The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, which meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life.
The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home.
Nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation, which is why nations are talked about so often in the Bible. Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like. It is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.
This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation.
George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago a kind friend introduced me to the folk group Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song especially:
And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots
We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, ‘Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil, for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters’.
The task of the Church of England is to provide fresh living water to our nation and by doing so to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society and the church dies.
These words: I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible… I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that. In England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other.
(Developing thoughts from this old post)