Speaking of faith in the public square

It has been a strange old-time recently for theology in the public square.

The latest, post Fallon, series of ‘faith in the public square,’  started when Quentin Letts chastised Archbishop Justin for his role, nay his very public role, in seeking to help establish a better, more equitable, and just way to model socio-economic affairs. Justin’s ‘faux pas’ was quickly followed by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s defense of his anti-abortion, anti same-sex marriage, stances on the basis of his Catholic faith.

Next, without pausing for breath, came the story of the Isle of White couple who have made the decision to withdraw their child (who happens to be a boy) from a C of E primary school on the basis that another child (also a boy) wears a dress to school. Apparently the parents, who are being represented  by Christian Concern, feel that they have grounds for a claim against the school because they or their child have been victimized in some way.

There is now a growing campaign seeking to ban Franklin Graham from speaking next year in Blackpool. Notions of unity and peace seem to be in short supply in the Christian community. No wonder that those who can be bothered to take an interest in what the church has to say are looking on askance. It’s all pretty depressing stuff.

But what is most depressing and tragic is the myth that Christianity necessarily stands opposed to the very best that humanism has to offer is being allowed to grow, almost unchallenged. The notion that mission and evangelism is reducible to individual acts of conversion and that people of faith shouldn’t seek to play a part in shaping  the socio-economic-political environment is also a myth that needs well and truly debunking. The Christian faith is political.

Zoe Williams, writing earlier this week in the Guardian, urged ‘co-religionists’ to stand up, in the public square, in response to the ‘perspectives’ offered by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg. She pleaded for members of the institutional churches in particular to do so:

‘History has no shortage of religious movements for peace, justice and universal rights, and arguably it is within church structures that warriors for social justice – the Oscar Romeros, the Desmond Tutus – are likely to be found, while hard right authoritarians like Mike Pence, exist outside it.’  Zoe Williams, I think, rightly understands that humanism and religious conviction are not binary opposites. She also understands that there are different, and very possibly binary, expressions of Christianity (something that the church doesn’t seem able to confront) and not all of them are opposed to so-called ‘secular’ humanistic values.

Humanism according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union can be described as ‘a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic  based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry into human capabilities. It is not theistic, and does not accept supernatural views of reality.’ 

Now, as Church of England Priest, I am obviously of a theistic persuasion and I do accept supernatural views of reality (and I am intrigued that the humanists do in fact accept that these are views of reality, even if they reject them), and also believe that I am caught up in a larger cosmic, and salvation,  story. Laying my cards on the table I also believe in a theology of judgment. I am not an universalist. I also have no problems in saying the ‘Catholic Creeds’ each and every week fully affirming each and every proposition without crossing my fingers behind my back.

However, I fully accept the sentiments expressed in the rest of the definition; I guess I am, de facto, an Orthodox Christian Humanist. I also long for a church which truly values and encourages the ‘spirit of reason,’ and ‘free inquiry,’ for then I suspect that we really will be a teaching church?

I yearn for an institutional church that fully absorbs Rabbi Jonathan Sacks belief that the primary religious vocation is to be a blessing to all of humanity. The Church of England, in particular, needs to re-appropriate this notion; this foundational Old Testament tradition. The Church of England, as the established church, needs to be simultaneously pastoral and, prophetic. It needs to offer comfort and stand in solidarity with those in need, materially and spiritually, whilst discomforting the proud and powerful. It can’t fulfill this role if it remains quiet on issues of what it means to be fully human.

Maybe we need to stop fixating quite so much on ‘church leadership.’ Church leadership is but one aspect of parochial ministry; a subset of diaconal and priestly ministry? My very great fear for the Church of England is that if we fail to encourage ‘the spirit of reason’ and ‘free inquiry’ in our teaching and, if fixate on the notion of ‘church leadership,’ at the expense of our wider ministry to be a blessing for all we will become an irrelevance at best and a nuisance at worst.  Establishment could then only be defined in legal and constitutional, as opposed to ministerial, terms.

The Church of England must seek to avoid all drives that may lead to it becoming what Martyn Percy has described as a ‘suburban sect.’ Sectarianism may well be popular and carry with it the veneer of ‘success’, but it is seldom attractive. I do wonder whether the excessive focus on ‘church leadership,’ and the preservation at all costs  of the status quo in deuterodoctrinal terms necessarily leads to sectarianism?

For our own sake, as well as for the nation we are called to serve, we need to speak more loudly, in the public square, about ethical issues, always ensuring that we communicate God’s love and grace; which implies that in our dialogue we need to be both loving and graceful. We also need to be far more courageous. We need to stop talking to and among ourselves and begin talking to society at large. We need to stop seeking to appease various factions within the church (factions which ultimately cannot be appeased) and enhance our credentials in society through the blessing we offer. When we speak in the public square we must do so with humility in the awareness that the for many, particularly younger people the church  has become a ‘face of intolerance,’ (Elizabeth Edman).

I suspect that in some, no many ways, I have more in common with many ‘secular’ humanists than I do, ultra conservative Christians. To be clear I would probably feel very uncomfortable in communities that endorsed a theistic and supernatural view of reality,whilst seeking to suppress reason, inquiry, dialogue, reflection and, difference. I think I would find such communities just a tad too priestly, patriarchal and life limiting and,  it matters not whether the priest sports a chasuble or some rather smart chinos.

My own views on abortion are that it should be permitted, even offered,  in a small range of circumstances.  I would like to see the Church of England providing rites for same-sex couples who wish to affirm their desire to live together in a faithful, monogamous and covenant relationships. Why? Because I believe, based on my own experience, that such relationships, in the words of the preface to the marriage service (Common Worship) ‘enrich society.’ 

Yes, I strongly believe that love, union, self-sacrifice, monogamy and fidelity are ideals worth both striving for and celebrating because they are in and of themselves ‘ethical’ and humane.’  And, by the way, I strongly reject Quentin Lett’s critique of Archbishop Justin’s role in arguing for a new way of doing economics. His critique seeks to erase the uncomfortable fact that Jesus launched his public  ministry by saying:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 

Justice, compassion, liberation, inclusion, dignity, fidelity, self-sacrifice  and, monogamy are all distinctively (but not exclusively) Christian values. The Church of England as a national and established church  really has no option but to speak of such virtues in the public square. To hold these virtues dear and to speak of them in the public square is to honour tradition. To allow these virtues to engage with the epistemology offered by other disciplines and world views is to allow the tradition to live and breathe. As Elizabeth Edman has written ‘the progressive Church should square its shoulders and provide moral authority to people who hunger for it, one important way to do this is to acknowledge the moral witness of other communities, to celebrate them, honour them, and learn from them.’  A tradition that doesn’t live, breathe, learn and evolve will end up being a stale old thing, incapable of quickening (to borrow a prayer book term) new life into the very communities we are called on to bless.

Speaking personally, I suspect, that were I  not a Christian, my commitment to these values and, the shaping of communities based on these values may not be particularly strong.  I celebrate and, in many ways, deeply admire those who promote such values without also holding a theistic world view.

Yes, I would still want to critique secular humanism, and in the spirit of evangelism help promote free inquiry into the rationale for a rationally held faith. I always want offer the opportunity for faith and hope in the love that never ends and,  I strongly believe that this is entirely possible when the starting position is a shared commitment to a lived out expression of humanism.

I am, it appears, an Orthodox Christian humanist!





2 thoughts on “Speaking of faith in the public square

  1. Thank you for this excellent post which expresses my own views more clearly than I do myself. In particular, i particularly applauded when you said ‘My very great fear for the Church of England is that if we fail to encourage ‘the spirit of reason’ and ‘free inquiry’ in our teaching and, if fixate on the notion of ‘church leadership,’ at the expense of our wider ministry to be a blessing for all we will become an irrelevance at best and a nuisance at worst’ This is spot on.

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