I want to turn now to think about how belief impacts a wider world than simply our own personal convictions and experiences.
Much has been written in recent years about the need to dissipate the impact of religion on society. In the minds of many, religion has become one of two things: either completely irrelevant, with nothing of use to give to contemporary society, or deeply dangerous, the realm of bigoted fundamentalists who desire nothing more than the establishment of theocratic states world wide.
It’s not hard to see why people would come up with these interpretations. In the first case, secularism and post-modernism have taken their toll – there’s huge suspicion of any kind of institution – not least one as old and venerable as the church. With our constant internal fighting about sexuality and the ordination of women (in Anglican terms, which, by in large, is how people understand the church in the UK) we’re seen as being deeply out of touch. Public pronouncements by leading figures, whilst often full of profound insight, are often viewed as being miles away from the nitty-gritty of life. Just look at the response to any of Archbishop Rowan’s statements. If anyone is brave enough to venture into any of our churches they’ll discover that our language is arcane, our church practice an alien experience – even in the most ‘contemporary’ of services. No wonder the church is quietly slipping into its grave.
In the second case, the rise of fundamentalism, again is rooted in experience – we only have to think about the scourge of terrorism over the past decade, the wars that we’ve lived through, the incredible political scene in America (where being Christian is synonymous with a deeply libertarian/conservative political agenda). Court cases in the UK about the right of a Christian to wear a cross over their uniform, or pray for patients, or to bar a gay couple from a Christian run hotel have, at best, only served to highlight the point above about irrelevance, or at worst, made following Jesus into something that is all about who is out, rather than who is in the Kingdom.
Somehow, the argument between religion and science has come to define our age – on the one hand, the rational scientist, on the other, the superstitious, irrational believer. To express a public faith is to face the possibility of derision, but also to face the chance of being viewed with deep suspicion – especially if working with children. As a trainee RE teacher, I know that many would see my subject removed from the curriculum – apparently we indoctrinate young minds! If only they’d actually pay enough attention to be indoctrinated is my somewhat irreverent response! There’s no place for the exploration of the Spirit, for learning how humanity over the ages have wrestled with the deepest questions of existence.
Church schools that were created to bring education to the poorest are viewed now as cradles of the aspirant middle classes, encouraging many parents to ‘pretend’ to be Christians to get the required clerical signature to win a place. That or they’re dismissed as ‘faith schools’ – with huge misunderstanding as to what happens once the doors are closed during the school day. Church should have nothing to do with education, is the clarion call.
Faith is ok – many will admit to being spiritual – but that’s a personal thing. It can guide us – but it shouldn’t be allowed to guide society, should it?
Pretty bleak, huh? Irrelevant or dangerous. Private, not public.
Some argue that this is the natural realm of Christianity. We’re always going to be on the margins. The gospel demands it. Absolutely. But my instinct is that we’re on the margins for all the wrong reasons.
The whole narrative is wrong.
I believe that Christianity is radical, dangerous, counter-cultural. It is about the whole world being turned upside down. It’s about the least being the most important. But more importantly, much more importantly – it’s not ‘just a personal thing’. Anyone who decides to follow decides to follow the Kingdom agenda. They commit to fighting for justice,to speak up for the voiceless. Their beliefs inform everything. There is no subject that is ‘secular’. There is nothing that is off limits.
Their is no public and private in this world view. Our values are who we are. Faith should influence politics if the person doing politics is a person of faith. Faith should influence any job. There can be no separation, in the same way that any person uses their values base to make a decision. But that’s very different from using our position to proselytise to those we hold ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over. Yes, we long to see people come to ‘faith’ – but let’s create the right space for that to happen, not force it upon anyone as a payoff if they want to use our facilities or resources.
If, however, we allow ourselves to become an oppressed minority, fighting about ‘christendom’ privileges such as having Bishops in the House of Lords or prayers before council meetings we’ve surely lost the point that Christianity is a grass roots movement. It sees transformation at the personal level, which leads to transformation at the communal level. If we communicate the deeply disruptive message that God is at work re-creating, then, maybe then deep change will come about, street by street, community by community.
I don’t believe that the future for Christianity in the UK is a return to some kind of idyllic past when the UK was a Christian country holding Christian values. I’m sorry, Mr Cameron, but I don’t think that ever was the case. Can we honestly say that the whole of society was governed by kingdom thinking? Where the rich gave up everything they had to help the poor, where the weak were viewed as the strong? Maybe there was some kind of strange social conservatism that rooted itself in church tradition – but not the kind of community that Jesus seemed to be creating during his earthly ministry.
Let’s work together to create a society where to have faith is to have a voice that gets involved in the kind of issues that will make a real difference. Let’s work hard to create an education system where young people are equipped to wrestle with the deepest questions of life, where spirituality is viewed as just as important as any of the other areas of development.
I passionately believe that people of faith have something to bring to the public debate, and have just as much a right to be heard as any other perspective. But I believe that we have to be talking about the right kind of things.
We have to earn the right to be heard about our beliefs through living them out. By modelling the inclusive kingdom, and not wasting our resources on vanity projects. We have to listen, we have to embrace. We have to apologise where we need to.
Words from the prophet Amos seem pertinant:
“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want”.
How about if when Christians got involved in ‘big society’ (sorry!), this is what we were know for…bringing justice to whoever needs it. Maybe then we’d deserve a hearing about what motivates us. Then the public arena will want us to be involved.