When David Cameron included the phrase
our status as a Christian country
in his Church Times article on 16th April 2014 I wonder if he expected the debate it generated.
56 people put their names to an article in the Telegraph objecting to this characterisation and “the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders”. They recognised the contribution made to our society by many Christians but claimed that it was wrong to single out this particular group when those of different beliefs provide equal contributions.
Representatives from some other faith groups seemed to be relaxed about what the Prime Minister had said with the Hindu Council UK saying it was “very comfortable” with it while the Muslim Council of Britain said the UK “was a largely Christian country”.
Some of the Prime Minister’s colleagues came to his defence talking about our Christian heritage and the way Christian values have contributed towards the “ethics of our society”.
The BBC came up with a “matter-of-fact” analysis looking at the arguments for and against this claim looking at numbers of those who claim to be Christian on the census vs the numbers who attend church and a range of other indicators.
The Archbishop of Canterbury joined in the debate and talked about the way in which our laws and values
have been shaped and founded on Christianity
He also argues that the influence of Christianity “has enabled us to be welcoming to other faiths” which is one of the points made in the Prime Minister’s original article.
The thing that I find strange, and deeply disturbing, is that in none of these articles – as far as I can see – is there any mention of Jesus!
In fairness to Mr Cameron his article was actually about the Church of England, not Christianity itself – it’s title was
My faith in the Church of England
but I still find it bizarre that the ensuing debate could omit to mention the person on whom the Christian faith depends.
The Prime Minister’s article speaks about the good things which Christians do (while recognising that this is shared by those of other faiths and none), the help which faith can be in times of difficulty, and that this faith can encourage people to help others. It’s as though if people behave in a particular way we can apply the label “Christian country” in the same was as we call ourselves a “democratic country” because of how we govern ourselves and a “capitalist country” because of how we we manage our economy.
And if that’s all it is I don’t think its a particularly helpful label and I agree with a post by David Criddle (written months before this current debate) where he speaks against
imposing the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ or ‘Christian values’ on society
But what if it were a label which meant something more significant? What if we reclaimed the meaning of the word “Christian”?
Maybe surprisingly, the word only appears three times in the Bible – Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16.
In the first we find that this title was applied to the disciples (followers of Jesus) in the church in Antioch, in the second it was addressed to a follower of Jesus who was in chains for what he believed and in the third it talks about the very real expectation that Christians should be prepared to suffer for their faith.
And this is very consistent with the words and actions of Jesus as he talked about how he was going to suffer and be killed (Mark 10:33-34) and how he called on those who chose to follow him to be prepared to take up their own crosses (a sign of suffering and shame) and to follow his example (Mark 8:34).
In his book “The Crucified Christ”, Jürgen Moltmann makes the powerful statement that:
Christian life is a form of practice which consists in following the crucified Christ, and it changes both man himself and the circumstances in which he lives (p.25)
and he goes on to say that:
The assimilation of Christianity to bourgeois society always means that the cross is forgotten and hope is lost. (p.58)
It strikes me that in the debate I summarised above Moltmann’s warning (in the second quote) has come true in the understanding of many people and society in general, and that if we are serious about the question of Christian living we need to seek to “follow the crucified Christ”.
What Christian distinctives would the rest of our society see if all those who have committed themselves to following Jesus took this challenge to heart? I know it would change how I see things and how I respond to different situations.
To help me reflect on this further, I plan to take one news item over each of the next five days and think about how I should engage with it from the perspective of a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus who was prepared to suffer for me, and calls me to be prepared to suffer for him.
I’ll select each item from the BBC’s UK News website (which recently added a report on comments from the former Archbishop about this country now being “post-Christian”!) and post some thoughts and reflection here.