What makes a country Christian? Is it the embedding of Christian institutions and personnel into the structures of the state? Official support for particular attitudes to morality and family structure seen by many (but not by all) as hallmarks of the faith? The adoption of what are known in the trade as “kingdom values”, a radical commitment to social justice and the needs of the most vulnerable, as the hallmarks of public policy? Or is it the active participation of a large section of the population in Christian worship and the shaping of their lives by their declared faith?
I live and work as a parish priest in a part of England that must be one of the rare places where the latter comes close to being true. The main streets here in east London are full of churches, some from the traditional denominations, others more recent arrivals which occupy halls, former garages and shopfronts. On Sundays every possible community space is filled, throughout the day, with successive congregations.
That, of course, is only part of the story. Walk those same streets on a Friday, and there will be crowds outside the doors of the many mosques. Look around you and you will see signposts directing you to gurdwaras and temples. People do God here – even, and to the surprise of some, the God of Christianity.
We are a pretty diverse lot, as Christians. Many churches are rooted in a particular ethnic or group identity. Some are very conservative, some very liberal: our own parish buildings at one time housed both a Jamaican Pentecostal church and a gay and lesbian worshipping community. We do not speak with one voice. Nor, of course, do the faith communities as a whole, or even within their own groupings: the varieties of Muslim identity among my neighbours is as baffling to an outsider as the subtleties of Christian subdivision.
What we are not is constrained in the expression and exercise of our faith, whatever our tradition. Religious symbols abound in our streets. Festivals are marked and celebrated: religious consumerism has taken hold, and card shops and supermarkets are alive to the opportunities offered by a calendar that goes beyond Christmas and Easter. Shops use religious language in their publicity – kingdom, heaven, joy, peace, divinity, all enter into trade names. Local schools work conscientiously at honouring the multiplicity of traditions, and as a primary school governor, I have been profoundly moved by Muslim children enacting the story of Christ’s passion. Pagans and even those dangerous beings, humanists, have offered wise and helpful counsel in shaping religious education for this pluralist society.
There is, of course, plenty of opportunity for tension among the competing interests. A more pressing question than “do we live in a Christian country?” is “how do we, as Christians, survive and flourish in a marketplace of faiths?”. That, of course, is one which goes back to Christianity‘s very origins and is a healthy challenge to any assumption of right which centuries of state endorsement may have given us.
Our place has to be earned. Once upon a time a single dominant church could command. Now, and especially in a place like this, we have to learn the lesson that we can only persuade. We have to be persuasive about what and why we believe, why we act as we do. We are challenged to draw others into our communities because the values we hold and the lives we live attract them, answer the deepest human need and offer a vision of human flourishing.
And if we are to have a voice that is listened to beyond our own walls and contributes to shaping public policy, we have to earn the right to speak and to be heard. We do that by proving that we are concerned not just for our own immediate sectional interest but for the wellbeing of a wider community. And that requires us to put our time, energy and resources at the service of a society whose culture has been profoundly shaped by the Judaeo-Christian tradition but which no longer sees the world and its needs through a Christian lens. It’s what many churches, many Christians, here and elsewhere already do: adapting the words attributed to Archbishop William Temple, we seek to be the organisation that exists for those who are not its members.
Those words acknowledge the oxymoronic character of the idea of a “Christian country”. Perhaps the time has come for Christians of all traditions to revisit that oxymoron, forget any sense of entitlement, and enjoy the liberating challenge of being one among many.
This article, by Jane Freeman who is a parish priest in East London, UK, was written as a response to an article in the Guardian which asked the question: “What’s left of Christian Britain?”. The original writer was questioning the wisdom of the courts in England in refusing to uphold the principle of a foster-parent‘s right to enforce their own homophobic views upon any child they might be allowed to foster.
The judges did not prevent the couple concerned from future foster-caring. What they did do was uphold the right of the local authority to withhold chidren under their care from the possibility of encountering negative effects from the admitted anti-gay stance of the couple concerned. If the couple had not insisted on their right to diseminate their views on homosexuality as part of their care of foster-children, there would have been no case to answer.
Jane’s views on diversity and multi-culturalism in the U.K., however, go a great deal further in the matter of ‘how does the Church deal with people who are different from ourselves – either in the field of cultural expectations or religious faith?’ She raises important questions about whether or not the Christian Church in the UK should have prior rights of faith propagation; and how much should Christians be expected to accept other people for what and who they are, without needing to proselytise regardless of the multi-faith situation that is part of the ethnic mix of the population of that country?
In thinking about this, we might better understand why Muslim countries might want to outlaw the practice of Christianity in their area – something which which we might not agree. The fact that some countries do exercise a right to discriminate against other faith communities, should not influence our own decisions about this matter.
For us, this raises all sorts of questions about whether God loves only Christians. And do Christians have to overturn the faith-view of people whose religious convictions are different from ours? Or, rather; do we have to learn to accept that, for instance, devout Jews & Muslims have their own special and particular way of accessing the redemption that we know in The Christ who died for ALL.?
These are large and important questions which, in any society that is multi-cultural – like ours in New Zealand is fast becoming – need to be dealt with. We know that ALL people have potential redemption through the sacrifice of Christ. Do we have to insist that the Divine Image and Likeness is found only in ourselves? Or is God capable of extending the saving power of Jesus into the life of all humanity through other spiritual traditions?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch