Church still thinks is needed) in Parliament? Pots, kettles, black. And how many u-turns has this government managed in the last couple of years? And they tell the Church how to get the right results by bending the systems?
Then we have a minister stand up in the House of Commons and state that the Church of England will be ‘banned’ (“It will be illegal…”) from allowing the celebration of gay marriages in church under the planned new legislation – without actually talking to us or alerting us first. OK, the established church finds itself in a conundrum about this and other ethical/cultural issues (and with a spread of opinions within the church) and some of the challenge has to do with stuff you simply can’t erase from reality (or law). So, the debate about the Church of England is OK. But, the minister referred to the Church in Wales in the same category – when it was disestablished 92 years ago. That’s 92 years ago.
So, we have politicians who are badly briefed, ignorant of the polity of the matters they are dealing with, change their minds every five minutes, put out ‘consultations’ at the same time as announcing that they “are determined to push this through”, make a false and factually erroneous distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’ in their consultation paperwork, fail to think through the implications of their proposals, fail to provide evidence of anything other than ad hoc and reactive populist thinking in the proposals they announce prematurely, and then expect to be taken seriously….
Let’s be dramatic – and remember we are talking principle here. What should the church have done when German society in the 1930s colluded with the nasties? How should the Russian church have re-shaped itself during the Communist years? Should the church in England simply let go of some unpopular values because they get widely ridiculed? Should a church’s theological anthropology simply be short-circuited in order to keep trouble away and ‘fit in’?
The Christian scriptures and tradition don’t sit easily with this line. The prophets weren’t popular in the sixth or eighth centuries BC when they saw through the short-term political and military alliances that would ultimately lead to chaos. When life was cheap they didn’t refrain from holding to the inherent value of human life, the common good and the need for justice. Jesus didn’t get nailed for being untrendy – but for daring to challenge the Zeitgeist. His followers weren’t encouraged to blend in to first century pagan culture.
Let’s be clear: it is the principle of automatic collusion with the Zeitgeist that has to be questioned. Drill down then to the issues themselves (gay marriage, etc) and at least the conversation can proceed with mutual respect. Simply writing off those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes without engaging with the fundamental value systems and world views that shape their journey to that conclusion is crass – as is the sneer from the other end that approving of gay relationships automatically writes off all Christian credentials and reduces them to brain-dead liberalism.
The church needs to listen very carefully to what society is saying – and be willing in all humility to contemplate that its tradition on any issue might need to be amended. Sexuality is the big one in this respect at present. But, wider society should not expect an authentically Christian church to simply reflect its surrounding culture or be cowed by sneering ridicule or political pressure.
This is a very helpful exposition of this line of thinking, and I agree with almost everything in it. It is helpful particularly because increasingly I believe that there is something that God is saying to church schools about localism, about local accountability, about the lives of the families that we serve and the type of community we want to build. We are between two masters, for want of a better phrase, and when these are in conflict, then we have a little bit more cognitive dissonance to cope with. To quote Bono,
Smack in the centre of contradiction is the place to be.
The apostle John, confusingly, says two things that seem to contradict – God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have an eternal kind of life (John, 3, 16) but also that we are to love not the world, nor anything that is in the world (1 John 2,15).
This is not as confusing as it seems. On the one hand, we give ourselves as Christians, in kindness and sacrifice to love that for which Jesus died, wholly engaging with the world, debating, persuading, respecting and continuing to love, whilst refusing to bow down to the thinking that sees the whole world in terms of “the spirit of the age”. The principle, as Nick Baines rightly says, is that we do not automatically collude with the powers that be, remembering that the “powers” as described in the Bible are not merely political and human, with politically-motivated urges, but that they are fed from a malevolent spiritual root that, like the thief, comes to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10). Even politically benevolent actions by parties seeking the best for their society free of ideology will need to be engaged with and challenged by the church. The joy and challenge of leading a church school is to engage with the powers whilst taking, as often as I can, the source of my love and affection from Jesus Christ. Plenty of people in the church really do not get this.