I referred in an earlier post to an excellent publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK. In it Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views.

sentamuThis has been picked up with some vigour by the Archbishop of York in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Responding to a couple of recent high-profile cases of apparent ‘victimisation’ of Christians, he goes to town on the dominant liberalism in Britain that, when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Read the comments under Sentamu’s article on the website and you’ll see how many others do not even begin to understand that their own assumptions about religion are flawed.

One essential problem is that the liberal secularists assume that their own worldview is neutral, whereas that of religious people is somehow dangerously loaded. Sentamu counters with: ‘Asking someone to leave their belief in God at the door of their workplace is akin to asking them to remove their skin colour before coming into the office. Faith in God is not an add-on or optional extra. For me, my trust in God is part of my DNA; it is central to who I am and defines my place in the world. It informs my whole life, not just a weekly service on a Sunday. It is the failure to grasp this basic understanding of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the problem …’

He then goes on to point out that ‘there is a deep irony at work here, and not simply because the first free schools and hospitals operating in this nation were run by the churches in our land. Those who display intolerance and ignorance, and would relegate the Christian faith to just another disposable lifestyle choice, argue that they operate in pursuit of policies based on the twin aims of ‘diversity and equality’. Yet in the minds of those charged with implementing such policies, ‘diversity’ apparently means every colour and creed except Christianity, the nominal religion of the white majority; and ‘equality’ seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God.’

Sentamu then presses the question: ‘Of course, as a modern, forward-looking nation, we should be able to work and live together, black and white, male and female, without fear of harassment or indignity based on gender, ethnicity or disability. However, such policies also rightly point to the fact that neither should a person’s religion be the basis upon which they are subjected to any prejudice. Why then, while our children are encouraged to celebrate the religious festivals of all the major faiths, are there those in public office who seem to be ignorant of how this country’s established religion gave birth to this nation?’

This is an interesting point. During the attempt to produce a new European Constitution there was a battle over the removal from any script of any mention or acknowledgment of the Christian history of Europe. Yet Europe cannot be understood in any way without an intelligent understanding of its Christian history – for both good and ill.

I put this point to Richard Dawkins in a live TV discussion and he agreed, noting that you can’t understand art or literature without knowing the Bible or learning some theology and Christian history. Yet there are those who, seemingly for ideological reasons, cannot admit this for fear that to admit a history is to agree with what formed it. This is patently absurd. (And we saw a similar phenomenon recently on the publication of the Children’s Society report A Good Childhood when a number of commentators could not bear to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence base on the grounds that to do so would mean them having to change their mind about their own prejudices in respect of morality, lifestyle, parenting, etc.. So much for ‘intelligent liberalism’ over against ‘illiberal religion’.)

parliamentProfessor Michael Kenny, in his excellent and helpful Conclusion to the IPPR publication, draws attention to the danger of regarding faiths as static phenomena rather than changing and mutating organisms. He says: ‘…there is a danger in open, mobile and dynamic societies that we promote and institutionalise too static and fixed an idea of national identity and culture. A more appropriate understanding of national identity in a society like Britain needs to allow room for a sense of the complex interweaving of indigenous and newer traditions and the establishment of important cultural hybrids that permit individuals to experience their sense of religiosity as nested within a broader sense of national belonging.’

He then goes on to observe that we must take a longer-term view of such healthy social developments: ‘Such an approach faces a major challenge from the rigid and dichotomous polarisation that afflicts debate about migration, citizenship and religion in Britain. In response to this frozen discourse, we need to reach beyond familiar orthodoxies about the need to separate faith and the public realm and lazy caricatures about the harms associated with religious practice. Such a shift of perspective is particularly overdue among political ‘progressives’, many of whom still take their bearings from the secularist ambition of removing religion from state and public square, and the unquestioned premise that religious belief is only ever a source of division within the body politic… There is an overwhelming need in the UK for consideration of which kind of model is now most appropriate as a template for the regulation of the secular public sphere, and for the development of law and policy in the context of religious diversification.’

Kenny then makes a statement that should be blindingly obvious, but lies at the heart of the frustration articulated by the Archbishop of York and others: ‘A faith-sensitive approach should not be regarded as necessarily a faith-sympathetic one.’ In other words, you don’t have to agree with a Christian worldview to acknowledge that it is no more loaded and no less neutral than that of the secular humanist.

Sentamu ends his piece with a bit of bluff-calling. Those who moan about the situation facing Christians such as the praying nurse and the emailing school secretary should put their body where their words are and re-engage with the worshipping communities we call local churches:

‘For the millions of people in this country who profess a trust in God, these recent stories represent not only an insult to their common sensibility but also a sign of a growing gap between the mindset of the governing and the governed. The requirement of common consent that underpins any operation of the democratic contract is being placed under strain by those who, with the best of motives, are making the worst of mistakes. My challenge, then, to the 72 per cent of this nation who marked themselves as ‘Christian’ in response to the census of 2001 is that if they wish to safeguard that same Christian tradition, they must renew their faith and become actively involved in their local church. For those who despair at the treatment meted out to these Christian women, the message is clear: wake up, Christian England!’

I spent part of today working with a friend on the early stages of a book on ‘communication’ due for publication (possibly) next year. During our conversation I recalled something I had read a couple of days ago in an intriguing report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks then takes this further in a gentle but incisive expose of our shallow consumerist culture. In a pithy paragraph he puts into words what many people instinctively feel, but can rarely articulate:

sacks-lambeth08“Religion is an agent of social change, the most powerful there is. Almost every other institution today offers us what we want. Religion teaches us what to want. It is the last refuge of what philosophers call second-order evaluation. It tells us that there is something beyond autonomy, rights and the satisfaction of desire. It speaks unashamedly of duty, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, obligation, the sanctity of life, the sacred bond of marriage, and the covenant of human solidarity. It tells us that our worth is not measured by how much we earn or what we buy, but by the good we do and the love we create.”

I am a fan of Jonathan Sacks. Not only is he a passionate and erudite speaker and writer, but he is also a good, honest and humble man. He was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the bishops of the Anglican Communion at last year’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury and his speech provoked several standing ovations. I blogged (for Fulcrum) at the time and reported thus:

He began by describing politics (the State), economics (the Market) and worship (Religion) and illustrated very vividly how both State and Market operate on the basis of competition and ‘winning’. Covenant, on the other hand, has to do with both parties ‘winning’ and with creating ‘arenas of cooperation’. A contract (politics and economics) is an agreement between two parties who come together for mutual benefit (a transaction), whereas a covenant brings two parties together to share their interests (a relationship). He observed that ‘contracts benefit – covenants transform’. He developed and illustrated this from Darwin and Dawkins.

He then went on to go back to the beginning of covenant in the Ancient Near East and pointed out that given the religious/political coincidence of the relevant world view (get the gods on your side in order to guarantee your ‘gain’), the idea of a covenant between a god and people was simply absurd. And this, via an explanation of covenantal language in Hosea and Jeremiah, led to his central thesis – which is so suggestive for the Anglican Communion.

He compared the three covenants in Genesis and Exodus: Noah, Abraham and Moses (Sinai). He then posed the question: when did Israel become a nation? Deuteronomy 26 says that they became a nation while in Egypt whereas Exodus 19 says they became a nation when they left Egypt. Sacks says that both are true because they are different sorts of covenant. Egypt was a covenant of fate; Sinai was a covenant of faith. The former occurs when the people are bound together by a common suffering, fear and enemy; the latter occurs when they share dreams, aspirations, ideals and a common hope. In Egypt the people were bound by a covenant of fate, in Sinai by a covenant of faith. So, the covenant with Noah was one of fate (destruction of the world) and with Abraham and Moses was one of faith (shaping the world).

Sacks described how the covenant of fate (with Noah) was forged in desperate times of basic survival. Like the rainbow (‘the white light of God’ perceived as the spectrum of colours), this covenant bears witness to what Sacks has called ‘the dignity of difference’. He broke this down into three elements: (a) the sanctity of human life, (b) the environment and (c) respect for diversity. He expanded on each of these before noting that the Isaiah dream of the ‘wolf lying down with the lamb’ was already fulfilled in the Ark when their common predicament (survival from drowning) made their mutual cohabitation essential. Faith, said Sacks, is particular; fate is universal.

As covenants of faith begin to fall apart in contemporary society, so it is the covenant of fate that is pulling us together.

Sacks went on movingly and poignantly to describe Jewish fears of Christians for the last thousand years before the Holocaust and beyond. He then noted how Joseph (Genesis 50) worked out that even though we cannot rewrite the past, we can redeem it. In the case of Christians and Jews, he said, the past in now being redeemed (at least in the UK). He then noted how, when we marched together through London last Thursday on behalf of the world’s poorest people, we (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) did not share a faith, but we did share a common fate.

Religions, he maintained, needed to show the world how, sharing a common fate, we could live and work together – faiths bound together by a common fate. We should be a blessing to the world by walking together and emphasising the covenant of fate over the particular covenants of faith.

Now, I realise that this is only a sketch of Sacks’s thesis, but I found it powerful at the time and even more so now. Tomorrow I will be interviewing in Croydon all morning and then going into London for the afternoon session of the General Synod. I will miss the debate on Women Bishops, but will be there for the debate on the uniqueness of Christ. There will be differences of opinion in the former and differences of language (at least) in the latter. But I will hear Sacks’s powerful and compelling appeal for even those who differ on detail to remember that the world needs not only those who forge covenants of faith, but, in a fragmenting culture, those who remember (and neither minimise nor despise) the covenant of fate.