Is it really Christ-mas in Britain this year?

Last week, David Cameron made an interesting speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The item that received most press coverage in the speech was Mr Cameron asserting that “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.” He admitted personally to be a committed but only vaguely practising Christian with some deep doubts about some theological issues.

He continued: “I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Some would argue that a time of national crisis and difficulty is precisely when the church can shine in society. The Economist from the previous week had made just such a point in an insightful piece (read it in full here, or an extract below).

Postscript added on 25 December: The Queen’s speech today was filled with Christian messages, and a strong almost evangelistic message. It’s probably the strongest specifically Christian message I have ever heard from a member of the Royal family in the UK. Is this a sign that the leaders of the country have made a decision to use the Christian faith as a means to developing the nation? If so, the church needs to jump at the opportunity. But it must do so realising that people are seeking God, not the church. They want faith, not a religion.

God in austerity Britain

As recession looms, the Church of England is active and vocal, but in the wrong way
The Economist: Dec 10th 2011

CONSIDERING that Britain is a deeply secular country, there is a lot of God about this Christmas. Austerity is a part of the explanation. With the core cultural activity of modern Britain—shopping for stuff—losing its lustre, there are hints of a nation groping for something more profound.

For millions, austerity Christmas will include a dose of carols. The trend has been noticeable for a couple of years. The great cathedrals expect to be packed on Christmas Eve. Charity services, family services, carols by candlelight and sing-along concerts abound. A London church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, is offering “carols for shoppers”, while across town the grand organ of the Royal Albert Hall, a 9,997-pipe monster, will pound through some two dozen carol concerts in December.

Anglican voices are prominent in less cosy contexts, too. On December 6th the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made front-page news with a commentary on the riots that gripped English towns last August. Too many young people feel they have nothing to lose, the archbishop argued, decrying consumerism and government cuts to youth services. A fortnight earlier, 18 Anglican bishops wrote a joint letter condemning plans for a per-household benefits cap (intended to ensure that welfare recipients do no better than the average working family). This risked being “profoundly unjust” to poor families with children, said the bishops.

The Anglican church has become rather proprietorial about anti-finance protesters camped in the City of London outside St Paul’s Cathedral, after a muddled initial response that saw two senior clergymen resign. Yes, the protesters’ demands are vague, but that just shows that the Church of England is used as a place to air society’s “unspoken anxieties”, suggested Archbishop Williams last month. The Bishop of London has organised meetings between Occupy London protesters and the chief financial regulator, Hector Sants. On a homelier note, a priest reports that two protesters have started attending cathedral services.

It is possible to see why some Anglican clergymen are bullish about their church’s relevance in austerity Britain, despite decades of falling attendance and gibes about woolly, waffly priests wringing their hands at how complicated life is. The decade after the second world war witnessed a “new seriousness”, and a corresponding high point for the Church of England, says Lord Harries, a former bishop of Oxford and long-standing BBC broadcaster. The beginnings of a similar seriousness can be felt today. The Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, points to the headlines generated when church leaders question government policies. If bishops can make the front page, is the country as secular as all that, he asks?

Actually, yes. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows just 20% of the British public calling themselves members of the Church of England, down from 40% in 1983. Roman Catholicism (about one in ten of the population) is more stable. Half of the population say they have “no religion”. More than half “never” attend a religious service. Non-Christian faiths are growing but small (6% of the population).

Come all ye faithful, and not

The evidence that the Church of England is returning to the centre of public life is ambiguous. True, religious music is popular. In some places that shows a yearning for faith. But if cathedrals are increasingly popular, it is in part because they are anonymous, admits a priest: there is no danger of being asked to visit a sick parishioner afterwards. Business is also booming for commercial carol concerts in non-church settings, where a mince pie and nostalgia are as much the lure as harking the singing of herald angels. Across the country, Raymond Gubbay, an impresario behind several shows at the Royal Albert Hall, is putting on 200 such Christmas concerts.

Nor is the St Paul’s Cathedral camp as flattering as it seems. The protesters wanted to surround the London Stock Exchange. Thwarted, they ended up at St Paul’s largely by accident. Headlines about bishops chiding the government are also double-edged. Too often, what is striking is not the daring of Anglican prelates but their lack of self-confidence. Time and again, bishops sound like shop stewards for the welfare state, taking to the airwaves to demand the preservation of specific benefits without mentioning the church, the role of faith or Christianity.

Welfare utopianism is an Anglican tradition. In the 1940s the church embraced the welfare state as a modern, professional alternative to charity, willingly dismantling voluntary relief networks and signing over thousands of church schools, hospitals and other bodies to the state, notes Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University. In a 1985 report the church attacked Margaret Thatcher for putting economic efficiency ahead of welfare. She retorted that church-going is not about wanting “social reforms and benefits” but about spiritual redemption and, indeed, God.

The church has a perfect right to comment on politics, says Lord Harries. If you love your neighbour, you must have a view on policies that affect his welfare. At the same time, he argues, the English have always been reticent about religious language. The clergy must use religious imagery “very shyly”, otherwise the English immediately back away.

Fair enough. England is an odd place: a secular country where an established church still has a role in public life (and, on the ground, does much unsung good). But the economy may be about to fall off a cliff. That poses a huge test for the Church of England and its claims to be a source of national strength. If the church cannot offer a message more spiky and distinctive than social democracy in a clerical collar, it will fail that test.

Source: The Economist

The Economist has it quite right: The church’s message should be very similar to Jesus’s message. A new Kingdom is available, and could break in all around us. It can be on earth as it is in heaven, and God’s will can be done here and now.

In a similar article from a different perspective, Eric Weiner reflected on America, stating: “Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God.” Americans are abandoning religion, but not faith. They have had enough of church, but not of God. These are signs indeed that the church is failing the test. It has lost its ability to be meaningful in society.

But it does not need to be so.

A part of the solution is for Christian leaders to start bringing joy to the world. That’s a big Christmas theme, lost for most of the year in Christian rhetoric. As Weiner says: “Put bluntly: God is not a lot of fun these days. Many of us don’t view religion so generously. All we see is an angry God. He is constantly judging and smiting, and so are his followers. No wonder so many Americans are enamored of the Dalai Lama. He laughs, often and well. Precious few of our religious leaders laugh. They shout. God is not an exclamation point, though. He is, at his best, a semicolon, connecting people, and generating what Aldous Huxley called ‘human grace.’ Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of this.”

We need the church to become more missional and less defensive. I hope that 2012 will see steps in that direction.

4 thoughts on “Is it really Christ-mas in Britain this year?”

  1. If the themes in the articles hold true, then this will definitely be Christ-mas but not church-mas. Maybe that in itself wil be a wake up call for the Church to reflect more Christ-likeness.

  2. Looking in at religion many years past, Emile Durkhein, known as the Father of Sociology, deduced, based on his empirical observation that religion was man’s way of “deifying” what was imortant in society at the time, and making it into the attributes of a God so that it was that much easier to ensure compliance and the ongoing of the society as it was known.

    Now those of us who have met God know what utter nonesence this is, and many may be tempted to condemn Durkhein as a dirty little sociologist agnostic! However, Durkheim proved again and again that his “empirical research” approach was very strong indeed, regardless of what he was researching at the time, and before writing him off, we have to wonder whether he in fact had a point? We need to remember that Durkhein observed the adherents of the religion, and not the source of the religion.

    In his farewell speech, one of the better known chaplains at one of our Anglican schools is reported to have said to the boys (I had two friends there at the time) that he had always felt that if it wasn’t for the Christians, there would be a lot more Chrisitians. I have little doubt that what he and Durkhein observed, over a century apart, was the same phenomenon.

    Lets be honest, if someone like Durkheim, or for argument”s sake a researcher from other planet, were to look at the so called leadership group of most Christian Denominations today , and were to draw conclusions about God based on His adherents, I for one would not like to read the description of God thaty might be produced.

    About a year ago I read an article about youth in the church, and the article reported what to me was an astounding finding – that the only church experiencing real growth amongst the younger set was the Greek Orthodox Church – one of the most tradional of churches I have come across. On further google research I found it suggested that youth today expect the church to be different, and a Holy place, or as an old Religious Philosopher I knew whoudl have said, the churchg would be seen as “Wholly and Holy Other”. The younger set apparently felt that if they wanted modern music they could just as well get it at a pop concert as at church, and probably not flat! In other words, what people like I assume makes the church relevant to them in fact makes it irrelevant as they can get it anywhere – whereas regardles of its form of worship or its music, they expect the church to provide them with that bit of “Holy Other” they would not get at their concert, or club, or whatever. I have deliberatly chosen the musical issue as it is something of a non issue, or a preference – and steered away, at the moment – from some of the other things the church has done to “make itself relevant to the needs of modern man in the 21st century” as I don’t want the principle blurred by self dogmas (My own term for those things we all attribute to God to support our own preferences)

    What would God say about the new church we have developed in His name? One cannot speak for God, but I suspect he might feel He needs permission to enter, and I suspect we might ensure he accepted our definitions of himself, and made no politically uncorrect statements about anything whilst he was visiting. We would certainly have Him arrested for disturbing the peace if he tried anything disruptive, and we would throw the book at Him if he dared call anyone a Whited Sepulchre!

  3. That is actually really deep – it identifies the solution, and the underlying problem by comparing just two words!

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