Where are we going?
It is a sick society that is a conflicting set of factions. That is very nearly our present situation. But without a sense of common purpose, what else can there be? It is a myth to think that any of the present political parties will by themselves radically alter this state of affairs. The tragedy at present at Election times is this: the various political parties make promises concerning the future of Britain; but these are in effect promises to rearrange the furniture while the boat is still sinking. Neither the Conservative, the Liberal Democratic nor the Labour Parties can provide what is needed for Britain’s economic and social problems. Only the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ has that.
Government will not solve all our national problems. For society is more than the sphere of government. Not only in society is there the sphere of politics and economics. There is, and must be, the sphere of the religious and the moral-cultural order. To expect, therefore, the Government to provide more than Caesar's share (the secular authority’s share) in public life is both unreasonable and dangerous. It is Christian people who have to present the claims of God to the nation. And God’s share is of supreme importance.
There is thus a desperate urgency for the Christian faith to be heard again in the Public Square. Yet it is vital that it is the essentials of the Christian faith that are heard in the Public Square. We do not need mere moralism. True, we must talk and work for social justice and personal morality, but that needs to be in the context of talking about the love of God in Jesus Christ. Moves such as altering society to reflect a better deal for urban (and rural) priority areas, on the one hand, or more decent moral standards for the good of family life, on the other hand, are vital, necessary, and a priority for the Church; but they will not bring lasting change. Jesus Christ said: “from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk 7:21-23). Men and women themselves have to be changed and given new life. The gospel of God's grace in Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is what the nation needs. And that will only happen if Christian people talk about God in the Public Square and not just about political, economic and moral issues.
Sometime ago a little book was published, What's wrong with Britain? It was described as containing the "frank, forthright and thought-provoking views of fifteen of the world's most distinguished men". But there was nothing in the book about the spiritual state of the nation; there was no hint that the nation was under God or "the Orb set under the Cross" or that "the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ" (as the Queen was told at her Coronation). The nearest to it was from a traditionalist Peer. But his words were not ‘gospel’ (good-news). They were hopeful moralising:
“The only way out of our present malaise is a more conscious effort on the part of all walks of life to inculcate and practise our traditional values of patriotism and service; regard for others in different walks of life and with values different from our own; respect for lawful authority and the rule of law on the part of the individual and organisations claiming to represent him; and an increased regard for individual liberty and responsibility on the part of central and local government authorities.”
But the trouble with moralising is the ‘weakness of the will’. Paul sums it up: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom 7:19). Paul's argument is that only in the power of the Holy Spirit of Christ can we begin to solve our problems. Moralising can make matters worse as people are demoralised, finding they cannot live up to the moral standards demanded. This is the case in the nation. We have had enough advice and analysis from sociologists, politicians, journalists and, yes, churchmen. We know there is a problem with Britain. What is needed now is a new vision of what God can enable the nation to be and the spiritual resources to move towards that vision. A national repentance is needed, such that God once again is acknowledged in public life.
Beginning at the Church
But repentance [literally, ‘rethinking’] has to begin with the Church. In the New Testament Peter says that judgement begins with the household of God. So individual Christians must be the first to repent. Surely this must include praying for the strength, courage and desire to witness to Christ outside the Church in whatever part of the ‘public realm’ we find ourselves.
Then, secondly, Christian congregations or local churches need to rethink and be praying for the Spirit of God to lead them to growth and greater effectiveness. In each local area the parish church or the chapel should be a public witness with ‘a high profile’ for the Gospel.
Thirdly, national Church structures similarly need rethinking and renewing. Sadly many of the central bureaucracies of the Church are over politicised and have lost their way, as have a number of our national Church leaders.
But things are changing. Already there are those who are praying and planning for growth. Currently, according to Peter Brierley, the church statistician, 40 percent of Church of England attendees now go to evangelical churches, up from 26 percent in 1989. Another unofficial statistic is that 70 percent of all male ordinands aged under 30 come from evangelical churches. This seems good for the future. While decline and weakness is too characteristic of parts of the Church of England, that is not the whole story. Furthermore, it is still a fact as a former Archbishop of York said: “religious bodies are the largest voluntary agencies in the country, and therefore on any reckoning make a massive contribution to the richness of institutional life, and to the social training and support of individuals.”
But how is the Church to witness to the nation itself? Is it meaningful to talk like that anyhow? Can Christian people help the nation as a whole be more aware of God and his claims? I think they can.
First, they need to have a new ‘commitment’ to the nation and to all in their localities and regions. And the Church needs to promote a new ‘patriotism’ in Britain. Patriotism is out of fashion; but there can be no national purpose without it. It is out of fashion because of the loss, nationally, of a public acknowledgement of God. But the latest census shows that still 6 out of 10 people claim to be Christian. If a nation sees itself under the God who sees a legitimate place for Caesar, it need have no fear of patriotism sliding into totalitarian ‘nationalism’. Neither the Church nor the State can ever be absolute, when God alone is seen as absolute. But remove the God of the Bible and the spectre of secular or religious tyranny is never far away. If Christian people can rediscover a new national loyalty, they will then be able to challenge the nation from strength. In the words of the late Richard J Neuhaus, “loyalty to a community is the ticket that grants admission to the critical debate about the meaning of that community.” He makes the important point that “effective criticism ... depends upon rejoining protest to patriotism.”
Secondly, the Church and Christian people need to help public debate focus on the spiritual dimension to many of our social and political questions. Such Christianly inspired public debate, under God, needs to be heard as an alternative to the imposed assertions of a media and educationally driven decadent materialism that currently shapes much of our public life. There needs to be a greater focus on fundamental beliefs about society, life and, indeed death. These are religious questions where we cannot avoid talking about God. So Christian people need to share and try to commend their own spiritual vision in this attempt to establish social goals.
Finally, in sharing its vision and establishing these goals, the Church must remind itself, as well as the nation, of these words - they were first articulated centuries ago in the Old Testament:
“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God … lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them … and your silver and gold is multiplied … then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God … Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers … And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish” (Deut 8:11-14,17-19).
But along with that warning there needs to go the Old Testament promise: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” ( 2 Chron 7:14).
As the Psalmist says: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps 33:12).
[This is an edited and updated version of a conclusion in my A Nation Under God (Kingsway, 1987). Part II to follow.]