This one has been brewing for the last few days…if not a lot longer. Those of you in the UK will know that a town council in Devon have been censored by the courts for including Christian prayers in their official business. The case has been around for at least a couple of years as a atheist council member found the inclusion of prayer intolerable and enlisted the support of the National Secular Society to get rid of them. Inevitably, ‘Christian leaders’ have vowed to fight this at the highest level, whilst the Communities Minister, the delightful Mr Pickles is fast tracking legislation to make sure councils can pray if they want to.
Also inevitable are the claims from ‘Christian Leaders’ that this is the result of a campaign of aggressive secularists (Dawkins et al) to see Christianity pushed out of the public sphere into the private life. They cite recent cases about a Christian couple running a hotel being fined for refusing to honour a booking by a gay couple, Christian workers being told not to wear crosses, Christian nurses being disciplined for offering prayers, the attack on a Christian (heterosexual) understanding of marriage all as evidence to point towards increasing persecution of Christians in the UK.
But I just can’t see it that way.
There’s part of me that hates the current dialogue between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ – I’ve posted more than once on this (here and here to start with). I believe that we have to create a new way of communicating that ushers in respect and understanding, but that in effect we’re trying to undo centuries of intolerance from religion towards science and progress. I know that.
I also believe that people of faith have a vital contribution to make to public life. I believe passionately that the gospel is the hope for our world, and that we followers of Jesus have to be part of making this world a better place, bringing hope wherever we encounter despair – in whatever guise it comes. We need to contribute to national, regional and local discussions about everything…not just religious matters. Our voice counts just as much as those based simply on ‘logic’ and ‘reason’…as if those things are ever truly attainable or even indeed a neutral position in themselves.
What strikes me, however, is that what is being fought over here is the last remnants of Christendom in the UK – where once the church hold sway over the intellectual, political and corporate life of the country. Many have said that the UK is no longer a Christian country. I truly doubt it ever was – or that it’s even possible to have a ‘Christian’ country. Faith doesn’t lend itself to such a concept – it speaks of kingdom, not national identity.
Prayers before council meetings are not about really asking that God’s perspective be followed in the meeting. If it were, I’d imagine the agenda would be wildly different! It’s about tradition.
As many secular commentators have pointed out, Jesus tells us to pray in private, quiet places, keeping our prayers simple. If you’ve ever been in a formal council style meeting, prayers are very rarely simple…especially if they include a focus on the royal family (but don’t get me started on that one…!). We don’t need to invoke God for him to be present – he is always with us. We don’t need to pray for his guidance if we’re taking seriously what it means to follow him by making every decision one that’s based on what we know of him.
Don’t get me wrong – I think prayer is really, really important. I think it’s the point at which we try to connect with the God way of being. But it’s not just about the special stuff when we need his help – it’s literally like breathing…we need to practise prayer in every moment.
What I’m trying to say is that I think that what’s going on here is Christians locked in a Christendom model of privilege fighting as these privileges are stripped away.
What is really exciting to realise is that church is at its most exciting and dynamic when it’s pushed out to the edge, when it’s ignored and marginalised. The first 300 years of the church saw massive growth when to acknowledge being a follower would lead to death. Many, many stories since give plenty of evidence to this argument. We don’t need to be at the privileged centre. In fact, when we are, we usually mess up.
So – I won’t get upset about this supposed persecution. I know the slippery slope argument asks where this will all end – that if we don’t stand up now we’ll end up in a state where Christianity is outlawed. I don’t think this is inevitable. But perhaps it gives us a chance to think about why we do the things we do, and whether they’re more about privilege than about what Jesus told us to do.
There are many, many things that we should be fighting that rank well above town hall prayers. Poverty, injustice, welfare cuts, changes to the education system, changes to the NHS, the demonisation of minorities…the list goes on and on. Real issues of justice.
And even if it does happen, if the church is disestablished, if the church is no longer allowed to run schools, if we are truly persecuted, imprisoned for our truly Christocentric beliefs…well, then, perhaps then we’re being more faithful to our calling as pilgrim people, as exiles who disturb and disrupt the pattern of the ‘world’ as we bring news of another way of living and being.
As we surrender power we embrace the Lord who modelled what it means to embrace weakness as a radical, revolutionary lifestyle. That’s our example. The pursuit of justice for all…not just us.