Monday, 21 April 2014

Thoughts on a "Christian country"

At the annual conference of my trade union, just before Easter, the following motions was debated and passed. It was a composite motion, from motions originally submitted by two different branches of the association.
That Conference acknowledges that the proper and regular delivery of the RE curriculum is of great importance in a multicultural society where mutual knowledge and understanding of religious beliefs is essential in developing tolerance and social harmony.
Conference therefore urges the Executive Committee to promote the status of RE teachers and seek to ensure they have the correct level of funding, knowledge, and training and development.
My experience of working with a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE), the body responsible for overseeing Religious Education in state schools in a local authority that do not have a religious designation, reflects the sense of this motion. One might see it as a kind of co-option of RE in the cause of social cohesion.

Whilst social harmony might well be, and should be, one of the fruits of communities that live in daily life the practice of their religious beliefs, it is not correct for policy makers to see that as the only stake that the practice of religious beliefs has in society. To limit the understanding of religious belief to that perception fails to recognise the distinctive essence of religious beliefs. It is to understand religion as if religion were a non-religious phenomenon; it is to secularise the concept of religion. That religious beliefs are about what is true and good in the purpose of human life - both natural life and supernatural life - is completely misconstrued by this understanding. And for some religions - notably among them Christianity - these beliefs are shared and lived (to greater and lesser extent) by a community.

[As an aside, one speaker in the Conference debate preferred to identify belief as an individual and personal phenomenon, rather than as a pattern of belief shared by others. It is of course interesting to consider whether individualised belief of this type would serve the purpose of social cohesion; and to consider its possibilities as being perhaps more genuinely religious in character than the secularised view of community held religious beliefs.]

The Daily Telegraph today carries a letter signed by secularist thinkers responding to David Cameron's recent remarks about the role of Christianity in Britain (reported at the BBC news site here; David Cameron's Church Times article is here.).

My first thought is to reflect on what the term "Christian country" might mean. David Cameron's Church Times article refers to the heritage of liturgy, architecture and culture that Britain today receives from a history marked profoundly by Christian faith, and in particular by the Church of England. This is one sense in which we can speak of Britain as a Christian country.  We might also speak of Britain as a Christian country in terms of the way in which the established Church - and wider Christian faith - is woven into the fabric of our constitutional and social arrangements. Our major national holidays are based around the dates of the two major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, for example.

The writers of the letter published in the Daily Telegraph today are using a different frame of reference as far as the meaning of the term "Christian country" is concerned. They ask instead about whether or not the extent of Christian belief and practice in Britain justifies describing the people of Britain as being Christian. And, perhaps rightly, they suggest that the presence of significant numbers of people who follow other religions, and of many who hold no religious beliefs, means that the answer to that question should be "no".

The fundamental question appears to me, however, to be less one of whether or not describing Britain as a "Christian country" is correct and more one about what stake Christian belief is entitled to in society and in the cultural and political life of the country.

1. At one time, there was a range of phenomenological study around the nature of the human person as having an essential religious dimension. In our present culture, this seems to have been displaced by a secularised understanding of religion as being, at best, at the service of social harmony; and by notions of "spirituality" that derogate from a fully religious understanding of the nature of the human person. But, if the human person has an essentially religious dimension, then religion should have a clear and firm stake in the social, political and cultural life of any country.

2. If Christianity is to have a preferential status within this religious profile of the life of Britain, I do not believe that it can be founded just on the background that the history of Britain provides for today's nation. Christians gain a stake in the social, political and cultural life of our country in so far as they continue to live out their faith - in its essentially religious character and not just in terms of a secularised understanding of what their faith offers to social cohesion. On this basis, they are entitled to play a full part in the life of the country - in running educational institutions, in the means of social communication, in politics. That Christians in these spheres should have the freedom - and equality of access by means of state funding that matches that provided to non-religious provision - to act in full accord with the teachings of their Churches is axiomatic. The secularist would, of course, deny this thereby instead imposing a kind of "secular religion" across the whole of society.

3. David Cameron suggests in his Church Times article that non-Christian believers find that the standing of the Church of England in Britain helps them to practise their own religions here. A pluralism in religious belief and practice of this type, within a framework that in some way preferences one religion, is possible. In Britain, the Church of England as the established Church  represents the particular national situation which enables the living out of the religious character of the human person. The particular manner of the living of religious freedom in Britain has something to say to other countries, both to those whose constitutional arrangements separate state and religion, and to Muslim countries where religious freedom is denied.

But there is an elephant in the room, as they say. Legislative changes have created a number of professions where, for example, a Roman Catholic who wishes to translate their religious practice into daily living, will be denied employment. Neither is it clear how far the range of David Cameron's suggestion that Christian's should be more confident in their belief extends. Can we not recognise in the early paragraphs of the Church Times article something of the secular understanding of religious belief that I described at the beginning of this post? Hasn't the meaning of that word "love" been emptied of its objective content in the debate over same-sex marriage? Whilst getting out there and making a difference is a clear fruit of Christian faith lived out in daily life, is it sufficient to define its essence?
I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives....
Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none - and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.

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