Who could have imagined just 15 years ago at the turn of the century that we would now be living in such unpredictable times? What seems like a permanent cloud of nervousness and instability pervades our news channels and filters through into our daily life. The grand European dream of ever closer union teeters on the edge of collapse with the woes of the Euro and the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants. As David Cameron takes his demands to the rest of the EU’s leaders, we are facing the very real prospect of walking out on a 42 year relationship to go our own way.
We have weathered much of the storm of the financial meltdown of 2008, but the pain of balancing this country’s books will continue to bite hard for years to come. And of course we continue to wrestle with the ever-present danger that is religious extremism in all its destructive and violent forms, intent on bringing the world to its knees to bow before cultic ideologies.
Uncertainty and unpredictability are so commonplace that we almost expect them. Peering into the future has become increasingly difficult as we struggle even to make sense of what is happening in the present. As far as the current and future state of the Christian faith goes, two recent comments highlight the apparent contradictions we face. Firstly, the Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, delivering the Conservative Christian Fellowship’s annual Wilberforce address, said: “Britain in 2015 is.. increasingly characterised I believe by a creeping intolerance towards Christianity, and towards religion more generally, which we should be deeply concerned about.”
Compare this to Justin Welby’s thoughts, being interviewed by Michael Gove in the Spectator: “I think the tide is turning in this country. We are seeing many churches growing and particularly I would say that in the last seven or eight years one of the most exciting things has been that, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, we have seen the churches more active in social structures again, in the social events of this country, than at any time since 1945.”
There’s plenty of evidence to corroborate what both are saying, and here lies the paradox: Christianity has rarely been so poorly regarded or misunderstood, and yet it is precisely now that some corners of the Church are being reinvigorated and revived, growing in confidence and stature. This should not be surprising. Scholars of Church history will know that Christianity is an incredibly resilient faith. It tends to grow more when it is put under pressure, often in the face of persecution. The Early Church expanded rapidly throughout the Roman Empire under such conditions, and there is probably no better modern example than China. Despite routine government restrictions and attempts at suppression, the Chinese church is expanding at an incredible rate. Although no one knows exact numbers, there are currently well over 50 million Christians and this is expected to triple over the next 10 years.
As Christianity in the UK breaks free from the established nominalism that has defined it in recent decades, those adherents who remain have increasingly returned to a biblical, rather than cultural understanding of what it means to be a Christian, and in doing so, they have found a renewed strength and hope fuelled by an encounter with God’s Holy Spirit. It is a confidence – in Justin Welby’s words – in “the Victory of God which is seen — surpassing evil — in the events of the Cross, of the Resurrection and the Ascension”.
Even for those who take little interest in religion, there is a growing awareness that our ingrained societal values which have been taken for granted for so long are beginning to come under threat and need to be protected. The multicultural, multifaith melting pot is unable to provide security or stability in unity. Nor are secularist attempts to make us more neutral – as they see it – by the relegation of faith to private places offering a more welcome alternative. It is in fact those universal values and rights that have been labelled ‘British’, but are grounded in Christian principle and teaching, that will continue to provide the best way forward.
In the face of opposition and rapid change, Christianity continues to offer hope, and this is not being forgotten. If politics can be said to reflect the views of the pervading culture, then the Christian faith has been on the up in 2015. At the start of the year, Eric Pickles successfully enshrined the right to hold prayers at public meetings; we have seen a host of politicians including Michael Gove and Tim Farron openly discussing the importance of their Christian beliefs; the study of religion has been defended by the government in court; the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life issued a report calling for Britain to be systematically de-Christianised, which provoked a furious backlash from government ministers; the Equality and Human Rights Commission and David Cameron have ridiculed the refusal to screen the Church of England’s ‘Lord’s Prayer’ advert in cinemas; and the Prime Minister has also repeatedly talked of the need to support persecuted Christians around the world.
Despite these positives, the open discussion of personal faith in public still carries risk. It is expected of the Archbishop of Canterbury, but for many politicians and other public names, as Stephen Crabb explained in his address, it is too much:
I have never found it easy as a politician to talk about my faith. In an age where every word is watched for something that can be construed as a gaffe, off-message or representing some bigoted or irrational attitude, it is a topic which many of us steer clear of. It kind of makes life simpler.
And as for the topic of personal prayer, well that’s become a total no-go-area – even though the phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with ______” appears in so many of the statements or tweets we all put out in response to any form of tragedy or suffering.
To speak openly as a Christian politician about praying is really asking for trouble. Just ask Tim Farron or Tony Blair.
Until such openness is acceptable, we cannot call ourselves a truly free society. This is not about proselytism or religious privilege, but realising that if we are incapable of allowing each other to discuss all aspects of faith, we considerably hinder our understanding of the world and will continue to marginalise vast groups of the population, which does nothing to facilitate tolerance and respect. Again, Stephen Crabb sums this up:
The stigmatization of faith, intolerance towards religion in our public life, will reduce the overall stock of goodness at work in our society.
So what is the response?
I think there is an immediate challenge here for politicians – myself included – in ‘renormalising’ faith. Maybe we can and should be a little bit more open about our faith – even the stuff we are not sure about, our doubts and the things we are not clear about.
Maybe rather than stay silent about things like prayer, which is at the heart of so many faiths, we can try to explain what we think it is all about.
Writing in another age, William Wilberforce in his book Real Christianity observed that “Christianity has been successfully attacked and marginalized… because those who professed belief were unable to defend the faith from attack, even though its attackers’ arguments were deeply flawed..”
And there is a challenge too for the Church, I believe, in responding to those of other faiths and none.
Far from being an enemy of the tradition of tolerance and liberty that marks Britain out in world history over the last 500 years, Christianity has been a foundation stone. And we should live up to that heritage.
Indeed, Wilberforce’s love of freedom, his recognition of the dignity of all humanity, his desire for an end to the injustice of seeing people treated as subhuman – as tradable commodities – because of the colour of their skin….
…All of that sprung directly from his deep, fervent Christian faith… his troublesome, inconvenient, scandalous faith in Jesus Christ
…A faith which so many people said at the time had no place in mainstream public life.
This is the reason why Christians should not be ashamed to be more vocal about their beliefs and practices. If others complain or mock then without a better alternative to offer, the foolishness is entirely their own.