Last week I was sitting in church and at the end of the prayer of intercessions I had to say, “Amen, except the bit I can’t say it to”. The bit I had to exempt myself from agreeing to related to praying for our Christian country and against the demise of it, oh and against the de-establishment of the church. Now, don’t get me wrong it’s not that I support secularisation or the attacks on Christianity which some people are undoubtedly engaging in…however hard they protest otherwise but it is I think that alot of the debate at the moment is at best misguided and at worst dangerous. So at the end of the week when Channel Four News had an intelligent “pub” discussion between a Christian, Muslim and Jew who all discussed the subtle issues involved in the debate in a way which was grown up and mature; The Baroness Warsi has been on a trip to Rome and spoken out against agressive secularism; the Telegraph has reported that Eric Pickles has signed a change in the law to enable councils to keep prayer on agenda’s – and so sidestepped the ruling against Bideford last week, Trevor Phillips has spoken out about those who want to sidestep the national law in the name of religion; Christian Concern has come back saying atheism is being put in the place of Christianity in the public square and Durham has apparently been having it’s own battle between the humanists who have had their “Reason Week” going head to head with the Christians who have been calling their main mission “Exchanged” I’m going to have my say on where we’re at.
Which strand to start with? Well – for me it is going to be the faith and public life thing. Prayers before council meetings are good BUT only if they are voluntary, inter-faith and not part of the formal agenda which people are expected to attend. Those who point back to the traditions are pointing back to a time where a lack of religion, or having the wrong type of religion resulted in barring from university (as anybody who has been to Cadbury World will know). Do we really want to go back to that type of belonging/ behaving without believing? I think not. Notions of this being a Christian Country and the priviledging of “the established church” go back to these types of attitudes and practices. The right to be a non-conformist and hold a different theological perspective to the dominant state norm or to proclaim oneself somebody without faith is something people in this country literally died for.
However, there is one area my own feelings contradict themselves in somewhat – and that is in relation to the House of Lords. I fully believe in a non-elected House of Lords which contains the aristocracy and “the church” (amongst others). The reasons for this are these people tend to bring knowledge and expertise which is beyond that of career politicians. Cross Benchers are to my mind the best assets we have as voters. My own feeling is that change should see all mainstream religious groups represented within a “faith” block, but equally there should be secularists represented too. By this I mean that I am of the view that rather than a bunch of Bishops there should be some bishops but also faith representatives from the Roman Catholics, the free churches, the variety of different Muslim streams, Orthodox and Reformed Jews, Sikhs and so on who get seats in the Lords. In terms of why it is important these voices of potential dissent are there one only need look at the coverage of the passage of the recent Welfare Bill.
On to the Trevor Phillips comments – he has a point…but I think that the equalities agenda has been used by secularists who want to try and make sweeping generalisations about Christians which are unfair and push points which are basically saying one persons (predominantly gay rights) have more worth than another minority view (i.e. faith based). Conservative Christians particularly are also making counter claims and pushing their points to make the generalisations and try to push the point in the other direction. Having read the Week report of his comments I think what he says is largely true. However, the wider debate that follows is should more groups be allowed “loopholes” which allow them to practice their beliefs if in doing so people can still access goods and services perfectly well elsewhere? There is a bit of me which wants to say let the market decide…although as a Christian that logic is wrong and actually what we need to be looking for is the most compassionate course of action in these things.
In terms of Baroness Warsi’s comments she has a point….but it worries me that the agenda for making this point is actually nothing about religious freedom and everything about the Conservative Party continuing to promote a sense of nationalism as “social fact” which is actually based on socially constructed ideas of identity. I agree with what she says about, “unease with the rising tide of secularisation” but I think that we need to be more uneasy about the impact this is having on people of faiths other than Christianity. A Christian who decides to wear a cross but is asked not to is very different to a Muslim woman who feels that it she should wear a headscarf but is forbidden to by her the government of the country she is living in. Both should be allowed to display symbols of their faith but Christian symbols should not be given automatic right over other symbols of faith…otherwise are we back to wanting to celebrate the crusades?
Finally, is it getting harder to be a practising Christian? In my experience no…it is actually getting easier because people are seeking to question and challenge the misuse of faith rather than faith itself. I am finding that alot of people are actually careful to treat my beliefs with respect -even if they will mock them a bit. There are the aggressive secularists who view any religious view as wrong and will get vocal about it but many people in my experience tend to view Christianity with a kind of nostalgic fondness whilst being ready to denounce the way it has been misused. I don’t know if the fact people often know I’m gay as well as Christian helps…it means that when they start on the Christian attitudes to sexuality I can come in from a different angle and show why they have to be very careful about making generalisations because the truth is far more complex.
To conclude I want to explain that whilst I would love to live in a country where loads of people had chosen to become Christians I would never want to live in a Christian country. For me the choice to connect with Christ and live out a life recognising the full impact of his grace, (shown through His death and ressurection) is the greatest gift we have. Central to that gift for me is the fact it is a choice, and we are given free will to choose our faith. I want to celebrate our heritage and recognise the role faith has had in that, but I don’t want to live in a country where one faith is given dominance and allowed to subject others to oppression (or to label/ view them as lesser beings). That path, in my understanding of theology, leads away from God and His intentions for us individually and corporately rather than towards Him.