One result of the coronavirus crisis is that many more people now understand the nature of exponential growth, and the way in which it can cause overwhelming problems. There is much finger-pointing focussing on whether our various national leaders did the right thing or not, given information available at the time.
At some point – in a few months or a few years – we will be on the other side of the coronavirus crisis. We will have adapted to it, either through finding a vaccine or through social adjustments. That particular problem will be fixed, more or less successfully.
However, coronavirus is only one problem. Just as epidemiologists were sounding the alarm back in January, so too have students of the Limits to Growth been sounding an alarm for many decades. The timescale is different, yet the underlying issue is the same.
With coronavirus there has been much talk of ‘flattening the curve’, principally so as not to overwhelm the available health-care resources. We can apply the exact same reasoning to the growth of human population and resource consumption on planet earth.
If we do nothing, and the exponential growth of the economy continues, then there will come a point when we overwhelm the resources available to us. That will be catastrophic.
So are we smarter than yeast? Yeast in a petri dish will grow exponentially until all the resources are exhausted, and will then die off. Can we do better than that?
It’s possible that we can. To do better, however, needs us to behave in a wise fashion – and our culture is radically unwise. I call it asophic, blind to wisdom – it is so unwise that it no longer even understands what wisdom is.
Wisdom would have meant acting differently in January when it became clear that there was an extremely contagious virus now on the loose in the world.
Wisdom means cultivating humility before the truth. This is a spiritual task. The Western world is unprepared to meet the crisis of our times because it has become a spiritual desert. We need to repent.
The church is not innocent of blame in this. It has colluded in the privatisation of faith and the academicisation of theology. We no longer teach people how to pray, or cultivate the fear of God. With you is my contention O priest.
I see our present situation as a dress rehearsal for what is to come – and what is coming soon. We are about to experience a great economic unravelling, as the house of cards of our economic system, based on debt, suffers a seizure.
For those that believe in God, this can be received as a gift. There is still a little time left to get our house in order, before the multiple, overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises of our time come together and collapse our culture.
I came across this comment from a clergy colleague on Facebook – “This is the Lentiest Lent that I have ever Lented”. It struck a chord.
The themes of Lent are certainly magnified for us today. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when we are marked with ash to signify our mortality, ‘from dust you come and to dust you shall return’. We are enjoined to spend the forty days of Lent in fasting, self-denial and acts of charity, and these disciplines are to help us to return to God. For much of the year, in good times, it is more possible to forget God, for life is comfortable. In Lent we are to instead adopt a more austere discipline, letting go of pleasures and pastimes in order to remind ourselves of what is truly important.
Which is where a great deal of meaning is now to be found. As a society and nation – indeed, as a community of nations – much of our normal pattern of behaviour is on hold. We are being required to assess what is really important, and what is merely optional; what gives life, and what takes life away.
We are, in short, being invited to return to the Lord.
In this, the Long Lent that we are journeying through, and for which we cannot confidently predict an end, we are in fact entering into a Sabbath. There is much important theology about the Sabbath, and the importance of observing it. At its heart is a sense that the Sabbath is a gift. For one day of the week the people of God are to put to one side their normal burdens of existence, their ‘work’. They are instead simply to be, to exist. They are not to do, to achieve, to strive. All the doings must stop, must come to a complete halt, in order that the people of God might remember who they are in the sight of God. Then, on that basis, they are to re-engage with their normal patterns of life and labours, and slowly work towards the redemption of the world.
If we are to follow God’s will through this time of coronavirus I think we would do well to think of it, so far as possible, as a time of Sabbath, when we can pause in our strivings and spend time listening to God, seeking to understand what God is telling us at this moment in time. I think it rather unlikely that God wishes us to return to the status quo ante. Instead I think we are to exercise discernment, and to sift all our previous habits, as with Lenten disciplines, and ask what gives life, and what takes life away.
There is a related theme in the Old Testament, which is summed up in the word Jubilee. The people of Israel were required to keep a Sabbath year as well as a Sabbath day, during which time they were not to farm their land. In that year they were simply to consume what the land naturally produced. They were also to renounce efficiency in doing so, leaving the gleanings for the poor and the animals. By doing this, the land would be blessed. After seven cycles of this (49 years) there would then be a Jubilee year, during which time all debts would be forgiven and each family would be returned to its ancestral home.
However, this instruction was often ignored. The people of Israel lacked faith that there would be enough to go around, and so kept farming no matter what happened. When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelite leadership into Exile this teaching was remembered, and we read in 2 Chronicles that as a result “The Land enjoyed its Sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were complete…” (2 Chron 36.21)
I hear the stories being shared now, of the way in which the dolphins have returned to the canals in Venice, and the blue sky can be seen in previously polluted cities, and I wonder if this is a sign to us. That we have gone too far with our doings and our strivings and achievings, and that we need to spend time resting in God, simply being human. We have been forced to become more local, more simple, calmer and quieter. This seems to be of God to me.
Let’s ensure that when this remarkable time of confinement has come to an end, we return to a busier life with a clearer sense of what is important, of what gives life and what takes life away. If we do, I believe that God will richly bless us.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)
This is the text of an email that I sent to members of the congregation when the closing of churches was announced.
Even when we cannot be together physically, we can still be together in spirit. My aim is to provide resources so that we can worship together at certain times, and this email sets out how that will happen, the Lord being our helper.
It’s important to remember that this is not a new experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition, even if it might be novel for the Church of England. In 586 BC the army of Babylon destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and removed all the upper tiers of Jewish society into Exile. The Jews weren’t simply prohibited from entering into their place of worship – their place of worship was razed to the ground and the Jews were moved some 500 miles to the East! This is the context in which the book of Daniel is set. Consider this from chapter 9: “While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill— while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me… ”
Even though Daniel is a long way away from Jerusalem he remembers it and, crucially, is praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. In other words, his rhythm of prayer was matched to that which had operated before the Exile, and that which would operate again after the Exile was over. It is this sense of a shared pattern of worship, often at the same times of day, that has united faith communities that are physically separated.
For us, I think the natural place to begin a shared pattern of worship and prayer is Sunday morning at 10am. We also regularly have a communion service on Wednesdays at 10am and so I intend to support a shared time of worship at those two times in the week until we are able to gather once more in our churches.
I have prepared a liturgy which can be downloaded via the link in this email, and this is how I plan to use it:
– it is intended to be printed out on a single piece of A4 and then folded,
– it can be used by a person on their own or, if there are more people, then different people can do different elements, but I suggest that the Prayer of Preparation, the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are all said in unison;
– having a regular place within the home to say the liturgy would be helpful (ideally one with access to the internet available);
– having a candle that can be lit at the beginning of the service, and extinguished at the end, supports a prayerful atmosphere;
– there are four elements that I shall provide for each Sunday (and Wednesday) – these are the Collect, a reading, a homily from me accessible on youtube, and a suggested hymn, also hopefully with a link to a youtube recording of it being sung. These will be shared by email in advance – probably Saturday and Tuesday afternoons;
– I plan to share further prayer resources in the coming days that can be used at other times during the day.
My hope and prayer is that even if we are not meeting physically we shall still share this journey together spiritually. We can look forward to an intensely joyful celebration when we eventually join in worship again.
I have been reflecting much on my experiences of last year. I shall not reach any conclusions until after a retreat next month at the earliest, but one thing that is coming to the fore is my sense of a gulf between the 53% of England that voted for Leave (higher amongst self-identified Anglicans) and what I think of as the ‘institutional mind’ of the Church of England.
By ‘institutional mind’ I am principally thinking of what is expressed by those in positions of authority, so the House of Bishops first and foremost, but extending more widely to include General Synod and also the para-church organisations like the Church Times. An example of what I have in mind is the letter from 25 Bishops that triggered my article in response. This is not about hostility to the Leave position; rather, what troubles me is my sense that there is a theological lacuna in the insitutional mind, a gap where an understanding of the nation – and therefore of England – needs to sit.
Here is my sketch of what I am thinking about.
In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being a paradigmatic example. I need to do more work and reading on this, but nations are clearly a part of the created order – fallen and redeemable. This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church, part of the institutional mind) which does not give a nation any existence that is separate to the viewpoints and habits of those individuals which aggregate together into a ‘nation’ (or a ‘family’ or a ‘corporation’ or a ‘government’). In contrast I see such entities as part of the principalities and powers – and I see the Biblical treatment of such things as an essential aspect in our understandings. We cannot understand the cross, or the teachings of St Paul, without understanding the principalities and powers. The Biblical understanding of nation does not map neatly onto modern understandings of the nation, let alone the nation-state, and let alone the rich complexity of a ‘United Kingdom’ but there is something here which is essential for the Church of England to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation.
For historical reasons, principally rooted in the experience of WW2 but not restricted solely to that, our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. This can be seen in so many ways – the whole Brexit debate itself is rife with examples – but for me, a paradigmatic instance was Emily Thornberry’s scorn towards the display of an England flag. This distance between the somewheres and the anywheres is now becoming an accepted short-hand, so I can say that my concern with the institutional mind of the Church of England is that it is a resolutely ‘anywhere’ mentality. This is ironic, as the whole tradition and theological standpoint of the Church of England is ‘somewhere’ – rooted in each local parish, and bound up with an emphasis upon the incarnation as a leading theological doctrine in our self-understanding.
Which is why this phrase isn’t leaving my mind: we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. One of the texts used to justify the disdain for national identity within our church conversation is the wonderful passage from Galatians – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek etc. I believe that this passage is being misused. I do not for one second doubt that our identity in Christ trumps our various national identities. We are called to a Christian identity that is more foundational than any national identity. Yet what I wish to insist upon is that this Christian identity does not evacuate the national identity of meaning or continued application. On the contrary, it is only through being set within that larger Christian identity that the national identity truly finds itself and is able to flourish and shine.
Jesus, after all, was a particular man born in a particular time and place within a particular culture. His universality is not something imposed ‘top-down’ from Heaven, as if he came down from the sky fully-formed, rather it is built up out of that identity – they are the building blocks. Jesus never stops being a Jewish man from first century Palestine. This is what I mean by ’emaciated incarnation’ – the anywhere ideology seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that makes us different from each other, as they are perceived as problematic. In contrast I want to insist that these distinctives cannot be taken away from us, for they make us who we are. We are not called to be national eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.
The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a ‘smoothing’ of individuality. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit. My concern about the institutional mind of the Church of England is that this ideology – this Royal Consciousness – has surreptitiously crept in and taken over. Of course it is wrong to value a distinctive national identity! Don’t you know that it inevitably leads to bigotry and racism and fascism and all the other terrible things that the twentieth century taught us?
I see this, not simply as an acquiescence to worldly thinking but as an abandonment of our own, distinctive, Anglican charism. The Church of England needs to be a Church for England. We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. Telling that story simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to the living and incarnate Lord.
I have much work to do to flesh this out. It links with understandings I’ve gained from Tom Wright about apocalyptic language, and Stringfellow and Wink and Richard Beck and many others. But I think this is what God is calling me to say. Abraham is much on my mind – and has been ever since May of last year – and he, after all, becomes the father of many nations. I need to learn what that means – and apply it to our situation today.
I thought, to begin, you might tell me
how you’re feeling.
The masters you serve and how they’ve
treated you. Your career, such as it is.
Your life, Clarice.
I thought we might talk about yours.
Mine? What is there to say about mine?
I’m happy. Healthy. A little nomadic at
the moment but that’ll soon change. You,
though. You, I’m worried about.
No, you’re not. You fell in love with
the Bureau – with The Institution – only
to discover, after giving it everything –
that it doesn’t love you back. That it
resents you, more than the husband and
children you gave up to it ever would.
Why is that, do you think? Why are you
Tell you? Isn’t it clear? You serve
the idea of order, Clarice – they don’t.
You believe in the oath you took – they
don’t. You feel it’s your duty to
protect the sheep – they don’t. They
don’t like you because they’re not like
you. They’re weak and unruly and
believe in nothing.
According to Walter Brueggemann the prophetic task begins with grief – with identifying grief and articulating it. This engenders solidarity with those who suffer, from which point (and only from which point) it becomes possible to speak the word of the Lord into the situation, articulating his ‘bias to the poor’ and criticising all those who maintain the status quo.
The status quo is best characterised, according to Brueggemann, with the phrase ‘the Royal Consciousness’ – these days we might say the establishment consensus, or the Westminster bubble. It represents the shared framework within which the political realm understands itself and its role in events. In Biblical terms it is Pharaoh, the man himself and all those whose role in the society depends upon the existing system carrying on in the accustomed manner: it represents the way they think, it is the ‘common sense’ of the powerful.
In this situation the prophet comes in and invites the people to imagine something different; to grieve; to say ‘this is not God’s will’; to denounce the Royal Consciousness; and to bring down the plagues upon the establishment before leading people to a promised land.
In our situation, who is playing what role in the prophetic drama?
Let us begin with the grief: millions of those who have felt excluded from the operations of society, whose communities have been broken by shocks both economic and social, chose to articulate their grief with a vote against the status quo.
A healthy society would have responded with a heart for inclusion, working to re-engage the excluded, to seek to protect communities, to bind up old wounds, to re-establish a genuine sense of national solidarity.
Instead, the Royal Consciousness has doubled down on its condemnation of those outside the consensus. Instead of requiring more bricks with less straw, the Pharaohs of today simply say that those who cried out with grief did not know what they were doing and are probably uncultured and immoral in any case.
It is very important to the Royal Consciousness that it can see itself as righteous and virtuous. Not many human beings outside of satanic circles can live with the sense that they have chosen to be evil, not even Hitler’s willing executioners. We all cover up the knowledge of our own sin with more or less substantial rationales and justifications for our behaviour. They are all illusions.
What the referendum represents, as a cry of grief, is a shattering of that illusion – for those that can accept a new reality. However, those who cannot cope with the illusion being shattered, who wish to retain their sense of being righteous and virtuous, have to strive all the more to eclipse and efface that cry of grief, to try and restore the status quo ante, to deny this new truth.
This is unsustainable. God is not in that process – God is with those who grieve, with those who have been excluded. God casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the poor and lowly. God calls up prophets to speak his Word of justice and solidarity into broken political contexts.
Who, today, in British society, is articulating the grief on behalf of the poor, giving a voice to those who were previously voiceless? Might it not be a man of unclean lips? The extent to which you consider such thing impossible might simply be an index of how captured you have been by the Royal Consciousness:
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Ian Paul writes on his excellent blog about a Christian perspective on Brexit. I find what he writes insufficiently radical and so I thought I’d set out the ways in which I see a properly Christian understanding being brought to bear. Most specifically, I don’t see this analysis as something that a ‘well-meaning atheist’ could share in – and that is the point and revealing of the fundamental problem.
Point one: we are not in charge, God is. One of the most debilitating aspects of the Westminster bubble is the way it encourages a sense of self-sufficency and centrality, that ‘here is where the important things happen and are decided’. One way in which this is going to go ‘pop’ is when the EU chooses a no-deal exit (I give that about 60% chance at the moment) and Westminster suddenly realises that all these shenanigans were only one part of the equation. However, much more important is the Christian claim that God is present and active in our world, and that our calling is to find what he is doing and then get out of the way, to use Peterson’s language. This sense of something outside of our own preferences and choices, which has a greater authority and power than our own preferences and choices, is the principal thing that is missing in our conversation – that is, in our Christian conversations most of all.
Point two: we do not have to be afraid. There are standpoints on both sides of the Brexit divide which seem to be rooted in fear of what might happen. This is the corollary of point one – if everything rests upon our own choices then there is much greater pressure to get them right. If, however, we believe in a God who can always redeem our fallen choices then that pressure is relieved, and, I suspect, the odds of making the best choices increase. We are not to make decisions on the basis of fear, whether that be Project Fear itself or the fears about ‘losing’ Brexit on the Leave side.
Point three: communities, nations and multi-national states (the EU) are real things that are more than simply the sum of their parts. They are ‘principalities and powers’. Their reality is denied by the contemporary dominance of global capitalism, which seeks to minimise such inefficiencies, and therefore undermines them at every turn. Yet Christianity recognises that such things, whilst fallen, can also be redeemed, and calls us to work for such redemption. We need to be much more clear-sighted about the nature of the institutions with which we are dealing, and the ways in which power is being asserted against the vulnerable. Which leads to…
Point four: God has a bias to the poor, and we need to listen to the poor, for it is often through those who are small and of no account to the great and good through whom God speaks to us. It is a shocking thing that the bench of Bishops has no voice affirming the choice of the poor in our society; it is even more shocking that none see the plight of southern Europe as bringing in to question the moral legitimacy of the European polity. Such things do not necessarily entail Brexit – they do, however, require a more prophetic response that comfortable silence.
Point five: sometimes God calls us away from compromise towards radical and unpopular choices; sometimes those who are shepherds of the sheep are called upon to proclaim justice against the oppressor; sometimes what we most need is the Old Testament Heart. The Via Media is not always a virtue – sometimes, to adapt a saying by Mencken, “Every [Christian] must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” Metaphorically speaking, of course. And in love.
So: five elements of a radical Christian response. Read Stringfellow!!
This is an important question, from many different points of view. We need to consider who bakes the bricks from an economic perspective, from a practical and social justice perspective, from the perspective of gender roles and unconscious bias. The question of who bakes the bricks becomes all the more important when the people as a whole are asked to bake more bricks with less straw.
Yet at that sort of time, there might be a more urgent question than who bakes the bricks. There might be a calling from someone named Moses, or his brother Aaron, saying ‘set my people free’. There might be an almighty – even an Almighty – struggle going on between the establishment powers and the insurgent powers. The question of who bakes the bricks, which is an important question, might have to take second place to an even more important question, which is: where shall we bake the bricks?
Shall we bake the bricks in the promised land?
The people cry out for relief, for they struggle under the weight of oppression, and their existing leaders are comfortable with the status quo. So strange leaders come among them, who do not have impeccable credentials, one might even be a murderer. Yet the Lord is with them. They are aware that the Lord has decided to liberate his people, he has heard their crying unto Heaven and now look! He is doing a new thing.
Those who argue about the baking of bricks do not know what to make of this. They are trapped within the Royal Consciousness, and the world made by Pharaoh is the only world that they can conceive of. They cannot see the new thing that the Lord is doing. They do know what to do about bricks, though. So they concentrate their time on arguing about the production of bricks, for this too is an important question and it is important to get the right answer. Perhaps we can lead the Hebrews to a new place just outside the city walls, and continue to contribute to the baking of bricks from there? Would that be alright please, Mr Pharaoh?
Where shall we bake the bricks?
The church wrings its hands over Brexit, and seeks earnestly and sincerely for the overcoming of divisions and the reconciliation between estranged parties. If only we could be nicer then perhaps that nice Mr Pharaoh and that mostly nice (but a bit uncouth) Mr Moses can come together in a happy compromise…. Meanwhile the Lord Almighty changes the world and asks those who truly respond to His will to daub the frames of their doors with blood and to get ready to move at short notice.
We in the church have so many great and important questions to wrestle with, questions of justice and economy and sexuality and gender, and these truly are important questions. Yet sometimes what is most important is not to resolve questions such as these but rather to simply listen and pay attention and seek to discern what God is actually doing in a time such as this.
Were we to do this, were we to look up from our parochial concerns and truly take in the newly forming vision for our national life together then perhaps we might agree to not resolve the questions around the baking of bricks for a year or three in order to stride forward with faith into the wilderness, not turning to look behind.
The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of the nation, and this is all the more problematic when questions of nationhood – of where we are to bake the bricks, of what sort of country it shall be wherein the baking of bricks shall be done – are so important. We fret ourselves into frenzied activity trying to show how relevant we are, yet the most relevant and timely claim upon our involvement is one that we are now so ill-equipped to handle. For it is not a question of who bakes the bricks. It is a question of ‘can you see what the Lord is doing?’ and ‘is this not a marvellous thing in your eyes?’
Hear the word of the Lord you peoples of the United Kingdom, for these dry bones shall live again. The Lord is going to destroy Pharaoh and all his works – we have only to stand aside and be still.
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.
It is not uncommon for religious leaders to come under criticism when they decide to venture into contentious areas of political dispute. There have been many headlines recently about Archbishop Justin Welby, who has been recommending certain changes to our economic arrangements. My politics and those of the Archbishop are distinct but, to channel the remark often attributed to Voltaire, I disagree with what he says but would defend to the death his right to say it.
The desire to silence religious voices on political questions has many aspects, one of which is distinct to our own society. In general, those in power do not wish to be criticised so, when those in positions of religious leadership offer up criticism, they will undoubtedly be attacked for doing so by those who are either in positions of power themselves or who benefit from the status quo in other ways.
This flags up the most common form of political engagement by religious leaders in the Jewish and Christian traditions, which is that undertaken by the religious prophets. Prophecy in Scripture is often misunderstood as being centrally about predictions of a dire future. Such predictions do exist – even Jesus employs them – but they are always secondary to the principal task of the prophet which is two-fold: to call the people of Israel (and the Church) back to the right worship of God, and to call them to establish social justice, and ensure that nobody is excluded from sharing in the life of the wider community.
When this doesn’t happen, the prophet points out that terrible things follow in consequence. To put that in different terms, the prophet points out that if the people are not obedient to God, then they cannot flourish. The most pointed and political form that this takes in the Bible comes when the prophet Jeremiah is criticising the Royal court and says that the army of Babylon will destroy Jerusalem – which duly happened in 586 BC.
So there is a general truth that those in positions of political power do not like to be criticised, as it might threaten their hold upon that power. Yet there is also something distinctly English about a desire to have apolitical clergy, and it goes back to the experience of the Civil War, and the way in which religious enthusiasm took definite political form in the shape of the New Model Army and Cromwell’s abuses.
After that point, any form of religious enthusiasm was inherently suspect. The Church of England accepted a role in society which was essentially that of a neutered house pet. It received lots of grace and favour and a position of privilege, but it was prevented from the most central form of authenticity available to it, and has been unable to reproduce.
This is the legacy with which contemporary religious leaders – most especially Anglican leaders – have to deal. It isn’t simply a straightforward clash with those in power who wish to hold on to their power, and their various cheerleaders in the media and wider society. No, there is a perception still current that for an Anglican to express political opinions is simply not the done thing.
That pattern of life is slowly breaking down, as part and parcel of the way in which the whole notion of what it is to be English or British, or Christian or secular, is breaking down more broadly.
So does this mean that the Church of England needs to identify itself with one particular political party or stance? I would argue not, but with a very significant caveat. The principal reason why not is simply that faithful Christians can be found across the whole political spectrum, and what marks out the Christian point of view is not so much being left or right as recognising that their political perspectives are less important than their religious ones. Which means, to go back to the example of the prophets, not letting any ideology get in the way of submission to God – for that would be what the Bible calls idolatry. It also means being on guard, over against oneself as much as others, not to deceive ourselves about our motives, and to always seek to have a motivation which expresses love for neighbour rather than simply being a cover for our own needs, whether those be naked financial self-interest or the temptation to indulge in nationalistic or even internationalistic fantasy.
The caveat is that I don’t believe it is open to Christians to sit upon the fence when there are issues of immense political importance being decided upon. My model for this is the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the 1930s, spent much time with friends in England, including the great Anglican Bishop George Bell, and who could easily have sat out the Second World War in safety in England or the United States. Instead, he chose to return to Germany in order to take part in the struggle against Hitler, eventually being executed by the Nazis for his part in the assassination plot. Shortly after returning to Germany he wrote to a friend in the United States saying, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
Whenever there is a great question of public life to be decided, each Christian must resolve within their own heart and soul what it is that is God’s will. It will almost certainly not be an easy discernment, for political questions in this life by their very nature do not commonly admit to simple, coherent and complete solutions – indeed, the idea that there are such is something of an indicator that an ideology is being deployed, rather than a properly prayerful discernment.
Yet in all the discussions, as much as any political decision debated, decided and argued for, perhaps the real hallmark of a Christian perspective is the grace with which that position is held, and the capacity to listen to alternatives and find common ground with opponents. Christians are called to speak, and must not accept being excluded from the conversation, yet must also bear themselves as those who are dependent upon the virtues of another. We are the ones who do not scapegoat, who do not victimise, who do not project – for it is only through the merits of the one who received all those things from the world that we at all acceptable.