David Cameron says we are a 'Christian nation'; the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says we are a 'post-Christian nation'; and Nick Clegg has now said he wants us to be an 'ex-Christian' nation, favouring a separation of Church and State.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby agrees with David Cameron – he wants to think of us as a Christian nation, reminding us that: "It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that UK law, ethics and culture were based on Christianity’s teachings and traditions".
So who is right on the issue of whether we are a Christian nation, and who is right on the issue of whether the Church and State should be separated? Let's take them in turn.
On the term 'Christian nation'
Personally, on the first issue regarding whether we are a Christian nation or not, I have to admit I can't really make sense of the abstract term 'Christian nation'. A person's Christian faith is an individual commitment and an expression of trust based on beliefs held by that individual. A nation is an abstract geographical entity containing a nation full of individuals with different beliefs, views and experiences.
Justin Welby's point that the UK's laws, ethics and culture have been based on Christianity's teachings and traditions doesn't help matters much, because Christianity is a commitment from the individual based on grace, not on law. What are Jesus' two principal commandments? They are 'Love God, and love neighbour'
- and that, we are told, is the new law in a nutshell.
So while the implication is obvious, I cannot make much sense of calling a country a 'Christian country' on the pretext of its historical laws, when the whole of the gospel is summed up in injunctions of love and grace, not laws. Is this a nation of love and grace? How can it be, when love and grace are employed at the individual level, and infused into a society full of all sorts of good and bad qualities? Like the weather, human beings are capricious and inconsistent - they are a blend of qualities and faults. You might as well ask whether Britain is a sunny nation, or a windy nation, or a rainy nation - all you can say is, it's a mix of weathers, just like it is a mix of human qualities and faults.
Moreover, even if you accept the abstraction ‘Christian nation’, you have to consider that given that Christians may not make up the majority any longer, it does rather give credence to Rowan Williams' claim that in terms of believers and church attendees Britain is heading towards being a 'post-Christian' nation.
On Church and State separation
On the issue of whether Church and State should be separated, I think it's a tough one, particularly as Anglicans are not even the largest denomination any more (they are slightly outnumbered by Catholics, and certainly do not have an overall majority when you count Pentecostalists, Methodists and Baptists as well).
The democrat in me says that the obvious answer is to have a referendum on it, although I can't see that happening any time soon. The Christian in me thinks that a separation would be regretful, not because I favour Church and State together, but because I think it would give even stronger indication to many that the Church is becoming less relevant in the UK, and unable to have much influence in a modernised nation such as ours.
There is certainly no scriptural basis, though, for Church and State to be established together. While Israel was a theocratic nation, it would be presumptuous to try to transplant that legacy onto other nations in the modern era. And one mustn't forget Jesus' call to ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
Whenever we have a debatable issue that is bound up in years of historical legacy and tradition, I think the wisest way for a contemporary person to ask the question is to pretend it is a new proposition in prospect and ask whether we would want it. Let me illustrate this by referring to a past Blog post of mine in which I considered the nature of alcohol, its effects on society, and whether it would be legal if it were invented next week….
"Pretend there's never been any such thing as alcohol. Tomorrow someone combines ethanol with other compounds and proposes to trial on the market this new product call 'alcoholic drinks'. The Government monitors its effect on society, filming those effects on the first night of public consumption. Numerous drunken people go out on the town, losing their inhibitions, peeing in doorways, hurling abuse at passers-by, having fights, trying to coax staggering drunk girls into bed, and throwing up all over the streets. Next day a committee looks back at the effects of this new product called 'alcoholic drinks'. It would never get past the trial stage - they'd stamp it 'illegal' right from the off. So ‘effects vs. legality’ doesn’t always pertain to prudent practices or sound foresight."
Imagine if we'd never had alcohol and were asking about its potential legality today as a new thing under consideration - I'll bet there would be a lot of people who, upon seeing the negative externalities on society, would call for it not to be introduced into the market. Asking the question with the signs reversed enables us to consider more than just past legacies and social habits - we can consider the merits and demerits of a proposal in prospect.
The way we framed the question of alcohol's desirability, in prospect, is exactly what we should do with the Church's relationship with the State, because the question ought only to be assessed with full consideration given to the current social/political/cultural climate and where the Church fits into that triune consideration. I think if the Church and State were separate, and I was asked whether I wanted them established together, I would not see a great deal of reason to fuse them together.
The Christian faith, when practiced as Christ intended, is most favourable to kindness and social mobility, to healing the sick, to feeding the hungry, to giving to the needy, to creating art, to discoveries in science, to great writings, and to helping us become morally excellent. Christianity is also supposed to be the driving force in summoning all the charms of the mind’s curiosity, its intellect, its imagination, its creativity, and its inner solicitude that wishes for the best for one’s fellow human. I see no reason why this can't happen with or without the State's involvement in its primary affairs.
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.
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