The third of my three emails unpacking the soundbites in my election address
Our 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 the nation is in our 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, and then we gather in attempts to ‘Save the Parish’. Why do I say this?
In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being the paradigmatic example. Nations are a part of the created order, fallen and redeemable. They are real things, spiritually real, part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers. Our culture is very familiar with what it means when such 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. For such reasons our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. It is clearly 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. The whole tradition and theological standpoint of our Church is ‘somewhere’ not ‘anywhere’ – 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 that wonderful passage from Galatians referenced above – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. I believe that this passage can be 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 can be redeemed, so it truly finds itself and is able to flourish, becoming something that enables life rather than destroying it.
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 that seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that make 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.
This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church – theology by MBA) 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’). The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a smoothing of such distinctive particularities. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit.
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 them. 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 our Church to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation. My concern about the institutional mind of our Church is that this anywhere ideology 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 that believes in England; we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. To do so simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are then seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to our living and incarnate Lord. If we are to call England back to Christ, we won’t do it if we deny that England exists.
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. So we need to take the Good Shepherd as our pattern, and do His work in the same way – loving this fallen nation of ours, and working out our redemption together.