Britain: A “Christian Country” fit for the 22nd Century?


In an article in the Church Times David Cameron called for Britain to be confident in its status as a Christian country.  Given immanent local and European elections and the rise of Nigel Farage, commentators seized on the article as another sign that the eurosceptic tail is wagging the Tory dog, again. Nevertheless, few Christian voters will take comfort from the article, coming hard on the heels of gay marriage and the welfare confrontations. The fact that fifty academics, scientists, broadcasters and assorted celebrities waded in, asserting that Cameron’s claim will be divisive and likely to alienate, shows that the Prime Minister now occupies a no-man’s-land between the mainstream of British conservatism and Liberal London leftism – a no-man’s-land which seems less defined by Christianity than by ex-Bullingdon Club or Notting Hill dinner-party opinion.

Nevertheless and for all the political fallout Cameron’s article seems to have started a broader debate; what does it really mean to be a “Christian” country?  

“Christianity” can sometimes seem like a nationalistic badge. The Church of England remains the established Church and the Queen the Defender of the Faith. Such claims carry with them connotations of a traditional and distinctive “anglican” way of doing things whereby our traditions were formed in opposition to continental opposition and exported in the vanguard of empire.  Yet the Church which many nationalists hark back to no longer exists just as the empire no longer exists and just as the possibility of prospering as “little Britain” no longer exists, if it ever did. While there are remnants of Church as hatcher, matcher and dispatcher to the ruling classes, in practice their total absence from the pews (and collection plates) – apart from when special outfits are sanctioned – has meant their Church died unnoticed from neglect.

Today, the Anglican Church is predominantly a Church of the Southern Hemisphere; members are far more likely to be poor African women than prosperous white men from Tunbridge Wells. Quite reasonably its concern is for the welfare of people who can be bothered to believe and worship.  Quite reasonably it is reluctant to ignore the Gospel and ignore the plight of its members in the interests of a few over-privileged people whose only recent sign of commitment to the Church has been writing “CofE” on official forms – and then only when it might benefit them in school admissions or some such way.

Real Christianity is the antithesis of a nationalistic badge.  Jesus taught “love one another as I have loved you” and as St Paul explained, Christian love (agape) is non-preferential and certainly not an excuse for national favouritism. In claiming to be a Christian country Britain could be making a claim about what it stands for, about sharing in values which have persisted for two millennia and with which many billions of people worldwide feel or have felt affinity.  

So, what are Christian values – and does Britain really share in them? 

Jesus summarised the whole of the law in two commandments – love God with all your heart, mind, spirit and strength and love your neighbour as yourself.  If these commandments are the heart of Christian values then it would take some stretch of the imagination to call Britain a Christian country. 

Do we love God?  Do we put God at the centre of everything? Are we wholehearted in our faith and in doing what is right?  No.  As Alistair Campbell aptly put it, as a nation we “don’t do God”.  Though Religious Education is nominally compulsory in schools at best people of faith are studied as quaint curiosities or sociological examples and at worst the timetable allocation is used to teach young people how to use a condom, the classifications of recreational drugs or dubious skills in “wellbeing” or “resilience”.  As last weekend’s open letter suggested, for most British people faith is a private matter that has no place in public life – and this is not and cannot be a Christian attitude. Do we hide a light under the bed or under a barrel? No, we let it shine forth! Not to exclude, embarrass or alienate and not only in words, but through every thought and deed.  When God is at the centre Christians are quietly confident; their love is manifest in what they do for others.  They don’t need to shout about their righteousness because, like the widow, they give their all in the knowledge that God sees everything.

Do we love our neighbours as ourselves?  No. Jesus taught that strangers, people we have no reason to trust, even our enemies are neighbours and worthy of non-preferential humanitarian love as much as anybody else.  As a nation we show favouritism in all things.  British citizens are given privileges denied to foreigners, poor people are demonised in the media and discriminated against in many ways, anybody with a criminal record is written off for life with no possibility of redemption.  You might scream that it is impossible to run a country on the basis of welcoming everybody, not showing preference, turning the other cheek, forgiving seventy times seven times and never judging – but these are Christian values. 

Of course being “a Christian country” has come to mean “not a Muslim country”.  “Christian countries” feel an affinity for other “Christian countries” in that they share a suspicion of Islam.  In part this is because Muslims, by definition, put faith first and can’t accept religion being confined to the “private” sphere of life, whereas many who call themselves Christian have forgotten or never knew what faith means.  In part it is because Islam evangelises and so is seen as a subversive influence.  Never mind that in the early centuries Christianity itself evangelised and subverted, today where it has developed into an established secondary government-structure it resents anything which poses a threat to its power.  In part this is because of a clash of cultures.  Whereas many “Christian” countries have come to accept some level of democracy, social liberalism and free-trade, most Muslim countries have a problem with these things.  Of course there is nothing “Christian” about “might is right” and the rule of the popular majority, about women dressing provocatively, about promiscuity being tolerated or about the profit motive.  However most “Christian countries” are loosely so defined that few so-called “Christian people” even recognise the inconsistency between Christian values and the “values” they and their countries implicitly espouse.  

Many Muslims see hypocrisy in David Cameron or Barack Obama claiming to represent “Christian countries” while taking revenge for 9/11 and 7/7 by bombing primary schools with hi-tec drones.  Using trade and international law to oppress the poorest countries and prevent them from developing, propping up corrupt and brutal “puppet” leaders by supplying them with weapons to use against their own people on condition they support certain policies and businesses, using humanitarian concerns as an excuse to invade oil-rich Middle Eastern countries while ignoring genocide in Central Africa and state-induced famine in North Korea – can these actions really represent Christian values?

As recent Gallup research shows, Muslims are far more likely to place faith in a position of importance in their lives, to spend time and energy learning about Islam, reflecting on the way they live and how this relates to Islamic values.  Muslims rarely see faith as a “private matter” and often accept having to make real sacrifices on religious grounds.  Whether it is submitting to regular prayer-times, modest dress, ethical behaviour, dietary restrictions and regular charitable giving – or managing without a mortgage, student loan or business finance – being Muslim requires commitment.  How many so-called Christians in Britain set time aside to pray several times a day, how many embrace poverty and really serve the poor and oppressed, how many would be willing to accept the consequences of refusing to work on Sundays and holy-days or standing up against what is popular, even what is legal, in the name of what is right?  Really? 

Being Christian requires commitment. Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me” – and he wasn’t referring to necklaces, palm-decorations or bumper stickers but to an instrument of appalling, humiliating torture.  He turned over the tables of the money changers in the face of the temple guards.  He handed himself over for arrest, though there was no justice and no hope. He said “I am” when telling the truth meant certain death.  He repudiated his family when there was a choice between doing what was right and doing what they wanted. He kept on loving God and trying to do right when he was slowly asphyxiating and bleeding to death, when his friends had abandoned him – and it seemed that God had done the same – when he could gain nothing by doing so. Precious few Christians follow Jesus in any true sense and it cheapens their commitment to label comfortable, self-serving quasi-nationalism as Christianity. 

The British Humanists, the 50 academics, scientists and assorted celebrities, were right about one thing in their open letter.  Cameron claiming that Britain is a Christian country is deeply wrong – but not because it is anachronistic, divisive or likely to alienate non-Christians.  Few Muslims have a problem with Jesus’ teachings; if Britain really was a Christian country, if we really did put God at the centre of our lives and love our neighbours (whether fellow Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist), if we were not hypocritical in claiming to espouse Christian values while remaining ignorant of the Christian message and actively doing evil, few Muslims would object or feel alienated. In the time of the Prophet Christians and Jews were respected as fellow “people of the book”, Jesus and the Old Testament prophets seen as true messengers of Allah.  

Christian values and Muslim values have a lot in common.  God comes first and care for others next whether you are Christian or Muslim.  In practice every true Christian and every true Muslim will interpret this as demanding full commitment, discipline, reflection, standing against self-interest, deceit, violence, oppression and prejudice, standing for right and truth and justice, love of others – especially the poor and weak.

Britain has never been a Christian country and today is further from becoming one than it has been for more than fifteen hundred years.  In the past the establishment of the Anglican Church provided a platform to publicise Jesus’ teaching and a basis of Christian knowledge and understanding from which to evaluate our personal and social values, from which to recognise their inadequacy and from which to work for reform.  When we think of Britain as a Christian country reformers such as William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry the Rowntrees and the Cadburys come to mind – and they all saw Jesus’ teaching as a demand to make a fundamentally unchristian society better for the sake of the poor, the weak and oppressed.  Today not the establishment of the Anglican Church, not the protection of Religious Education in school curricula, neither “Thought for the Day” nor “Songs of Praise” serve to provide people with a basis of Christian knowledge and understanding.  Few British people are able, let alone willing, to evaluate their own values or to interrogate what we, as a country, stand for.  Given this it is unsurprising that it seems that fewer and fewer people seem to recognise the hypocrisy which the Islamic world resents, the problems inherent in demonising and discriminating against the poor and other vulnerable minorities and the ridiculous contradiction in arguing that faith should be a private matter, that religion should stay out of politics and public life.  It is unsurprising that fewer people seem to be committed to reform, whether through politics or more concrete social contributions, that voter apathy is at record levels, electoral turnout is falling, that people are convinced by skilled orators and those who give voice to their inmost fears and selfish desires.

The British Humanists and their collected signatories should appreciate that in the same way as they feel compelled to speak out against Cameron’s article because it seems deeply wrong and at odds with their deeply held worldview, people of faith are compelled to speak out against evil and for what they believe in.  If faith has no effect on our actions it simply isn’t faith – it may be a comfortable, convenient mask for unreflective conservatism – but it isn’t faith of any Christian – or any other – brand.    

Of course it is difficult to manage the coexistence of different faiths.  When people are compelled to articulate and act on what they believe to be true, when they are committed and disciplined, even small differences have the potential to cause violent disagreements, armed confrontations, even wars.  The ongoing conflicts between Israel and Palestine and, closer to home, between communities in Northern Ireland, illustrate what is at stake when we live together with difference.  Progress will not, however, follow on from encouraging people to see their faith in superficial terms.  Deep reflection shows that sincere faith, from whatsoever religious or non-religious context, can speak to and live with sincere faith.  The fearless love of truth, lives of discipline, commitment, self-sacrifice and service to others inspire respect and hope for a better tomorrow.  The problem lies in people confusing the outward symbols of faith with what faith really is.

The peaceful future of multicultural Britain and indeed a globalised world lies in encouraging and enabling people to see beyond superficiality, to critically analyse what is presented as truth, to commit to living in relation to what is beyond their own self-interest or understanding and can be found through humility, sincere reflection and service to other people, particularly the poor, the weak and dispossessed.  This future can only be served by education – and education of a particular type.  Education for a 22nd Century cannot be about memorising facts or any set body of knowledge, though it must be centred on the discipline which the process of learning things can promote.  It cannot be about technology because machines or software are quickly obsolete and inordinate amounts of time gets wasted when the focus is on what should be a means of learning something else. Education for a 22nd Century must help people to get better at living with other people.

In tomorrow’s crowded and competitive world our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will face unprecedented challenges, whether they are nominally “Christian”, “Muslim”, of any religion or none.  We can barely conceive of what their lives will be like, but it seems likely that great demands will be placed on their abilities to think deep and long-term as we have not, to critically analyse what is presented as truth as we tend not to, to commit to living in relation to others’ interests, particularly those of the poor, the weak and dispossessed.  They will need the faith that most of use struggle even to define or recognise.  Let how we are going to give them that be the subject of David Cameron’s next Church Times article.

Charlotte Vardy is an experienced Religious Education teacher, author and teacher-trainer.  She used to be an Anglican.

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