You might almost have missed it – especially if your favourite spiritual sport is Welby Wanging, which is open to all people irrespective of age, sex, sexuality, race, creed, religion, nationality, and beliefs about the EU. The Archbishop of Canterbury made quite an important speech about freedom. Actually, he’s made two or three important speeches of late, which, considered apart, merit a few dutiful column inches in the MSM because he is who he is. But, taken together, there are nuggets contained within them which really ought to mollify hyper-critical minds and mitigate the carping of those who believe they have eyes and ears but are really quite insensible to the signs of the times and the way the wind is blowing.
At the launch of ‘In Good Faith’, a new Christian-Jewish dialogue project in partnership with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Justin Welby set out a bit of what the Governor of the Bank of England calls ‘forward guidance’:
It is vital that we can make a substantial contribution to the debate around our shared values in this country – what the government has referred to as British values. As members of the Jewish and Christian communities, it is imperative that we remind the nation that our values have not emerged within a secular vacuum; but from the resilient and eternal structure of our Judeo-Christian theological, philosophical and ethical heritage. I’d want to add here that over the next 12 months this is one of the major themes of my writing and speaking – the issue of where we find our values, and a re-emphasis that we find our values in this country within the Judeo-Christian tradition, whether we are believers or not.
One might almost think he reads this blog every morning and meditates upon its musings. (Dear Archbishop, you could save yourself a bit of time by reading THIS, too). Note he says “what the government has referred to as British values”. He hammered the point further in a speech on religious freedom:
In the UK we find British values, so called, defined by Ofsted as belief in democracy, in the rule of law and in mutual respect of faiths, or for those of no faith. This approach is good, but entirely inadequate as a foundation for a healthy society. Democracy without fundamental values around the value of the human being, and, I would say, without the understanding of God’s grace and love for the humanity God created, is a recipe for majority tyranny.
There is more than a sigh at the ethical vapidity, religious illiteracy and historical ignorance of the government’s apprehension of British values. These aren’t quite the same as Christian values, or Judæo-Christian values (with the correct diphthong). It’s interesting that ++Justin lucidly controverts the emphatic view of his predecessor: “It’s not about – God forbid – protecting Judaeo-Christian values,” said Rowan (Lord) Williams. “You will search Scripture from end to end and you will not find the term Judaeo-Christian values… so for goodness’ sake let’s park that term.”
Nah, let’s un-park it, shall we? For goodness’ sake and God’s sake and the sake of our theological, philosophical and ethical heritage.
“The right to life, liberty and the rule of law and robust democratic government does not come cheaply, nor is it held lightly,” the Archbishop said. “The roots of our freedom in this country are deeply embedded within our British constitutional and civic life because their foundation lies within the shared scriptural inheritance of our faith traditions.” It really couldn’t be more emphatic: the ultimate source of our freedom is the Bible, from which we have derived government by the people. He continues:
Democracy is not in and of itself the final answer to things, nor is the rule of law. Martin Luther King did not accept the final authority of the rule of law when the law is unjust. Quite rightly, Bonhoeffer in the 1930s did not accept the final authority of the rule of law when the law was palpably racist, unjust and anti-Semitic. That’s one of the reasons he ended up going to the gallows.
As for tolerance, it’s a word like ‘nice’, isn’t it? Completely meaningless and overused. Respect is something else – I won’t go there.
O, go on. Go there, please.
Tolerance.. respect.. blah.. blah. It’s just a pink and fluffy mantra designed to inculcate mushy feelings of togetherness while robbing us of our religious liberty. And if you don’t subscribe to the new state orthodoxy, well, you’re not being very British, at least according to the government. Indeed, this Archbishop is perfectly attuned to the logical consequences of religiously-illiterate politicians and civil servants imposing concentric circles of ‘tolerance’ upon society: “Government officials know so little about religion that they cannot see the difference between Muslim extremists and traditionalist Anglicans – and so just assume both are ‘bonkers’,” the Telegraph reported another speech. And there the Archbishop went further, disclosing that he once told a senior Government minister that he would himself count as a religious ‘extremist’ under the definition that was being applied because he believed that faith could outweigh the rule of law in some circumstances. For Justin Welby, the leitmotif is freedom, freedom and freedom, and this it seems will be a dominant theme of his ministry for the next 12 months:
Our understanding of the rights and responsibilities that flow from our God-given inheritance as human beings, enable us – Jewish and Christian communities together – to be powerful and compelling advocates for freedom in British society.
The cutting edge of freedom must include the right to disagree, disengage and dissent.
It means the freedom of others to criticise us or our views, or for those of us who hold beliefs strongly to change our minds or our beliefs.
It means that we all need to be accountable to one another before God and we all need to affirm the right of others to not believe as we do.
What it doesn’t mean is freedom without accountability to undermine each other’s faith, whether casually, incidentally or wilfully.
What it cannot mean is the freedom to use language destructively and negatively about those who are different to us – or who take opinions and views with which we profoundly disagree. We have had egregious examples of that in recent weeks, aimed at our judiciary.
And what it must never mean is the denial of others to practise or not practise their understanding of their religious or secular identity.
Freedom must always come with responsibility if it is to thrive and endure.
Moreover, the Archbishop has unequivocally condemned the EU for its bureaucratic policies which impoverish and alienate the people. In a speech about ‘the common good and shared vision for the next century‘, he referred to the “mismanagement and even corruption by an elite” and “policies that are pushing and keeping large sections of entire countries in increasingly desperate circumstances, with no apparent vision for how the circumstance might be overcome”. He has in mind the oppressed and abused Greeks, Portuguese, Spanish, Italians and Irish. And he notes the symbiosis of “centralisation, corruption and bureaucracy”, with lobbies and shady lobbyists for certain interest groups, “but there is less sense of towns and communities, of families and informal groups being valued, enhanced, and liberated”.
Ah, liberation. Again, the theme is freedom, national freedom, but with a caveat:
If we allow our national and international political contexts to define our values and virtues, then we will be disappointed. Values emerge from histories of interaction and are rooted in stories of virtue, above all in Europe the stories of the Judaeo Christian tradition. They are embedded as much in informal and intermediate groups as in the state, probably more than in the state.
And for those who carp (and carp and carp) that he never talks about Jesus or the gospel:
In the United Kingdom, our counter-radicalisation programme in schools and universities is called ‘Prevent’, which I believe sums up the overall approach to religious extremism. Rather than simply seeking to prevent ‘bad’ religion, however, we have to offer an alternative vision of the role of faith in our societies that is more convincing. That is more profound. That is more satisfying to the human spirit. And where to do we find a better vision than in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the good news of Christ?
Historically we have based these values partly in reason, but fundamentally, as Christians, on our understanding of the nature and requirements of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and attested in the Scriptures. If Christians hold fast to the teaching of Jesus that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”, then the open discussion and testing of what we believe to be true, can only be to our collective advantage.
And so we return to the fons et origo of true freedom:
Religious freedom is more than just freedom from persecution; it is the freedom to choose how to express our understanding of our relationship with God. Faith groups should be at the forefront of advocacy for human rights because we recognise that ultimately, we are answerable and accountable to God alone who created individuals with dignity and integrity. This freedom is integral to the flourishing of our societies, but it does not emerge in a vacuum and neither does it come without responsibility.
It’s going to an interesting 12 months, isn’t it?